Quakerism means 'calmer' classrooms

Parents are attracted to schools that teach morality without dogma.
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The Independent Online

Today is the UN's World Peace Day, and this morning pupils across the country will sit listening to assemblies about the destruction of war and what we can do to secure peace. But is one day enough? Britain's Quaker schools do not think so.

There are eight schools in the UK headed by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, educating 4,000 children in total, largely ignored in the controversy over faith schools. All but one are small, private schools, so they do not get government money and Quaker teachings are never going to inspire the same secularist fury as Catholicism or Islam. In fact, Quaker schools have more non-Quakers than Quakers among their pupils. And increasingly parents who want the academic achievement and moral compass of a faith school without the dogma are turning to them.

"The important thing about Quakerism is that it's a non-dogmatic faith," says Michael Goodwin, head of Sibford School in Oxfordshire, and chairman of Quaker Schools Heads Conference. "We're interested in deeds not creeds; we try to let our lives speak." Orthodoxy is so unimportant that Goodwin is one of only two Quakers to head the schools.

In the 350 years since the Society of Friends was set up, Quakers have made a name for themselves in the peace movement and as advocates of social justice, driven by a belief in that of God in every one.

How does this affect the schools? Goodwin says: "Because we believe in that of God in everyone, there is an atmosphere of respect and decency. We're constantly striving to look for the best that we can be, which makes us calmer, more reflective schools."

Each morning there is a silent meeting for worship, where anyone, pupils and teachers, can offer their thoughts to the school. But, says Goodwin, no one is trying to force Quakerism on pupils.

"It's about encouraging inquiry rather than pushing the party line," he says. "We don't believe we have a monopoly of the truth. We're open to new insights." And pupils say that respect for different experiences affects the way they treat each other. "There is a lot of respect," says Naomi Fitzjohn, 18, of Leighton Park School in Reading. "It's really tolerant and friendly, and there's no bullying that I know of."

Naomi is proudly atheist but has never found that a problem. "You don't go around thinking this is a religious school," she says. "The values are instilled." Naomi's father David, an agnostic distrustful of organised religion, never thought he would end up sending Naomi to a Christian school. But he does not regret it. "It's been a delightful surprise," he says. "One of the best decisions I've ever made." He is surprised by the effect it has had on his daughter. "Naomi's approach to problem solving and dealing with conflict is more thoughtful. She is able to discuss things more calmly and in a peaceful way."

Next week Naomi and other pupils will be taking part in Quaker Schools Week, a programme of debates, writing, drama, and arts projects looking at war and peace. As part of the week Ben Okafor, a former child soldier and singer-songwriter, will be touring the schools helping pupils make art out of their research into war. This is not the first time Okafor has worked with Quaker schools. On a previous project he helped pupils turn their research on Ugandan child soldiers in to a play. He is clearly a fan.

"They're absolutely brilliant," he says. "Sometimes it can be hard to talk to school-age children about these issues. Not these guys. They don't have any difficulty. It makes you think things are not lost.

"In a meeting you're not being told what to think, so you're thinking your way through it, you're not just listening. So your whole life becomes part of it."

Goodwin adds: "Peace sometimes sounds like a soft option, but it's a tough demand. Peace isn't just an absence of war, it's encouraging peaceful solutions. You need to train for peace."