A little TM goes far

Jack O'Sullivan reports on a Lancashire school where transcendental meditation is helping produce excellent academic results

It's a time when you might expect pencils and rubbers to be flying amid the mayhem of the school day beginning. In fact, just after 9am, silence descends over classes in a tiny school outside Skelmersdale in Lancashire. At each desk, a child sits quietly, eyes shut for ten minutes. Even more surprisingly, the teacher's eyes are also closed. They are meditating at a unique institution, which claims that top class examination results, and - perhaps more importantly - confident, happy pupils are all thanks to these daily relaxation techniques. Each child, at the start and the end of the day, does transcendental meditation for ten minutes, with some doing more at home.

"If you have a good meditation, it can last you the whole day," says Ruth Yates, 12. "It makes you calm and helps you think," says classmate Aidan Mousley, 12. "When you are tired in the morning, if you've gone to bed late, you forget that you're tired. I'm able to concentrate better." Mary Swift, currently teaching Aidan and Ruth's class how to paint in the style of the Impressionists, agrees. "After rushing around, trying to get everything prepared in the morning, it is great to stop before the lesson. I'm better able to focus. I have also noticed their creativity and liveliness. As a result of them settling down, qualities that have been lying dormant seem to emerge."

In the past four years, this 100 pupil school has won 30 literary competitions and many of the national poetry contests. The exam results speak for themselves - 100 per cent of pupils pass five GCSEs at grades A-C, top of the county league table. All, even those with learning difficulties, sit ten subjects, sometimes a year early. In recent years, every pupil has gone on to further education. Problem pupils have come from other schools and thrived, says the head teacher, Derek Cassells. Chatting to several current and past pupils, one is struck by their self-confidence and the ease with which they speak about themselves.

Although the school is privately funded, fees are kept low - at pounds 350 a term for the primary school and pounds 600 a term for the secondary. 30 per cent of the parents, some of whom are on income support, receive bursaries to help.

It sounds perfect. So how do you enroll? There is no entrance examination and no catchment area. But pupils are expected to be proficient in, and practice, transcendental meditation (TM). It is not hard to learn - a long weekend is sufficient. For older children, it amounts to them learning a personal mantra which they never speak but upon which they concentrate silently. The under-nines are judged incapable of staying still, so they are given a "word of wisdom" upon which they focus while quietly doing a task, such as tidying their desks or hanging up coats.

So is there a catch? Perhaps. The first hint is when you try to locate the school. It's virtually impossible to find, because there is no sign. That seems odd for a well-established school. Then, when you step into the classrooms, scented with aromatherapy, there are numerous photographs of a bearded Indian gentleman. He is a little balder than in the days when he hung out with the Beatles in 1967; the beard is a little fuller and more snowy, the eyes more dreamy. But yes, it's definitely the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of a vast educational empire worldwide, based on his principles of life and transcendental meditation.

You can understand why they keep a low profile in Skelmersdale, a soulless Seventies new town, (known as "Skem" to Scousers), whose novel feature is its complete abandonment of traffic lights in favour of numerous vast, grass roundabouts. The children appreciate that their school is considered an oddity. Locally, they are nicknamed the Moonies, though, of course, TM has nothing to do with that cult.

So, are the kids being fed mumbo jumbo? The curriculum is just the same as any other school, says Mr Cassells, except for an extra class known as the Science of Creative Intelligence, when children learn about the Maharishi's spiritual values, holistic principles which sound hippyish but are hardly controversial.

The children learn, for example, that "the nature of life is to grow", an ideal which the reception class is applying to cress seeds. The fifth principle is: "Water the root to enjoy the fruit". A pupil explains: "It means that if you go inside yourself, the benefits of going with your soul will be manifest on the outside." The children also pick up a smattering of Sanskrit.

The school is a converted 18th century stone barn on a quiet country lane. It has all the charm of a village school, the hundred pupils aged between five and 16. The building is homely and comfortable, with all the latest computer technology and lab facilities for science teaching. But conditions are cramped. There is no school hall. Primary classes comprise pupils with a two-year age range, but with some classes as small as 17, that's not considered a problem. The curriculum covers the basics, but cannot offer drama, music, German, Spanish or sport (children are confined outside to a cobbled farm yard and a patch of grass).

It is a high price to pay for classroom meditation. But the teachers certainly think it is worth it - most have children at the school. The parents are committed: a community of perhaps 200 meditating families has grown up in the Skelmersdale area since the 1980s because the new town offered cheap housing and opportunities to establish new businesses. At the "Dome", a TM centre nearby, some gather for 90 minutes in the morning, and again in the evening, for group meditation. They believe collective meditation can cut car accidents, hospital admissions and even unemployment.

So what is the outcome of all this for the children? "Going to the Maharishi school allows you to develop as a person, rather than as an academic machine," says Arthur Withers, 16, who left for the local sixth form college last summer after a decade at the school, completing 10 GCSEs a year early. (He got five As, four Bs and a C). "As a result of my education," says Arthur, "I feel I have a more holistic attitude to life. I'm more confident about expressing my opinions than many other people at the college. A lot are just deciding who they are and what they want to be. I feel that we all started to do that at a younger age."

What about nervousness and exams? "My friends and I feel that meditating reduces the stress, and it also helps you revise because you are more relaxed. It focuses you on the task and allows you to absorb the information more easily."

It sounds as if conventional schools could learn something from this tiny, pioneer institution. The Maharishi's photo and his principles may not suit everyone. Perhaps Sanskrit isn't vital. Even the aromatherapy could go. But the long-term benefit of a little meditation for these young people is hard to dispute.

The Maharishi School is at Cobbs Brow Lane, near Lathom, Ormskirk L40 6JJ 01695 729912

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