Anarchy 103/A school without a head

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A school
without a head


It is essential for any school community to state its purpose continually, and that its members should understand it. Otherwise the adults may imagine that they have assembled for the sake of their own personal relationships, or that they must live under one roof, or subsist in poverty, whereas the essence of a community is shared responsibility, and these other characteristics, though common, are incidental. That a school is run without a head is of far-reaching significance, but dis­cussion of it may throw too great an emphasis on the role of adults in a school.

  The educational aims have remained substantially the same, but that the methods of teaching and administration have varied constitutes our claim to be a genuinely progressive school. Briefly, we have set out to integrate intellectual and emotional development into a single pattern. This article, however, is concerned with administration, and excludes consideration of other aspects of the school.

  For six years the school has been run by the staff as a joint enter­prise. Those of us who took over in 1940 were partly reacting negatively to a regime that had become undesirable. We wished to see that there was no post from which it was difficult to remove a person who had become at variance with the aims of the school. We had seen an abuse of power, suspected that power always would corrupt an individual, and were glad of a chance to debunk any form of officialism.

  To wield power jointly, we thought, would compel co-operation between us, not merely lip service to the ideal of mutual aid. How were we to get people really to understand each other’s point of view,
and themselves to recognise their own limitations by not pressing their opinion on matters over which they were not competent? A person should be respected, we thought, for the value of his opinions, not on account of a position of authority he held. To put a person in such a position over others suggested (1) that by argument alone he would be expected to fail to persuade them to his point of view, and (2) that those under him could not be entrusted with responsibility; whereas under a joint system all would be free, and indeed encouraged, to make their maximum contribution to the welfare of the school.

  Adult co-operation implied a respect for personality which in practical affairs meant equality of status for men and women, teacher, domestic and office worker, and the same salary for all.

  We remembered that Hitler had said “that the strength of a political party does not lie in the individual member possessing the greatest possible degree of intelligence and independence, but rather in the docility with which the members follow intelligent leadership”, whereas Lenin’s view was that “every cook should learn to rule the state”.

  The persuasive discipline we favoured for the children was in absolute contrast to a leadership principle, or government by an elite. Any necessity for a father figure for certain children was quite simply provided for by the existence of men on the staff.

  We tried to take a “clinical” attitude to the behaviour not only of the children, but of ourselves towards the children, and towards each other. We attempted to recognise the emotional and temperamental background of our strongly held convictions, and to treat the behaviour of the children primarily as an expression of their emotional life. This called for patience and tolerance on the part of the staff and a genuine affection for the individual child—though it would be unconvincing to pretend that we always succeeded in maintaining this attitude.

  If it is a mistake to accustom children to the idea of one person holding final authority, it is as much a part of their education that they should be given opportunities for coping with disorder. The perfectly efficient school does not do this. On the other hand they need to be given responsibility appropriate to their age and temperament—for in­stance, if trained in first aid, really to be left to deal with someone who comes in with blood pouring from a gash in his leg.

  The school is owned by a limited company in which a selection of parents, staff and other interested outsiders (e.g. Lady Allen of Hurt­wood, Dr. Herbert Read) are invited to take £1 qualification shares. The members of the company elect annually a minimum of four Direc­tors, from those among themselves who are not members of the staff. When the school started the Directors appointed a headmaster. In 1940 it was agreed that the headmaster was no longer suited to run what had then become a boarding school in the country. At length the Directors accepted an offer from a group of five staff to take joint responsibility for the school, and this group became known as the full members.

  Amongst themselves they always tried by prolonged discussion to reach unanimity of opinion. There was considerable respect for a
minority, and it frequently happened that a majority did not press its point of view. One of the full members was responsible for the accounts, another for arranging the timetable, another for interviewing prospective parents, etc. After a child was entered he or she was allotted a tutor—usually one of the full members—with whom the parent dealt over all matters except financial ones, and whose job it was to correlate the child’s work and take care of his or her general welfare outside the classroom. The idea was that the parents should deal directly with the staff who had most to do with their particular child.

  After two years of working together, by which time two of the original full members had left and several new ones had qualified, the staff functions were defined as follows (December 1942):

  “Full members of the staff shall be jointly responsible to the Directors for the running of the school.

  They shall propose to them the termly budget of income and expenditure. They shall be subject to a term’s notice of leaving. They shall take turns in the chair at the staff meetings. They shall be re-elected each year by an unanimous vote of the full members. In the event of a minority of one opposed to an election, the decision shall be reconsidered at the end of the following term. If there is still a minority the election shall not be made.

  New staff shall be appointed by a majority decision of the full members for a probationary period of a year. In particular cases, if it is thought desirable, the probationary period may be reduced. Proba­tioners shall not vote unless asked to do so by the full members. They shall be subject to half a term’s notice.

  At the end of the probationary period a new staff shall either be admitted to full membership or retained as a specialist. A specialist shall be eligible for re-election as a full member at the end of another year.”

  Later on the following amendments were made:

  “1. That the chair at staff meetings is not taken only by full members.

