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Quaker schools: Perfecting the art of good behaviour

Society of Friends schools have a lot to teach in terms of tolerance and respect

What, exactly, are faith schools for? It's a question that secular taxpayers and liberal believers will be asking themselves in the wake of the Government's commitment to funding faith schools.

The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, gave one answer earlier this month, when he pointed to the role of faith schools in promoting social cohesion. Many people are unconvinced. The National Secular Society denounced the plans as "a sure-fire recipe for separation and future conflict".

One religious group missing from the platform on 10 September were the Quakers. A shame, because a lot could be learned by both sides about social inclusion and faith if they went to any of the events this week in Quaker Schools Week.

There are seven schools in the UK headed by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, educating 4,000 children in total: The Mount and Bootham in York, Ackworth near Leeds, Sibford in Oxfordshire, Friends' near Cambridge, Leighton Park outside London and Sidcot near Bristol. All except one are small, private schools, and they are almost ignored in the frantic debates over God's place in the classroom.

Most of the pupils at Quaker schools are not Quakers. "Quakers try to be 'open to the light from wherever it may come'," says John Walmsley, head of Sidcot School in Somerset. "This helps to create a school that is a community of individuals, where people are listened to and where all are valued."

This, rather than the creed of their students, is what makes the schools distinctive, he says. "Whenever you're in a Quaker school you recognise that feeling of calm and openness. It's a mixture of lack of conflict and the understanding of how people relate to each other."

And it is an ethos reflected in the schools' internationalism. Sidcot has more than 25 nationalities at the school. In his time there Walmsley says that there has never been a case of racism.

In the 350 years since the Society of Friends was founded, Quakers have won a reputation for understanding, finding themselves on the right side of progress from the abolition of slavery to prison reform and the peace movement, a legacy recognised in 2002 when Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer, became the face of the £5 note.

The precedent is extolled, but the faith behind it is not drummed into students. "No one tells you what to think," says Walmsley. "The stereotype of Quakers is that we're quite severe, but that intellectual freedom is very important."

The spiritual core of the school is the Meeting, a period of silent worship, where pupils, teachers, and outsiders, are quiet. "It's nice to have a quiet time to reflect," says a student, Charlie Browne, 17. The atheist daughter of a lapsed Catholic father and a Church of England mother, Browne does not share the school's faith but she admires the ethos. Last weekend she took part in the Foxtrot, a pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the Quakers' founder, George Fox. "If you take God out of it, it's just about teaching you to live the right way," she says.

The fact that the school is a faith school also allows religious students to express their beliefs. "I'm more conservative than most of the students at Sidcot," says Freddy Pimm, 17, a born-again Christian. "But I can be free to express myself and my faith. In a lot of schools I might be mocked."

Although Meeting at Sidcot is only one day a week, parents and students say that the religion, while not overbearing, is instilled. "It does have an effect," says Nicole Herzog, 18, who joined this year from a state school in the US.

Nicky Hutchinson, who has sent her three sons to Sidcot, says it's a happy place. "There's a real respect for people, you're encouraged to be yourself, not to judge others and to listen to each other."