Barnard Castle School is committed to the idea that no truly educational experience can exclude the serious study of Religion.  One would expect such a commitment within a school whose first headmaster was an Anglican clergyman, and whose first chairman was the Lord Bishop of Durham.  The Chapel porch windows also commemorate the two Christian charitable foundations whose combined assets built the School in the first place – namely St John’s Hospital whose origins date back to John Balliol (d.1229), and Benjamin Flounders (d.1846).  The driving force behind the foundation of the School in 1883 was a Canon of Durham Cathedral – Canon Dwarris.  Despite these ecclesiastical origins however, there are ambiguities in the School’s history which still inform the present climate.  Brereton’s father in founding the County Schools, saw himself in conscious opposition to the high church Anglican tradition of the Woodward schools, and Canon Dwarris was anxious to pitch the ethos of the School at the middle rather than upper classes.  The early commitment to agricultural and scientific departments indicates the School’s desire to attract local pupils whose families were involved in farming and industry.  Additionally there was an early reluctance to formalise religious observance in an actual building.  Brereton struggled to raise finance to build the Chapel.  Planned in 1883, it took until 1912 to build the Chapel, and it seems that local people, in an area of strong Wesleyan non-conformity, were disinclined to make donations, until the masons, under the direction of Lord Barnard, made the Chapel project peculiarly their own.  The Old Barnardians Lodge, and the now annual Masonic service in Chapel, indicate the Chapel’s debt to masonry, as do the inscriptions and signs within the building.  Possibly the Masonic background lends power to the deist slant in religion which is common at many public schools. 


It would be fair to say that present school observance, and the general school ethos seem to derive from this historical mix and ambiguity.  In the national handbook, for example, the School is described as non-denominational, although its worship was in the Anglican mould right from the start.  In view of this self-understanding however, one is wary of pushing churchmanship too high, and the frequency of school sung communion is more recent than historical.  Likewise the strength of the choral tradition and pupil support for it is relatively recent, and perhaps represents the weakening grip of austerely masculine, boarding school religion.  One could also argue that it is only in recent times that Religious Studies has broken away from the idea of moral guidance enshrined in the concept of ¾ hour compulsory Bible study on a Sunday afternoon, which existed here until the 1960s.  My immediate predecessor as Chaplain presided over the transition from Religion as part of a public school moral armoury towards R.S. as one of the academic humanities alongside Geography and History in timetabling terms.  It has taken me 8 years and a new full-time colleague to build on this platform and make R.S. a respectable academic subject with buoyant GCSE and A level number.  Part of this development has been the shift in syllabuses away from didactic Christian teaching, associated in people’s minds with the biblical and moral confessionalism of “Divinity”, towards more reflective and experiential teaching based in multi culturalism, and the kind of renewed interest in moral issues, ethics, and philosophy which has prompted the uptake of A/S ethics by would-be lawyers and medics.  There is no doubt that the current generation of pupils has a genuine interest in religion, but the trick from my point of view is to ride the present trends while not allowing R.S. to slide into a loose New Ageism (vis. the number of new text books featuring “spirituality” in the title) sociology, or pure psychology.  Recognising these trends, the Education Reform Act made deliberate attempts to stiffen the Christian core in R.S. though subsequent reviews of its efficacy have demonstrated how difficult it is to reconcile broad multiculturalism with specific Christian teaching.  In this respect, Barnard Castle School, with its tradition of daily Chapel and broadly Christian cycle of observances like Harvest, Carol services, Lent (Easter) and Ascension, is better placed than most state schools to deliver a diet of bible stories and inherited Christian culture, which provides some of the informational anchor point for reflection in the classroom.  I therefore make no apology for presenting so called confessional activities like daily Chapel and Sunday observance, alongside schemes of work for R.S., since they inform one another in much the same way as fell walking informs Geography, and rugby informs Sports Science. 




1.            To recognise the Christian but non-denominational origins of the School through daily Chapel services which are broadly acceptable but centrally Christian. 


2.            To recognise the historically Anglican profile of school worship by encouraging confirmation, regular communion and scope in Chapel for a fine choral tradition.


3.            To interpret non-denominationalism as the provision of opportunities for a variety of Christian expression which encourages “ownership” by pupils and staff – hence Scripture Union, House services, prep. School Services etc.


4.            To maintain the historic expectation of attendance at daily Chapel (recognising the normal opt-outs for children of other faiths) whilst not exploiting it as an evangelistic or confessional platform. 


5.            To ensure the equal standing of R.S. alongside other academic subjects.


6.            To maintain the nationally prescribed Christian bias in R.S. in line with the School’s foundation, whilst recognising and teaching the full integrity of other principal world religions. 


7.            To ensure that R.S. teaching extends beyond information about religions – their traditions, practices and doctrine – “to wider areas of morality and consideration of how religious beliefs and practices affect people’s daily lives.  (NCC March 1993 – RE in The basic curriculum in England and Wales), or more recently in the Durham Agreed Syllabus – to engender “a positive attitude towards other people, respecting their right to hold beliefs different from their own and towards living in a society of diverse religions.” (Agreed Syllabus for RE in Durham – revised February 2001)


8.            To see Chapel observance and R.S. together as non-coercive encouragements to pupils to develop their own beliefs and values, and contributing towards their spiritual, moral and intellectual development.







