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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