Sect pupils in a class of their own

First a teacher was sacked for teaching a Shakespeare text. Now, Joseph Barratt investigates what happened behind the high gates of the Government-subsidised Exclusive Brethren schools.

Craig Hoyle was kicked out of the Exclusive Brethren and kept from his siblings. Photo / Rhys Palmer
Craig Hoyle was kicked out of the Exclusive Brethren and kept from his siblings. Photo / Rhys Palmer

Imagine a school whose books had words blacked out or pages removed and large parts of the curriculum - particularly anything to do with puberty and sex - was simply not taught.

A school where teachers received unexpected late-night visits at home to check on their moral probity.

And where all aspects of school life are governed in every detail by a sacred text, but a committee has absolute discretion in deciding how to interpret it.

It may sound like the worst excesses of the Taleban in Afghanistan or the Iranian mullahs, but this is the prevailing orthodoxy in 15 Westmount schools across the country run by the Exclusive Brethren.

The Herald on Sunday reported last week that a teacher from one such school in the Northland town of Kerikeri was sacked for using a "morally defiling" modern version of Shakespeare's great tragedy King Lear in a Year 13 class.

Suzette Martin, 40, lost her job because the material had not been approved by the school's governing committee.

This week, teachers in Westmount schools have been summoned to meetings and required to sign agreements not to talk to the media.

A veil of silence has descended over the schools, which receive $2.59 million in Government funding and have a combined student body of 1619.

But former teachers and students spoken to by the Herald on Sunday describe a system that gets excellent results, but which is based on control and even manipulation.

A copy of an employment agreement obtained by this newspaper lists some remarkable requirements: teachers must disclose their "personal circumstances", forgo union membership and agree that evolution is a falsehood.

No inter-school sports or activities may bring students into contact with other schools, and promoting any interest by students in university is forbidden.

Six former teachers and two ex-students from Exclusive Brethren-run schools spoke about their experiences at the schools - most on the condition of anonymity.

One teacher spoke fondly of her time; the rest were glad never to have to go back.

Craig Hoyle, 20, was kicked out of the Exclusive Brethren early last year for telling his brothers and sisters he was gay.

He was at the Westmount school in Invercargill and said that the quality of education was extremely good - but very restrictive.

"Biology books had any pages involving sexual reproduction or a mention of genitals ripped out," he said.

"There was no [sex education], no discussions about puberty anywhere. You're just left to wonder what is going on. For someone like me who is questioning their sexuality, there is no one to talk to."

He said he failed one section in an NCEA test on radio because pupils were never allowed to use one.

"None of us had any idea what they were asking. We all failed in spite of the teacher trying to explain what the different things meant without using a radio."

Both Hoyle and another former student said they were brought up to look down on their teachers as "worldlies" - the word used for everyone who is not Exclusive Brethren.

The other student, a woman in her early 20s who left the sect over a year ago, said it was difficult integrating with the rest of society after her upbringing.

Family members turned against her; cutting all communication other than the odd letter declaring her insane or possessed.

"I completely hated it [at Westmount School]," she said. "Maybe some people were happy there, but I was unhappy at school and at home. It was too restrictive."."

Even when the Exclusive Brethren loosened its rules on technology in 2007, it was under strict controls.

Children and young people were not allowed mobile phones and texting capability was removed on phones owned by adults. All mobile phones, faxes, and computers had to be hired from a Brethren organisation.

The pupils constantly had it drilled into them that they were special people in special positions and that "worldlies were dirty people," said the woman.

Outsiders were seen as a potential threat "to our purity, to our soul" and were not to be trusted, she said.

Hoyle added that students were not allowed to develop close ties with teachers.

Teachers were forbidden from talking politics yet students were curious, said Hoyle.

During the 2005 election - when the Exclusive Brethren was at the centre of a furore over its donations to the National Party - the students grilled teachers about their political beliefs.

ALL BAR ONE former teacher at the Westmount schools describe them as an Orwellian environment.

The one supporter said she felt more support than at any other state school she had worked at.

The rest had different views particularly about the employment agreement clause requiring staff to "fully disclose his/her personal and domestic circumstances".

"If you refused or were too different you would never get the job," said one former teacher.

She said Exclusive Brethren members monitored staff to ensure they were no immoral activities.

"There were late-night visits. They would turn up at your house, uninvited, at around 9 or 9.30pm. They weren't trying to befriend you; they don't do that. They were just checking up on you. The clear intent is to catch you off-guard, to see your living conditions: are you living in sin outside marriage, are you getting a divorce, do you have a boyfriend, or - heaven forbid - have a woman partner. You feel like you are being spied on."

Another teacher said if they had a day off their classroom would be searched looking for any questionable material.

"They would pull you up on anything they found, and children were encouraged to tell if we said anything considered improper. Anything they remotely considered immoral was vetoed. You couldn't get anywhere with requests for material ... they don't want students thinking too much."

Plainly Suzette Martin, The King Lear teacher, would have had her work cut out getting committee approval for the modernised text - although Shakespeare experts interviewed this week said that the original had passages that were far more raunchy and stomach-churning than the "translation".

The teacher spoken to by the Herald on Sunday said classic novels, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, were banned and films censored.

"It's like being blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back and hoping while trying to teach," said one teacher.

"They have every resource money can buy, as long as its approved, which of course means many are not. Everything goes through a committee for approval or censoring. The library is full of books with pages ripped out."

Despite the censorship, Education Review Office reports on the schools note the high achievement levels.

"The students did perform extremely well," said one teacher.

"They are very motivated to prove they are better than outsiders. With many kids that is half the battle. Its hard to stop them achieving with the motivation like that."

Bruce Owen, the president of the private schools teachers' union, the Independent Schools Education Association, said that the association had had one teacher from a Westmount school approach them in recent years.

The teacher had to keep the membership secret and no material could be sent to the school. The union's employment officer, Mairi Ferguson, said the employment agreements the staff had to sign were draconian but legal.

Massey University historian Peter Lineham said the Westmount schools presented an unusual case.

"There are almost no Exclusive Brethren students who can teach their students. They have to trust people to teach who do not share their values."

While most religious schools had a religious component, Exclusive Brethren schools were almost totally secular because they don't trust others to teach religion - "the morals are taught at home".

He said they took a 19th-century utilitarian outlook on education. "They aim to provide education to enable to them to live in the world. But, of course, the world they live in is very different from the world you and I live in.

"These schools are doing a very, very good job. They provide a good education as long as it fits in with what they need and serves the broader aims of the group."

More recently, male students had been studying at university level through extramural classes, but the focus was on business and legal fields, said Lineham. "They have enormous bills for accountants and legal bills."

At last count there were between 7000 and 8000 Exclusive Brethren members and if the schools were showing rolls of more than 1000 it showed there were a very large number coming through, he said.

Paul Morris, a religious studies professor from Victoria University, said the employment contract and situation at the Westmount schools raised important questions about Government funding of "religious" schools and appropriate curricular compliance.

"As a university educator I feel that it is rather sad to deny students the possibilities of a higher education, but I do understand their association of universities with values, often explicitly secular values, that are clearly challenging to their own."

Associate Education Minister Heather Roy said independent schools were free to set their own curricula and have their own distinct ethos as the Government is not directly involved in running them.

"Parents choose to send their children to these schools."

Attempts to contact Exclusive Brethren hierarchy were turned down.

Daryl Maden, chief executive of the Northern Education Trust, which runs the Kerikeri Westmount School, said there would be no comment until after current employment disputes were settled.

- Herald on Sunday

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