Thursday, 8 September 2011

Escaping from the Box – The Dartington Experience

Some reflection following the Dartington Hall School reunion, 2nd-4th September, 2011

Dartington Hall School was one of the most progressive schools anywhere in England and between 1952 and 1956 I found myself way outside the conventional educational “box” as a pupil there. At the reunion a few days ago there was much discussion about old times and also the effect that going to such an unusual school had on one's career. I was one of the pupils that Bill Curry (the headmaster at the time) rescued from the evils of conventional education In discussions I said I would write something of my experiences - and I am doing so here because the observations are very relevant to the way we all become trapped by the mental, physical and social boxes we grow up in.

Why I Went to Dartington

If you had come into my father's newsagent and tobacconist shop in the school holidays around 1950 you would have often found a 12 year old grammar school boy (me!) helping to serve. You might well have though how polite and attentive I was to customer needs and quite obviously not a problem.

If you asked to see my school reports you might well be surprised to see that I had already been to six different schools but at first sight (one term is incomplete) I was clearly making excellent academic progress. But wait – The Knowles Hill School report for the summer of 1949 is different to the reports from other schools which had constrained themselves to painting a favourable story about the work of the school. This different report includes a section headed “Temperamental Qualities” - a subject all the other reports ignore:

Has worked better in a group though still self-centred, and is becoming more sure of himself. Is not a good judge of his own work, but has been more persevering. Highly strung temperament leads him into difficulties. Is friendly and helpful.

So what was going wrong. The big problem had been bullying – which had been a significant feature of my school days for the previous four years. This was possibly aggravated by several changes in school (for perfectly innocent reasons) and some bullying before the age of seven. Basically I lacked confidence in myself, was easily provoked, and had never developed the ability to make close friends. This came to a head in late 1948 when I failed to catch the train home from school because I was terrified of yet more bullying in the railway carriage. Within days I had moved to Knowles Hill School where teachers were interested in children as children and who would talk honestly with my parents about my problems.

Unfortunately Knowles Hill was only a junior school and once I had moved on to Newton Abbot Grammar School the bullying started up again. My parents learned that there were grants available to relocate suitable “cases” to boarding schools, and after discussions I visited a number of schools. My parents and I settled for Dartington, which is why a 14 year old boy, labelled “damaged by the educational system” arrived at Foxhole in April 1952.

Dartington was way outside the box!

I suspect that most young boys, when they first arrive at a boarding school, are going to feel lonely, living apart from their family for the first time. I was no exception but I soon settled down in the friendly atmosphere. I took it for granted that I had my own small room, with a table and chair, and cupboards with a built in wash basin as I was unaware that nearly all boarding schools still had dormitories.

Having girls around was not a surprise either as shortly before I left the Grammar School it had done away with segregated classes although it still has sexually segregated playgrounds. To be rather more honest having girls around wasn't a surprise until I decided to have a swim – when the school's freedom from the kind of formal rules I was used to really struck home. There were two rules relating to the pool, both of which related to safety. You could only swim when there was a responsible person (usually and older pupil) around and swimming immediately for an hour and a half after meals was also banned. That was it. There were no other rules. As a 14 year old boy who had never seen a naked female before I found myself swimming naked in a crowd of similarly undressed teen-aged girls. I soon discovered that there were good practical reasons for swimming naked . If you didn't have a costume you didn't have a wet costume to deal with after your swim – and you could dry yourself far easier if you were not trying to be modest at the same time.

Having been brought up to think nudity was something naughty I soon discarded that mental box and, like many fellow pupils wondered what all the fuss was about. I remember one day sitting naked on the side of the pool with many others of both sexes watching with amusement at the antics of the farm worker who was cutting hay in the adjacent part of the field where the pool was. The tractor zoomed round three sides of the field at maximum speed and then switched to snail's pace as it passed the pool. I thought the poor chap mind had become twisted by the ridiculous rules of society that meant he thought that being able to seeing naked bodies was something exciting. Once I got used to the situation the only thing I found sexually titillating at the pool were the girls who wore costumes – after all – what was so special about them that they wanted to hide it! To those who have never been in such a situation it may seem strange that I found watching a girl who was trying to change under a towel more exciting than watching the fully frontally nude girl drying off next to her.

