The word Maharishi conjures images of saffron robes and hippies. But it is also associated with enlightenment, and a school bearing that name consistently tops the league tables in Lancashire. The secret, according to the head, is transcendental meditation. Elaine Williams reports
It is the start of the day. Year 10 pupils are sitting at their desks and a thin grey light is filtering in through the windows. The children are perfectly still and have their eyes closed, as does their teacher. In a room below, a group of year 7 pupils is also still and silent. A boy sits with his head in his arms, another runs a finger gently along his nose. They too have their eyes closed. The whole school is at rest.
Staff and pupils at the Maharishi school in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, begin and end their daily schooling with transcendental meditation, a state of deep calm and restfulness, which they say allows them to give their best throughout the day.
If the word maharishi conjures up images of beads, saffron robes and hippydom, think again. The school might be housed in a converted barn on the outskirts of the town, but its pupils and staff appear no different from those in any other well-run school - smartly dressed in conventional uniform in orderly classrooms. But the open, smiling faces, the warmth with which pupils greet visitors and each other, hint at something different. In the playground at lunchtime a girl cradles a younger boy, a group of girls struggle to turn a skipping rope in the wind while boys look on. But there are no taunts, the boys are merely waiting their turn to skip, and the game progresses co-operatively and in good spirit despite the elements.
Children at the school are clear about the benefits of the system. Meditation, they say, helps them feel more settled in themselves. Josie Williams, aged 13, says: "TM helps you to feel a lot more calm and ready to work. You never think 'Oh my God, it's school'. It's just nice being here. The teachers really want you to do well and are willing to spend time with you one-to-one. We're all friends here; it's like a big family."
headteacher Derek Cassells says regular meditation creates a balance which means that "the more difficult aspects of growing up are less noticeable". There is no truancy, no bullying; meditation enables children to achieve to the full. Even though the Maharishi is non-selective, catering for the full ability range, all its GCSE candidates achieved five or more A*-C passes between 1995 and 1999, placing it at the top of the Lancashire league tables every year and among the top 2.5 per cent of schools in the UK. This year, 88 per cent of pupils jumped through the hoops, although Mr Cassells regards the one child who gained only four passes as the "real success story". He says: "This was a child who came to us two years ago in real difficulty. His previous school had predicted he would gain no more than one or two Es and Fs, so he exceeded all expectations. His family was delighted."
There are also impressive creative achievements. Two years ago, every member of years 10 and 11 won or was a runner-up in a national poetry competition. There were three winners in the 1997 W H Smith Young Writers Inky Foot Competition (30,000 entries) and there have been at least 12 appearances in Friday magazine's Young Poet of the Week slot (more than any other school in the UK). This year the school had a national winner in the Young Letterwriter's Competition (145,000 entries). A large part of this success is down to the school's inspirational English teacher, Cliff Yates, an established poet who has just won the coveted Aldeburgh poetry prize for his collection Henry's Clock.
Mr Yates has been practising TM for 30 years and teaching for 20, 10 in a Cheshire comprehensive before he came to the Maharishi. He also travels the country for the Poetry Society on its Jumpstart - Poetry in the Secondary School initiative, showing teachers how to teach poetry. Never before, he says, has he met such receptive children. "The kids in this school are very integrated, clearly defined individuals, even the quieter ones," he says. "They know where they are going. They want to learn, they are very receptive, so if you give them something lively and interesting they will respond to it with remarkable enthusiasm."
The Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment is a 100-strong four to 16 independent school. Although its application in 1998 for grant-maintained status was unsuccessful, vigorous fund-raising by parents, which brings in a remarkable pound;1,000 a week, helps it to keep fees down (pound;3,480 a year for an upper school child, pound;2,376 for lower school).
Older children meditate for about 10 minutes at the beginning and end of each day, and younger children have a "word of wisdom" which they repeat to themselves while they prepare for lessons or clear up the classroom. Children also take their own pulses several times a day as a settling, balancing activity and perform the salute to the sun yoga exercise, which strengthens muscles.
Supporters of transcendental meditation - Sir John Harvey-Jones, troubleshooter and former chairman of ICI, being one of its most vociferous advocates - say it reduces stress and can give very young children power over their thinking, promoting self-understanding. This in turn can help overcome a variety of emotional and behavioural problems, such as anxiety and hyperactivity.
