Christian fundamentalist schools are teaching children creationism is fact, that gay people are “unnatural” and that girls must submit to men, according to a series of claims.
Former pupils and whistle-blowers have told The Independent that the schools, which originated in the US but are now dotted around the UK and registered as independent or private schools, teach children at isolated desks separated by “dividers” from other students. It is thought more than a thousand children are being taught at dozens of schools, although little is known about them.
“No one outside the schools knows about what happens inside them, that’s why they’ve been able to go on like this for so long," a former pupil said.
More than a decade after leaving, she says she is now horrified at the education she received.
Called Accelerated Christian Education schools (ACE), the schools originate from an education system developed in southern Baptist states in the US which has developed off-shoots around the world including in Britain. Between 20 and 60 pupils aged between four and 18 attend each one.
The Independent can reveal a number of serious concerns have been raised about the schools, including allegations that children are given no formal educational qualifications beyond "Christian certificates", thereby failing to equip them for opportunities and employment beyond the Church.
Former pupils claim a key aspect of the schools’ ethos comes from a belief in individualistic self-salvation, whereby people must actively accept God's salvation to enter heaven.
By extension, it is believed that children must teach themselves in order to get closer to God. Children are therefore expected to spend the first half of each school day teaching themselves by reading textbooks in silence, while facing the classroom walls in specially designed booths, which mean they cannot see children around them or interact with them. In the second half of the school day, children are taught in groups.
Dr Matthew Pocock, who attended an ACE school in Witney, Oxfordshire, as a child, told The Independent: “We sat at our desks which were arranged around the outside of the room, with boards that slid in called ‘dividers’ that sectioned us off from the pupil either side. We were not allowed to talk or interact with each other.
“To interact with staff, we had two flags. We would raise one flag for run-of-the-mill queries like asking for help with a question or a toilet break, and other one to signal that we were ready to take a test or needed input from the class teacher. If we put our flags up too often we would be told off.”
Photos inside the schools are rare but one former pupil showed The Independent photos of classroom booths in a Canadian school in the 1980s that are reportedly the same kind used in the UK schools still today.
Former pupils say this self-teaching format resulted in poor education standards, with pupils who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia often particularly struggling. A number said they felt socially isolated by the segregated booths and failed to develop social skills by interacting with peers.
One former pupil said: “By the time I left the school, I hadn’t really learnt anything that was of any relevance. I was taught facts and figures from reading the books, but there was no social learning in terms of interaction.”
“The Bible records that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexual activity. Some people mistakenly believe that an individual is born a homosexual and his attraction to those of the same sex is normal.”
Textbooks say of the role of women and girls and society: “God has given both the husband and the wife certain areas of responsibility in the home. The husband is to be the leader of the home, loving his wife even as Christ loved the church… The wife is to obey, respect and submit to the leadership of her husband, serving as a helper to him… She is available all times day or night.”
A section titled ‘Testimony of a Homemaker’ in one textbook reads: “God desires for me to submit to my husband, train up my children, see that my house is properly supplied, pray without ceasing, teach other women to love their husbands and children, and be discreet, pure and a keeper of my home.”
Former pupil Cheryl Povey who attended an ACE school in Bath, said: “I came across a lot of sexism. I remember as a girl finding it quite shocking. We were taught that if you’re a woman, you should be subservient to men; your husband, your pastor and other male figures.
“There was a strong culture of men being revered and women being dangerously sexual and having to cover up. It made me self-conscious of being a woman.”
Dr Pocock said attitudes towards women and ethnic minorities in the ACE curriculum also worried him. He said: “It taught me men were superior to, and should be in charge of, weak women, that the various different ethnic and social groups were ordained by God to have different roles and positions.”
Another textbook warns that anyone who has sex outside marriage "will someday face God's judgement".
Other textbooks seen by The Independent, and which the former pupils claim were widely used as part of the curriculum during their time at ACE schools, appear to state creationism as fact and describe evolution as “absurd”.
One biology textbook states: “Although man’s characteristics are unique, evolutionists still insist that man descended from apes. Even from a strictly scientific standpoint, the theory of evolution is absurd.
“From as little as a tooth, evolutionists have fabricated entire groups of transitional fossils that ‘bridge the gap’ between men and apes!.. Evolutionists, who refuse to believe the simple truth of God’s divine Creation, will continue to struggle and search in vain for answers to the question of man’s origin unless they turn to God’s Word, the Bible.
Another textbook states as ‘scientific fact’ that the sun is six thousand years old and the world was created in six days.
Former pupil Peter* (name changed to protect identity) said: “A huge amount of time and effort was given over to arguing against evolution and for creation, it’s a fundamental building block of the curriculum. The curriculum is stuck in the past like the rest of the fundamentalist southern Baptist churches it was born out of.”
