Monday, 30 June 2008

Why Quaker schools?

posted by kathy

This is a question that has been troubling me for years. Why do Quakers, who have a testimony to equality, run fee-paying schools?

I can see why it started. Education hasn't always been free in England and schools often promoted activities and interests that were directly opposed to Quakerism. There is much that I oppose in school education today. But I would not send my children to a private school because that goes against my Quaker beliefs in equality.

I know that Quaker schools have a good reputation. I can see why people would be reluctant to close something that is good - and I can see a case for schools that stand out against dominant beliefs. But I don't believe Quaker schools, however good their education, are sufficiently free from external pressures to justify their existence as Quaker bodies. The sites talk about Meeting for Worship and internationalism but also about exam success - and there's an implicit message that, by buying a Quaker education for a child, the parents will also be buying the kind of facilities and attention that are not available in the state system.

Private education teaches children that they are special - it implies that they are better than children educated in the state system. I've heard children heading for private education at 11 imply that their schooling confer privilege because they are cleverer and/or better-loved than other, state-educated children. This is dangerous - and may be particularly dangerous when combined with the Quaker approach which values personal insight and individual access to truth. Quaker pupils may be told about equality but what they experience is different. They learn that their insights are valued more than the insights of most children. The stories that Osama bin Laden was educated at the Brummana Quaker school in Lebanon may derive from a confusion of bin Laden brothers, but it seems feasible that children educated at expensive Quaker schools may grow up with an enhanced sense of privilege and a strong belief in the importance of their views.

I have known good people who valued their Quaker education and I know many Quakers are convinced of the value of Quaker schools. But when I consider Quaker schools in the light of Quaker testimonies, it's as though there's a great wall between the testimony to equality and the practice of Quaker schools. I could never teach in a Quaker school and my children attended the local imperfect - but much more inclusive - state schools, although I believe there are scholarships to help the children of Quakers attend Quaker schools.

Quakers have often had difficulty with the testimony to equality. Historically Quakers helped educate the poor and slaves but they usually maintained a line between pauper children, slaves and their own, more privileged Quaker children. Real equality would go further.

The testimony to equality is most severely tested when it comes to our own children. We wonder at their beauty from the moment they are born and yearn for their safety and success. Surely all parents do this. But however much I love my children - and that's a great deal - I cannot live the testimony to equality by saying that my children matter more than yours.

I want to know what other Quakers think - and how non-Quakers view the question. What can you say?


cath said...

In the US, there have always been schools run by various religions, the Catholics having the longest history of this. But I've noticed that while tuition is charged, there is often a sliding scale based on income, and tuition credits are given for volunteer work done at the school. In my city, at least, the religious schools (mostly the Catholics and the Lutherans) offer an alternative to a public school system that is--quite frankly--almost abandoned by the general public.

It angers me that a free education is guaranteed to each child through high school in this country, and yet so many people simply don't want to pay the taxes or put in the effort to make the public schools good schools. Or worse, they move to the suburbs where the schools are great (thanls to a higher tax base) and resent money spent on inner city schools.

A new trend has developed--"charter schools." These schools are not quite public schools and are not quite private schools. They have the blessing of the city or state education system, but they are in existence by charter and can choose their own students. IMO, it's just another way to avoid having to put a child into "those public schools" where quality is diminishing and no one wants to do anything about it.

OK, I've ranted about the US--now to the question. I don't have a problem with private education as long as a tradition of superiority does not grow up around the school or the concept. I think as Friends we can do quite a bit to counter the idea that simply paying for education gives a person higher status--but to do this, we have to make sure that Friends' schools don't become trendy or part of some old-boy network.

If we can educate with our Testimonies and values as well as with books, we can make a difference.

In general, I wish that everyone could have a free education--everyone in the world, that is. And I wish there were enough of us in the RSOF to lead the way. But there aren't enough of us.

So the next question would be--how can we find the money necessary to operate schools without charging tuition? If that issue could be resolved, I think many students would benefit from a good education in a Quaker school.


Stephanie said...

I think there is a case to be made for private education especially if it provides an example of an alternative way of providing education. I know parents who have send their children to our local Steiner school, at least in the early years, because it offers education in quite a different style to the state schools. I am not sure that Quaker schools are necessarily demonstrating a clear alternative, though they might be.
I also think that there are sometimes circumstances that make a boarding school appropriate, and in Britain this is almost only available in the private sector. Having determined that our children would got to a local state school, we then, later, seriously considered a boarding school for our daughter, who was prevented from attending school due to health problems, because it would have removed the difficulties of travelling to and from school. However, a better solution was found with a lot of co-operation from the school and a lot of help from family and Friends with transport.

Beeston Quakers said...

I can see reasons why education should be provided to meet the needs of the child, though I think there are problems with religious education, which leads to segregation (my dad is from Northern Ireland where the segregation of children in the education system seems to prevent friendship and dialogue). I also have a serious problem with religious schools in and out of the state system. Many of my colleagues adopted religious practices simply in order to get their children into the Church of England state school with the good reputation - and then their children went on to private secondary schools. I think that in Britain privilege is deeply embedded in the education system and that Quakers should stand against this.


Anne Mackenzie-Wintle said...

