Blind faith?

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Exclusive Brethren schools, with their blanket ban on modern technology, require traditional methods.One teacher tells of her experience, the pitfalls and the perks

Until I worked as a teacher in an Exclusive Brethren school, I knew little about them. I had seen them around town. Women are easy to recognise: always with very long hair covered by a kerchief, long skirts, never trousers, flat practical shoes, no make-up or jewellery, nothing by way of fashionable clothing. They always seem respectable, well behaved and honest.

I had long been rather disillusioned with the behaviour of the average teenager that I was teaching, even in the leafy shires. I hoped that teaching in a Brethren school would be easier, and I would actually be able to enjoy teaching my subject.

My interview was informal, and they were vague about everything. In fact, it felt as if I was interviewing them. It also felt strange not to be meeting the headteacher, and to hear from the trustees that they made all the decisions. It was made clear that no videos or computers would be available, and I was told that traditional teaching was required. This would mean chalk and talk.

It may sound strange that I went ahead and accepted the post, but I wanted to work part-time. This job would give me the chance and the pay offered by the Brethren school was at local authority levels. I would also be able to teach my subject exclusively. I was convinced it was an improvement.

But when I arrived, I found I did not have quite as much autonomy as I had thought. I had no choice in selecting text books: they just arrived, chosen by the trustees. The advantage was pupils were issued with at least one per subject, and GCSE pupils had a number of textbooks in some subjects. All the books had been vetted, most were from standard school book publishers.

To supplement the textbooks, especially for GCSE, I often downloaded resources from various sites on the internet. I also prepared GCSE exam revision packs, some of which I downloaded, trimming the tops and bottoms to remove all traces of the internet. The children were aware that most of the teachers were downloading material for them and I certainly made no secret of it, but we were very aware that a computer must not be brought into the school.

Videos were also forbidden, even though the children were keen to watch educational videos, and attempted to persuade me to show them in my teaching subjects. This meant bringing in all the equipment from home as well as getting permission from the trustees, who would have to view the video.

Mobile phones could also cause a problem. The children would tell you that mobiles are "devilish". They were not allowed in the school, but they appeared in the staffroom. This was a sanctum where trustees rarely ventured. The trustees ensured that at least one of them was in school for the day. Some staff members found their presence unwelcome, but it didn't bother me.

Staffroom chat was broadly the same as in any other school, albeit with some important differences. Pupils were the main topic of conversation, and there was some sympathy for the clever children, who would be obliged to join family businesses and were unable to train for a professional career.

No teachers were Brethren members, as tertiary education is forbidden.

Asking a pupil what they wanted to do after school was viewed unfavourably.

However, the upside was that most of them seemed to accept their lot, and at least they didn't have to worry about getting a job when they left school. Girls also attracted some sympathy: many were married within a year or so of leaving school, but again they largely accepted this.

Classes were small: 10 or so was an average - one of my classes was even smaller - and it was pleasant to have classes of children actually doing homework, often making a massive effort and producing excellent work. It was fun, even enjoyable to mark their work, and the children all had a strong work ethic.

Brethren schools follow the national curriculum, obviously minus ICT, and with RE replaced by Biblical studies, taken by a Brethren volunteer. Sex education is like-wise excluded.

I did find teaching parts of my subject difficult. In fact, teaching many subjects to Brethren children can be difficult, and there are numerous pitfalls for the unwary.

Evolution is off limits, as is Darwinian theory. It is difficult to teach Reformation history when your class is convinced that Catholics are not even Christian. Brethren accept the need for literacy, but many adults would never read a novel and discussions can be difficult or even controversial. I was constantly aware that my pupils were all related to each other, and they were usually related to the trustees.

I had only a dozen names or so in my records for the whole of the school, from Year 7 to Year 11. Some of my pupils came from families with as many as a dozen children. For all that, I enjoyed the company of the children.

They were usually curious about the outside world, and they seemed to know more than I expected of what was going on.

But after a while, when the travelling became too much, I decided to return to mainstream education. I was a little sad to say goodbye to my pupils, and rem-ember them all with some nostalgia and hope that they might be happy in their future lives The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, worked in an Exclusive Brethren school in the UK.


The Exclusive Brethren, an offshoot of the Open Brethren, has around 40,000 members worldwide, including more than 15,500 in Britain.

"Exclusive" applies to the group's desire to remain separate from that which they consider evil. This includes open forms of communication such as television, radio, telephones and computers, and mixing socially outside the group, eating in restaurants or staying in hotels. They broke away from other Brethren groups, under the leadership of John Nelson Derby (above), after a dispute in 1848.

Brethren members usually either own a business or work for a business run by another member, and are forbidden from marrying outside the group.

Until recently, Brethren children were taught at home or in state schools, but the fellowship started setting up its own schools in the 1990s, and created the Focus Learning Trust to run its schools in 2003.

The trust now operates 43 schools in the UK and Ireland, educating about 1,500 children. Parents pay whatever they can afford towards fees.

Brethren schools teach the national curriculum, although with no sex education or information technology, and with RE replaced by Bible studies.

In 2005, Ofsted reported that the 38 schools run by the Focus Learning Trust in England provided a good standard of education.

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