Inside the Maharishi School in Skelmersdale, where Transcendental Meditation is part of daily life
From The Beatles to Oprah Winfrey, Transcendental Meditation has had its followers including children at a Lancashire school. Roger Borrell reports
You can usually measure the success of a school by talking to the mothers. The advent of active PTAs and forums such as Mumsnet mean the parents of today are seldom shy about voicing their opinions.
Step forward mother-of-two Colette Noonan. As we have our unplanned chat in the school corridor, the classroom helper doesn’t mince words when asked about the education received by her children, Katie and Thomas.
‘They just love it here,’ says Colette. ‘It’s an amazing school. It’s such a caring place and they have wonderful friends. It was just what I’d always wanted for my children.’
Colette’s effusive response probably leads you to conclude this is no ordinary school and you would be right. For a start, Ofsted deemed it to be outstanding. What’s more, part of school is housed in a converted barn built in 1727.
But there is something else, This is the Maharishi Free School at Lathom, near Skelmersdale, and each day is punctuated with three short sessions of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
To those of a certain age, TM conjures up the hippy trail to India, flower power, The Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Back in the 60s, few would have expected that one day parents would be sending their children to a school based on the teachings of the Maharishi.
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Even less likely that this school would be part of the state system. But all those things have come to pass and the academic achievement has been so strong that a waiting list has built up. Recently there were 60 pursuing just three vacancies.
‘We were a private school for 25 years but we had always wanted to be inclusive and open to people who couldn’t afford to pay the fees,’ says the headmaster, Dr Derek Cassells. ‘This meant around a third of the pupils were here on a bursary and that cost a total of around �100,000 a year. That’s not the sort of money you raise at a cake sale.’
Coming into the state system raised hackles among some politicians who described the TM movement as a sect and its techniques as hokum. Dr Cassells, at the school since its inception, stresses there is no religious faith system attached to TM. (Ironically, since becoming part of the state system, they have been obliged to hold a conventional daily service.)
The softly-spoken Northumbrian is convinced there is enough independent scientific evidence to show TM really does benefit users.Its roots go back to ancient India and TM involves the use of a meaningless word or sounds as a mantra. Each individual has their own word and the children, from four to 16 years, use it in different ways depending on their age. The youngest meditate with their eyes open while walking. Older children are still and have their eyes shut.
Dr Cassells says this simple mental technique produces what he calls a ‘restful alertness’ and an ‘inner quietness’ in the children.
Achieving a state of calm, it is argued, helps to create well-balanced, well-adjusted happy children. It doesn’t turn them into geniuses, but he believes it does make them receptive to learning and able to fulfil their potential.
‘This is not just a nice little school,’ he says. ‘It prepares children for life after school. It doesn’t matter if you are a hippy or an accountant, TM balances the senses.’ In a world full of electronic distractions and a growing degree of cynicism, getting 135 children to take meditation seriously might be a challenge. Dr Cassells adds: ‘They don’t have to take it seriously. You don’t have to take maths seriously. But you do have to turn up and do it.’
Not all of the parents follow TM but a lot do and many start after their children have joined the school.
Outside the classroom, parents are encouraged to provide children with time at home and during holidays to continue meditation.
The school has recently extended onto a separate site to accommodate senior pupils and expansion will provide room for more pupils. However, class sizes will still be tiny compared to many schools and its tempting to conclude this might have as much to do with academic achievement as TM.
Dr Cassells, whose daughters attended the school, added: ‘What we are really trying to create is the sort of school we would have wanted to go to ourselves.’ Whatever you think of TM it doesn’t seem like a bad objective.