“How a Christian education made me lose my faith”

Accelerated Christian Education, or ACE, is infamous for its controversial independent learning style and for teaching consistent with fundamental Christianity – the program made headlines in 2012 when it was discovered that certain resources were using the existence of the Loch Ness monster to refute Darwin’s theory. devolution.

It is not known exactly how many ACE schools are currently operating in the UK, but it is believed to be between 25 and 50. Critics criticize the curriculum as right-wing Conservative indoctrination, while its supporters claim that it only nourishes a Christian understanding. of the world in a religious setting.

Jonny Scaramanga, who attended Victory Christian School in Bath for three and a half years, is however determined to prove that ACE “denies children educational and intellectual opportunities”.

Now in his twenties, Scaramanga was redeemed as an evangelical Christian and began his high school education at Victory, but left when he reached year 10 after a period of depression and what he describes it as a “collapse”. He became disillusioned with some of the teachings of the school and eventually renounced Christianity, choosing instead to identify as an atheist.

Although he is now campaigning against ACE, Scaramanga told Christian Today that he initially enjoyed his time there.

“At first I loved it. At least for the first four terms I was really, really happy – I felt I was where God wanted me to be, and I felt very privileged to be in an environment. that I loved, ”he said. .

“There were always things that concerned me from the start – paddling [the act of striking a ‘disobedient’ pupil with a wooden paddle] was widely used as punishment in Victory and I was really afraid of it. It seemed to be frequently used for crimes which even then did not seem justified, and I lived in fear. There were also other physical punishments that I was really scared of, but I generally liked the program and had never been social so working alone was great and I liked being able to move forward with my job. . “

ACE students follow a curriculum based on “PACE” – booklets that facilitate independent study. Students study at individual desks and are encouraged to set their own goals; there is little interaction with other students or teachers. Scaramanga said the job was “incredibly easy”, but left no room for questioning or developing beliefs that contradicted the fundamentalist views he supported.

“There is nothing in the ACE program that promotes the development of critical thinking skills. The school environment is not conducive to questioning certain beliefs, and people support it. school say ‘Isn’t it so wonderful that there is no peer pressure’, but there was peer pressure, it was just in a different direction, “he says.

“Everyone expressing unity of belief makes it difficult for you to think differently.”

One of the main sources of contention regarding the ACE program is the emphasis on creationism as opposed to evolution – a belief so heavily pressed on students that Scaramanga says he didn’t even question it. before the age of 23, long after leaving school. .

“Everything the ACE taught about evolution was misleading – which is true even though creationism is true. Scientists say evolution is not as described in PACE, and it does is doing no one any favors to distort what scientists think.

“But I’m more concerned with the teaching that says it’s bad to be friends with people who aren’t Christians, or even the right kind of Christians – and there is a very narrow definition of who is a Christian. – and their idea of ​​the culture of purity and the culture of modesty; controlling what women wear and saying that women should submit. ACE supporters wouldn’t agree, but I would say PACE describe women as second-class citizens. ”

Despite his deep feelings for ACE and his stint at Victory, Scaramanga, however, is keen to open the dialogue on fundamentalist Christian education and to hear from those who have had more positive experiences than him. He even asked those who support ACE to contribute to his blog, ‘Leaving Fundamentalism’.

“It’s largely for my own morbid curiosity. I don’t understand how anyone can see any good in it – does it make me think that there is something that I haven’t considered? he explained.

“When I was at ACE I was the most rigid and closed-minded type of fundamentalist – I was so sure I was right I didn’t think I needed to listen to anyone. else because I knew what God was thinking.

“I’m determined not to be like this anymore – I’m always looking for another point of view that I haven’t considered. It’s also important not to create a straw man of what it is. to be a supporter of ACE – I want to understand what it is, and there are legitimate concerns people have about children of conservative Christian descent who are bullied in mainstream schools, and we have to listen to this. “

Scaramanga was featured on Newsnight last week, during an episode in which Jeremy Paxman – in one of his last shows as a presenter – interviewed John Lewis, director of Christian Education Europe which promotes and supports ACE. Lewis claimed that he and his siblings, who were all taught by ACE and continued to excel academically, received an excellent education.

