50 years young
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Article taken from Radical Scotland, No 47, Oct/Nov '90
(Kindly donated by Robert F. Macmillan, Fife)
50 Years Young
The story of a free school

Kilquhanity School near Castle Douglas - the 'free school' modelled on A.S. Neill's Summerhill, and unique in Scotland - is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Its founder, moving spirit, and heidie for the entire period - John Aitkenhead - is also celebrating his 80th birthday. Alan Lawson went to Galloway to visit the school during its recent 'celebrations week', met pupils and teachers past and present, and spoke to the man himself...

Within five minutes of arriving at the school, conversation is engaged with John Aitkenhead, dressed in his normal gear of shirt, kilt, and sandals: he is enthusiastically telling a group in the Bar (The Akin' Heid - a special facility for the week, not a normal fixture) that he has just discovered that Chomsky attended a free school up until the age of 12, something that greatly influenced his future attitudes and thinking. It's an appropriate opening.

Unlike A.S. Neill, John Aitkenhead had an enjoyable time during his own schooling, attending "a happy wee primary school in Renfrewshire" until the age of 10. His father's work as a ship's carpenter then took the family to Ardrossan, where he was quickly bemused in his new school by some mumbo-jumbo called 'analysis and parsing'; he was also introduced to the concept of pupils being belted. But the winning of a bursary competition took the young Aitkenhead (the eldest of 6 children) to Ardrossan Academy, which he found a generally pleasing experience from the age of 12 to 18. "There were a lot of singing classes, and also woodwork, for which I won a prize. This pleased my father, of course, although he was abroad working, due to the depression in the yards here at the time." Another valuable experience of those early days was working on a farm during the summer holidays, developing his dairying skills which were to prove useful later.

His initial desire was to become a PE teacher - partially motivated by visiting the Carnegie College in Dunfermline, but when a good crop of Highers results were achieved, he decided at short notice to go to Glasgow University where he completed a degree in English literature. There followed a year at Jordanhill teacher training college, but emerging from there he discovered that "teachers were ten a penny" and unemployment was everywhere. So it was back to the University to do a second degree - an M. Ed. in education - which took him into the classes of William Boyd, whose ideas were an important influence. Boyd also organised mutual aid associations in Clydebank, in which he involved his students. "Unemployment there was 80% at the time; No. 534 was under tarpaulins in the yard, and every shop in Dumbarton Road was closed up."

But gradually he got supply teaching jobs in various schools, primary and secondary, in Glasgow and elsewhere. But the educational talk then was all about the work of A.S. Neill, who had started Summerhill free school in suffolk in 1924 and whose book Is Scotland Educated? came out in 1936. Aitkenhead was fascinated by Neill's ideas of a school where there was no punishment, no hierarchy, and where the children ran the school and decided what (and when) to learn. He went to visit Summerhill in 1937 and asked to visit again the following year. "Neill's letters were telegraphic: he wrote 'by all means come, but there's no job!'. But the first thing I saw there was a boy building a dinghy, and I thought that was a good sign." Neill believed that 'Scotland was too benighted to support a free school', but Aitkenhead was desperate to try it. With the war starting, many people were feeling that if education was to prevent wars in future, then there would have to be schools based on non-violence. Being a committed pacifist, John Aitkenhead knew he wouldn't be able to stay on in the state sector anyway. He took a chance, cashed in his meagre superannuation, and put an advert in the papers, stating that he intended to start a school in Scotland run on A.S. Neill lines, and appealing for capital, pupils and teachers. "I got no offers of capital, very few pupils, but the Post Office had to make a special delivery to my house with all the letters from teachers who wanted to be involved in this kind of experiment! I could have staffed ten schools!"

After looking at many buildings in west and south-west Scotland, he got the chance to rent Kilquhanity for 4-5years, and took it. "I was never a planner or businessman, I just did things by hunch . . . and then we got lots of kids for the school. The initial staff were pacifists, and they got no cash earnings, just their keep. So they were all equally paid, and that's the way it still is today, even for the heidie!" After the first 5 years, money (and debt) was found to buy the school.

At the end of the war three-quarters of the pupils left. Although the staff had thought that parents had sent their kids because of the special type of schooling, in reality they were sent as evacuees. "Yes, there's an irony, of course, that it was the war that let the school get established. Whilst the war ruined the plans of hundreds of thousands, it projected mine forward."

