School of Economic Science

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The School of Economic Science entrance, Mandeville Place, London.

The School of Economic Science (SES), also known as the School of Philosophy and the School of Practical Philosophy, is a worldwide organisation based in London.[1][2] By its own account, the meetings it provides "are not academic courses."[3] Its teachings are principally influenced by Advaita Vedanta,[4] an orthodox philosophical system of Hinduism,[5] as interpreted by SES leader Leon MacLaren (1910-1994), a lawyer.[6][7] It has a controversial reputation and is seen by some commentators as a cult or new religious movement.[8]

The SES advertises introductory courses in what it terms "Practical Philosophy", involving a meditative process known as 'The Exercise'[9] and discussion of European philosophers such as Plato and Marsilio Ficino as well as Advaita.[10] Those who continue involvement beyond 2–3 years mainly study Advaita;[11] they are encouraged to take up meditation and to undertake voluntary work to help with the running of the group, and to attend residential programmes.[12] It has a guru, Sri Vasudevananda Saraswati.[7] The SES has a large real estate portfolio including several mansions in Britain and America.[13][14][15][16] According to the British branch's financial statement for 2015, it ended that year with net assets (total reserves) of £22,630,000.[17]

The SES says it has a total of around 2300[3] participants in the UK branch and (as of 2012) a total of around 20,000 in up to 80 branches worldwide.[12][18][19] Operating under various names, there are branches in America, Canada, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Holland, Malta, Spain, Ireland, Hungary, Germany, Israel and Argentina.[2][20] The head of all of these branches is what the SES calls its 'Senior Tutor', MacLaren's successor, Donald Lambie, who is also a lawyer.[3][7][21]

It has also founded the fee-paying, general education St James Independent Schools for children that incorporate SES doctrine.


The Ogden Mansion, owned by the School of Practical Philosophy in New York and put on sale in 2014 for $51 million[22]

The School of Economic Science was founded in 1938 by Andrew MacLaren MP under the name Henry George School of Economics.[19] The school was an "economics study group" that expounded the economic theories of the American economist Henry George.[19][23][24][25] Leon MacLaren "inherited" the school from his father, Andrew, and changed the school's focus to "the study of natural laws governing the relations between men in society."[19] Some references cite Andrew MacLaren as the founder of the School of Economic Science,[26] who was barred from the organisation's meetings after his son Leon took it over a few years later.[19][27]

The organization's founders explored new possibilities for a system that would bring about economic justice against the background of the severe economic depression of the early 1930s. This approach to the study of economics led to the study of philosophy - "the love of wisdom" – in order to gain deeper insights into what they saw as the natural laws governing humanity and the origin of those laws.[citation needed]

Founder Leon MacLaren was influenced by the early-20th-century esotericist George Gurdjieff, praised as a charismatic intellectual who brought greater insight to Western thought, and rebuked as an egomaniacal charlatan who worked followers to exhaustion to break down personality.[28] MacLaren joined a group formed by followers of P.D. Ouspensky, a former student of Gurdjieff, and brought what he learned into SES.[28] MacLaren also studied the book The Realm of Art (1946), introduced its ideas to the SES and invited the author, Peter Goffin, to give lectures.[29][30]

MacLaren incorporated these ideas into courses for the SES.[31] During the late 1950s philosophy became the central subject of teaching and practice. In 1959, MacLaren met the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was in London promoting Transcendental Meditation.[28] MacLaren was taken through the 'initiation' ritual of the practice, and speculated that he had found the source of Gurdjieff's ideas. He went to India to meet the Maharishi's own guru, Shantananda Saraswati,[28] and solidified the central principle of the SES's philosophy as "unity in diversity" by merging the "doctrine of Eastern philosophy and Western wisdom."[19]

A branch of the organization called the School of Practical Philosophy opened in 1964 in New York City.[32] It bought an Upper East Side mansion from millionaire Charles Ogden in 1975, and put it on sale in 2014 for $51 million.[22]

