A not-for-profit organization chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, the school has been in the city since 1964. According to its informational materials, it “followed the lead of a school started by Leon MacLaren in London in 1937.” That conspicuously unnamed school is the controversial School of Economic Science, or S.E.S., which has long had a reputation in England as a highly secretive cult.
According to a former member who had been involved in the school for several decades, S.E.S. and its branches gain control over students by a slow process of conflating obedience to God with obedience to those who claim to know God–that is, S.E.S. and its “tutors.” One of the methods of doing this is through “service,” which starts by “attending to the working surfaces.” This leads to the practice of “attention,” which translates into spending Saturday mornings cleaning the school building or a weekday evening serving refreshments during breaks in classes. Once students–both children and adults–are conditioned into regular housekeeping duties, they are made to do service more regularly. After a while, according to the source, “there is little time or energy for anything else.”
Founded by middling Labour Party M.P. Andrew MacLaren in England in 1938, S.E.S. (first known as the Henry George School of Economics) was little more than an economics study group. When Leonardo Da Vinci MacLaren, known as Leon, inherited the reins from his father, the group’s stated goal was still “to promote the study of natural laws governing the relations between men in society and all studies related thereto and to promote the study of the laws, customs and practices by which communities are governed, and all studies related thereto.”
The younger MacLaren had a latent interest in philosophical study, but it was not until he saw the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi speak on New Year’s Day 1960 that the school’s central belief system shifted. This detail is not mentioned in any of the school’s materials, of course. MacLaren was so taken with the Maharishi (famous for later having held sway with the Beatles), he helped organize the white-bearded guru’s first so-called “world assembly” at Royal Albert Hall in 1961.
MacLaren traveled with the Maharishi to India after the assembly to study meditation further. In 1965, he had his first meeting with a man who would become a life-long companion, Shri Shantananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya (spiritual leader) of North India, a teacher of Advaita Vedanta, which preaches the unity of self. With this meeting, the central tenets of S.E.S. were solidified: through meditation, achievement of happiness and higher self-awareness–the school warns against the pollution of a scattered mind and cautions students to rid themselves of “unnecessary thoughts”–and the belief in a universal connectedness that can be tapped into.
MacLaren began preaching the fuzzy concept of “unity in diversity,” which the school defines–with characteristic ambiguity–as “the essential unity underlying the diversity in creation.” S.E.S. has a more or less comprehensive view of philosophy, with a lightly enforced suggested reading list that includes Plato, the Upanishads, the American transcendentalists and the complete works of Shakespeare. In other words, it is spirituality as motivational poster: “this too shall pass,” “the wisdom is within,” etc.
With MacLaren’s lashed-together doctrine of Eastern philosophy and Western wisdom, the organization turned its attention to the young. In the mid-70′s, a number of S.E.S. parents approached MacLaren and asked him to set up full-time schools for their children (there was already a Sunday school in place for children to study S.E.S. philosophy). In January 1975, MacLaren established the St. James Boys’ School and St. James Girls’ School for children aged 5 to 7 and the St. Vedast School for boys ages 10 to 18. The institutions were called “an experiment.”
Between 1975 and 1985, the St. James schools, as they have come to be known, were populated almost entirely by the children of S.E.S. members, the classes taught by MacLaren’s disciples. Word of the highly secretive organization’s infiltration of the English educational system reached two reporters at the London Evening Standard, Peter Hounam and Andrew Hogg, who published a series of damning articles accusing the S.E.S of being a cult and raising concern about the intentions of the schools. The S.E.S., according to their reporting, enforced a severe diet, persecuted women and kept its members closed off from the outside world. The material eventually became the bluntly titled book Secret Cult, which speculated that a great deal of S.E.S. money came from land holdings. For instance, S.E.S. was gifted Necker Island in the Caribbean by a wealthy British member, which they allegedly sold to Sir Richard Branson for £124,214.
The S.E.S. schools were among the last private schools in England to ban caning, maintaining the archaic disciplinary practice until 1996. In 2004, alumni of St. James and St. Vedast began a message board to reflect on their memories there, but the conversations immediately turned dark. Soon, many more alumni came forward with disturbing stories, like those of Matthew, who attended St. James for three years, beginning in 1975, when he was 8 years old.
An investigation of the school conducted by James Townend, a queen’s counsel, revealed, over the course of four months of interviews with former pupils from the time spanning 1975 to 1985, that students “were criminally assaulted by being punched in the face or in the stomach, cuffed violently about the head, had blackboard rubbers thrown at them causing injury in some cases, had cricket balls thrown at them violently when they were not looking at the thrower and were struck with the end of a gym rope. Other students were kicked, struck from behind, slapped about the face, thrown across a classroom.” St. Vedast closed in 1985 and its students were integrated into St. James, which still exists today, though only a fraction of students are children of S.E.S members. In the summer of 2005, the same year as the criminal investigation, they were ranked in the Sunday Times‘s top 500 independent secondary schools.