Educating for life in the Quaker tradition at Newtown School Waterford
Joan Hanafin, March 2012
Students at Newtown School Waterford are amongst the most content scholars in Ireland. A recent survey conducted in the school found very high levels of school happiness and satisfaction amongst the student body. Students reported that Newtown School develops in them the characteristics of socially just and emotionally intelligent young people. They characterise their school as one committed to core Quaker values of equality, respect, tolerance, friendship, community and peaceful co-existence. They speak appreciatively of their teachers, their peers and the uniqueness of their school.
Newtown School is a co-educational, multi-denominational, Quaker school with over 300 boarding and day scholars. Founded in 1798 by the Religious Society of Friends, it provides a broad academic education allied with the benefits of a small school community. Situated on an 18-acre, city centre campus with open green space, there are extensive sporting and music facilities and a wide range of extracurricular activities.
As no previous survey of this kind was carried out in the school, we started with a blank canvas and were unsure about what would emerge. Every student was surveyed and most responded. We asked open-ended questions and expected that there would be a few surprises. There were. Pleasant surprises. Perhaps most surprising was how positive and appreciative students of all ages and in all year groups were about their school.
We discovered that Newtown School delivers specific and much-appreciated benefits to its students, over and above a broad curriculum and very high academic outcomes. Not every school can deliver on the academic, the social, the social awareness, the sporting, the musical but Newtown School does. Excellent academic results are accompanied by character development and personality traits that will stand to students all of their lives.
Character development in a quaker school
How do students grow and develop in a Quaker school? We asked students what traits Newtown school had developed in them. The characteristics they identified are elemental traits of successful and emotionally intelligent adults. Most frequently amongst the characteristics developed in students at Newtown, the students identified confidence.
Students’ confidence grew yearly and from second-year onwards it was particularly noticeable, indicating a growth in confidence the longer students are in the school. These comments by two second-year students are reflected throughout the student body “Not shy anymore” and “It made me more confident”. Many students also mentioned related traits that being at Newtown developed in them such as social skills, sociability and “feeling comfortable in my own skin”.
Learning to “be myself” was mentioned by many more. How the school’s ethos supports and encourages self-esteem and self-awareness is highlighted by this comment from a fifth-year student. “Having a relaxed environment where teacher and student work hand in hand to have an excellent working environment where students can be anybody they want to be without being judged”.
Perhaps not surprisingly in a boarding school, especially one where some students are “three-weekly” boarders, independence was frequently mentioned as a characteristic which students develop at Newtown. This trait extends to student self-motivation in relation to learning, such as this fourth-year student’s comment on a characteristic he or she developed at Newtown, “the ability to work alone”. In light of the repeated criticisms of post-primary schooling for its emphasis on points-driven, extrinsic motivation, this is a significant characteristic to nurture in a school. Intrinsic motivation is difficult to develop but its importance for success, not only in examinations but in any undertaking, is well noted.
Even in their first year, students grow and mature in the safety of the school community, illustrated by this comment of a first-year student only a few short months at Newtown, “I think since I came here I am more at home and maturized I think this is a great school”. Among the older year groups, self-expression and individuality were also mentioned, the development of which is surely supported by the school’s ethos of tolerance, respect, friendship and encouragement of creativity.
Friendship, kindness and caring, and respect for themselves and others comprised the second most frequently mentioned set of characteristics. A third-year student wrote “I think about people differently. It’s harder to think of them as bad. I’m less arrogant”. A fifth-year student wrote “everybody lives and works together in a friendly environment where all are equals”.
Many students spoke of the development of their sporting and musical selves. Other traits and characteristics developed in the Newtown students and particularly singled out for mention by them were maturity, study skills, responsibility, communication, trust, patience, politeness, helpfulness, tolerance, acceptance, and happiness. Here are the words of one second-year student who has grown “to study more. To play more sport. To help people if they need something.”
What Does A Quaker Education Stand For?
