Guest Post: A Reverence for Received Knowledge

Today’s guest post is from another ACE survivor, Matthew Pocock. Matthew has a distinguished career as a synthetic biologist, and worked on the Human Genome Project. As you’ll see, though, he doesn’t think ACE deserves much of the credit.

I was raised in a Christian Fundamentalist family, where Jesus came first and all else second. My siblings and I where placed in several schools, and for a time we where in the King’s School, Whitney, a church school that at the time used a mixture of classroom teaching and ACE for children up until GCSEs started.

Some of the teaching I had been lucky enough to benefit from in schools prior to the King’s School had been very good. I had been encouraged to think for myself, ask questions and investigate. Learning was in part a communal enterprise where students learned from and helped each other, as well as from teachers. The contrast could not have been more stark with PACE-based education. It was regimented, highly structured, entirely without any communal learning, rote-based. Questioning and independent investigation would invariably lead to failing the end of booklet tests, as it didn’t matter if you were right or wrong, only if you wrote down the same answers as the booklet had.

I am dyslexic. I can’t do those spot-the-difference picture games. As a consequence, I would simply not see large portions of the black-and-white PACE books. At the time, the English booklets were all in US English [Editor's Note: They overwhelmingly still are], which added yet another layer of problems. The content dealing with grammar was confusing, and there was no facility to talk about it with a real-life person who understood grammar. It was a farce.

The other PACE booklets were no better. The scienceones were a joke. They would better be called ‘natural history’ as they simply involved rote-learning of ‘facts’ about the natural world, many of which were wrong, and none of which were backed with any kind of evidence. The whole thrust of the booklets was to instil a reverence for received knowledge and the ability to regurgitate by rote, not understanding or questioning.

Needless to say, I fared very badly during this time at school. In previous schools I had been identified as having gifting in computers, maths and science. The PACE maths curriculum was tedious – I was doing multi-digit addition when I was capable of algebra and Newton-Raphson. I was bored out of my mind and became disruptive. The school pushed me towards an academic career that would set me up for a manual trade, as I clearly had no capacity for anything more.

The school had a very strong theological vision for how we should behave, think and act. It was all about conformity, belief in received knowledge and having a ‘servant spirit’. I’ve no doubt that this makes malleable cult sheep, but it is a violation of the responsibility owed to the children. To hell with the parents – ultimately schools have a duty of care to the students regardless of the wishes of the parents, and this environment trod all over us.

Luckily, at that time the school taught GCSEs in a comparably normal class-based environment. During this time my dyslexia was recognised. I got enough GCSEs at a good enough grade to go on to A-levels, which I did at another school. This other school was a horrible experience for other reasons, but I got 5 A-levels and an AS, all at grade A and B. I went on to get a degree in Genetics, gained my PhD while working on bioinformatics software tooling the Human Genome project while all the really exciting stuff was happening and am now a gentleman-scientist contributing to synthetic biology. Not bad for a kid who should not bother pursuing an academic career.

Everything about ACE is inimical to responsible education. It serves no purpose except to brainwash children and give parents the feeling that their children are being placed on the way to godliness. It is a travesty of schooling. Any teacher with any dignity or integrity would not put children anywhere near ACE.

I am an ACE survivor. Looking back at classmates, it seems that I am an exception. Ultimately, the needs of the children should come first, and PACEs should be dropped entirely from use in English schools, regardless of their religious status. Schools should not be wilfully harming their students.

Jonny: I’d be cautious about calling anyone “lucky” with a story like that, but there’s one way in which things are actually worse in modern ACE schools. They are now strongly discouraged from offering normal qualifications like GCSEs and A-levels, as Christian Education Europe is pushing its own, unrecognised, ICCE qualification. So someone like Matthew would be further disadvantaged in a school today.

I can’t thank Matthew enough for writing this. Any and all other ACE survivors: You are invited to submit your story. Just send me a message. I’m especially keen to hear from anyone who thinks ACE is a good thing. I would definitely post a spirited defence of the system that fairly addressed the criticisms I (and my guest posters) have raised. 

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About Jonny Scaramanga
  • christianagnostic

    “It serves no purpose except to brainwash children and give parents the feeling that their children are being placed on the way to godliness. It is a travesty of schooling. Any teacher with any dignity or integrity would not put children anywhere near ACE.”

    That is discouraging….I’m glad to hear you were able to overcome it. But no child should have to “overcome” their education. Education is supposed to empower and equip, not stunt a person’s ability.

    Thanks for your story.

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  • Thandi

    I’m intrigued by the fact that the school offered GCSEs after PACEs. How did this work? Surely there were issues with being able to answer GCSE science questions (for example) after have followed the science PACEs. Did teachers just override what had been said before? Did this not serve to highlight the fact that the PACEs were teaching falsehoods?

