In the first of an occasional series, Nadene Ghouri looks at education in Northern Ireland after the peace agreement. She begins with a visit to a school run by Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterians
"WHEN we have a teacher recruitment crisis we don't advertise, we get down on our knees and pray to God for help," says Ann Foster, head of the 52-pupil Kilskeery Independent Christian school in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
She agrees most heads would find that rather an odd method of recruiting staff, but then she is looking for a very particular kind of teacher. First, they have to be willing to take a 75 per cent salary cut; second - and most importantly - they must share the doctrines of the Free Presbyterian faith, that they alone are God's true servants in an immoral world, that the theory of evolution is wrong and that all children are natural sinners who must be taught to conform to God's law.
The Free Presbyterians, headed by the Reverend Ian Paisley, is one of Northern Ireland's most powerful churches. Mr Paisley is opposed to both the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. The school, one of seven owned by the church, celebrates its 20th birthday this year. It was founded by the Reverend Ivan Foster, a Free Presbyterian firebrand, and his wife Ann, who was a state-school language teacher.
As the eldest of their six children approached secondary age Mrs Foster found it increasingly difficult to reconcile "the teachings of the Bible with a curriculum permeated by evolutionary theory and immorality". The final straw came when she was asked to sit in on a biology class while the children watched a sex education video. "To me it was porn. I decided there and then no child of mine would be witness to that," she said.
She resigned and started to teach her children from home. Within a year she had 13 pupils from the church congregation and was recruiting staff. Pupils follow the standard curriculum - with a few modifications - throughout 10 periods a day, plus two religious assemblies which rely heavily on Old Testament readings.
"We don't dismiss evolutionary theory entirely. We teach it and then we show how the Bible proves it is wrong," explains Mrs Foster.
Teaching GCSE English is particularly tricky. Last year, when Macbeth was a set text, Mrs Foster "Tipp-Exed out the immoral part" (Lady Macbeth's "Unsex me now" speech). She maintains: "Personal and social education is madness. The only sex education these children need is the seventh commandment - thou shalt not commit adultery. Modern education has played a part in the immoral society we see today, and no one has the brains to realise it."
Neither she nor her husband has any truck with modern teaching techniques. "The Bible wouldn't approve of child-centred learning," says Mr Foster emphatically. "Truth is truth. We treat children as the Bible says they are to be treated: that they are born with a sinful nature and must have their sinful tendencies restricted."
As such, corporal punishment is also used, although only in cases of "wilful disobedience" and, as the children are usually well-behaved, it is a rare occurrence.
There is no government funding, and fees are low, around pound;350 per year. Fund-raising is difficult: dancing and music are frowned upon, so school discos are out. Gambling is a sin, hence no tombolas or raffles.
School surroundings are Spartan: benches face the front. There is no pupils' work on the walls, and the main classroom is decorated only by a stuffed pheasant in a glass case, and a fox pelt. Teachers wear identical long navy skirts and blouses because, says Mrs Foster, "we don't want teenage girls to be looking upon us as fashion plates".
The school takes pupils from reception through to GCSE. "Our critics said you can't teach that way, but we proved them wrong," says Mrs Foster. "It permeates a family ethos. If there are coats to put on hooks or shoe laces to help tie, I expect the bigger ones to do it."
It is not unusual to see a 15-year-old boy gently leading a smaller one by the hand or a group of teenage girls skipping with the youngest children in the playground.
Results are constantly good. High standards are expected, especially from girls. "We would be anti-feminism," Mrs Foster explains. "But God gave women intellect and He expects them to use it."
As a new Northern Ireland strives towards peace, the school, with its motto "Christ for Ulster", looks decidedly anachronistic.
The Rev Foster says: "They call us fundamentalists and say we are promoting sectarianism. They will squeeze us and close us down. But when that happens we will only teach our children from home. Because the only law we obey is God's."