Although daily Chapel worship remains unchanged there have been considerable changes in the format of Big School assemblies because of the recent new linkage with PSHE.  The origin of the simultaneous assembly lies in the Chapel’s inability to seat the whole school.  The solution is that one or two groups attend Big School, rather than Chapel, once a week.  During public exam periods in the summer, the Chapel is able to accommodate everyone, so assemblies cease.  The additional factor is that for these Big School year groups, there follows after the assembly, a first period devoted to PSHE.  The programme for this is described elsewhere.  The point of mentioning it here is that general R.E. (i.e. R.E. for those not opting into GCSE, AS/A2) in year 10, 11 and sixth form has some elements subsumed under this programme. 


In Chapel meanwhile the general format is a hymn, biblical reading (read by a school monitor), commentary in the form of a story, poem or anecdote (whether religious or secular) and prayer.  When possible I invite “thought for the day” speakers who replace the commentary slot. Often these represent the charities like Leprosy Mission or Barnardos that we support through school, or groups like the Gideons who target local schools.  Scope for expanding the number of speakers is limited by geography and travel costs.  In a rural area of smallish villages the quantity, quality and travelling distances of speakers are a consideration, but there is no doubt that pupils look forward to the occasional guest.  In general, with different year groups missing each day there is not progression from one day to the next, but I do pursue a weekly theme, often loosely based on the Common Worship lectionary.  Although, time is limited, one of my principal aims is to give the impression of unhurried space and the opportunity for peace.  Stories are always short, reflective rather than didactic and I will cut the verses of hymns rather than force march a congregation to hit the deadline of first period. 




This weekly service (whilst Senior School attend house meetings) was introduced in my first year of Chaplaincy and is successful in that it draws Prep. School away from their relative isolation, and establishes a Chapel connection which feeds into their increasing involvement at key points in the year like Harvest, Christmas and (lately) Mothering Sunday.  It also gives their sixth form an opportunity to read publicly in a more formal space – especially since in the course of a year they can all “have a go”.  In view of the spectrum of ages from reception to year 6 – these services utilise a “younger” hymnbook, and there tends to be more active participation in my commentaries or stories. 




During term time there is one compulsory service for resident boarders on a Sunday – either a morning or an evening service.  Generally 10.30 communion service is the most frequent but the balance is beginning to shift towards more diversity and variety.  The reasons for this are obvious.  Boarding numbers have diminished, and parents demand more flexibility over when boarders can come home at the weekend, so the concept of Sunday services sustained solely by compulsory boarding attendance, needs to be remodelled.  Equally it is difficult, and probably undesirable in terms of relations with churches, to replenish boarding numbers with day pupil/parent attendance.  Again I am loath to pressure people into travelling to school on Sundays as well as on the other six days a week.  It is a great credit to the dedication of the Choir that so many day pupils do make that effort.  The solution to all this seems to lie in occasional services where attendance is heavily expected from boarders – Remembrance Sunday and Confirmation Sunday being two examples, and in other services where particular pupils and their families are targeted as a one off commitment.  The House services and special Prep. School services, are part of this strategy, and the general quality and level of participation has been very good.  A different plan of attack involves the exeats which exist to give families a mid-term break, so that on one Sunday each half term, the main morning or evening service is dropped in favour of a late evening compline.  As a purely voluntary service it is an exercise in humility to see how few come on this basis – and often, I suspect, in response to free crisps after the service, but in a school where there is a lot of compulsion it is not a bad thing to remind pupils that religion is a matter for free choice as well as obligation.  At the mainstream Chapel services, simple alterations like the introduction of the Peace, allowing pupils to sit where they like rather than by Houses, and relocating the focus from the lectern to altar, have made a big difference.  On a personal level I would like to move away from full school uniform on Sundays and we have experimented with this on some end of term informal occasions. 




There has been a Confirmation conducted annually in the School Chapel since 1912.  Current policy is to confirm pupils of year 8 and above.  Recent numbers vary from 17 to 30 a year.  The service is at our normal morning time of 10.30, securing it as one of the important focal points in the school year.  Confirmation classes start early in the autumn term and carry through to March,  During this time there is an expectation of attendance at classes, and at the Friday lunchtime communion which was introduced to give a grounding in a mainstream service to pupils, many of whom have attended nothing outside daily assembly or the odd wedding or baptism.  Brevity and bribery (like crisps and biscuits) generally make attendance willing rather than grudging!  The Friday communion is also an informal context for cultivating skills such as public prayer, bible reading and serving. 


Scripture Union, meanwhile, grew out of the need for a group to take over from confirmation classes after the actual confirmation.  Numbers vary wildly for this activity but cement themselves more firmly after the two or sometimes three Christian weekends that we have each year.  By going to St John’s in the Vale youth centre in Keswick or a similar one near Scarborough, we are able to gain a snapshot of the kind of community that Christians should expect even if, on a trivial level, that means holding off the chocolate bars when you know someone else hasn’t had one yet.  The spiritual input of the weekend tends to be through CDs, videos/DVDs and the emphasis is an existential response grounded in scripture and modern culture.