Sipping from the same cup

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Catholics and Protestants living and learning together in harmony? They've been doing it for a quarter of a century in one Harrogate sixth form. Now other schools are following suit, and a delegation from Northern Ireland has been over to see how it's done. Elaine Williams reports.

Harrogate is Middle England. Its solid elegance embodies a gruff, northern gentility that is attractive to professionals, financiers and business people working in Leeds. Hardly the place you would expect to be of any interest to politicians and educationists from Northern Ireland.

Yet the town is home to a radical initiative in educational ecumenism which has blossomed over the past quarter of a century. Last year, when hopes were high for the peace process, Protestant and Catholic ministers, priests, teachers and senior education officials crossed the water to study the associated sixth form which joins together Harrogate's Church of England and Roman Catholic high schools of St Aidan's and St John Fisher.

The schools, close neighbours on the eastern side of town, were persuaded to merge their sixth forms for economic rather than ecumenical reasons, when comprehensive education came to Harrogate in the early Seventies. As former secondary moderns, neither had a tradition of sending children on to post-16 education; St John Fisher suffered from falling rolls and was on the slide.

The associated sixth form began with 130 pupils. Now it has 620, and economic necessity is no longer at the heart of the matter. Both schools are highly successful (last year 80 per cent of St John Fisher pupils gained five GCSE passes; at St Aidan's the figure was 77 per cent), vastly oversubscribed and could probably support their own sixth forms. But the overriding benefit of bringing together young people from two denominations has guaranteed the associated sixth form a special place in the region's post-16 provision.

Staff say it creates a unique culture of tolerance and enquiry. "We have created something bigger than both of us," says Terry Keelan, head of St John Fisher. "There's no question but that it should continue."

This sixth form is very different in both concept and feel from a sixth-form college. Students are registered with one of the two "stem" schools, attend their school assemblies, masses or communion services, play for their school teams and orchestras, and take a full part in that school community. But their needs as sixth-formers are catered for separately, overseen by a director who has a head of sixth form from each school under him.

The incumbent, Adrian Garne, who is paid directly by the local authority, administers admissions, pastoral affairs and the sixth-form curriculum, which is taught by staff in both schools. Sixth-formers are constantly to be seen walking between the two schools; an inconvenience on cold, rainy days, but an arrangement which most appreciate as offering them the best of both worlds. They retain the security and responsibilities that go with being the oldest pupils in a school while enjoying independence and new-found relationships within the broader horizons of a large, mixed sixth form whose reputation also draws pupils from other schools all over the region.

Moreover Mr Garne believes the associated sixth helps to neutralise any rivalry that might develop between pupils in the two schools. "One of the principal benefits is the lack of antagonism," he says. Any tension is limited to sibling rivalry on the sports field, as both St Aidan's and St John Fisher have strong sporting traditions.

The visitors from Northern Ireland were astonished that differences in religion are not a matter for division, but a unifying force. Sixth-formers seem more interested in building up a social life and sharing new ideas and experiences with new friends than in whether the person sitting next to them is Catholic or Anglican.

"When the people came from Ireland they were concerned about the two religions being together, but we don't think about it," says 17-year-old Keith Waddoups. Anna Sheridan, 18, says: "Young people are less concerned generally about the details of each other's religions and more interested in overall ideas. The visitors were surprised by that."

David Sorley, 18, an evangelical who attends St Aidan's, adds: "There have never been any issues of conflict with Catholic sixth-formers. When we discuss issues such as abortion, we accept that different people will have different views, and that's fine."

Harrogate's history is hardly Northern Ireland's, but church leaders and educationists from the Six Counties took heart from the fact that when young Catholics and Protestants are brought together, the strong moral ethos of a church school upbringing, whatever the denomination, can be a binding rather than dividing force. Had the Northern Ireland Assembly not been suspended, Dennis Richards, headteacher of St Aidan's, is convinced there would have been a strong impetus for setting up similar associated sixth forms in the province. As it is, the Harrogate model has been repeated in Halifax and Wolverhampton.

"The Irish visitors arrived with the view that what we had was bound to be second best to having two independent sixth-forms," he says. "They went away with a very different message. Few heads would find it hard to sanction losing autonomy over their own sixth form, but we feel we have gained, not lost out. There is much to be said for having the counsel of a colleague you are not in competition with."

The two heads believe they are in the middle of an ecumenical pilgrimage that will lead to many exciting developments. All pupils in both schools take a GCSE in religious education, followed by a course in the lower sixth called religious studies general where issues are examined from all sides - Catholic, Anglican, liberal, humanist. "We are seeking not to indoctrinate but to develop religious literacy in our pupils, and we believe we are uniquely placed to do that," says Dennis Richards.

The early years did see some awkward moments. At first, sixth-formers came together for Eucharistic services, but this served only to highlight differences because Catholics are not allowed to take Anglican communion, and vice versa. "We faced that by putting it to one side," says Mick Britton, head of religious education at St John Fisher. "We decided not to home in on what divides us. We have learnt over the years that what we can do together we do - that we must not force the differences."

One thing they do together every year is celebrate Agape - a shared meal at Easter that is not the Eucharist. For example, the theme last Easter was "The Fool on the Hill": Christ as the jester, with a group singing the Beatles song interspersed with Bible readings. This "liturgy of the Word" was followed by a rite of penitence and the sharing of hot cross buns.

The point, according to Rev Wendy Wilby, St Aidan's chaplain, is not that all sixth-formers are actively religious but that they are growing up in a culture where religious ideas are constantly being explored and questioned. In religious studies general, which she teaches, students focus on Christian ethics, are introduced to the philosophy of religion and discuss the nature of God's existence. Mick Britton says that if potentially contentious issues such as abortion or contraception are raised "we have to set out what Catholic Church teaching is". But debate is always open and frank. "We are sensitive to the difficulties sixth-formers might have in expressing themselves, feeling that they have to toe the party line, stick to the orthodoxy, but we are clear that discussion always has to be open."

As a woman priest, Rev Wilby says she has always felt accepted by St John Fisher, and has had no difficulties giving a blessing at associated sixth-form services. When St John Fisher celebrated its 40th anniversary recently she sat comfortably as a guest among Catholic priests and received a blessing from a Catholic bishop. All parties feel the associated sixth form offers further ecumenical opportunities.

Louise Buxton, 18, a Fisher's sixth-former, says it's "all about developing us as people". Amy Xie, a student at Fisher's who joined the sixth form from an inner-city multicultural school in Leeds, believes its ecumenical nature has created a special culture of acceptance and respect for others. "It's very white, middle class here and I was nervous about coming, but I found everybody open-minded and curious rather than prejudiced."

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