But the school survived the post-war dip, and attracted pupils for sounder reasons - varying at different times from 35 up to a maximum of 50, from age 5 to 18, boys and girls, mostly boarding. The pupils: staff ratio was about 7:1, enabling class and domestic care to be based on almost family-sized groups.

The main characteristics of the school were that it had no authoritarianism, no militarism, no religion, no prefects or hierarchy, and no corporal punishment. (More recently Aitkenhead has been involved in the STOPP campaign.) Pupils were treated as equals, and all took part in a weekly meeting of the School Council (a Summerhill importation) to decide how the place should be run, to resolve disputes and difficulties, to appoint committees to organise special events, and to share out the chores. Educationally, there were to be no exams. Instead there was particular stress on the creative arts - painting, music, theatre, woodwork and crafts - "aspects present in less sophisticated societies which we were in danger of missing out on", according to Aitkenhead, "not unnecessary frills, but the very stuff of education". Outdoor pursuits were also stressed - both within the 7 acres of the school's small grounds and outside in wider Galloway. (Some of these activities are competitive, but handicaps are used to narrow differences in ability.) And there was a small farm, with the children being encouraged to get involved in handling the animals and helping to make the school as self-sufficient in food as possible. "In spring and autumn we were peasants again, doing something in real time and tune with the great rhythm of the seasons - and our farm is fun."

By the early 60's, Aitkenhead felt able to claim some success. He wrote "Our aim is to create a spirit of freedom, breeding an air of relaxation and ease. People are equals, respecting each other's rights; and a general lack of fear characterises behaviour and communication."

Experience and Change
It would appear that there has been little change in either the philosophy or the practice of the school over the half century of its existence, and Aitkenhead accepts that this is broadly so. The school's belief has continued to be that "the aim of education is to nourish the human spirit . . . educare: to nourish". And the words of a Russian poet, Samuel Marshak, whom Aitkenhead had met in Moscow on one occasion provided a fair guide: "children and adults are only different sized waves on the same ocean".

There have been some changes, though. There are now four classes per working day - two on fixed subjects and two for which the children choose their preference - but they are expected to attend these. Aitkenhead felt that Neill's experiment of making all attendance voluntary was neither practical nor totally desirable, as children might miss out on so much. Also, since 1962 pupils have been presented for SCE exams, if they wish - a number of parents do want this facility. (The advent of the three-level Standard Grade is viewed with dismay . . . not because Kilquhanity opposes the ideas but because of the additional hassle in preparation work. There are "no plans to present for Standard Grade . . . only O-grades and Highers".) The current school 'prospectus' - a one sided typed sheet of yellow foolscap - states that "pupils have been successfully presented in English, French, German, Maths, Science, Modern Studies, Art and Woodwork". But this does mean that the school has compromised - not offering a full exam syllabus like other schools, yet finding that kids preparing for exams have no timetable space for the free-choice subjects or other routine-breaking activities.

Another, change instigated by Aitkenhead with regret, is an under-16 smoking ban. He had hoped ("naively", he later wrote) that if you allowed young children to smoke they would get fed up with it, because it was just an anti-authority phase. Instead, he found that they became regular smokers, influenced by others, and of course started to become addicted. There is also a ban on alcohol (the subject which came nearest to ever causing an expulsion from the school). The 'official' attitude to swearing hasn't changed - it's not encouraged but it's not prohibited; the matter features from time to time in School Council discussions, and also in the Broadsheet - a simple Gestetner- produced journal which has been brought out by the pupils every fortnight for the past 25 years or so (with a little official guidance). Sexual relationships do occur occasionally between older pupils (not surprisingly in a co-ed boarding school), but the line has always been one of non-intervention.

The ratio of boarders to day-pupils has declined in recent years, but in any case Aitkenhead admits to something of a regret that Kilquhanity is a boarding school. "Scotland has never been a country of boarding schools, but boarding was forced upon us. We were continuing Neill's experiment, and my aim was to prove that nothing like the long hours sitting at desks was necessary for children to be educated.. "This I think we have proved (he wrote in 1986): with less than half the time usually spent on formal lessons our pupils manage the same standards on the whole, and our exam results are good. But I doubt if at any one point in Scotland I could have established a day-school with sufficient support." On the other hands, boarding allows the pupils to imbibe the whole alternative way of living which the school tried to provide, which 9 to 4 attendance would miss. And the long holidays (16 weeks in all) mean that children who board still spend plenty of time with their parents. ("Too much", said one parent wryly.)

The number of girls has increased, recently reaching parity with boys for the first time; and there are now more younger children than there were in the early years.