In 1975 the SES founded the St James Independent Schools in London for girls and boys from 4–18 years of age.[33] St Vedast's School for Boys, at Sarum Chase in Hampstead, London, was also founded in the mid 1970s and closed in 1985.[4] The schools were subject to a critical series of articles"[34][35] focusing on the School's discipline regime and its links to the School of Economic Science in the London Evening Standard in the early 1980s. An independent inquiry[4] in 2005 concluded that "mental and physical mistreatment" of some pupils had occurred, including "criminal assaults" by teachers, during the ten-year period (1975 to 1985) considered by the inquiry.[4] Other schools included the Ficino School in Auckland, New Zealand; St James Preparatory School, Johannesburg, South Africa; John Colet School, Sydney, Australia; Erasmus School, Melbourne, Australia; the St James Independent Schools in London; Alcuin school in Leeds (closed in 2009); St James' primary school in Stockport (closed in 2015); and John Scottus School in Dublin.[36] St James Junior Boys merged with the Junior Girls School to form St James Juniors in 2015.[37]

SES also host "Why Values Matter" a joint conference with the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative [38] and are a main sponsor of the Just This Day event, promoting meditation, held annually at St Martin in the Fields.[39]

The SES began a tradition of an annual event called Art in Action[40] beginning in the 1970s which has attracted about 25,000 visitors in recent years.[12] In 1975, as a response to requests from SES parents, MacLaren opened three experimental schools, called St James Independent Schools, for children initially from ages 5 through 10 (and later to 18[33]) and the St. Vedast school for ages 10 through 18.[19] These SES schools were also reported to be the "among the last private schools in England to ban caning" after they discontinued the practice in 1996.[19] The schools were subject to a critical series of articles focusing on the School's discipline regime and its links to the School of Economic Science in the London Evening Standard in the early 1980s.[34][41] An independent inquiry into mistreatment of pupils between 1975 and 1985 at St James' and St Vedast's schools, concluded that "mental and physical mistreatment" of some pupils had occurred, including "criminal assaults" by teachers, during the ten-year period considered by the inquiry.[4] Other schools included the Ficino School in Auckland, New Zealand; St James Preparatory School, Johannesburg, South Africa; John Colet School, Sydney, Australia; Erasmus School, Melbourne, Australia; Alcuin school in Leeds closed in 2009; St James' primary school in Stockport closed in 2015. John Scottus School in Dublin.[36] The London St James Junior Boys merged with the Junior Girls School to form St James Juniors in 2015.[37] St. James Senior Boys school moved from London to Ashford in 2015, the site of the Senior Girls School is in West London.

Leon MacLaren chose to be succeeded upon his death in 1994 by Donald Lambie, a lawyer.[21][7][42] In 1999-2001, frescos were added to the SES's Waterperry property to create "a sacred space" [43] "depicting the teachings of Advaita Vedanta" intended "to last at least 500 years".[44]

In 2005, the SES sold one of its mansions, Sarum Chase in Hampstead, for £9.3 million.[45]

It said in its financial report for the year 2014 that 55,000 people had attended its courses since 1937.[3]

Doctrine and practices[edit]

Doctrine is based on the precepts of Advaita Vedanta as translated, taped and transcribed from interviews in India conducted by MacLaren with Swami Santanand Saraswati (d.1997), a colleague of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.[7] Doctrine is disseminated by SES advanced students who are volunteer teachers, and is maintained by the successors of MacLaren and Swami Santanand Saraswati: Lambie and SES guru Sri Vasudevananda Saraswati, respectively.[7]

Advaita means literally "not two"; vedanta refers to the knowledge underlying the creation. Together these are said to explain the essential unity of everything in creation and the source from which it arises. This teaching also speaks of ‘pure consciousness' as the true essence of every being, and the human possibility of shedding the covers on this essence to allow it to be realized and expressed in its purity. The organisation has been described as providing "mind discipline" for achieving mental quiescence and as cult or new religious movement.[8][9][46]

According to the SES web site, the relationship between the organisation and Advaita Vedanta developed as follows:

The initial founder of the school of Economic Science Mr. Leon MacLaren first met with the then Shankaracharya of the North, Shantananda Saraswati, in 1964 and under his direction developed the school in London. Since then there has been a regular dialogue between the school and Shantananda Saraswati. These conversations have become an essential part of the study of the School and it became obvious that some of the subject matter that conveyed the essence of this philosophy, should be the basis of the works for the hall. The Advaita Vedanta philosophy is a teaching that is traditionally conveyed orally from teacher to student, containing many stories, analogies, examples, principles, etc. It is not possible to show everything, but a selection has been made for the Waterperry project that would illustrate the main tenets of this philosophy.[43]

Students are introduced to meditation after a few terms' study, after which the regular practice of meditation is central to the teachings.[3] There is a simple initiation ceremony as described by one of the organisation's American websites:

