I didn't realise my school was any different to anyone else's until I went to University. Then when I chatted about school with people there I realised that not everyone went to a school like mine and I was totally shocked. I'm going to try and keep this short and sweet because there are a lot of experiences that make up the first 18 years of my life, but I wanted to give an 'insider's' perspective to going to a faith school and what it's really like. Obviously I can't speak for other schools, but these are my experiences from going to a Catholic primary and secondary school.
First up, religious plays and nativities are a massive thing. In primary school there were endless fights over who would be Mary in the school play. And nativities continues all the way up until the end of secondary school. As well as this, the Stations of the Cross (i.e. Jesus' physical journey of carrying the cross to be crucified) was something that was played out every year, as well as the creation of the world and Jesus' ascension into heaven.
The first one was pretty obvious, but there are a whole lot of misconceptions about Catholic school. The main reaction I get from people is 'so basically you were touched by a priest then?', which genuinely makes me rage. But beyond that, there's no real understanding of how different things were.
The most negative thing (in my opinion) is that we weren't allowed to be taught sex education. As you're not supposed to have sex before marriage, and then with the sole intent of procreation, teaching children about sex education is against the beliefs of the parents, and so teachers simply weren't allowed to inform us about issues like having safe sex. We did an RE module when we were 17/18 called 'Love Needs Learning' (for real), and were pretty much advised that family planning and withdrawal were the way forwards. I'm still fairly angry that we weren't taught about how to have safe sex, or trans issues, or anything of the sort.
We also had to study some form of RE until we left sixth form. You could either do an a-level of Philosophy and Ethics (which I did), or an NVQ in RE. There was no third option to leave RE behind at GCSE. Speaking of the RE GCSE, we had to effectively memorise one of the gospels, which I had no idea other people didn't do until I went to university...
Now on to the good things. From speaking to other friends, there was much less bullying at our school than at other schools. There was a massive focus on community, and whilst bullying happened, I know that at any other school I would have absolutely been ripped to pieces. We had special days called 'humanities days' where we would be put into groups of people from all across the years to do activities. These would massively range from baking, to writing articles, to sports, to dance, to prayer, to art and so on. These were a chance to bond with people you would never normally come across. When we were put into tutor 'forms' or groups at the start of sixth form, the army came in for the day to lead us in team building activities.
We did a lot of charity work. This is one of the things that I remember most. In sixth form every student had to do one community service activity a week. I tutored younger students who were struggling with their English lessons, but other people made sandwiches for the homeless etc. We regularly had CAFOD (Catholic Aid For Overseas Development) days, and a couple of times a year would fast, and donate the money we would otherwise spend on eating lots. We sent shoe boxes filled with gifts to children who don't get anything at Christmas. It's hard to think of all the little bits we did, but there was always some kind of fundraising going on.
10% of the students weren't Catholic, but they were never excluded from things. There was never any nastiness (that I was aware of) against students who weren't Catholic. There were also students who were openly gay, lesbian or bi and the school didn't try to curse them/chuck them out/segregate them, or anything else that I've had people ask. Faith is about love and acceptance; Christians who are homophobic take things in the bible very literally, which is an outdated view.
Another one that people don't expect is that our science lessons weren't impacted by the fact that the school was a religious one. We were taught according to the National Curriculum and we weren't told that science was 'wrong'. A lot of people don't know this, but as a general rule, Catholics believe in the Big Bang and evolution. Yup. The creation story is one that Catholics don't take literally; the Earth wasn't made in seven days, and each 'day' is more of a symbol of an evolutionary period.
There's so much more I could talk about, but I *might* write another post on this in future. In essence, we prayed a lot more, had a lot more masses, sang hymns (you haven't lived until you've done a round of Shine Jesus Shine) and did a lot more things as a community. Whilst I don't go to Church anymore, I'm glad that I went to a Catholic school, even if it was a bit different.