Another concern raised about the schools is that the children are allegedly not entered for formal education qualifications such as GCSEs or A-levels.
Former pupils say they are instead taught towards an ICCE- an International Certificate of Christian Education. The ICCE is not an officially recognised qualification meaning those who hold it can struggle to find employment or to be accepted into higher education such as university. Former pupilssay this disadvantages children and deprives them of opportunities later, unless they retrain as adults to gain additional, mainstream qualifications as well as the ICCE.
Jonny Scaramanga is a writer and campaigner who has extensively researched the ACE school system. He is a former pupil of an ACE school in England and recently completed a PHD thesis about ACE at the UCL Institute of Education, which included analysis of the ACE textbooks illustrated throughout this article.
He told The Independent: “I have read numerous Ofsted reports in the course of my research, and the issues most commonly raised by former ACE students are almost never mentioned, let alone satisfactorily addressed. In allowing ACE schools' failings to go unchecked for decades, the government has failed in its duty of care to students in ACE schools. In future, inspectors should be specially briefed on the issues frequently found in ACE schools.”
He added that he is concerned by the 'Christian certificates' children sit instead of official qualifications, telling The Independent: “Since 2014, the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld three complaints against ACE schools for exaggerating the acceptability of the certificates [International Certificate of Christian Education] they offer. I have met numerous former ACE students who have had to return to college as adults to gain qualifications that they would have earned as a matter of course in mainstream schools. All English secondary schools should be required by law to prepare and enter students for qualifications recognised by Ofqual, the exam watchdog.”
When The Independent contacted forty UK universities to ask whether they have or would accept pupils on the basis of ICCE awards, none of them said they officially accept the qualification other than in exceptional circumstances or if a student had other additional qualifications such as GCSEs or A levels to support their application.
Despite this, the qualification is listed in UCAS' online publication 'UK qualifications for entry to university or college in 2015' and given the following description: “ICCE Advanced Certificate is accepted by many universities for undergraduate entry. A UK NAIRC assessment in 2011 carried out in both school and homeschool environments stated that the General Certificate can be considered comparable to Cambridge International Examinations O levels and the Advanced Certificate can be considered comparable to the CIE A level.”
When asked by The Independent why the qualification was included in the publication despite not being recognised by Ofqual and universities denying they accept it, a spokesperson for UCAS said the publication was not intended to give approval to any qualifications it included. They added that the description in UCAS' brochure had not been written by UCAS staff but by ICCE staff.
Although state schools in the UK must follow a standardised curriculum, the same regulation does not apply to private schools, which ACE schools are registered as. When contacted by The Independent, Christian Education Europe, which runs ACE schools in the UK, would not confirm or deny if the textbooks illustrated here are used or respond to allegations from former pupils about the content of the curriculum they say they received. A spokesperson says the schools meet all Department for Education guidelines and their curriculum is broad, fair and balanced.
In response to the issues raised, a Christian Education Europe spokesperson said: “All the schools we serve are inspected by the government inspectorate, Ofsted, and we prepare them to meet the criteria laid down by the Common Inspection Framework. It is a Government requirement that all schools have a child protection policy and designated child protection or safeguarding officer, staff DBS checks and receive child protection training. We satisfy these arrangements and many more besides.
“All the schools provide Citizenship on the timetable and we embrace British values as part of the school culture. Life with students is experienced beyond the textbook and carried into an understanding that is suitable for modern day Britain.”
They also referred The Independent to a document on their website regarding sex and relationship education which states: “Our Sex and Relationship Education concerns lifelong learning of physical, moral and emotional development. It is about the understanding of the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care. It is also about the teaching of sex, sexuality, and sexual health. We will not promote sexual orientation or sexual activity, as this would be inappropriate teaching. Whilst we understand that the Government has redefined marriage, we will actively promote exclusive heterosexual marriage and celibate singleness as God’s gift and design; and as such the best way toward human happiness and fulfilment, but will discourage intolerance.”
A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “The Department for Education is the registration authority for all independent schools. It has laid down a set of standards that independent schools, including faith schools, are required to meet. Ofsted inspects these schools against these standards, at the request of the DfE. Schools must comply with the standards in order to continue as a registered independent school.
“Independent schools are not required to follow the national curriculum, but they are required to teach a curriculum that encourages respect for other people.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “All schools must promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for different faiths and beliefs. This is a vital part of providing educational excellence everywhere. They must also encourage respect for other people, paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the 2010 Equality Act.
“ACE schools, like all other independent schools, are inspected against the new, tougher Independent School Standards, and where there are concerns a school is failing to meet these standards we will not hesitate to take action.”