Anarchy 43/Progressive experience

From Anarchy
Jump to navigation Jump to search




Our four children, all girls, were educa­ted at Burgess Hill School, where the three eldest stayed until they were ready to leave. The young­est had to change to a more con­ven­tional school when she was thir­teen, because Burgess Hill closed down.

  Their father and I had been educa­ted at Public Schools, where we had both been un­happy. His was worse than mine and his un­hap­pi­ness was more acute. I made a sud­den un­pre­medi­ta­ted at­tempt to run away when I was six­teen but I was seen from afar (we wore red jerseys under our gym-tunics) and brought back by the matron in a taxi.

  When we had chil­dren of our own, we cast about for hap­pier ways of educa­ting them. Through an article by Marie Louise Berneri, we became inter­ested in Wilhelm Reich. Then in A. S. Neill. Look­ing for Neill’s books led us to Free­dom Book­shop. Someone in the book­shop recom­men­ded Burgess Hill School, then in Hampstead, as being co-educa­tional, fairly free and un­ortho­dox. It was also one of the few schools that didn’t mind taking weekly board­ers. Our chil­dren had never wanted to be whole-time board­ers at any school; partly, I think, because I’m a good cook, and we have a small farm with our own cow, so that they had always been used to good food. It would have been dif­fi­cult to get them to school daily because the farm is very iso­la­ted and I can’t drive a car. There was a vil­lage school four miles away, but it was only a prim­ary school and the head­mistress used the strap.

  When we first saw Burgess Hill School, Geoffrey Thorpe was the head­master. He inver­viewed us, or we inter­viewed him—I think it was mutual—sitting on hard chairs in a big bare room heated by a very meagre gas-fire. After­wards we went round the school and found it ugly, untidy, bare and com­fort­less. Only the walls, covered with paint­ings and draw­ings, showed signs of creat­ive activ­ity. At the back there was a sooty looking garden with huge leaf­less trees. But some­where behind this un­pre­ten­tious and for­bid­ding ex­terior, we smelt a whiff of the free­dom and non-con­form­ity which we so wanted to in­cor­por­ate in our childrens’ educa­tion. At any rate, we ar­ranged for our two eldest daugh­ters to start the next term. The school, though ex­tremely poor and without any finan­cial aid from the State, did all it could to help the chil­dren of artists, actors and musi­cians, and for years we paid the
ridi­cu­lously low fee of £30 per child per term.

  When our two eldest daugh­ters started, Burgess Hill was not as com­pletely un­au­thor­it­arian as it became later. There was no school uni­form, smoking and swear­ing were al­lowed, but a few simple rules had to be obeyed. Les­sons were com­pul­sory, though games were not. There were fixed hours for going to bed and get­ting up. If you went out in the even­ing you had to get per­mis­sion and say where you were going and when you would be back. There were rotas for wash­ing up and help­ing to clear away meals.

  The teach­ing was of a very high stand­ard and the teach­ers were more imagin­at­ive and ori­ginal and less neuro­tic than in most State schools. A school meet­ing was held every week at which the chil­dren aired their grievan­ces and settled dis­putes. There were no marks, pun­ish­ments or exam­ina­tions, but if chil­dren wanted to take the State exam­ina­tions before they left, and many did, they could get all the help they needed. The theory was that any lively-minded child could pass an exam­ina­tion if it wanted to, without all the pres­sure, forcing and stuf­fing that most state-educa­ted chil­dren have to put up with. This theory was borne out by our eldest daugh­ter, an aca­demic type, who in­sisted upon taking her General Cer­ti­ficate after five years at Burgess Hill. She went on her own to Hampstead Town Hall and in spite of the fact that she had never taken an exam­ina­tion in her life, passed in five sub­jects, getting nearly 100 per cent in both the French papers and over 80 per cent in both English papers. This is not written in a spirit of pride (I per­son­ally abomin­ate exam­ina­tions and have never cared whether my chil­dren passed any or not) but to refute the charge that schools like Burgess Hill can never get exam­ina­tion suc­cesses.

  It was in Geoffrey Thorpe’s time that the chil­dren were asked to write end of term re­ports on the teach­ers and these were sent to the parents to­gether with the re­ports of the teach­ers on the chil­dren. In spite of some showing-off, the chil­dren were honest and were able to judge their own pro­gress far better, in many ways, than the teach­ers. I still have one of these re­ports headed: Pupil’s Own Report. It reads like this:

ENGLISH  I have nothing to say. Peter thinks I haven’t been work­ing but I think I have.

GEOGRAPHY  I don’t think I take it quite seri­ously enough. I haven’t done enough work on it.

SCIENCE  I like it very much and have worked quite hard. Mary is very help­ful and cheer­ful.

FRENCH  I know a lot of vo­cab­ulary. But I’ll have to do more essays.

ART  I have done some good things in clay and was just “let­ting myself go” over a paint­ing only it was burnt which is rather a waste.

GAMES AND SPORTS  Hockey I like. It would do John Rhodes good to play.

OTHER COMMENTS  School meet­ings are much better with John as Chair­man and me as Se­cret­ary. I like ex­pedi­tions. I would like very much to do cook­ing.

