Faith schools are back in the news again, with the publication of the UK government’s Education green paper proposing (amongst other things) that faith schools should be able to select students largely on religious grounds rather than with the limitations currently in place. Faith schools come in a number of different forms, however, and my recent visit to Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, one of 8 Quaker schools in England, prompted me to delve into the history of Quakerism in education in the UK and across the world. As I did, I was struck by the importance in Quaker history of the personal – the inner spirituality that we all have, and that Quakers gently emphasise.
As anyone familiar with schools will know, history and the ethos which emerges from this history have a real impact on the daily life of individuals in educational establishments. It is remarkable, in fact, how much this history marks people in schools, perhaps because – almost subconsciously – members of the school community detect around them, every day, evidence of a coherent, deeply embedded philosophy and approach to education. Schools are born out of their contexts and are shaped by them. Much – perhaps even most – of the development of values and character in a school comes not from what might be described as transactional education in the form of teaching to exams and curricula, but from something much deeper and intangible – observations of and interactions with others, for example. Values are learned because they are transferred from others, who have in turn learned from their predecessors. In this respect, history and a shared ethos are integral to the growth of a child.
When I was at Ackworth, I asked a senior student what was really special about the school, and she replied with conviction that ‘no-one is a stranger here’. She really meant it, and I could observe exactly what she was communicating – there was an ease of relationships, a care for others, and a shared, friendly, sense of aspiration which was uplifting. Undoubtedly the Quaker values of the school – lived and experienced in the moments of silence in which there can be found respect for the world and all beings – lay behind this.
It is always a privilege to visit great schools, and in a world which really needs more respect, tolerance, care for people and friendship, it was a particular pleasure to find these enduring Quaker qualities alive and thriving.