Additionally, Jeremy Vine interviewed Scaramanga and Giles Boulton, who also went to Victory School and now work at Maranatha Christian School near Swindon. Like Lewis, Boulton defended ACE, arguing that it can be used with other programs for a well-balanced education.

Scaramanga, however, refutes their claims. “I don’t think they had a good education. I’ve never met John Lewis, but I know Giles very well and he’s pretty bright – a number of the kids were at Victory, they were the kind of flourish anywhere.Every year there are kids in failing high schools entering the best universities and that doesn’t show the school grade is wrong, but it is proof of the resilience of children and the fact that they are able to thrive in circumstances that are not ideal, ”he said.

“There are children who have been successful at ACE, without a doubt, and it is certainly true that the individual learning style is suitable for some children, but I think there is no doubt that the ACE program is not. not ideal – it goes against everything we know about how children learn and how knowledge works.

“So that they [Lewis and Boulton] may not have had an ideal education, but I can believe they thrived despite it. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore cases of children who have had the opposite experience – who have been damaged by ACE. It may be only a small minority who were damaged or abandoned by the program and struggled, but I am a teacher and if I found out that any of my students were having difficulty I would like to to hear and understand and know what I could do to change it. It saddens me that my former professors at Victory, ACE and ACE Europe are not interested in learning. “

As for faith-based education in general, Scaramanga is not entirely against it, but he says children should always have freedom of choice and that it is important to encourage diversity within the education system.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say to children, ‘This is what you have to believe’ when it is a matter of faith and conscience. It is dishonest to say, ‘We know it is. true ‘when we don’t know it is,’ he argued.

“I don’t think it’s impossible to have a school with an ethic of faith that provides a good education, but it does us a disservice to have children from families with different beliefs who go to different schools. Some of my most beneficial learning experiences have been when I have been with people of different religious views and without any religious views. “

Interestingly, the majority of ACE schools received “Good” or “Excellent” ratings from the independent inspection authority Ofsted, although Scaramanga suggests he is skeptical of the thoroughness of these inspections. “It seems possible that Ofsted is making sure that students are progressing, rather than looking at the content of the program,” he noted.

“I think it doesn’t make sense to accredit qualifications where you can take tests without understanding the work. Some kids may have taken the ACE program and switched to Excel, but others haven’t. We don’t know from the test results, so we shouldn’t validate it.

“If Ofsted looked at it correctly, parents would be able to make a more informed choice. It should be clear that some aspects of the program are controversial – PACE teaches that God is politically right-wing, so the further to the left you go, the further you move away from God. A lot of Christians have a problem with this, and yet nobody told me anything when I found out about this – nobody said, “You don’t have to believe this” or “This is controversial” – I am. swallowed whole. “

Although he had a strong evangelical faith when he was young, even though he was featured on a promotional video for Victory in which he discusses speaking in tongues and the “wonder” of God, Scaramanga now says he is feels completely removed from this period of his life.

“I have had even more powerful experiences since,” he says of his estrangement from Christianity. “I have been a musician and had similar ecstatic moments when I improvised and performed with other musicians. I think it is best explained in terms of human psychology – maybe you could say that it was God, but certainly not exclusively the Holy Spirit that I believed then.

“Now I wouldn’t attribute it to God at all, and he [speaking in tongues] is certainly not proof that it’s the truth – people have equally powerful experiences even though they believe the exact opposite of what I did.

“When I left church secular music made me euphoric, which I had always attributed to anointing before, but how come secular music was better? ” He asked.

Whatever the lasting effects, Scaramanga is clear that his Christian past is behind him: “There are times when I find it hard to understand how I could have believed.

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