  2. That full members are automatically invited to take a £1 share in the company, and so to take part in the election of the Directors at the Annual General Meeting.

  3. That although the full members are ultimately responsible, they consult the rest of the staff on all matters before arriving at a decision. (In practice at the staff meeting matters were voted on by all, unless the full members specially asked for a vote of full members only.)

  4. That at staff meetings a full member might ask that any point should be referred to the next full members’ meeting, instead of being decided on the spot.”

  There were no full members’ minutes, for decisions were only made at staff meetings.

  In the autumn of 1943 the School Advisory Council was formed, of which all staff and parents were automatically members. Its function was to advise the Directors on policy, and one reason for its formation was to provide an approach to the Directors for any staff or parent over the heads of the full members.

  Very rarely did the full members give a person notice to leave. They did frequently examine a person’s work, and so present the stan­dards of efficiency required, or aims of the school, that the person concerned would him or herself decide to go. Any decision to give notice by either side would of course be brought up at the staff meeting.

  The obvious benefits from the system of joint responsibility were that the children liked it, and the school showed remarkable vitality—to some people too much. We were described by the Board of Education’s Inspectors in 1943 as “the school with the lid taken off”. Incidentally their comment on the administrative system was that it was “unusual”, but they did not object to it so long as it was “efficient”, and by efficient the Ministry means “carrying out what you intend to do”.

  The writing of the prospectus took the form of a staff competition about every two years. As often, we endeavoured to overhaul the teaching syllabuses, and always found this an exhilarating task.

  That the staff were directly engaged in running and building up the school gave them a devotion to their work which produced such feats as painting a staircase throughout one night, and living for years on a salary equivalent to that of an agricultural labourer. Besides this, difficult decisions taken jointly would tend to be seen through to their conclusion months later, whereas under another system they would be burked if not actually sabotaged.

  The function of such a system of organisation should be to provide smooth internal working, and retention of power by those who work it. Of course we had to be aware that some people might support a system of joint responsibility for the reason that they had so little trust of anyone that they would neither delegate responsibility nor accept the opinion of another whether in a senior position or not.

  In a large organisation there are more opportunities for lack of co-ordination if responsibility is in the hands of a group. Where plan­ning is concerned it is easy enough to make a decision once the proper questions have been asked. Yet where there is not one person in authority there is no guarantee that everyone will look ahead and raise questions.

  The greatest defect, in my opinion, in the internal working of the system as it has been, was that full members were self-appointing. However harmonious were the relationships between them, the group inevitably took on the characteristic of a clique in the eyes of the others.

  Where many share an executive function, those who do not, feel some aspersion cast upon them, which they do not feel in the case of a small executive or an individual one. That there was a large number of full members became undesirable from this point of view. A better plan would have been for the staff either to have elected a small execu­tive, or simply to have appointed certain individuals with absolute responsibility for specific functions—such as housekeeping, building plans, or charge of a particular group of children. In fact all executive responsibilities were departmentalised by individual full members, except tutoring which was given to some non-full members; and appointments and dismissals which were managed rather clumsily by the meeting.

  Another possible defect of the system was the time spent at staff meetings, which were usually held weekly, preceded by a separate one of the full members. The chairman of the meeting was responsible for seeing that decisions of the week were carried out. A great deal depended on the ability of the chairman, and we never succeeded in devising a satisfactory procedure for reducing the number of small points which could be settled privately by those concerned. But, on the other hand, an inestimable benefit was the opportunity the meetings provided to learn how we varied in our personal approach to problems and to the children.

  Although the Directors were legally liable for the school, and the staff as a group responsible to them, in practice when a Director retired the staff were asked to suggest a new one for nomination, and so long as the staff were united they formed a kind of trade union, and could bend the Directors to their will. One vexed question was over salaries which the Directors wanted to raise, but the staff kept down for the sake of low fees.

  Until it was upon us we had not faced the question of the procedure to be adopted in the event of an irreconcilable split between the full members, which might arise out of personal jealousy, or a growing difference of educational aim, or a mixture of the two. The presence of a headmaster does not solve the question, as we had experienced to our cost, and for which reason we had abandoned the office in 1940. Presumably if differences cannot be overcome, after consultation with the parents, one party should leave. In our case the Directors have recently stepped in and changed the system by introducing a Principal with the customary powers.

  We have seen that a joint enterprise depends for its success, more than other systems, upon there being a nucleus of people whose friend­ship and identity of practice, even more than their theory, has been tested by time. Given this, newcomers can be absorbed, and a propor­tion carried who do not fully share the aims. But where there is rapid expansion in total numbers, it is a mistake to imagine that the nucleus, which can only grow with time, has expanded too.

  One lesson to be learned by others interested in our experiment is that it is not sufficient for the staff to co-operate in their work, but that they must also become the legal owners of their enterprise. Mere co-operation is no guarantee against futility, and that people may establish excellent relationships between themselves does not necessarily show that their pursuits are valuable.