Modern teaching aids like computers have appeared, but TV-watching is only "by arrangement" - for educational programmes, plays and (this year) the World Cup!

Despite reasonable exam results, quite a few pupils felt they had to leave at 15 or 16 if they really wanted to stretch themselves academically, especially as their peer-group was so small in Kilquhanity. Aitkenhead admits freely that "we've never sent anyone directly to university . . . they've always gone to other institutions first". Kilquhanity's greatest strengths, he feels, lie in taking children up to the 14/15 stage - "and they're developing so fast physically at that age these days that the additional strain of exams is undesirable". But academic limitations were about the only criticism of the school heard from the celebrating 'FPs', most of whom had warm memories of their time there. Many felt that the school had 'saved' them from other schools where they had had major learning or behavioural problems. Kilquhanity seems to have a strong record in helping dyslexic kids, enabling several to achieve high standards in catering, music, acting and even architecture. Other former pupils who had come from situations of domestic breakdown felt that Kilquhanity had provided an important sense of self-worth and stability at a difficult time.

Kilquhanity has been inspected regularly by HMI and appears to satisfy their requirements, but contact with 'official' education has not been great. From about 1965 to 1975 Kilquhanity did receive kids with difficulties from the state sector, together with fees for same, but after local government reorganisation Strathclyde Region (from whose counties most had come) decided to no longer make use of Kilquhanity. Ironically, the school now benefits from the present Government's Assisted Places Scheme, whereby children over 10 can get their fees paid as day-pupils . . . "even though it was meant to support the posh selective schools of the old Tory regime", says Aitkenhead.

Despite this, financial problems are never far away, and Aitkenhead regrets having to ask for 3000 a year for boarders, and half that for day pupils. He has always been prepared to make adjustments, though, with parents to some extent paying according to their means . . . "a socialist distribution of fees" he jokes. There is considerable interest in the school from Japan these days from families trying to escape the exam-obsession of current education there. They can afford the top rates, but Aitkenhead is reluctant to take more than a few at any time; although the school has always had an international element, with pupils (and staff) from Australia, Denmark, the US and elsewhere, he doesn't want to upset the balance.

The school is currently launching an appeal for funds, and one of Aitkenhead's priorities is to have enough cash to attract and retain good quality staff . . . which would involve providing more suitable accommodation for them. (The meagreness of payments to staff, particularly the somewhat arbitrary payments to day staff and part-timers, has caused some resentment.) He accepts that financial constraints have meant "a pretty amateurish approach" at times, with genuine worries about 'squaring the books' being a regular feature throughout the years.

Kilquhanity's role now
In 1968, in a rare occurrence of outside interest in the school, the BBC made a film about it (subsequently shown widely in this country and in the USA). In it, Aitkenhead said that he would like to see "a free school in every county, and a parliament in Edinburgh". Yet Kilquhanity remains unique in the whole of Scotland, such experiments having been little used by local education authorities. Now, of course, by the very token that the rest of the educational world has adopted many of Kilquhanity's features, Kilquhanity is less 'alternative' than it was at the outset - or even 20 years ago. Such features as 'pupil centred learning', increased emphasis on the arts and on outdoor activities, the phasing out of corporal punishment, the reduction of deference to authority and rote-learning, the advance of co-education and the teaching of cooking to boys and woodwork to girls . . . these have all increased in state schools in recent years. Whether Kilquhanity can claim any credit is a moot point. Although teachers have spread the influence by moving on to other schools, John Aitkenhead has not been much of a proselytiser on behalf of his experiment. He is quickly able to produce from his desk his entire writings on the subject - one chapter of a book in 1962, and an article for the magazine Resurgence in 1986. Pressed on this, he feels that partly he has just been "too close to the trees to see the wood", but also wonders "how A.S. Neill managed to win the time" for all his writing (about 20 books). "And R.F. Mackenzie" (the late, controversial headmaster of Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen, author of State School and The Unbowed Head, and a good friend of Aitkenhead's) "finished at 4 o'clock each day of course". Financial concerns and farming tasks just don't seem to have left enough time for much writing.

Even A.S. Neill though, despite his prolific writing, didn't expect his experiment to have widespread influence. In his book Summerhill (1962), he wrote:

    I do not think that the world will use the Summerhill method of education for a very long time - if it ever uses it. Only an empty windbag would assume that his work is the last word on the subject, and the world may find a better way. The world must find a better way. For politics will not save humanity. It never has done so. Most political newspapers are bristling with hate, hate all the time. Too many are socialistic because they hate the rich instead of loving the poor.

