Saturday, 18 April 2015

Dartington Hall School and thinking outside the Educational Box


“Anonymous” recently left a comment on my post "Escaping from the Box – The Dartington Experience" which has made me think what my stay at Dartington taught me.  “A” (for short) wrote:
This is an interesting account of the 'different' experiences of one British school child the 50's. Although Dartington must have provided a fantastic escape for many such as yourself, as with all schools, and particularly those of the 'progressive variety', I think you will also find many detractors, and knowing human beings, as I now do, after 57 years of life, I am certain that not all forms of 'bullying' would have been non-existent at any time in the school's life. What interests me most is what happened at, and to Dartington School in its final few years, which I believe probably indicates the experiment should never have been started in the first place?

I find this an interesting post as it says far more about the failings of the poster’s education than it does about Dartington. “A” comments that “I think you will find many detractors” as if that would come as a surprise to me that he, and others, might be critical of how the school was run. It is a fact of life that all new ideas attract criticism, whether it relates to education, art, or other aspects of society – even including such things as Microsoft introducing a new version of Windows software. This knee-jerk reaction to views which depart from the establishment norm is nothing new as Galileo found out when he suggested the Earth went round the Sun.
Of course all new ideas are not good ideas, but the world is changing and Society needs people who can think outside the box. There is no future if everyone takes a stick-in-the-mud approach based on the idea that what was good enough in the past is automatically the best way forward. Going to Dartington at the age of 13 was a cultural shock – as I suddenly realised that much of what people do is to unthinkingly follow the current fashion – as if humans were little more intelligent than sheep. Looking back I am reminded of Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes.” Of course, in many cases the fashion might well be the rational thing to do, but some fashions are only justifiable if you want to end up lost in a crowd of “Little boxes that all look the same.”
My posting said a lot about the school but “A” chooses to highlight one brief statement where I said there was no bullying. Now of course I was writing a personal account of my experiences and as I had been badly bullied before I went to Dartington I know that when I was there I was not bullied. I had not been bullied when I was at Knowles Hill School either. In both cases I am sure a major factor was the personality of the head teacher and the way they managed the school. The overall theme of both schools was toleration and respect for people who were, in some way, different to you. It started with the teachers – who were all normally addressed informally by the first names or friendly nick-names. In four years there was only one teacher I ever heard referred to by an unfriendly nickname. Teachers were respected because they were fellow human beings who wanted to help you to learn, and who were motivated to teach well because if they taught badly none of the pupils would attend their classes! I wonder if “A” was educated in a poorly run school where all the teachers were called disrespectful names behind their backs – and who taught as if the only thing that mattered was the next pay check. The Grammar School I attended for a couple of years was rather like that.
There was similar tolerance between the pupils – and I particularly remember one who showed symptoms of being severely bullied before he came. On arrival he decided he would prefer to work on the school farm and on the first few occasions he would arrive in the dining room smelling like a pig sty. In a conventional school, such as the prep and grammar schools I attended, he would have been bullied unmercifully. He would have quickly found himself in the headmaster’s room for a caning – basically ceremonial bullying by the establishment – which was still fashionable in many schools at the time. At Dartington he found people were reluctant to sit next to him at the table and, undoubtedly with a few helping words from a house mother, he soon realised how the problem could be solved.
Of course in any society there will be incidents – that’s a part of life – but these only escalate into bullying when there are deliberate attempts to repeatedly humiliate a victim, and even when I was there I am sure there were some cases of an over-enthusiastic teenage boy distressing one of the girls, but that is pretty normal anywhere. However there is only one incident, in four years, where I may have witnessed something akin to conventional bullying. In my final year I was hurrying from a class to the dining room and there was quite a lot of shouting in one of the cloakrooms. It was only when I got to the dining room that I realised why two of the younger boys had been sitting on top of the laundry basket - someone else was inside. I still regret that I did not intervene and explain why such behaviour was not acceptable.
I have no detailed knowledge of bullying at Dartington after I left in 1956 – but I am sure that with the school getting bigger, and with changes of head teacher, there were increased levels of bullying. Any school, with Bill Curry as headmaster, would have had an exceptionally low level of bullying.
And so for “A”’s punch line “What interests me most is what happened at, and to Dartington School in its final few years, which I believe probably indicates the experiment should never have been started in the first place?
As I understand it the school got bigger and found it had to pay attention to external factors such as the National Curriculum. Different head teachers will have introduced different policies and many may not have been as radical as those of Bill Curry. In addition society changed and all schools, and not just Dartington had to face up with the drug problem. While in many ways it retained unique features it started to become more conventional. At the same time ideas from schools such as Dartington infiltrated the state schooling system with co-education rather than single sexed schools and later all-ability comprehensive schools. There is no doubt that Darting was far more than the failed experiment “A” thinks it was. Progressive schools like it together helps to shape the state educational system in the latter part of the 20th century.
 Of course there were incidents at the school involving pupils – but I suspect that the “A” has a poor understanding of statistics and if challenged would find it difficult to find a school where there had not been an unfortunate death or problems with drugs. All schools have ups and downs and all small schools can run into financial difficulties after bad publicity. The Trustees decided that a change of direction was needed and made a radical and unconventional choice in appointing a head master with as I understand it, little relevant experience.
There can be no doubt that they made a bad decision, but one bad decision made many years after a project of any kind started is not sufficient to invalidate the decision to start the project in the first place. Using the same faulty logic I could argue, for example, that because Maggie Thatcher’s Poll tax was a mistake the Tory Party should never have been created. However, unlike the badly educated writer “A”, I went to a school where I got a good education. He would appear to be so ashamed of his failure to be taught how to post logically valid arguments that he decide to withhold his name, as revealing his name might embarrass the school which clearly failed to educate him properly.

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