Life in a Christian 'fundamentalist' school

By Tim Johns and Emma Hallett
BBC News

image captionAt 12-years-old Jonny Scaramanga filmed himself for BBC Video Nation speaking about his love for God and praying in tongues

The Trojan Horse investigation has focused on an alleged plot to take over some Birmingham schools and run them according to Islamic principles. But while the role of Islam in education has come in for scrutiny, across the UK many students also follow a strict "fundamentalist" Christian curriculum.

For 29-year-old Jonny Scaramanga, who attended Victory Christian School in Bath until he was 14, the experience was "horrendous".

"At 8:15 I would arrive at my 'office' - a desk 2ft wide, with dividers 18 ins tall, designed to remove 'distractions'," he said.

"Every morning we had an opening exercise: reciting pledges of allegiance to Jesus Christ, God and the Bible. Next, we recited that month's scripture passage; we had to memorise around 10-15 Bible-verses each month."

He said the school adopted a "fundamentalist attitude" to religion, adding: "If you believed what they believed, you were Christian. If you believed anything else, you were not Christian."

image copyrightJonny Scaramanga
image captionThe Accelerated Christian Education curriculum is based on a series of workbooks called PACEs (Packets of Accelerated Christian Education)

The school taught Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), a curriculum imported from the USA which is taught in about 50 independent schools across the UK.

While the usual subjects are taught - English, Maths, Science, History and Geography among others - each is approached from a Biblical perspective.

Most controversial are its view that homosexuality is a "learned behaviour" and its teaching of creationism instead of evolution.

"The evolutionist needs some kind of a god with rules to explain what exists today, or he cannot explain it; and yet, he rejects such a god," one science text book states.

"It is more responsible and more reasonable to presuppose that God exists and then pick up the Bible and read 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth' (Genesis 1:1).

"Then you can see purpose in Creation, understand change, accept miracles, and know that His purpose has a goal."

"History was taught as 'His-story' - things happened because they were God's will," Mr Scaramanga said.

image captionJonny Scaramanga said that once he left the ACE system he had to "learn how to navigate the world outside those fundamentalist views"

He said that at his school - which closed in 2000 - pupils had to learn and recount sections of Biblical scripture in order to pass any subject.

"All of the content you learn with ACE has the religious message inherent within it," he said.

"The politics coverage will say 'this is what God thinks about social security' and the science coverage will say 'this is what God says about chemistry'."

When he was 12, Mr Scaramanga took part in the BBC Video Nation project and filmed himself talking about praying in tongues - a form of worship which occurs when someone apparently receives the Holy Spirit, enabling them to speak in another language.

He has since posted the video on YouTube and says the video now makes him want to "cringe" and "throw-up".

image captionSome former pupils of the system have questioned whether it gave them the skills needed for adulthood
image copyrightJonny Scaramanga
image captionACE's views on homosexuality have been criticised

He left in 1999 after becoming frustrated that ACE was "depriving him of educational and social opportunities". He went on to take GCSEs at the Methodist Kingswood School in Bath.

"I started to have my mind prised open a bit, but I was still a creationist until I was probably around 20 years old," he said.

"It was a gradual process... and it was towards the end of my degree when I really started to question things."

He said it took him years to "get over" ACE, which he believes left him unprepared for life.

"My ACE school taught me that dating was to be avoided and all physical contact was a bad idea until you'd found the one God planned for you to marry," Mr Scaramanga said.

"I felt that I'd missed out on early experiences of flirting with the opposite sex, so I was always playing catch-up.

"Through my degree I drank phenomenal amounts to try and make up for the lack of social skills I had."

Mr Scaramanga, who is studying for a PhD looking at the experiences of ex-ACE students, now campaigns against the ACE curriculum and writes the blog Leaving Fundamentalism.

image captionBen Medlock, who co-founded the SwiftKey smartphone keyboard app, says his ACE education gave him motivation that "became critical" while studying at Cambridge University

Conversely Ben Medlock, 35, who co-founded the SwiftKey smartphone keyboard app and attended the same school as Mr Scaramanga, said his experience had been "broadly positive".

His father was the headmaster of Victory School and is now head of Maranatha Christian School in Swindon.

"While my own faith has evolved significantly from the conservatism of my childhood, I do feel that the values of the school provided students with a positive - though inevitably flawed - framework in which to view the world and interact with those around them," said Ben Medlock.

"The curriculum encouraged students to take responsibility for their own work, not only setting their own goals but also, where appropriate, marking their work against a key.

"For me, this stimulation towards self determination was a positive aspect of my school experience.

"In short, my experience of this school was one of rich opportunities, deep friendships and the usual mix of childhood joy and pain."

image copyrightJonny Scaramanga
image captionStudents are taught to see life from "God’s point of view" and to take responsibility for their own learning

But Richy Thompson, who campaigns against 'faith' schools for the British Humanist Association, disapproves of the ACE curriculum.

He said its International Certificate of Christian Education qualification, which at an advanced level is equivalent to an International A-Level, should be downgraded.

"How can a science qualification that is so far removed from the evidence on matters of evolution possibly be worth the equivalent of a Cambridge International Examinations A Level?" he said.

James Williams, lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex, went one step further and described ACE as "intellectual abuse".

He said teachers were "arguing from a powerbase" and consequently able to use that authority to present to children something "that we know to be scientifically wrong and incorrect".

"When you look at the ACE syllabus, it is definitely not a balanced view," he added. "They are deliberately using material aimed at very young children - comic books, comic stories - in order to indoctrinate them.

"It leaves them [children] grossly unprepared for the real world. They have a view of society and people which is unrealistic, which doesn't match or fit any of the norms of society.

"It is an absolute scandal that an organisation is trying to tell me that something as poorly constructed, as badly put together, is equivalent to an A-Level."

image captionThe ACE curriculum points to God as the creator of all animals and challenges the theory of evolution

Christian Education Europe (CEE), which oversees the use of ACE in the UK, said in a statement: "No curriculum - Christian or secular - can cover every single concept in a way that would please everyone.

"The users of our curriculum are independent and have the choice to adapt and manage the curriculum content as they so choose.

"One of the overriding themes that runs through the curriculum is the clear Christian teaching to love all men as God does, regardless of one's own beliefs or persuasions.

"Our curriculum does point to God as the creator; this is a view we are entitled to hold as there is enough robust debate around the question of evolution/creation within the scientific community itself to make this a valid decision, based on personal choice."

Of the nine ACE schools inspected by Ofsted since the start of 2013, eight of them were rated either good or outstanding.

Ofsted said it had previously not been authorised to assess the schools' curriculums - only the quality of their teaching and leadership - but that under a "new tougher inspection regime" for independent schools introduced in April schools were now "expected to teach a broad and balanced curriculum".

It said it inspected schools against the Independent Schools Standards, using a published inspection framework, to ensure they meet requirements.

"All independent schools - including those run by Christian Education Europe - must ensure that pupils are taught respect for others of different cultures and beliefs," a Department for Education spokesman said.

"They must also comply with the Independent School Standards. If they fail to abide by them, we will not hesitate to take firm and immediate action."

BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show will have more on the subject at 13:00 BST on Thursday 12 June and again on the iPlayer.

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