This lack of rules had other effects on what the pupils did. At the grammar school I had previously attended I am sure that some of the boys had a quick drag behind the bicycle shed to show off how great they were before their friends. At Foxhole there was no rule about smoking – so there was no point in wasting your limited pocket money on cigarettes. I can only remember two cases where I saw fellow pupils smoking in the four years I was there. On one occasion two girls came into the Common Room and were met with a barrage of laughter. The other involved the French teacher who smoked foul-smelling Gaulois cigarettes. The class objected – and he responded that there was no rule about it and we could all smoke in class. At the next lesson we all turned up with something to “smoke” - in my case some brown string wrapped in paper. The smell when the teacher entered the room for the lesson was dreadful – and he never smoked in class again.

There was some gambling. Poker was quite popular in the group I went round with but I preferred solo whist. Because pocket money was regulated this limited gambling to a low level with mainly ½d and 1d bets. I suspect for most people a little gentle gambling was a useful education and I am sure that most came away with the idea that while having a small flutter added to the fun of playing cards serious attempts to make money were a fool's game. The toy plastic roulette wheel led to an interesting debate at the school Moot. The argument went both ways until Bill (the headmaster) quietly pointed out that at the time roulette was illegal for anyone in the UK and it would not do the school reputation any good if it ever got out that we had a roulette wheel. His gentle way of highlighting the problem was accepted and the Moot voted for the game to be banned.

The rules about attending lessons did not worry me. At all my previous schools there were time tables with boxes filled in to control your day. There were no options (apart from playing truant) but to attend lessons, however incompetent the teacher or uninspiring the subject. At Dartington I was free to go to lessons as I wanted and instead I could go to the art room, or the workshop, or the school farm, or the music rooms, or the shop, or take a swim, or just a stroll through the countryside. In practice I was so “boxed in” by my previous experiences that I cannot remember every having taken advantage of this freedom to deliberately miss a lesson. However there was no doubt that I benefited by this lack of a rule. Any teacher which failed to inspire would soon have found his classroom was empty – and hence lessons tended to be far more friendly, and interestingly presented, than those I had previously experienced. In fact I was so constrained by my “box” that I did not rebel in the opposite direction when I was told I could only do an agreed number of subjects for my O and A level exams. In retrospect I am sure my exam results would not have suffered if I had continued to attend the History classes taught by Ted, the Geography classes taught by Frederico, and later the Biology classes taught by Margarita.

Another difference I found, to which I quickly adjusted, was the friendly way pupils interacted with the staff. Before Dartington each of my teachers had an official name “Mr This” or “Miss That” and in addition a dis-respectable name which pupils used among themselves. At Dartington the Headmaster, Mr William Curry, was “Bill” to everyone. The Latin teacher, Mr Rosenberg, was always “Rosie.” Staff were simply members of a unified community where everyone treated everyone else with respect. Children simply accepted that the older people in the school had more knowledge and life experiences which they could use to help the younger – but even the staff might not always be right.

Sport was a different situation. I suffered somewhat with “childhood bronchitis” which would now have been diagnosed as asthma. By the time I left the Grammar School I had learnt to hate cricket and football. All sport at Dartington was optional – So did I opt out? No. In the summer I spent much time in the swimming pool – or played “Nobby Rounders” on the sports field. Over the winter terms I joined in playing hockey and because I couldn't run fast I ended up as keeper in the boys team. Participating in sport proved to be fun – because in the non-competitive atmosphere of the school it was seen as fun and not because it was something where you were a failure unless you won. Because sport was not been put  in a “must do” box I enjoyed it!

I cannot fail to mention the strengths of the Dartington tradition in the arts and music, By the time I had entered the school I was already aiming toward the sciences and would never have dreamed of opting for a formal art or music class. However I joined in with Tim's sing songs and even agreed to join in the chorus in one of his musicals. On occasions I even sneaked into the music rooms and practised some self-taught tunes on the piano. One term I was even seen with a paint brush in the art room. I rarely if ever read fiction books, but despite my normal avoidance of English literature I even enjoyed some classes with Ray working through T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land, which cannot be described as a light read.