Asked what they think a Quaker education stands for, students at Newtown identified core values and beliefs of Friends. “In every person there is something of God capable of direct illumination from God” and “A school which sees God in everyone” two sixth-year students wrote. “A Quaker school is a school that is religious and doesn’t mind what religion comes into it” and “A school that sees good in all”, two first-year students wrote.
One of the main beliefs in Quakerism is the equality and worth of all people. The set of qualities most associated with a Quaker education and mentioned by nearly half of all students were equality, respect and fairness. If the secret of education lies in respecting the pupil (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then Newtown school understands and practices the secret. At Newtown, students feel respected and this is evident right across the year groups. This aspect of Quaker education involved not only relationships among the students but included student-teacher relationships also.
Friendship and community were the second most frequently mentioned set of qualities identified. A sixth-year student wrote, “I think a Quaker school stands for friendship, working together in a community. It also stands for respect between teachers and students”. Even among younger students, there was an awareness of Quaker values in education, with the school representing for example “A unified community and silence” (a second-year student). Awareness of Quaker values became more pronounced the longer students were in the school. The older the students were, the more likely they were to mention friendship and community, suggesting that these distinctive qualities of Newtown School intensify over time in the school and are a source of satisfaction to many students.
The following comment by a fifth-year student shows how the emphasis placed on friendship and community leads students to feel a sense of security, belonging and acceptance, the foundation stones on which confident, caring, friendly, and secure adults are developed: A Quaker education “stands for a peaceful and close community, where everyone looks out for one another. It accepts you for who you are.”
The sense of community was strong across the year groups, an effect of both the ethos and the size of the school. This was seen in how older students knew and looked out for younger ones, leading one first-year to say, “We get treated much better as 1st years and it’s much more fun! And in other schools the older people are mean but everyone is so nice here”.
Trust, caring, kindness, acceptance, loyalty, and tolerance were other aspects of Quaker education identified by students in all year groups, qualities which may be understood as indicators of the value placed on friendship and community in a school with a broad mix of people.
Peace and non-violence were mentioned often by students. In the routine of daily life, students noted an absence of aggression “We don’t seem to ‘kick off’ or fight as much as other schools” (a second-year student) and “We are more like a family, there are no fights in school and not so much violence in school” (a fifth-year student). Gandhi’s exhortation that “if we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children” may be oft cited but less frequently practised. Pacifism, peace work, mediation and reconciliation are at the forefront of Quaker beliefs and actions. Students’ own accounts of life at Newtown School show how its foundation of Quaker values make a distinctive contribution to the teaching of peace.
Writing of what a Quaker education stands for, many students identified silence. Making time for quiet, meditation, prayer and thanksgiving is a query for serious consideration in Quakerism. Meditation lends a gentle quality and finding a practice of daily silence alongside a commitment to peace and non-violence is no coincidence. The calming effects of silence at Newtown are stitched into the fabric of school life. Every school day commences with Collect where silence falls on a community in reflection. Meetings and meals start and finish with brief periods of silence and the punctuation of the day with these silent spaces provides continual, unbroken, opportunities for peace and tranquillity. Such opportunities in today’s world are not only valuable but rare and are greatly liked by students, some of whom wrote that they would like “more silence”.
Strengths of Newtown School
Many strengths of Newtown School were identified by students and foremost among them, were a sense of community and the school’s “smallness”. A third-year student identified the strengths of the school as follows: “A small number of students, small classes, and good teachers”. Students describe the school as like a family, where everyone knows everyone else and where there is “togetherness”. A third-year student writes, “Everyone in NSW looks out for each other, they’re like a big family and everyone is so different”.
In a school in which the student body is culturally, academically and socially mixed, students write of kind people, of friendliness, and of an atmosphere of support, fun and friendship across all year groups. They appreciate the tolerance and respect in the school that create space for self-expression and for being able to be oneself. This comment by a first-year student only a few months in the school sums it up: the strength of Newtown School is “being one community”.
