Reflecting on his own schooldays, Robert Ashton believes that faith schools have a positive role to play in society.
Florence Evans was headmistress at Needham Market Primary School during the early 1960’s when I was a pupil there. I have two lasting memories of those days. One was walking to school in short trousers during the bitter winter of 1963. The other was the gentle kindness of Florence Evans. I don’t think she ever raised her voice, certainly never threw chalk and always had the patience to listen to our childish concerns.
Florence Evans was a Quaker and whilst it was not a Quaker school, the Quaker testimonies of peace, truth, equality and simplicity created an atmosphere that supported our learning. I can remember becoming friendly with some traveller children who attended the school whilst living nearby. They experienced none of the prejudice their parents probably encountered in the world outside the school gate.
Faith schools are, not surprisingly, popular with parents. They overlay their teaching with a wholesome moral code, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish, yet some are concerned. Last December, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools in England, said that private faith schools run by religious conservatives were “deliberately resisting” British values and equalities law.
I suspect a small number of hard-line schools do bend the rules. The media would have them believe these are all Muslim schools, radicalising their students, but Christian sect the Exclusive Brethren have 34 schools and I suspect struggle to reconcile their rigid faith and the OFSTED rule book.
The Church of England has more than 4,500 faith schools, between then teaching a million young people. Few seem to find this a problem, although of course humanist groups inevitably call them discriminatory and call for their abolition. However, my sense is that most faith schools set out to create an inclusive environment where children learn about values, as well as the national curriculum.
What I have come to learn over the past few years, is that the values that underpin your education will usually surface at some point in your life, perhaps leading you in new directions. As I reflect on my own deepening Quaker faith, I thank Florence Evans for gently showing me the way all those years ago.
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Robert Ashton is an author, publisher, social entrepreneur and Quaker.
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