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December 02, 2005

Roy Kerridge visits an unusual independent school: Tabernacle School in West London

Posted by Roy Kerridge

Journalist and writer Roy Kerridge visits a rather unusual independent school in west London - the Tabernacle School.

I recently overheard a fiery Jamaican woman on a bus informing her friend:

If your son is underachieving at school, send him straight to The Tabernacle School in Holland Park. Black boys thrive best in Black Schools.
"A Black School?" I mused. I was intrigued. I had never heard of such a thing in England. Even in America's Deep South, teachers don't refer to their schools as Black, and why should they? Nowadays there are always a few white children in the classrooms, even if the neighbourhood is called Black Bottom.

To clear the matter up, I gave the Tabernacle School a ring and all was explained. A cultured voice informed me:

A Black School? Oh no! We are a Christian school.
What an indictment of Britain, that so few white people are Christians. Many active churches have become known as Black Churches - pity, as this label, stuck to them by white people, keeps other white people away. I decided to pay the school a visit.

The Tabernacle School is in a tall genteel-looking house in West London, next door to a domed synagogue with echoes of Solomon's temple.

I rang the bell and was soon seated in a small lounge high up in the tall building, talking to K. Derrick Wilson, a dynamic Pastor, husband of the school "Principle", Paulette Wilson (absent that day). He said eagerly:

This is a Christian School, and its beginnings were in our church at Latimer Road. I am the Pastor of that church, a Pentecostal fellowship.

Not all the pupils are church members - we are interdenominational. In fact, not all the teachers are Christians, we don't insist on that, as long as they respect the basic ethos of the school. Iain Duncan Smith, once head of the Conservative Party, is our Patron.

Fees are 3,700 a year. However, without our church, there would be no school. The Church takes care of some of the expenses. We take boys and girls aged from three to eighteen, with a pre-school class and our own curriculum, which takes pupils up to university level.

I asked:
Do you have an Assembly with hymns every morning, and The King James's Bible?
It appeared that there was full inter-school Assembly only two days a week, and the Bible was a New King James's from Texas. The Wilson's had made a trip to Texas, and found the New Bibles on sale "at only a dollar each". Pastor Wilson remarked:
They're just like the real King James's, but without the "thees" and "thous" that modern children can't understand.
I learned that the school taught Creation, but was told that the school:
made the children aware of the existence of Darwin's Theory. To us it is only a theory.
I would say it is more: it is a heresy, a heresy of Anglicanism so Anglican in flavour as to have become the Official Faith of England. Tabernacle School is better off without it.

Following Pastor Wilson, my guided tour of the school began. The Pastor announced mysteriously:

We don't say Classrooms, we say Learning Centres.
There are fifty eight pupils at Tabernacle School, and each Learning Centre has on average ten children. The school is far from being a place where "underachieving black youths" are reformed by Positive Role Models. The average Tabernacle pupil is a pert little eight year old girl. Girls outnumber boys. Every Learning Centre has at least one white girl in it, whether a pupil or a teacher. Cheerful, kind hearted young ladies, the teachers seemed to rule docile children effortlessly, in a calm, ordered atmosphere. In spite of the fact that worksheets - similar to those in state schools - were in use, the standard of literacy was high.

I was surprised to see so many Union Jacks on miniature metal flagpoles all over the place, and wondered if Iain Duncan Smith had bought a job lot after a Blackpool conference and donated them to the school. Classes were silent, and instead of a child raising a hand and calling out "Miss! Miss!" a flag was run up a pole and hung there until the teacher noticed. In this and many other ways, Tabernacle is most unlike a National Curriculum-driven state school. The familiar roar of tiny infants is absent, and some children might envy their rowdy Primary School friends. It is too early to say if the pupils will pass "A" Levels or not when older, but they will certainly be far safer at Tabernacle School than at the local Holland Park Comprehensive.

Despite the Union Jacks, the school seems geared to an American approach. Pentacostalists normally look to America for guidance, the place from whence so many of their churches have sprung. Many born again Christians in this country subscribe to courses run by American super-evangelists such as Oral Roberts and Morris Cerullo. Christian bookshops do a roaring or tongue talking trade in slick American books and videos. The Wilsons may have bought most of the Tabernacle worksheet-books on one of their visits to the U.S.A.

A worksheet-book for schools, the same in England as in America, is a text book and exercise book combined. At Tabernacle, as in all state schools, the books in use were devoted to Science, Social Studies, English and Maths. Instead of writing complete sentences, pupils were expected to "complete the sentence". (Example: Peary went to the ... Pole.) Spelling worksheets usually have no sentences, let alone complete stories as in my own schooldays, just lists of words with gaps below them for copying out. In this quiz show atmosphere, with no essays required, budding writers are frustrated.

Tabernacle worksheet-books were fervently American, with cover pictures of Pilgrim Fathers and Godly Pioneers in covered wagons. Bright Cartoon pictures of tow-headed freckled youngsters adorned their pages, with an occasional black child in "genius" spectacles.

Iain Duncan Smith ought to set up a school library of children's classics, Victorian Christian literature and perhaps some of the old Beacon Readers of sixty years ago, both the English and the Caribbean series. While he's at it, he ought to hire some cook from Coco's Caribbean Restaurant in Exmouth Market. I was sorry to see that the school kitchen was only used for cookery lessons, not for hot school dinners. At lunchtime, children munched sandwiches or cold patties.

Tabernacle pupils do not spend all their days in study: there are play corners with lots of toys, a school yard paved in rubbery anti-bruise playground tarmac and a picturesque art room at the bottom of this former back garden. There are frequent school visits to local parks, including lovely Holland Park with its flowers, water gardens, majestic trees and peacocks. All the teachers have friendly smiles, and all the children, if a bit anxious at times, are very chatty and forthcoming. Special mention, by special request, must be made to Marayo, Joshua, Ariella, Ruth, Viata and Behany in Miss Simms's class. Not to mention Jian, Leah, Rasham and Ife in Miss Fearon's lively and cheerful art class. They all waved goodbye and so ended my morning at Tabernacle School.

Roy Kerridge has written over a dozen books including novels, travel books and social commentary. His books include Subjects of the Queen, The Lone Conformist and Bizarre Britain. Roy Kerridge also writes for The Telegraph, The Spectator and The Salisbury Review.


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"What an indictment of Britain, that so few white people are Christians"

If these are likely to be the sort of people who won't go to a church because there are black people at it, then I can live with that.

Posted by: Tubby Isaacs at December 4, 2005 08:17 PM
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