I've just come across this site whilst surfing for information on malpractice in Quaker schools and would like to offer a bit of an insight into my experience of having a child educated at Ackworth School.
I am a qualified teacher and a Quaker and today I brought my daughter home from Open Day at the school for her final time,for she refuses to return for A levels in September.
The school has allowed the self-worth of my daughter-a young Quaker-and several other young people at the school to be destroyed.The children of teachers and other professionals are favoured with -placement in top set when the child is not capable,with parts in plays written specifically for them,with head/deputy boy/girl posts automatically given to them,with their photos used in all newsletters.
However , it is the way in which the children are 'allowed' to ostracise others with cutting comments about skin-colour or acne,about hair-colour or texture,about weight,about height.
My daughter was even bullied on a walk for the duke of edinburgh award with name calling and mud kicked all over her.
The teachers at this school permit verbal attacks amogst the kids.
Due to very difficult home circumstances 5 years ago and with a brother who has special needs,I felt afer much soul searching that my daughter would be able to find some stability in the atmosphere of a Friends school and would be in a position to flourish and grow among Friends.However I was very wrong and I now have the task of enabling my daughter to journey back somehow to the state of equi;ibrium which she had 5 years ago.
My question now is to ask how much longer schools such as Ackworth can justify existing as Quaker foundations when a Quaker child with a bursary is allowed to be discriminated against in this way.

Kathz said...

Anne, obviously I don't know the details of this case and am so sorry your daughter has had such an awful experience. I hope she finds somewhere more suitable for her where she can do well. It's very upsetting to hear of Quaker children having a hard time at Quaker schools. I had wondered how well Quaker children from less well-off backgrounds managed in schools which cater largely for children from wealthy homes. I wonder if you should take your concerns to the Area Meetings responsible for the school. I know there's a tendency to appoint Quakers who are sympathetic to Quaker schools, who are probably less likely to raise queries, but it might still be worth having a word with them.

Having attended a non-Quaker boarding school myself, I am aware of the problems of such closed institutions (from which there is no easy escape). Even though my school was for the less-well-off and all pupils had to pass scholarship exams, there were clear class demarcations. My daughter attended the nearest primary, comprehensive and 6th form college and is about to start university while my son (awaiting A-level results) has followed her through schools but hopes to attend a different 6th form college which will allow him to take the A-levels of his choice (if his GCSEs are OK).

Thanks for sharing your experience.

Suzy said...

Hello. I just clicked on this link at random from a list of Friendly sites at the Quaker Agitator's blog. The title of the post caught my eye and I was ready to get in a huff because I assumed before reading it that your post was in defense of private Quaker schools. I'm glad I read it!

On the one hand, I believe that private schools are fine, as long as one isn't asking the state to pay your child's tuition. (This is certainly a dangerous trend in the U.S. with the euphemistically named "school choice", vouchers, and -- as I am SO GLAD Cath pointed out -- charter schools. I absolutely agree with her that they are one more way for people to avoid sending their own kids to school with "those children". AND a back door to school privatization, or "corporatization" as Ralph Nader correctly calls it.)

I have no basis of research for saying this, but I do have a gut feeling that in many U.S. cities where the public schools are in crisis, the situation has been precipitated by the presence of many private schools. Philadelphia, with many Friends' schools in the area, is a good example of this.

My town, a mid-sized city, has only a handful of private schools and very good public schools, which the majority of students attend. As our demographics shift and we continue to suffer the ill-effects of strangled funding, there is a fair amount of flight to the suburbs, but our schools are still good. And my children have learned so much from their experiences in our central city schools.

When Friends in my meeting bemoan the fact that we don't have a Quaker school, I find it discouraging.

In the name of full disclosure, I will admit that I am a 20 year teaching veteran in our school district. I am proud of what we do. My school's motto is "Every child an honored student" and we do a pretty good job of living up to it.

kathy said...

Glad to hear from you, Suzy. It's good to share insights across the Atlantic and I hope you keep dropping by this blog.

gerardmulholland said...

How to reconcile the generally (but not universally) better education in private schools with the principle of equal educational opportunities for all?
There is only one answer.
Without the teachers and the facilities that private education secretes to itself, the public system can never compete.
So equal educational opportunities for all means the total abolition of private education.
If one cannot face that, then one should eschew the hypocrisy of pretending to care about the education of those who cannot afford private schools.
I know it's a difficult thing to swallow but it's true.

Anonymous said...

You said:
Private education teaches children that they are special - it implies that they are better than children educated in the state system.

This is total, unsubstantiated BS.

And the USA public schools (& I would guess any other country's) didn't go to crap because private schools exist. What utter nonsense! They are being supported by the taxes of the private school kids who don't even attend as well as the taxes of persons who don't even have children. Yet still they are *overflowing* and unable to fully educate the students they have. The public school system would be exponentially worse off if they had to accommodate every privately schooled child as well.

Melissa said...

Equally doesn't mean that we do not reconize the individuality of each human or child in this case. Some kids work well in the public school environment. I did. Other students such as my daughter struggle to get the attention that they need. Equality takes in the account that we are each different, but allows us all access to a level playing field.

Anonymous said...

I am a Quaker living in the UK. I dislike the class system which the private education system supports. I send my daughter to a state school which is supposed to be a non faith school. However it is now an academy and as such the headmaster who has a particular view of religion eg resists comparative religious education and believes in creationsim is pushing a personal agenda. I am alarmed at this and have challenged this. I was told I was the only one who complained. As the school is now independant of the local authority there is little I could do. So if you were to aske me now would like to send my child to a Quaker school and pay if I could afford it I'd say yes. I rather it be a state run Quaker school however. There is much good about our Quaker values which are worth instilling via education. We are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water because we don't like the fee payment barrier. Perhaps it is the later which should be removed not the Quaker schools.