  Of course, there were doubts, regrets and dif­fi­cul­ties. The school, being toler­ant and without racial pre­jud­ice, took in many prob­lem chil­dren who were often a great trial to the more normal pupils. A child
with violent tempers (during which she at­tacked, shook and bit those near­est to her) shared a bed­room with two of our chil­dren who became so ter­ri­fied of her that at one time we told Geoffrey Thorpe that either our chil­dren or the prob­lem would have to leave. The staff were very sym­path­etic but nobody wanted to aban­don the dif­fi­cult child who had already been ex­pelled or re­jec­ted by various State schools, and was un­happy at home. In between tempers, the child was friendly and co-oper­at­ive. The whole thing was dis­cussed at a school meet­ing when all the chil­dren put their points of view and it was finally de­cided to give our chil­dren a body­guard of tough boys who would come to their as­sist­ance at the onset of an at­tack. As far as I re­mem­ber, the tan­trums gradu­ally de­creased. Or per­haps our chil­dren, as they grew older, learnt how to deal with them.

  Another of our troubles was the Press. Pro­gres­sive Schools have a weak­ness to open­ing their doors to “sym­path­etic” jour­nal­ists whose art­icles always turn out to be any­thing but sym­path­etic. The closing down of Burgess Hill was as­sisted by two jour­nal­ists of this kind, who bought a bottle of whisky at a nearby pub and tried to per­suade some of the chil­dren to drink it so that they could take pic­tures of them wal­low­ing in a drunken orgy. As parents, we suf­fered a good deal from seeing lurid pic­tures of our chil­dren used as il­lust­ra­tions to un­truth­ful and sala­cious art­icles in the gutter-press. Rela­tions and friends harassed us with criti­cism. Were our chil­dren turning into savages? Were they learn­ing enough? What would happen when they had to fend for them­selves in the real world?

  Some of these ques­tions we are now in a posi­tion to answer. Two of the chil­dren are self-sup­port­ing. The eldest has held for several years a dif­fi­cult and re­spons­ible job re­quir­ing ex­treme tact and for­bear­ance. If she had shown even the slight­est in­clin­ation towards sa­vagery, she would have been out on her ear at once. The young­est child likes an oc­ca­sional cigar­ette; the other three don’t smoke. They are all ex­cel­lent cooks. Their sexual rela­tion­ships have varied ac­cord­ing to their tem­pera­ments, but so far, un­wanted babies have been avoided. They have a great af­fec­tion for us and we for them. What more could parents ask?

  During the last few years, inter­est and sup­port for schools like Burgess Hill, has been growing less and less. When Geoffrey Thorpe retired and Jimmy East took over the head­master­ship, the numbers were already drop­ping and the L.C.C., which had for years re­garded Burgess Hill as an un­sightly boil upon the re­siden­tial face of Frognall, had con­demned the build­ing because of sup­posed bomb damage. Eventu­ally, the house in Hampstead had to be evacu­ated, and after frantic efforts to raise money to add to the miser­able com­pens­a­tion paid by the L.C.C., the school moved out to High Canons, a dere­lict mansion in Hertford­shire.

  By this time, our two eldest had left and the two young­est were in­stalled. The school had become in some ways more anarch­istic and ex­peri­mental. School meet­ings con­tinued, but car­ried much more weight. The chil­dren did really run school af­fairs. Bed-time and get­ting-up time were left to the child’s dis­cre­tion. You could stay up all
night if you wished: some chil­dren, who came from au­thor­it­arian homes, did, at first. If you got up too late you missed your break­fast. Les­sons were no longer com­puls­ory. At the begin­ning of each term, chil­dren made con­tracts with the teach­ers whose les­sons they wished to at­tend. One child went to no les­sons at all but planted out a big patch of garden where he worked all term, pro­ducing a wonder­ful crop of vege­tables and flowers for his grand­mother, who looked after him. Re­ports were abol­ished. We rather missed them but made do with verbal ones. I think Jimmy East felt that re­ports were in­con­gru­ous when staff and chil­dren lived on such equal terms.

  At High Canons, the staff problem, both dom­estic and aca­demic, became much more acute. No-one who has not actu­ally had chil­dren at a Pro­gres­sive School, can real­ise the awful con­di­tions, due to per­petual short­age of money, which such places have to con­tend with. Not only is the teach­ing of volun­tary pupils more ex­haust­ing than the teach­ing of con­scripts, but the staff and chil­dren have to cope with most of the dom­estic duties as well. Jimmy East was a very com­pet­ent cook, but it wore him out and short­ened his teach­ing periods. One of the things that Burgess Hill can be said to have proved is that chil­dren, what­ever their home en­vir­on­ment, are not natur­ally tidy and clean.

  The move from Hampstead to Hertford­shire might have put new life into Burgess Hill, but, in fact, it killed it. For one thing, a huge finan­cial debt was in­curred, which lay like a dead­weight on staff, parents and even chil­dren. There is no doubt that all those forty-five chil­dren who fol­lowed Burgess Hill from town to country, cared enorm­ously about the school. You had only to see the ef­forts they made when they heard that the School In­spect­ors were coming, the start­lingly beau­ti­ful mural that two of them painted along one wall of the vast dining-room, the pride they took in show­ing visit­ors round, to realise how they felt.

  It was the adults who bickered, vacil­lated, were un­reli­able and failed to clar­ify, let alone live up to their ideals.

  Even so, behind all the ambi­gu­ities and ex­cuses, a real spirit of toler­ance and free­dom, unique in many of its ex­pres­sions, existed in Burgess Hill to the end. An imagin­at­ive Ministry of Education might have thought it worth­while to pre­serve such a place, if only as a study for an­throp­olo­gists.