    I really struggle to see how the same school could teach both GCSEs and PACEs and not encounter problems when it came to the content of the different curricula.

  • jonnyscaramanga

    Thanks Thandi. I don’t really know the answer to that, except I suppose that ACE’s only real argument with science is over evolution (and geology. And cosmology). Evolution was on the syllabus when I took GCSE biology, but maybe it’s not every year, with all exam boards. Of course, in truth, rejecting the age of the universe and evolution ends up in massive problems with other areas of science, but a GCSE student is unlikely to have the expertise to notice these. Especially if they’ve been trained not to ask questions.

    I don’t know if Matthew’s following these comments, so I’ll give you my best answer, and point your question out to him if he doesn’t get here first.

    When I studied evolution at GCSE, we also only studied what Creationists call “microevolution” – change within a species, rather than change from one species to another, macroevolution. This is really a false dichotomy, of course, but in the face of overwhelming evidence, most Creationists now accept microevolution, while continuing to reject that one species can evolve into another.

    The real problem is that most ACE schools in the UK have hardly any money, and thus no facilities for practical science. Without labs and proper experimentation, I imagine the science provision was poor.

  • Matthew Pocock

    Hi Thandi,

    At the time, The King’s School phased out PACE teaching as you approached the beginning of GCSEs. There where places where the two syllabi flat out contradicted each other, and even where they did not, it had prepared me very badly for academic learning. I remember reading history or science articles in text books and encyclopaedias where they presented ‘objective fact’ without ‘moral commentary’, and wondering how they could be so irresponsible as to not put the facts into a ‘correct’ perspective.

    I have always watched a lot of science and nature programs. It’s one of the things that the BBC has historically done very well, and the open university used to broadcast degree-level programs on Sunday Mornings which I’d watch if they where science-related, so I grew up with a grounding in how the world works. It was obvious doing the science PACEs that the ‘scientific framework’ they where grounded in was at odds with what ‘secular science’ worked with, but my parents are not scientifically trained so could not have been expected to hold an informed belief on topics like evolution, and as for me, it’s very human to hold and apply multiple mutually-contradictory beliefs about something, using one in one situation and the other in another. Ultimately, the PACE science booklets taught by assertion, so they didn’t develop the skills needed to assess the evidence for scientific conclusions. They where believed by faith, and that was a skill that was trained into you in every class, every day. The strongest ‘cognitive dissonance’ topics in science, as I remember it looking back, where evolution and sex-ed. The former was side-stepped, and the latter was woefully inadequate, misleading and ultimately directly harmful for those of us in active (and often destructive) sexual relationships. If you have no adequate sex-ed, how are you being provided with the tools you need to avoid sexual exploitation?

    Did this serve to highlight the fact that the PACEs were teaching falsehoods? Well, sort of. It highlighted that the things you needed to profess to survive in church and school where different from those you needed to profess to pass exams, and perhaps that gave me an ability to work ‘assuming that’ without needing to ‘believe that’. Maybe that makes me a better scientist now.

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  • Samara

    The biggest error Christian Education Europe committed was to outlaw complementary GCSE and A level subjects. The ACE curriculum in itself deals with an impractical philosophy which I’m afraid many educational institutions and employers question. The only saving grace is if you have referred to other books and ventured down your own path of study whilst tackling the stuffy and rigid ethos of the ACE material. As a parent, I made doubly sure that my children kept their critical minds sharp and maintained the freedom to form their opinions on the christian books they had to read for the literature PACEs, apart from one book which was rated very good by my children, all the other complementary books were dismissed as ‘crap’ and ‘mind cripplingly boring’ thus they had the comfort of knowing they could read their sci-fi’s, fantasies, graphic novels, encyclopedias and newspapers etc to keep them well and trully informed in general. As far as value for money goes, ACE isn’t economical, the score keys bump up the prices and if you have to include the purchase of extra text books for references there’s most certainly a lot of empty purses, wallets and pockets in the christian households!!!

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  • Caroline

    You hated every part of ACE that is why you were able to say these. ACE is not perfect but among all the textbooks that I’ve read, I’ll still choose ACE because its basis is the Bible. The major difference between other textbooks and ACE is its spiritual side. Most books focuses on learning about things, the usual way. But ACE doesn’t want to raise students who are only good in math or english. ACE teaches students that in everything they do, it is to glorify God. That is why there are fundamentals in ACE, for students to know how to live so that they may glorify God and be effective witnesses of Christ.

    I’m glad that I studied ACE because I don’t need to study in a seminary just to know the fundamentals.