Review by John Shortt
(This book was published in 2005 by Christian Focus Publications and costs 7.99 GBP. It can be obtained from the Christian Schools’ Trust, Havering Grange, Havering Road, Romford, RM1 4HR, UK.)
This little book is a gem, packed from cover to cover with stories that both inspire to trusting commitment to a faithful God and challenge to sacrificial living in His service. It is also written in a very clear and accessible style so it is a book that can be recommended to anybody who needs such inspiration and challenge.
In spite of what might be read from its sub-title, it is not a history of the hundred or so new independent Christian schools in the UK. Instead it contains the stories of seventeen out of the forty six schools listed as member schools of the Christian Schools’ Trust. But when these stories are read together with the brief introduction to the new Christian schools movement provided in the introductory chapter by Sylvia Baker, one of the authors, and a concluding chapter which tells more about the Christian Schools’ Trust itself, the book provides a real insight into the vision and faith of a significant proportion of those who founded and maintain the new Christian schools in the UK.
Some of the stories are told in considerable detail while others are very brief. The schools whose stories are told are geographically widely spread through the UK, from Southampton on the English south coast to Stornoway in the Western Isles off north-west Scotland and Bangor across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland. Some of the schools are closely linked to a particular local church, others to a group of local churches and others were set up and continue to be run by groups of concerned parents. Some are primary schools and others started with younger children and subsequently extended their provision to the secondary age range up to sixteen years. The schools vary in size from some which are very small up to some with two hundred or more students. This is still not large but, as the title of a best-selling book of a few decades ago reminded us, small can be beautiful. And the influence of the smaller scale initiative may far exceed that of those that are larger and better resourced financially.
The majority of the stories also include brief testimonies from former pupils and, as Baroness Cox says of them in her foreword to the book, “the stories in this book ring true”. In addition, in her introductory chapter, Sylvia Baker tells of some interesting recent research she has conducted by sending out questionnaires to as many former students at her school as she could track down. This produced many very encouraging responses and she says she has now extended that research to eleven other new Christian schools. Again, the results are proving to be encouraging. She writes, “Of the 240 young adults, aged between 17 and 32, who returned their questionnaires, 80% describe themselves as practising Christians, 73% are members of churches. 70% did not feel that they had been in any way over protected and 78% felt well prepared for the next stage of life. A resounding 87% said unreservedly that they had enjoyed their time at school. When asked to comment on their memories of their school days, over and over again the young people spoke of a loving environment where they enjoyed good relationships with both fellow pupils and staff.” (p. 17) When this research is complete, it would be very good to have it written up with detailed statistical analysis and, if possible, comparisons with the results of any similar research available for other kinds of schools, e.g. the longer established schools within the state system set up and run by different Christian denominations in the UK or the older (and rather more expensive) independent schools, a number of which have Christian foundations.
Near the beginning of the book, there is also a helpful map showing the distribution of the CST member schools across the UK. It shows forty two in England, five in Scotland, one in Northern Ireland and none in Wales. (Strangely, this does not correspond exactly with the list of member schools at the end of the book!) It would have been interesting to have more information about the fifty or so new Christian schools that are not in membership with the Christian Schools Trust. Where are they located? Do they tend to be smaller than the schools whose stories appear here or are some of them larger? Are their policies or approaches to education different?
The book does not provide a detailed philosophy of the new Christian schools but it does include indications in the stories and a brief account (in the closing chapter on the Christian Schools’ Trust) of what the authors see to be a ‘radically different curriculum’ and a ‘radically different view of the child’. I am personally not sure that there are not quite a few, perhaps many, Christian teachers in schools of different kinds who share this concern to teach their classes from the same Christian viewpoint and with the same view of the child as being both made in the image of God and fallen.
There is also little detail in the book of how Christians in the new Christian schools have worked with Christians in schools of other kinds in the UK towards the development of a biblical perspective on education. No book can do everything but, from my own experience of what is happening in different countries, the level of such cooperation has been much higher than average in the UK so this might well have been included as yet another aspect of the story of the new Christian schools. The importance of this came home to me some years ago when I was directing the Charis Project (producing teacher resource materials for the promotion of spiritual and moral development across the curriculum), I greatly appreciated both the involvement of teachers from new Christian schools alongside Christian teachers from other schools in writing the materials and also the great help of several new Christian schools in trialling the draft materials in their classrooms. I believe that we all have a lot to offer one another and a lot to learn from and with one another. I therefore commend this book to any who care about Christian influence in the world of education and in the lives and thinking of children and young people. Get hold of a copy and, as Sylvia Baker says at the end of her introductory chapter, “Read on. You will be astonished.”