So, what role is there for Kilquhanity (or any school like it) in the 1990's? Does it provide any lessons for other schools or for education generally, or are its successes so greatly aided by the very low pupils:staff ratio that no conclusions can be drawn? One pair of 'past parents' felt that the school still offers three important advantages: having the staff and pupils on first name terms; the amount of choice which the children have as regards subjects taken; and the experience of the democracy of the School Council (even though some topics are 'off-limits' and decided by the adults - e.g.., smoking policy). "The Council process underlines the principle that every child will be valued and will be listened to", said one parent. And one of the Council's successes - discussing and dealing with the problem of bullying - is a model about to be supported by government backed research.

Aitkenhead does believe that the State should fund experimental schools, and points to the Danish example, where it is possible for a group of parents to start a school and to receive government finance to pay the going rate for teachers. These 'small' schools can adopt any educational philosophy they like, provided that they are satisfactorily inspected from time to time in the normal way. The present situation is the result of 150 years of 'Folk High Schools', and Aitkenhead stresses that Denmark has more adult residential colleges than any other country. (Libertarianism can take any path, of course; Michael Forsyth often cited the Danish example when arguing for schools to be allowed to opt out of local authority control.) Aitkenhead likes to attribute Danish inventiveness and their design abilities to this style of schooling, and draws parallels between Denmark and Scotland in terms of population size and future potential. (Another Danish custom which he very much approves of is the fortnight each year when the townies go off to live and work on a farm - a kind of mass tattie-howkin or berry-pickin - with families going to the same farm for generations..)

Aitkenhead has always been a Scottish nationalist, and still chairs the small local branch of the SNP. Yet there is another irony here, in that the great majority of the pupils and the staff are English. The 'extended Aitkenhead family' (all 4 of his children went through the school, 3 of whom still live locally and help out from time to time, and there are now 4 grand children on the roll) have made for a strong Scottish presence, observing Scottish customs, festivals and dress. But if the family disappeared from the scene then the school would most likely become an English educational experiment which just happened to take place in Scotland - especially as many of the new day-pupils are the children of recently arrived incomers from the South. Aitkenhead admits that there is no guarantee that this wouldn't happen, despite the present upsurge in cultural and political awareness in Scotland. The problem is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that history and literature do not feature prominently on the Kilquhanity curriculum, thereby missing some of the clearest aspects of national identity. Aitkenhead does say that he is getting more applications from Scottish teachers these days, but without some official connection to the Scottish education system, the school would appear likely to become in the medium-term an 'unScottish' institution.

The question of 'the succession' was the unspoken agenda at the school's birthday celebrations. Aitkenhead admits that the and his wife could never leave the place - it is after all their home as well as their life's work - but he would welcome handing over some of the administrative hassles, enabling him to enjoy the teaching and other aspects of the school. "I enjoy the conviviality of the school - after all, it's something that's in short supply these days, isn't it? There's too much stress, too much pursuit of wealth." He also want more time for his own bit of garden, a sizeable patch devoted mainly to vegetables. "I was given a greenhouse for my 70th birthday, and a garden seat for my 80th!" He might even continue his Gaelic studies, something he took up in his mid-60's (having had 2 Gaelic-speaking grandparents, and becoming more aware of the past oppression of the language). He passed O-grade at the age of 69, and still describes the wonders of Dwelly's dictionary with the enthusiasm of an exploring teenager. In fact, his whole being and behaviour is youthful rather than aged . . . although he no longer climbs the 100-feet tree in the grounds to put up the Saltire the way he once did. A few years ago he wrote that "the school has been in practice a continuing education for the adults in it", and it's probably this that has helped to keep John and Morag Aitkenhead youthful in old age. He feels, too, that he has been lucky. Contemplating with dismay the numbers currently leaving the teaching profession through pressure and stress, he says "Education is wider than schooling or training or teaching; and it's not every teacher who gets the chance to be an educationist, as I have."

Given the atmosphere of the school and the evident satisfaction of so many of its participants, one has to hope that this fascinating experiment will continue and develop. Even though any link is difficult to define, Aitkenhead feels that the state sector "would be worse off if there were no Kilquhanity". But whether the school's special character could be preserved without the Aitkenhead's is difficult to decide: after all, there aren't many who, when asked to give their definition of education, would reply with Herbert Read's quotation, "Education is the generation of happiness."


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