Students identified teachers, and especially student-teacher relationships, as a major strength of the school, referring repeatedly to teachers’ respect, care, trust, and understanding as well as to their expertise. For this sixth-year student it is that “teachers are extremely caring and helpful”. For this fifth-year student, it is that “everyone is nice to each other. The teachers are understanding”. For this first-year student it is that “the teachers are really good and nice”. For this third-year student, the strength is “that the teachers have time for you if you’re having difficulties and that they don’t give out if something bad is done they stay calm”.
Students comment frequently on the range of sporting, musical and other activities and facilities at Newtown, and are particularly proud of the athletics tracks, pitches and swimming pool as well as of the extensive musical achievements, prizes and travels of choirs, orchestra and individuals at Newtown. They appreciate the opportunities to try different activities and the encouragement to do sport, “I’m more willing to try different things and I play more sport” (third-year student). The Transition Year programme is noted for the opportunities it provides to students to develop and grow in myriad ways, with a strong emphasis on the development of social awareness and social justice.
Students at Newtown are keenly aware and proud of what they see as the “Uniqueness of Newtown school”, writing affectionately and appreciatively of the school’s Quaker ethos, tradition, and grounds.
What would students change?
Inevitably, there were some aspects of their school experience about which students were less favourable. In response to the question “What changes would you make in NSW?”, a small number of students commented on some infrastructural and operational aspects of the school. These mainly concerned a desire for more modernised facilities, better access to their mobile phones, changes in uniform, more extensive food options, and changes in how effort and conduct were managed.
The majority of students, however, did not identify anything that they would change about their school. Indeed, asked what changes they would make in their school, a high proportion of students across all year groups wrote with what often seemed a happy flourish “None!”.
In light of our survey findings it is unsurprising that students do not wish to change much in the school. It is well documented that, for students, the affective elements of school life are extremely significant and at Newtown those elements are positive, and exceptionally so. Additionally, a positive emotional climate in a school delivers academic as well as social benefits. A recent ESRI report on ways to implement education policy to assist economic recovery reminds us that, all else being equal “Junior and Leaving Certificate achievement are found to be higher in schools with a more positive disciplinary climate, less negative teacher‐student interaction, a more flexible approach to subject choice, greater student involvement and higher teacher expectations” (E Smyth and S McCoy, Improving Second-Level Education. Using Evidence for Policy Development, December 2011, Dublin: ESRI, p14).
Although similar in many respects to the more than 700 other post-primary schools in the Republic of Ireland, Newtown school is out of the ordinary. Like many other schools, students at Newtown School experience a very broad curriculum with 21 subjects taught to Leaving Certificate level. Like many other schools, students at Newtown school achieve very high academic outcomes, some reaching the highest peaks of success achieved by any student in the Leaving Certificate cohort.
Commenting on the survey results, Keith Lemon, principal of Newtown School, pays tribute to students and staff at the school and notes that the ethos of the school becomes more influential over time as students make their journey through education at Newtown. “The survey does suggest that, despite the many, competing and trying demands placed on teenagers, the longer students are here the more in tune with the ethos they become”. He goes on to say “while there are trials and tribulations which test us each day, there is a willingness to overcome them with honesty, tolerance and respect. We learn continuously from the manner in which we try and tackle problems”.
More than 2,300 years ago, Plato wrote that “the direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life”. For students educated at Newtown School, the direction is unique. Its history, student body, staff, tradition and ethos mark it out as different, although its greatest difference may be this: students at Newtown School grow into confident, friendly, tolerant young people, experiencing in their daily lives unusual levels of respect and acceptance, friendship and community, tolerance and peace. Based on Friends’ belief that there is good in every person, students at Newtown have a striking and finely tuned understanding of friendship and community and place a high value on respect, tolerance and care for others.
More than anything else, students at Newtown School are exceptionally positive about their schooling experience and the final word goes to one of them, a fourth-year student who describes the characteristics developed in them at Newtown School as follows: “to be more confident. To believe in myself. To be myself. Knowledge of being in a community (I love it!)