In the School, a traditional system of mantra meditation is made available to all students who have taken Philosophy Works followed by the Foundation Courses. Seated comfortably in a balanced and upright position, the activities of the mind and body are brought under observation, and then allowed to fall away as the attention is directed to the sound of the mantra. This results in an experience of quiet stillness. Remaining still and listening to the sound of the mantra is all that is required. The rest unfolds naturally. The introduction to meditation is marked by a simple, dignified ceremony. Students are asked to present traditional offerings of fruit, flowers and a gift of money that is used solely for making meditation available throughout North America. Following the introduction, ongoing assistance is offered in the form of one-on-one tutorials and classroom discussions.[47]

Courses and studies in economics have continued with the emphasis on "Economics with Justice". As well as being inspired by the studies in philosophy, links have been established with several organisations with common aims.[48] A discussion forum fosters open discussion on economics topics.[49] The Economic Monitor[50] is published by the economic faculty and several copies are available on-line.

The introductory philosophy course covers some basic principles, highlighting the main influences that govern human experience. After the introductory course, the various aspects of the subject are examined more deeply and philosophical texts are studied in detail. The material presented is drawn from a variety of sources within the philosophical writings and dialogues, scriptures and other literature of East and West, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Bible, Plato, Marsilio Ficino, Hermes Trismegistus, Shakespeare and Emerson.[51][52]

Renaissance studies by SES have led to the publication of several works, including translations from Latin of many of Marsilio Ficino's letters [53]


Donald Lambie is supported by a nine-member Executive Committee elected by the 230-person governing body of the SES, known as the 'Fellowship'.[12] It has 240 'Ordinary Members' and 41 'Associate Members' in its Fellowship.[3] The principal of SES is Ian Mason, a barrister [54][55] and a global facilitator for the UN Harmony with Nature project.[56]

In the four years to March 2011, the SES reported income of £4.1m to £4.3m, making a profit in the first two years and a loss in the last two.[57] In December 2010, SES placed £4,000,000 with two investment fund managers, one of whom changed his position in the organization from the Investment Committee to the Executive Committee "to avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest," it said.[3]

In 2014 the SES generated a deficit of £1,045,000 on income of £4,156,000, ending the year with reserves of £20.7 million.[3] In 2015 it generated a surplus of £1,399,000 on income of £5,235,000, ending with reserves of £22,630,000.[17]

The British branch of the SES owns residential centres at Waterperry House in Oxfordshire,[58] Nanpantan Hall in Loughborough,[59] Brinscall Hall in Preston,[60] as well as eleven further freehold properties and one long leasehold.[3] These include Mandeville Place in London,[61] Belmont House in Stockport, Park House in Glasgow. Other properties are in London, Leeds, Croydon, Edinburgh, Guildford and Colchester.

School of Practical Philosophy[edit]

The "School of Practical Philosophy" is the American branch of the School of Economic Science.[19][62]

According to the spokesperson for the New York branch, Dr. Monica Vecchio, SES and the School of Practical Philosophy are "the same thing with different names. There are 70 or 80 [branches] around the world. Each share the same course curriculum, with the same content. The principles are the same, the practices are the same, the stream of discussion is the same."[19]

Formally, the organisation began in New York City in 1964 as a not-for-profit corporation chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York, it received tax-exempt status in 1982, has assets of $6 million and now brings in an annual income of $967,163.[63][64][65] It has opened branches in the Hudson Valley; Rochester, New York; Albany, Georgia; Scottsdale, Arizona; South Florida; San Francisco; Boston; and the state of New Jersey.[66] The New York City School of Practical Philosophy has branches in the Hudson Valley and New Jersey. Additional locations in the U.S. include Rochester, New York; Albany, Georgia; Scottsdale, Arizona; South Florida; San Francisco; and Boston. The main branch is located at 12 East 79th Street in Manhattan. There is an additional property in Wallkill, New York, in a mansion once owned by Marion Borden.[66]

Many New Yorkers recognise Philosophy Works and the School of Practical Philosophy due to extensive advertising in the subway.[9][67] Philosophy Works is the 10-week foundation course at the School of Practical Philosophy. The series is offered three times a year: in January, April, and September.[68] For students not living near one of the U.S. locations, the organization offers a distance learning program online.

