Julian Robertson, Tasmania Regional Meeting.
When Hobart Quakers opened The Friends’ School in 1887, with a Quaker Principal from England, Samuel Clemes, and, soon after, financial support from the Baptist Church, it was intended to provide an education based on Quaker values and practices for Quaker and non-Quaker students.
Today, 125 years later, the school has grown into a diverse learning community of over 1300 students, about 250 staff, more than 1800 current parents, and other stakeholders such as state and federal education authorities and tertiary institutions.
From my perspective, as the Quaker Coordinator at Friends, I can see much that suggests the Quaker voice is alive and active at Friends, in large and in small ways, formally and informally. But I know that this influence can never be taken for granted. Friends is like a continuing experiment, a school that is meeting the educational needs of a largely secular community using the values, wisdom and practices of the Religious Society of Friends. It exists at the interface between the secular and the religious. It distinguishes The Friends’ School from other schools in the same genre.
It would be true to say that this experiment is working well at present. The full waiting lists are one indication. Another is that the profession with the largest number of parents with children at the School is education (teachers and academics). The majority of parents, when surveyed, say it is the values and practices of Friends that influenced their choice. Academic success is also a factor. There is good reason to suggest that the Quaker influenced practices of the school contribute to academic achievement.
Imagine a group of 150 teenage students and staff, sitting on wooden benches and chairs in a circle, facing each other, in a gathered silence. This happens daily at Friends. Between six and eight hundred students use the Hobart Quaker Meeting House each week in this way. Our Gatherings are modeled on the Quaker Meeting for Worship, and combine a ‘centering down’ period of up to 20 minutes, depending on age, followed by a consideration of ideas of wisdom, in ways that range from worship sharing, to a structured programme that might involve staff or students speaking. Our students are learning to sit communally in reflective silence, to ‘slow down the brain’, to listen inwardly, and share the wisdom that they may receive. It is a valuable life skill. And in the language of Quaker practice, it is the path of prayer and worship.
Interestingly, some of the most memorable gatherings have been held on outdoor education camps.
One of the ways of exploring the values of the Quaker Testimonies, which we have found works well in the High School (Yrs7-10), is to use the Advice and Query model. For instance, at the end of a couple of gatherings on the Peace Testimony, students wrote their own Advice and accompanying Query, an example being:
Global peace involves equality, and if there is too much greed, we will never achieve the equality that we need for peace.
Why can’t we share the world’s resources more evenly?
Maddy and Issy Yr 9
These students’ written queries find their way into the school’s What’s On newsletter.
Further indications of the Quaker presence at The Friends’ School are best observed in the occasional unstructured everyday actions, such as the objection by a (not a Quaker) member of staff to the requirement that the students in the orchestra must stand when the conductor walks in; or the mention by Yr 12 students at their Last Gathering of how valuable the (adapted) Quaker phrase, ‘Walk cheerfully over the earth, connecting with the good in everyone’ has been for them; or the decision by a (also not a Quaker) member of staff to exclude an Australian Defence Force stall from a Careers Fair held at the school.
Other examples of Quaker presence at Friends’ are:
1. Curriculum units in the High School Connections program entitled ‘Let Your Life Speak’, in which students choose a project that demonstrates beliefs in action.
2. The use of first names by students when they speak to staff, rather than the use of formal titles.
3. The staff Meetings for worship held at the beginning of each term and at the end of the year, and the silences held before meetings.
4. The encouragement of the use of Quaker business meeting practice at staff meetings.
5. The Professional Development program on Quakerism for new staff, and Quaker themes in other PD programs
6. The Quaker in Residence program, in which Quakers visit the School, and share their talents, and tell groups of students and staff how their Quakerism informs their work.
7. The presence of (currently) 7 Quakers on the staff, including, most importantly, the Principal, and about a dozen current Quaker parents, and many more past parents. We also look forward to welcoming a new Quaker Principal in January 2013.
8. The presence of a majority of Quakers on the Board of the School
One of the greatest things about the Quaker Testimonies and practices is that they are so relevant in today’s world. This is great for Quaker organisations working in the secular world. The values contained in the testimonies of the Religious Society of Friends are as good as any, and are strongly supported by staff. Indeed, Quaker ideals and practices are held in high standing by most staff, and many adopt them as guiding principles.
The Quaker Testimonies we use at Friends are Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship. These are listed in the Values chapter of the School’s Strategic Plan, and the achievements and plans for each testimony are noted and reviewed annually. Every section of the strategic plan ends with the question “How will our values be illustrated in this plan?”
An example of an action that has developed from the Strategic Plan is to make Friends more financially accessible. This led to a deliberate campaign of fundraising that has resulted in the Mather Foundation, funds from which can only to be used in providing bursaries for students from less advantaged backgrounds.
We are very much aware that a fine list of values is impressive, but is only meaningful to the extent they are observed in practice in the daily life of the School. After all, Quaker is as Quaker does! Students come to Friends with values they have learned, mostly from their parents. If we want to claim the presence of a Quaker voice, we know that the school’s values, which derive from the Quaker Testimonies, need to be articulated, discussed and owned by students and staff. This happens with varying degrees of success, as would be expected in a large and diverse community.
The benefit of learning the skills of silent reflection and stillness of mind is increasingly being acknowledged within education and in brain research. The Friends School, with its well-established practice of intentional communal silence, is well positioned to adopt the curriculum implications of these developments. Students may not appreciate the benefits of such a Quaker education until long after they have left school. We frequently hear from ex-students that their values as adults, their work ethic, community engagement and reliance on quiet reflection are rooted in their time at The Friends’ School.
In recent years the health science of Positive Psychology has become widely practiced in schools, especially in the USA, and increasingly in Australia. Two of its themes are the promotion of positive emotions and positive relationships. It is an affirmation of George Fox’s ‘Walk cheerfully…’ and ‘…that of God in everyone…’
These are some of the ways in which, I think, it is reasonable to suggest that the Quaker voice is an ongoing presence at The Friends School.
There is a view, quite widely held amongst Quakers that a fee paying school such as Friends does not fit well with the Testimony to Equality, since those parents who would like to send their children to the School, but can’t afford to, are excluded. On the other hand, consider the benefit of a learning community which is influenced by beliefs, processes and practices that Quakers uphold.
For the students at the school today, and the many past and future students, their education has been and will be touched in some way by the Quaker Testimonies, the practice of silent communal reflection, by contact with Quaker organisations such as Quaker Service Australia, by the example of Quakers on staff and the many Quaker visitors who have spent time at the School. It is a worthwhile compromise, in my view.