June 12, 2015

A Skeptic Revisits His Adventist Boarding School

Editor’s note: Forty years to the month after leaving Stanborough School, Welsh Mission president John Surridge returned to see what has changed at his alma mater. This is his report, which appeared on the British Union Conference website.

, president, Welsh Mission

Ask anyone on the Executive Committee of the British Union Conference, and they'll tell you that I have reservations when it comes to the question of Adventist schools.

For me, Adventist education is something that should be accessible to all of our members, perhaps through Pathfinders or after-school clubs. My working class roots incline me to believe that the church's resources should be spread thinly to benefit all instead of being used to create a center of excellence for an elite minority.

Not that I didn't benefit from attending an Adventist school myself. In fact, I'll admit that I owe a great deal to my own experience at the Stanborough School in the early 1970s. It was there that I obtained my GCEs, forged friendships that have lasted to this day, and confirmed my suspicion that I was never going to be a cross-country runner.

But that was back in the day. That was when the boarding school, founded in 1919, was still run for missionaries' kids on its campus of 40 acres (16 hectares) in Watford, a 30-minute drive northwest of London. That was when there was a good chance that your classmates’ parents were close friends of your own parents, and of the teachers themselves for that matter. It was all so different back then.

So it was with some skepticism that on June 4 — 40 years to the month after I left the school — I accepted principal Lorraine Dixon’s invitation to have a guided tour of the school, together with the rest of the BUC Executive Committee.

Admittedly the sun was shining, the grass was cut, and we had a nice meal waiting for us. But it was hard not to be impressed by the imposing façade of the school as we walked up. On reaching reception, we were given badges and welcomed by a line-up of student guides who would show us around. My group of five was led by Cherie Chanson, who was at the age of 15 the youngest of the guides. The teachers disappeared, and Cherie proceeded to do what she had obviously been well briefed to do.

The Stanborough School, pictured in 1958, looked much like it did when John Surridge was a student.
The view of the school today.

A School of Surprises

Of course the queen thinks the world smells of fresh paint, as they say, so I was prepared for an augmented reality version of the tour. 

But after the first few minutes it became clear that Cherie was absolutely genuine as she waxed lyrical about “her” school. And I have to admit that the facilities were good, very good in fact. There was an atmosphere of professionalism that I certainly didn't remember from when I was a student. The school’s 250 or so students were smartly dressed and had the kind of confidence that comes from knowing you're at a good school — actually a pretty posh school.

John Surridge, left, eating lunch with Stanborough students and other BUC Executive Committee members.

When we walked into the classrooms, interrupting exams in one case, the students all stood up! That never would have happened in my day.

“The one thing that struck me would be how I was particularly impressed at how courteous the pupils were,” Executive Committee member Joe Donaldson told me.

On many occasions over the past few years, the principal, Dixon, has told the BUC Executive Committee about the Christian ethos of the school. It had sounded like a rather vague concept to me. But as Cherie led us through the corridors and pointed out the various posters, certificates, photos, and paintings that adorned the walls, I began to see what it was all about.

I won't tell you what we wrote on the walls back in my day, but it certainly wasn't a clear set of values, each of which is celebrated by the students and staff for a whole month. Cherie genuinely understood and was proud of the values promoted by her school. She had obviously embraced the whole ethos of the place.

The sight impressed Scottish Mission president Bernie Holford.

“I was struck by the clear emphasis on helping children develop Christian character,” he said. “There were posters reminding students about patience, kindness and joy. The most rewarding part was to see the students demonstrating this true character education in the warm and friendly way that they interacted with us as visitors.”

As we went upstairs to look at the student accommodation, Cherie told us that she herself was a boarder. Forty years ago we pitied these poor souls — isolated from their families, living in squalid dormitories, some with 10 to a room — but today it seems that the tables have turned and those who live on campus are a close-knit family who consider themselves to be the privileged ones. Looking out from their common room windows, across the manicured lawns and statuesque trees of Stanborough Park, I could see why. A tiny part of me, reluctantly, felt something akin to jealousy as I imagined myself living in that same environment.

Weighing Adventist Education

Education is always a hot topic. Today, some people are shocked by the number of politicians who went to school together at the country's top, elite, fee-paying schools. People buy houses in order to be in the catchment area for the best schools. When it comes to our children, it seems that we'll go to any lengths to secure a good education for them.

The Stanborough School — like any Adventist boarding school — is not going to be for everyone. You'll have to pay, and it's not cheap. Your child will need to be highly motivated. Apart from getting in, he or she will need to have what it takes to fit in with that select group of students that make the school what it is. Yet, as former Stanborough student Philip Emm reflected to me, “The family atmosphere, the quality of work on display, and the setting of the school on Stanborough Park begs the question, ‘Why would you send your child anywhere else?’”

Making his first visit to the school, BUC Executive Committee member Richmond Muimo declared: “The excellent facilities, atmosphere and learning environment we saw and experienced on our visit was well reflected in the confidence and enthusiasm of our student guide and in all the students and staff that we interacted with. I will definitely be recommending the school to all that I can.”

Looking around the BUC Executive Committee, it was interesting to see how many of us had been students — some even teachers — at Stanborough School. Many more former students are spread in leadership roles around the world.

No one knows what will happen over the next 40 years. It may be that a decision will be made to broaden and therefore spread more thinly Adventist education in the British Isles. But while Stanborough School remains in operation, I have no doubt that it will continue to produce high caliber students, immersed in the ethos and values of Adventism, some of whom will go on to be leaders both in our church and society.

“The enthusiasm of the staff and students was a joy to behold,” said former teacher and now Newbold College head John Baildam.