Anarchy 103/Run a school next holiday!

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Run a school
next holiday!



The main point of having a school for four days in the Easter holidays was to enable all those people interested in participating in a summer holiday school to get some idea of what are the drawbacks, needs and special efforts in a school of this type. Hotwells School, Bristol, had been chosen for a pilot scheme because, among other things, the head, John Rees, is sympathetic to the aims of a school that destroys the timetable and puts the children above all else. Peter Swann, a Training College lecturer and a prime mover in last year’s Totterdown summer school, was involved in its organisation and also Ken Ross, a final year mature Training College student. I went to see Ken Ross two days before the school was due to begin. I was interested, having decided never to enter teaching again as it stood.

  “There are groups that have got together to decide what they would like to do, otherwise there is very little actual organisation.”

  “How would you actually define your aims in having a school like this? Do you see it as an attempt to show that education needn’t necessarily be conducted as it is at present?”

  A long pause, then—

  “I think what we are trying to do … who does the school belong to, anyway? Not the Education Authority, not the headmaster, not even to the government, but to the community. That’s what we’re attempting to explore: a school that is owned by the community.”


  I think I can best explain the basic principle behind a free school in this way: Most primary schools in Bristol are built with their classrooms around a central hall that is timetabled for use by various classes at different times of the day. Each classroom has one teacher and around 30-40 children. Transit between classrooms is rare, certainly not without permission. A free school, in effect, removes all children from the classrooms into the central hall, each classroom is then filled up with the necessary equipment for a certain
activity (painting, quiet reading and writing, woodwork, the possibilities are endless) and the children are told: you choose. This is where freedom comes in; the child is perfectly free to choose his own activity and, wherever he chooses, there will be skilled and sym­pathetic help if he needs it. Death to the timetable, ordered movement about? Of course, but life to powers of decision, sense of adventure and achievement and self-knowledge.


  The first day was cold, there was no heating and we mostly all wore coats. There was tremendous activity in the painting area, where the tape recorder went full blast and non-stop and most students smoked likewise. Children of all ages just painted and painted. Then there were huge paintings on expanses of paper stuck over the walls and a strange object took shape out of junk, students mostly adding to it as the day wore on. This was a noticeable thing throughout the whole four days, that EVERYONE became involved creatively in activity and were not merely supervisors. Without problems of discipline this is easy and discipline seems strangely unnecessary when children are not bored (truism). The only problem of discipline that I encountered, involved two boys of about 10 who were throwing clay all over the place. My traditional responses were at war with my understanding. They were obviously a bit bored, were feeling the freedom of the place and having fun. I thought of the mess involved in clearing the place up after they had finished, then said: “Stop chucking that about or get out”. Well, they left that particular room, but that hadn’t solved anything; they would merely cause trouble elsewhere. I felt disgruntled with my compromise. But in the after­noon those two were collared and asked if they fancied helping construct a “place” out of wood and cardboard. You bet they would! They not only hammered, organised and constructed but proceeded to decorate and co-operate.   The library was used for quiet games and writing and reading and at first was not used much. Towards the end of the period, there was always a little group there. Children dressed up in the dancing room and were often seen wandering about in their finery, lost in princessly fantasies. In the infants’ hall, in a separate building, the music activities. Often sweet melody from there but, as likely as not, a raucous jangle of instruments as children had a go on all sorts of instruments from chime bars to trombones. In the main hall there were train sets, car sets, billiards and table tennis and there were always children here. A rope was fixed up to enable sliding along it on a loop. This was a great favourite, especially with the younger children. There were nearly always boys playing football in the lower field after the first day when the weather brightened. In fact, the weather was so good that most activity was
outdoor activity and outings to the Downs and Ashton were very popular.

  On the last day everyone set to and painted the playground.

  Children went home to lunch or brought their own. Around 60 helpers were involved, drawn mainly from sixth forms and Teachers Training Colleges in Bristol. Some mothers came to help, others came to look around.