So Did Dartington Work?

In academic terms my four years at Dartington was successful in that I obtained a place in a leading university, and went on to do scientific research. It was also successful in that I really enjoyed myself there, in a comparatively stress-free environment, with no bullying.

However in social terms it did not undo the years of damage caused by bullying, although it moderated some of the effects. The school report quoted above described me as being “friendly and helpful” but for someone who has spent much time being sat on by one's classmates this can mean “works very hard not to alienate others.” The frequent changes of school, plus the bullying, meant that I never learnt how to make close friends. The friendly atmosphere at the school undoubtedly helped a lot, but while I got on well with other pupils I never made any enduring friendships. Not even with any of the girls. When you are “brought up” to expect bullying, actual contact with any one is dangerous. If someone touches you must be prepared to duck – while if you touch them, possibly against their wishes, get ready for the retaliatory thump. By the time I left Dartington such reactions were no longer concious – but I am sure that the feeling was, and still is more than half a century later, lurking in my subconscious.

Where Dartington definitely did succeed was to widen my views about science. Margarita in biology, Crispen in chemistry and in particular Jack in physics and chemistry, encouraged me to think creatively. As a result of the freedom to follow up outside ideas this lead to me becoming interested in the local limestone caves and searching for new caves on the Dartington estate. In the following student years this involved working with greater horseshoe bats with John Hooper, with the British Natural History Museum expert Anthony Sutcliffe on ice-age bone deposits, and with Mary Hazelton on invertebrate cave fauna. In addition I did some original work on cave geomorphology (unfortunately most still unpublished) although one bit of research in 1960 led to a Time Team TV programme in 1999 and a serious paper on the formation of the caves in Cheddar Gorge in 2010. (Dartington did not teach me that rapid publication was a good idea!) In fact I became very interested in the way different science specialties interact.

Once I started work there are other examples, in several different fields where the way the school encouraged me to think creatively outside the box has helped – particularly in connection with the CODIL project. However the training to become a careful and objective scientist, coupled with the reluctance to self-publicise that in innate in anyone who has been bullied, has sometimes backfired.

Honest science involves asking questions and coming up with convincing and supportable answers. Even successfully finding an answer is rarely the end – as the process will undoubtedly turn up supplementary questions. If you are too careful, and refrain from publishing until you have plugged all the gaps you may never publish – even if the idea is good. If you are too objective you will always be monitoring your ideas to ensure that they are viable. But in the real work there is a scientific rat race. What is most important – careful and objective research – or being the first to publish, the winner in the cut-throat battle to get research grants, or the world's acknowledged expert in some very narrow field? The problem I seemed to face is that genuine blue sky research is very sensitive to the environment in which it takes place, cannot be rushed, and is always in danger of being stopped because the yet to be established long term benefits are not obvious to an establishment in a hurry to exploit the status quo.

Finally, to return to the old school reunion. A number of people suggested, in various ways, that the idyllically peaceful atmosphere of the school, when co-operation between all, and the competitive spirit was frowned upon, had a major snag. While it encouraged creativity and imaginative solutions in many different fields it failed to prepare the resulting creative minds for the cut-throat competition of the real world. As pupils we left the comfy box of a very progressive and friendly school, and found ourselves in the the far less friendly real world box.I might have been well trained to do scientific research, but I didn't have the cut-throat determinism to be successful in the academic rat race.


  1. Hi Chris!
    It was interesting your text about Dartington. The re-union reinvented many thoughts and inspire me to further thoughts about it, the Dartington spirit.
    With best regards, from Per from Sweden who just was ther for a summer term 1968. Thanks!

