A neutral observer’s view of ACE schools

This is from the Times Educational Supplement, Scotland, July 2007:

“The modest building is home to the River of Life Christian School, where pupils aged 5 to 18 sit quietly in a network of booths and work through a vast pile of booklets throughout their school days.

Standard grade and Higher are unfamiliar terms here. Individualised learning with a religious thread is preferred, built around the American Accelerated Christian Education system. Testing goes on throughout each child’s time at school, but there is no build-up to pivotal exams at a pre-determined age. Staff liken ACE to the International Baccaleaureate.”

Unlike most press coverage of ACE in this country, the writer, Henry Hepburn, reserves judgement, and is happy to point out what seem like positives. In doing so, he reminds me how wonderful an ACE school appeared to me for my first couple of terms.

“Some River of Life methods will raise eyebrows, but the school’s pupils prove it does some things very well. They are polite and caring, older children often spend spare time playing with younger ones, and bullying and indiscipline are almost non-existent. Some pupils are introspective, others engagingly cheeky. Creativity and intellectual discussion may appear muted, but senior pupils are eloquent and contemplative, aware of the school’s religious basis while open to other ideas.

“Many will see the school’s booths as divisive and the reliance on biblical values as inculcation. Staff believe the booths are liberating and that biblical values provide a moral template. What is certain is that River of Life’s pupils are not scripture-quoting clones. Perhaps they are quieter, perhaps better behaved but, all in all, they are not so different from children in any other school.”

Please do read the whole thing. For my money, it’s not critical enough, but that’s exactly why I’m posting it. I’ve given nothing but criticism of Accelerated Christian Education on this blog. I’m not finished yet, but if you’re not persuaded by now that ACE gives us some genuine cause for concern, I doubt I will ever change your mind. I’ll give you my thoughts on the article after the jump, but if you’ve only got time to read one or the other, go for the TES article.

I first read this article three or four years ago. Although I don’t remember my action clearly, I suspect it made me furious. I’m pretty sure it was this article that prompted me to write in my TES article, “It shocked me when Ofsted inspectors gave the school glowing reports. They could not possibly see what was happening.” Henry Hepburn, the Ofsted inspectors, and I all had similar reactions after seeing an ACE school for just a brief period: It seemed an incredibly peaceful and loving place.

Now, it’s not true that there’s no bullying in ACE schools. I know this because I distinctly remember doing some bullying while I was at Victory. Mainly, I bullied other children whose beliefs about God were different from mine. The conception that I had, driven strongly all the way by ACE, was that I knew the absolute Truth. That meant that any other view was inferior, and therefore a reasonable target for abuse. That’s a risk you take when you teach children they have the ultimate answers. I feel awful about it now.

But it’s true, bullying is virtually non-existent between pupils in ACE schools. I would argue that’s because the teachers bully the pupils instead. “Intimidation” is the word the Reverend Stephen Parsons uses in his book Ungodly Fear: Fundamentalist Christians and the Abuse of Power.

It also annoys me that they were able to get away with, “Staff liken ACE to the International Baccalaureate.” They can liken it all they want.

“The conditions make for a quietness that pervades the school. The teachers speak softly, gently encouraging pupils, while the head, Helen Smith, keeps an eye on things from a raised stage in the room, where she often works.

The quiet diligence can border on the monastic. Even at lunch time, there is a conspicuous lack of boisterousness inside. The dining table is orderly and after meals the older pupils find corners where they gently pluck at unplugged electric guitars or update personal networking websites.”

This is a near-perfect description of the ACE learning centres I’ve seen. I loved this quietness for the first year I was in ACE. After a term, I moved from a smaller learning centre with fewer than 20 students to a larger one with more like 60, and didn’t like the increase in noise that came from having more bodies in a bigger space. There was always gentle background music playing, usually classical, but sometimes godawful panpipe renditions of pop songs. One of the CDs had a panpipe version of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” on it. One of the boys occasionally mimed the words in his office, and if he was feeling particularly rebellious, made some grand gestures while doing so. My immediate neighbour found this very amusing. It didn’t happen often because that kind of monkey business could engender a serious bollocking. And our supervisor dealt out the kind of bollockings that are not swiftly forgotten.

“School inspectors were unstinting in their praise for the rapport between pupils and staff, perhaps unsurprisingly given the school’s origins in home tutoring.”

Again, this is undeniably true. Despite the fact that our supervisors could shout at us in ways that were genuinely frightening, and deal out punishments that were far worse, there was a genuine sense that they loved us in my learning centre. And there was a genuine sense on the part of the pupils that we were where God wanted us to be. Unquestionably, if you ask students in ACE schools, I would expect the vast majority to say they like the school and wouldn’t want to go to a state equivalent, faith school or otherwise.

So what’s wrong then? Certainly, my ACE school made me incredibly unhappy. A number of people feel they were abused by the system, among them  my guest posters (Matthew, Cat, Tim), various other people on the internet (and more), and several people who have emailed me but declined to speak publicly. But does it follow from this that ACE is bad or wrong? Is there any reason why children who feel they enjoy the system shouldn’t go through it?

You know what, I’m not going to try to answer that, for once. I’d like to know what you think though. Let me know in the comments.

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