The rewards of running a Christian school in London
Firstly, let me explain who "we" are. We are a group of Christians that meet together, as church, in North London. We regard ourselves more as a community of people that love God and work together to seek His Kingdom. We meet together to worship, pray and grow, but also, many of us work together in our not for profit companies where we provide supported housing for care leavers, vulnerable adults and under 18 years of age asylum seekers alone in the UK.
We also run a foster care agency and support two Christian schools and orphanages in Kenya and Sri Lanka and as previously stated, we run a Christian school - Phoenix Academy - here in London, Britain's capital city.
It's not an easy process to set up a school here as just getting registered takes some doing, and that although we have now been around for over 30 years. We have had our moments, especially when those in power tried to closed us down. That was during the time that Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister. In some ways it has got easier these days as we have understood the government inspections better and the inspectors give us a much better outline of what we are require to meet in terms of standards.
For all that, it is a still a constant battle. I am surprised that often the ones in opposition to us are those you would think should be on your side. It's often the Christians here who say, "It cannot work," "It's not right," and even, "It's not what we should be being doing."
But despite these difficulties from local Christians, I have had Muslims put their children in our Christian school, and when I asked why they are doing this, they say, "Well we don't like your Christianity, but we know you have moral values for our children and we also know that you will set standards for what is right and wrong, and we value that more than putting our children in another system."
Just recently, I have been looking at how we are doing and I'd like to tell you what I have discovered as I am also keen to see others open such schools in London, even though I know that the task is not easy. Here are some of the things that I have been thinking about in terms of what it means to advertise a Christian school in London.
We are so persuaded by the "normal" and what is perceived to be the "right approach" that those of us who do it differently always expect to have to swim upstream, to move against the odds, to climb the mountain or whatever other metaphor you can think of to demonstrate the struggle of being alternative.
Then to persuade people to join you is difficult; I always find the story of Moses and the release of the Israelites from slavery interesting. The Old Testament gives us a clue to some of their thinking. They were all slaves; their next door neighbors were slaves, their friends where slaves, their wives and children were slaves, slavery was the norm. When you have been brought up like that it's very hard to be convinced of "freedom" or for my purpose in what I am saying about education in any other way of doing or thinking. The Old Testament Scriptures tell us that the people were mad with Moses for trying to set them free.
"What did you have in your slavery?" was Moses' question. "Well," they responded, "we had leeks, onions and cucumbers." The problem was they were not looking for freedom; they were looking for bigger onions!
So when people consider putting their children into our school many of the cultural norms that they expected, were not there! "How many classes do you have?" they ask, and I have to tell them, "We don't have classrooms, or classes; it's an individualized method of education!"
They want to know about how many tests our students take, such as GCSEs, which is an academic qualification awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by students aged 14-16 in secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I tell them we don't take them at all.
Well, we don't do that either, our students enter International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE). That often causes problems to parents who really want a bigger onion, meaning they wanted the usual type of exam that most pupils in Britain take!
So people often ask if this system works and what results do our school deliver? I usually tell them that we are interested, as an education establishment, in not only good education for our students but also good character development. We want them to know God and we want them to become leaders in whatever area of life they end up in. We also want them to become the best that they can be.
So the big question should be, "Do we succeed in those aims?" The answer is "not always," but let me tell you about our recent school leavers. At the moment the school has around 40 students and is growing, so I thought what I would do is look at the last two year's leavers and tell you our results hoping that will help you to assess us and decided if we are successful or not?
So in 2010, nine students left our school, meaning they had reached full school leaving age. Of course, I am not counting leavers who left mid education because they moved out of the area or changed to another school or things like that. These are the students that one would count because they are completers. Incidentally, in 2010, only one student left without gaining some qualifications.
I asked one student who had left us about how his first year at Canterbury University had gone and he responded, "I missed my London friends but the studies were fine."
When I asked him for his opinion of our school system, he said, "One of my university modules is accounting, I had already done that subject for my Intermediate exam with International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE), so of course I had that down as one of my options from the advanced level course. However, when I saw the stuff at university I had to laugh and I said I wish my school studies had been this easy!"
He added: "The algebra, as with accounts, I wish that the school stuff had been as easy as the university material."
His final comment was, "When you have been to a school using the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) system, a fundamental element that you learn is how to manage your study time and how to complete work within a given period. I am finding that my stuff gets done whereas lots of other students seem to have problems completing work and bringing it in on time. We all have the same amount of time, and I think some of them are possibly brighter than me, but what they lack is the discipline that has been put into me over the years to complete the work on time."
I also had the chance to talk with one of the lads who had completed his General Certificate at ICCE level, and asked him how his college studies were progressing. "Great!" he said, "but what is funny is how the other students don't seem to be able to complete work on time. I have just handed in one of my first essays which the lecturer said needed to be about 1,000 words, and was about 400 over, so I went to him and asked how critical the word count was?"
He told me that he replied, "Oh, I only ask for 1,000 as most of the students cannot get anywhere near that number. I am happy with anything up to 2000 words, but I would be surprised if many can even achieve 800."
I asked him if he had made any other observations since he had left our school and he replied, "A friend asked me if I could help her with her GCSE material as she had to take an exam in Maths, so I said I would come around and try. I was very surprised at the level, and helped her to complete the work and showed her how to work out the material. I then asked if I could take a copy of the paper with me. She agreed and explained that it was an old exam paper that is used for practice. I took it home to my younger sister who is just 13 years old and attended our school, and said, 'Can you do this maths?" and she said, "Yes, of course. I am doing that stuff now.'"
For those who know anything about the system, this girl is on PACE 1083 which according to ICCE is two units below where we would say a student is who has begun GCSE work.
There was another young lady at the New Year's Eve party who had been to a school using the ACE system, but not at one of the schools that I run; she is currently reading English at Liverpool's Hope University. I asked how she had found it, and if anything she had learnt from the system was useful in ongoing university studies. Her reply was amusing. "Well," she said, "I am the only student in my group who knows how to break down an English language sentence into its component parts, the whole class were saying, 'We don't even understand what we are being asked to do.' So I ran my own tutorial group for my friends. They asked how I knew how to do this, and I told them that I did it all when I was quite young in my Christian school, that it was standard practice. I am just surprised that such basic things are part of this English course at university."
Flack or no flack, the results speak for themselves. You might ask me, why are you trying to sell your system to us? The answer to that is because it works!