Quietly does it as Quakers look back to the future

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Although its governing body still comprises eight Quakers, there are plenty of Muslim headscarves - and no bonnets - at York's Mount School. Irena Barker reports on a historic foundation steeped in progressive thinking

Twice a week, the girls of The Mount School in York gather in the hall to sit down quietly together.

But they are not waiting for the head to give a long moral speech, or hear memos about school life. They will instead sit silently in a square formation, occasionally breaking the silence with their thoughts.

As the only Quaker girls' secondary school in the country, these 20-minute gatherings of quiet contemplation reflect traditional "silent" worship and are the key to what makes the 400-pupil school different.

Although it now has very few Quaker pupils and embraces a multitude of religions, new headteacher Julie Lodrick says the meetings are a moment of calm in a "frantic, frantic world".

"When they first arrive at 11, they find it hard to sit quietly and explore their own thoughts," she says, "but by the time they leave, it is fundamental."

The morning meetings, which Miss Lodrick compares to yoga or meditation, are just one aspect of modern-day life at The Mount which hark back to its roots in The Society of Friends (Quakers).

The Mount was founded as the York Quaker Girls' School in 1785, coming out of a strong culture of Quakerism in Yorkshire at the time.

The leading Quaker families, including famous names such as the sweet manufacturers Rowntree, sent their daughters there.

In the first century of the school's existence, life would not have been the cheery whirlwind of academic studies and extra-curricular activities it is today.

To modern minds, the ban on music - which lasted until the 1870s because it was considered "too arousing to the emotions" - would seem harsh. But in other ways, the school has been very progressive.

The Quaker notion of equality between men and women has meant the school has always been at the forefront of women's education and the training of women teachers.

The leading light in this area was the formidable Lydia Rous, the "firm but fair" headmistress, or "superintendent" as she was known, who reigned from 1866 to 1879. Although disapproving of the expressive arts, she was a key player in encouraging girls academically, in a world that largely underestimated women's intellect.

Quakerism was founded as a reaction to the oppression and hierarchy of the established church, and the inequality it led to in society. The school today has no strictly imposed rule book - girls are trusted to behave appropriately - and no house system, although the head stresses that pupils do play competitive sports.

The broad and inclusive nature of Quakerism has also allowed the school to embrace girls from all religions. Although the governing body still comprises eight Quakers and reports to the local body of Quakers in Yorkshire, there are plenty of Muslim headscarves worn at the school and no traditional bonnets.

Pupils also take part in an annual pilgrimage to Cumbria to follow in the footsteps of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers.

It is not known if the religious ideals behind the school are responsible, but it punches above its weight in terms of notable alumni who have flourished in all areas of life.

The actress Dame Judi Dench performed in some of her very first plays while at The Mount in the 1950s and the famous astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell was also educated here.

The three Drabble sisters, novelists Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt and art historian Helen Langdon, appear in school photos.

The school, which charges almost #163;7,000 a term for full boarders, has a long history of modernising headteachers, and the latest to take the helm is no exception.

Since starting in September, the glamorous and energetic new head Miss Lodrick has already dispensed with the title "headmistress" in favour of "principal". Although not a Quaker herself, Miss Lodrick see the principles of the faith as a unique way of "grounding" the girls and speaks highly of the morning meetings. Living on site, she spends the vast majority of her time dedicated to the school and the girls, enabling her to uphold some of the school's traditions.

In days gone by, girls were given the arduous task of learning pieces of scripture in the evenings for recital at breakfast.

Now, in a mutation of this idea, the head reads novels to her younger boarders in the evenings. She will also join the girls for the traditional midmorning snack known as "choc lunch". The convivial pause is named after the hot chocolate drink that was donated to the girls at the school by the nearby Rowntree sweet factory, itself a big Quaker business.

Miss Lodrick, who rises at 6am five days a week to run in the grounds, says she enjoys this intimacy with the students. She sees herself as a professional role model, but also something of a mother figure.

In a previous job she worked as housemistress at Queenswood School in Hatfield, a position she described as "one of the best jobs in education". Not all teachers would relish the 24-hour nature of a job combining academic life and a high level of pastoral responsibilities, but it suits the music graduate completely.

"It's not a job, it's a way of life," she explains.

She says that it is a privilege to work at a unique school with such a past, but adds it is also important to look to the future. "It's about preserving its heritage and embracing modernity, otherwise we would be stuck in long frocks and reciting texts," she says.

And the modern-day pupils do seem to be embracing the vast range of choices available to them, daring to follow the school's plea for them to "live adventurously".

Among three students The TES met, one was applying to study sports technology and another to do "media make-up".

What would Lydia Rous think of that?


- "Quaker" is the informal name for a member of the Society of Friends faith group, and comes from the idea that they "quaked in the presence of the Lord".

- The Quakers in Britain website says they share a "way of life" rather than a fixed set of beliefs.

- There are around 17,000 Quakers in the UK and around 210,000 members worldwide.

- Quakerism began in the 1650s as a rejection of the ritual and power structures of the established church.

- Quakers would not doff their caps or make another gesture that might denote one has superiority over another.

- Quakers in this country are well-known for their successful confectionery businesses, including Cadbury and Rowntree.

- The founder of Quakerism, Leicestershire-born George Fox, said that women are the "spiritual equals" of men - a hugely progressive thought for the 17th century.

For more information, visit www.quaker.org.uk.

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