The actor Hugh Jackman has been attending classes at the school since 1993.[69][70]


Some scholars have characterised the organization as a new religious movement.[8] Notable members include former Liberal Party chairman Roger Pincham,[28] M&C Saatchi chairman Jeremy Sinclair[71] and actor Hugh Jackman.[72]

Reporters Peter Hounam and Andrew Hogg, writing in the London Evening Standard, initially made allegations that the SES "enforced a severe diet, persecuted women and kept its members closed off from the outside world".[19] They also criticized the School of Economic Science's links to the St James Independent Schools for children in London and the discipline regime at the children's schools.[34][41] In 1984, they finished writing Secret Cult, which said that the organization aimed to establish psychological control over its members and had caused personality change, mental breakdown and divorce. They described the network of property owned by the SES and its branches around the world, and identified various senior figures. They also said the SES was "penetrating the corridors of power" with particular links to the Liberal Party, whose then chairman, Roger Pincham, was an SES member.[73] That allegation was replied to by Pincham in a section of the book, and challenged by journalist William Shaw in his 1994 book Spying in Guru Land: Inside Britain's Cults for which his research included attending its course and interviewing former members. He suggested "the more obvious conclusion" that members might be "in the cult simply because they shared the elitist upper-middle-class professional values that the school espoused". Characterising Leon MacLaren as authoritarian, he described a "regime of holy servitude - part Gurdjieffian discipline, part oriental mysticism, part Christian mysticism, part social snobbery".[27]

In 2004, an internet message board was set up to discuss the SES, where former members gave testimonials of "terrible" experiences;[74] many former St. James pupils shared reminiscences about how as children they were mistreated, unreasonably punished and assaulted. In 2005, following complaints from former St James Schools pupils, the Governors of the St James Schools initiated an inquiry, chaired by a British QC, into the allegations. The investigation found that during the 1975 to 1985 time period children had been criminally assaulted while attending the schools.[4][19] This was publicized by Channel 4 News on 15 March 2006 and in national[75] and local newspapers,[76] when the program's social affairs correspondent, Victoria Macdonald, interviewed former St. James pupils and the then headmaster, David Boddy. "Although the headmaster said this was the first time the Governors had heard of the complaints, the schools were actually at the centre of allegations about their punishment regimes in 1983... meetings were held with parents - which David Boddy himself attended," the program said.[77]

In a 2006 interview with Oprah Winfrey, actor Hugh Jackman said he had been a member of the School of Practical Philosophy since 1991. "Now I meditate twice a day for half an hour. In meditation, I can let go of everything. I'm not Hugh Jackman. I'm not a dad. I'm not a husband. I'm just dipping into that powerful source that creates everything," he said.[78]

In 2009, the actress Clara Salaman published a novel, Shame On You.[18][79] Speaking on Radio New Zealand in 2013, Salaman said 75% to 85% of her book is an account of real events. These included teachers marrying former pupils, and mental and physical abuse that lead her to contemplate suicide, a fellow girl attempting suicide and a third successfully carrying out suicide. "Now it's a very different place, I'm always told," she said in the interview.[80]

In Search of Truth: The Story of the School of Economic Science, a history of the School written by a member was published in 2010. It included details of the economic and philosophical thought, and examination of positive and negative aspects of the organisation.[81]

In 2010, Ariel Kiminer of The New York Times reported that passengers on the New York City Subway were familiar with an advertising placard from School of Practical Philosophy which stated: "This poster can make you happier than any other." She recounted how she attended the introductory course, to which 400 people signed up, after which attendance fell off considerably and she started to dread it. She said: "Google the School of Practical Philosophy and you'll find some accusations that it's a cult. If so, it must be an unsuccessful one: no one tried to sign me up for the next course, let alone get me to donate my earthly possessions."[9]

In a 2010 interview with GQ Australia, Hugh Jackman said: "Really, the spiritual pillar for me has become the School of Practical Philosophy. I'm a regular attendee there and I suppose that has become my church." The article went on to say that "accusations that the school is a cult seem difficult to justify. Tutors are unpaid, course fees are modest and it doesn't differ markedly from many such esoteric institutions in the sub-continent. The source material studied — ranging from Shakespeare to the Upanishads to Whitman — can hardly be said to be either fringe or lightweight."[72]

In 2011, M. H. Miller of The New York Observer also reported that the placard was seen by millions of commuters. Based on the testimonies of former members, the reporter alleged the organization had caused divorce and child abuse and that its leadership had ingrained sexism and homophobia. He said that its practices are "obscure bordering on impenetrable" and "follow a hierarchical structure in which students advance to new levels of study with money and time, but are not told the specifics of what awaits them when they do." Miller reported an allegation by a former member that the organization seeks to "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."[19]