  The average number of children present was about seventy but these numbers fluctuated all the time. The children were mainly between 5 and 11 but some brought their younger brothers and sisters. Older children were there on sufferance of good behaviour. They caused no trouble but some of the sixth formers felt a bit out of depth with them. The children were free to come and go at any time and were not the school’s responsibility, although they were covered for accidents on the premises. A child arriving at school was assumed either to have been sent by the parent or else allowed out to play and the parent didn’t mind where. In both cases the parents had full responsibility. I am not sure if this was adequately communicated to all parents but is very important.

  At the end of each day, all the helpers still in school met together for a brief meeting to discuss outlines of plans for the following day and small things that required attention. But I think the best ways in which thoughts and problems about the school were resolved were (i) in casual discussions that sprang to life in moments throughout the day and (ii) in the midst of daily experiences themselves that gave a clear picture as time went on, of what a school like this was all about. I often wondered if the students thought about a school like this, very much. On the whole, I think it was so obvious to them that the school had value and that was sufficient to them. They are luckily too young as yet to know that despairing insight working as a teacher in our present system can give. They were not, I think, like me, constantly revaluating everything.


  On Wednesday there was an air of gloom about the place. Scratches had been discovered on the boys’ club billiard table and the leader, after having taken a look around the school, reported that a considerable amount of damage had been done. Mr. Rees had been phoned that morning at 8.30 by the Education Authority and asked if he knew about the damage. He envisaged all sorts of terrible things, like walls having been toppled. But on arrival at school found the place no different from how he had left it the previous morning. An official soon arrived, interviewed him and Peter Swann and Ken Ross and then examined the building for damage. He looked very sombre as he toured with tight-lipped Mr. Rees, who was feeling Authority’s lack of trust in him deeply. “Supervise!” seemed to be
the sarcastic key word of command for that day. The point was, surely, that the more a school building is used, the more wear it will sustain. We felt indignant that the children came second to the building itself.

  That afternoon when everyone but a few had gone out, I saw another man from the Education Office, on a friendly visit, although I did not realise it at the time. Always accustomed to being at war with Education officials, I was uneasy with this man’s cordiality but warmed by his insistence on handshaking.

  “What is the Education Office’s attitude to this sort of thing?” I asked him.

  “We look upon it with great interest and if it proves a success, we hope to be able to finance it. There should be money forthcoming from the govern­ment. …”


  What, then, did we discover? It became obvious that children did not need many of the things they were given in many schools—timetables, bells, punishments, incentives, coercion, that they responded to friendship with friendship, that boredom is really an alien thing of childhood, that learning can take place in informal conditions. I think it also became obvious that a lot more organisation would be necessary among the helpers themselves. Although it is important that the children are the prime movers in their own choices, I think it is very important that each room with its special sort of activity be kept alive even if, at the time, few children seem interested in doing anything in it. If a room is allowed to go dead, any child who pops hopefully in will very soon pop out. Every activity should be in as full swing as possible or at least ready for full swing whenever it should be wanted. A central noticeboard would be very useful to co-ordinate plans and announce various activities in the day; a better system for keeping check of all children taken on outings must be devised, and finding some willing team to deal with refreshments is very important. (I dealt with these for some of the time and found it a most frustrating business when I was primarily interested in the children.)

  On the last day the team work was magnificent between everyone involved in clearing up and the school was spick and span but the school had held up the yearly spring-clean. The caretaker had only a few days after Easter in which to complete this. Obviously, in the future, more paid cleaners would become a necessity to aid efficiency and prevent frustrations.

  In the long summer school it would perhaps be valuable to have a person, skilled in dealing with children in a certain activity, into the school occasionally to give voluntary and friendly advice and example to the students during the course of the day. This would be an excellent way for the inexperienced to learn. And discussion
groups and teach-ins that can feed back experience and ideas all the time would become an invaluable part of a school like this that depends so much on spontaneity and experience and not conditioning. Holiday schools depend upon people to run them who do not need to earn incomes. The feeling of unity and purpose when work is done for pleasure is magnificent, but many people simply cannot afford the time. Yet the problem arises that, if the Education Authorities finance these schools, who then would dictate the policy behind them? And as schools like this tend to be running against the general trend in education at present, what sort of friction would money-with-strings create? What room for experiment would remain? Large bureaucratic concerns have a tendency to seek guarantees and eliminate risks. Yet at the core of all life lies risk and a school run on the lines of Hotwells could scarce run without it.