Mr Cassells, a science teacher as well as head, explains that meditation induces a deep state of restfulness beyond thinking - pure consciousness. This is the "unified field, the home of all the laws of nature in seed form, a state of restful alertness".
He adds: "The physiology is completely rested, but the inner awareness of the mind is at a maximum. With that balance in the whole nervous system, children become naturally creative." This "science of creative intelligence" forms the basis of the school's ethos, underpinning the conventional national curriculum the children follow. (At 16, if not before, they all take 10 GCSEs.) "They develop an intellectual understanding," says Mr Cassells "that underlying the diversity of nature there is harmony. This experience of inner quietness develops the inner self and creativity. If children start the day with 10 minutes of profound silence, the day goes better. This is not rocket science, it's common sense."
Transcendental meditation, he says, is not a religion, but a technique, a means of getting more out of life. "Anybody can take this system of education; it doesn't have to be in a nice converted barn in the country, it's as suited to the inner-city school."
The school started in 1986 with 14 pupils in the front room of Ann Brierley, now deputy head. They were the children of a group of business people and professionals who practised TM and who had come to Skelmersdale, a new town near Merseyside which grew out of slum clearance in the Sixties, to establish a Maharishi "ideal village" and to "make a difference" to an area blighted by crime and unemployment. This village, built with the help of an urban regeneration grant, now encompasses a community centre, a "golden dome" where people meditate together, two residential areas and a health centre, as well as the school.
This year the community, which calls itself the Maharishi European Sidhaland, the first of its kind in Europe, won a best practice award from the British Urban Regeneration Association. The judges praised it for being a "different and unconventional joined-up approach which addresses education, health, housing employment and crime in a positive and unusual way. It has a qualitative impact on the surrounding area and promotes regeneration by motivating the individual within the community." They singled out the school as "particularly impressive".
Those first parents, says Mr Cassells, were seeking a system of education which would enable children to acquire conventional skills to make their way in the world, while developing personally through meditation. The school now attracts families from the wider community, people who have heard of its reputation and like what they find. For children to gain a place in the school, however, at least one parent must agree to take up meditation.
Keith Laycock, who teaches TM in Skelmersdale and who co-ordinated the Maharishi's BURA bid, was one of the founding settlers. He says: "The orderliness of brain function of individuals practising TM in their own lives has an effect on other people. It's like dropping a pebble into water - the ripples radiate outwards. TM has an impact on every aspect of life and it has the effect of making our children more socially responsible."
The school is keen to expand. There are plans to move into larger premises, and to open a school in London. But Mr Cassells would like the Maharishi to be like a beacon school, an advocate of best practice, and its teachers, who all practise advanced meditation, to encourage other teachers to take it up.
The school takes several children who have failed to thrive in other schools, and any child experiencing difficulty is supported by the senior management team and a GP trained in Ayurveda medicine, a system of preventive health care derived from TM. The team works closely with parents, looking at potential changes to daily routines such as diets, bedtimes and herbal supplements. The way the child is disciplined is also reviewed. Mr Cassells believes negativity in a pupil is due to stress, an imbalance, and that the school has to find ways of creating balance and fulfilment.
The school holds regular rewards ceremonies for achievement, effort and good qualities a child might show, such as integrity or cheerfulness. "This must be done sincerely," says Mr Cassells. "If you find one good quality in a child, a whole world of good qualities will emerge."
Teachers are also well supported. Three times a term they are treated to a "rounding weekend" in which they are given time for extra meditation, and meals are cooked for them. "Teachers are giving out so much," says Mr Cassells, "so they have to be looked after, you have to make it easy for them to be the people they want to be. If you want children to express fullness of life, you have to help teachers express it too."
Cliff Yates believes TMis responsible for the reserves of energy that enable him to be both poet and teacher. "TM gets rid of deeper stresses and accumulated fatigue," he says. "It unlocks people's full potential." He also believes it creates a deep bond between teacher and pupils. "I can sit down with a group of children and close my eyes for 10 minutes and when I open them they are still there meditating. It's remarkable."