In May 2012, the author Laura Wilson said her SES childhood had left "terrible emotional scars" and that in her experience of the organisation "there was zero tolerance of homosexuality, and an underlying feeling that disabled or disadvantaged people had done something to deserve their plight." The article said Wilson's "escape route" from SES was going to university in 1982.[74]

In July 2012, political advertiser Jeremy Sinclair, chairman of M&C Saatchi, told The Drum that outside of work, his other passion is teaching at the SES. "The philosophy that I teach is to be useful, and not just about mind expanding," he said. He added that it has "heavily influenced" his book, Brutal Simplicity of Thought.[82]

In his 2013 book Philosophy for Life: And other dangerous situations Jules Evans said the SES relationship with an Indian guru was key to its development, because the members "were trying to invent a religion." He said the SES is the closest thing today to the "ancients' conception" of a philosophy school, where pupils "completely transform their personalities." He said mainstream philosophers had complained that the SES did not offer an introduction to philosophy in general and therefore undertook "false advertising". He said that some teachers at the SES day schools for children were good, but others had submitted to the organization with absolute obedience and "reacted very badly to any hints of teenage insubordination." Evans proposed that the cause of this could have been that "like Plato's philosophers, they had their eyes so fixed on the Divine that they had no pity for the imperfect beings here on earth". After recounting the "horror stories" of former SES children, he said that they often received no sympathy from their parents, "who were members of the same deeply hierarchical organization". He said that the day schools are today "apparently run a lot better" and that there has been a shift towards the mainstream of society. Evans also argued that some practices haven't been scrutinized: 18-year-old St. James School girls were introduced to older SES members at specially arranged parties, while Principal Ian Mason and SES Leader Donald Lambie have both married former St. James girls. Evans said it is natural for religious groups to encourage in-group marriage, and as Mason admitted: "It's a bit weird." Evans referenced interviews, SES self-published material, Secret Cult and Salaman's novel, and said "there are many lives still damaged" by SES. He concluded: "I personally don't think SES is a 'secret cult'. It has lost its charismatic and authoritarian Leader. Its membership is declining. [...] aspects of the school's history also show how such communities can become dogmatic in their devotion to a charismatic Leader, and how careful one must be in imposing one's philosophy onto one's children."[18]

In a 2014 interview in the Daily Telegraph, actress Emily Watson said she had experienced SES as a child. She described its central teaching of Advaita Vedanta as "a kind of spiritual communism." At its day school, children were treated with "a sort of emotional cruelty that was utterly out of place in a place of education that purports to be based on love and understanding.".[83]

In 2017, Watson also said: "It was just very... ideologically different. I look back and I'm grateful to some parts of it and angry about others. Life is a complicated beast." When asked if it contributed to her interest in child welfare such as her support for the NSPCC, and acting in a film about how British children were forcibly relocated to Australia, she replied: "Well, I'm very wary of big institutional control of young people. It's a real trigger for me."[84]

SES response to criticisms[edit]

In 2011, invited by a reporter to reply to allegations that SES and its branches is a cult, spokeswoman Dr. Vecchio said: "I've known Mr. MacLaren for many years," referring to SES leader Leon MacLaren, 1910-1994. "I met him when I was a very young woman in my 20s. For anybody to call anything Mr. MacLaren started a cult is just ridiculous. I've never met a man who was more a man in the greatest sense of the word than Mr. MacLaren was. I remember visibly meeting Mr. MacLaren for the first time and just being blown away by someone who just had the kind of stature as a human being that he had."[19]

According to the SES's 2013 website its critics "greatly misrepresent the aims and activities of the School, but they have alerted it to the need to provide more information about the way its courses and associated activities progress."[85]

SES representative Ian Mason also responded to criticism in Jules Evans 2013 book. He said: "The idea is not to break down the ego for the sake of it, but rather to put you in touch with yourself, to help you distinguish what's real or not, and to nourish and strengthen the mind. But perhaps there was too unquestioning an attitude to the leader in those earlier years. People took things that MacLaren said and applied them without intelligence."[18]

Of the parties, Mason said: "The balls were a response to requests from young women for opportunities to meet some eligible young men in the SES and were pretty innocent occasions. I should emphasize that there was no coercion involved."[18]


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