  And, in the long-term view, when schools in general become run like this, it is plain that more highly-specialised teaching areas will become necessary. No one for instance, was interested in exploring mathematics or history at Hotwells and they perhaps would have been silly to do so in such a short time because the children were far too stimulated by gayer, less intense things. But eventually children would settle and intensify their experiences over a whole range of experiences. I think we caught a glimpse of this even in four days.

  In our present education system, which aims to pass degrees of failure on a great many children because only with that sense will you go willingly to work, as a penance, in a menial job, a school of this type cannot be considered as anything other than political. “How I wish I’d worked harder at school,” a 15-year-old school-leaver confided to me this year. The monotony of his job had drowned all memory of the monotony of the school work he had been bidden to do. Of course he had failed; it had never had meaning. So he accepts his “punishment” with a shrug and assigns a special aura of regard to all those teachers who prophesied his failure. And it is this that is such splendid ammunition to the establishment teacher: “I saw Paul today and he said to me … so you’d better all get this homework on the puritan wars done or else you’ll land up like him, serving behind a toy counter. …” There were things in him that needed developing and encouraging, and some self-respect and understanding, surely? Instead he had been taught to be a failure. It is this sense of failure that keeps the system going. Fathers prompt their sons to aim high: don’t bother about being a man, just pass the bleeding exam.

  Perhaps Hotwells is a beginning to a change of all that?


  I took a 9-year-old boy to the school, whose usual school is
highly disciplined and regimented. At the end of four days I asked him if Hotwells had been any different from his own school. “Yes,” he replied, “the playground’s bigger!”


  Did you rent the school building? No. Mr. Rees, the headmaster, is progressive and insistent, and with us all the way. He has had “evening school” run by mums in the school now for 2 years, and mothers run their own nursery school in the holidays. So the scheme for a Free School was not a bolt out of the blue for the Education Authorities, but an extension of activities already happening. The caretaker had to fit in her Easter spring-cleaning around us, and she was not pleased but we joined in with the cleaning considerably. So the Authority did not even have to pay overtime to the cleaning staff, nor hire extra help. (This, however, is something we feel ought to happen in the future.)

  Was it a Training College Project? Certainly not. Training College students were involved, but so also were university students and 5th and 6th formers from school. Peter Swann, the prime mover of Bristol Free Schools, is an art lecturer at training college, but he is certainly not working in an official capacity.

  What was Totterdown 1968? An offshoot from the Free Uni­versity and the sit-in of that summer term. Students fed up with (1) the dreary syllabus-oriented education they were forced into, and (2) their lack of involvement in the community at large, decided to tackle both problems at once by opening a place in a deprived part of Bristol to (1) explore a “free” learning situation, and (2) contact a community by involvement in it. Around 150-200 children came every day although the hall was sparse and badly situated. This wasn’t a school, but a hall donated by the Methodist Church for the summer. (The church members also organised meals for the helpers.) Unfortunately, community involvement didn’t “happen”. The community slumped back into its usual apathy when we left.

  What about future projects? Hotwells is running a Free School for three weeks in the summer. Totterdown is having a Free School again but in a different hall: a disused working-men’s club due for demolition (six weeks). Easton is an old working-class district now slowly being demolished where we are opening a new Free School. Many people live in tall blocks of flats (1,000 children in four blocks) and a major road is destined to go through the middle of them. There are no facilities whatever. We are also running a library scheme in conjunction with the local school in the local library. This will be held in a school which we have wrested from the Authorities for a grand two weeks only! This was achieved by Pam Nicholls who lived in Easton for years and was a pupil at this school. Her diplomacy has won over the caretakers (who remember her) and the
headmaster, and she also has liaison with the Trades Council, which has been a strong voice in Bristol lately. It has issued a pamphlet What is Bristol doing for our children? in which it makes recom­mendations for adventure playgrounds, schools open in holidays, etc. It has examined possible sites for adventure playground areas and embarrassed the Council into agreeing to some of them. (We are using a site behind Easton School for an adventure playground.) The Education Authority is making a grant to each free school of £15 per week this summer. Both Hotwells and Easton have been curtailed in duration simply by Education Authority veto. We wanted to run for five weeks.