    1. Hello Per,

      I remember you at Foxhole. I had forgotten that you were only with us for one term. It evidently had an impact. I have spent the past 30 years teaching in conventional schools. Reading Chris' blog I recall blissfully happy times, but also have some regrets about time wasted when perhaps a little more 'encouragement' to work harder might have meant I wouldn't have had to resit exams to get into art school. Best wishes, Sebastian Chance

  2. thanks for an interesting blog chris,sorry to hear about your bullying and the profound lifelong effect it had on you. i know that feeling having had some of it myself at the state schools i went to after dartington. it's great that you've achieved so much though in spite of all that. keep up the good work.
    warm thoughts
    max barnes

  3. I have to ask.. Would you have been happier if you had joined the 'ray race'? Also consider your experience of not competing... Sounds like you felt it was a choice...I suspect That you could have if you had wanted to; the lack of self esteem that goes with bullying wouldbe more likely to result in a Delong of inability and worthlessness. We should reflect on dartington in terms of what it achieves not on whether in four short years it can entirely heal years of abuse.

    Those of us who came to dartington for a relatively short time have the benefit of perspective and from what I hear many, like me arrived damaged. It is incredible that so much healing went on. Do we really want to totally buy in to the 'rat race'? Do you feel that your scientific contribution would have been greater without that experience?

    In other schools there is great conflict about who the client is. It bassi area between the government, employers and parents and rarely considers the student. Dartington is Different.

    Another problem with education is measuring outcomes. When you go beyond formal paper qualifications it is very qualitative and difficult to prove...

    I believe I would have had persistent mental health issues if I had not gone to dartington. I have completely erased the two years before from my memory. I have worked in education all my life... And yes that has caused some conflicts I am one of the guerilla army infiltrating the state system with stealth and determination.

    We are not alone there are others out there working for the libertarian values we learnt at dartington. If any one is interested check out Living Values. The early years curriculum and the Every Child Matters guide lines which all promote aspects we would recognise and support.

  4. Margo's comment about whether Dartington could ever have fully prepared me for the “rat race” is fair – and bullying would not be the only factor. One must consider the male role model at home. My father clearly had trouble at school and said very little about it apart from a couple of episodes relating to his lack of academic success – and definitely had no long-term school friends. I am sure he would have been diagnosed as dyslexic today – and I strongly suspect that he was bullied. In some ways I now think he had similar problems to those I developed.

    In addition I was brought up(for the most relevant years) living in the accommodation associated with my father's newsagents shop. Of course I loved working in the shop – and as a child in such a situation the lesson one learns is that one's role is to be a polite and efficient servant, doing nothing that could possibly alienate a customer.

    Whatever happened after I became an adolescent, the die had already been caste and I can't see myself ever having been either a dynamic leader – or a cut-throat bully who tramples on other people's lives to get nearer to the top.

  5. Commenting on the above on the Dartington Hall Facebook site Richard wrote:

    Having dedicated my life to freeing myself of internal traps (childhood) and avoiding entrapping myself in the external (social, economic) traps I take issue with the assumption that we are trapped. Whilst it may be difficult to recognise, and even more difficult to avoid the many traps, as human beings our birthright is freedom, and we always have choice. We are not hapless victims.

    I replied:

    I am interested in Richard's comments – because we are all trapped in many ways. For instance we are all trapped on the surface of the earth, and many people are trapped by poverty, and in some parts of the world by the inability to get enough nourishing food or fresh water. Some traps are easy to get out of – if you want to – while others are hard.

    Yesterday I was involved in discussions with an evangelical Christian who passionately believed he was free and his mission in life was to free people who were trapped by erroneous beliefs in Allah, or Krishna, or [insert your own choice here] - or no god at all. No doubt those who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre were just as fervently convinced that they were freely doing the will of Allah to destroy the Western infidels who were trapped by the false gods of Christianity and capitalism. I am sure you could chose any religion that ever existed and find people who were equally passionate that their faith gives them freedom and that they want to free others who are trapped by false beliefs. The atheists will of course argue that they are free from all that ridiculous mumbo jumbo.

    The point is that were are all inside many different boxes of different kinds, and if you are happy in some of the boxes you will not feel trapped by them – and you may call the ability to move within the box “freedom”. Other people - who do not share that box may well see you as hopelessly trapped. In some cases you will be be able to switch boxes to something more desirable, but in other cases you are permanently trapped.

  6. I have just found a most interesting article "An Experimental Education" by Miriam Gross ( .

    Miriam was at Foxhole at the same time was I was and her general description of the place and how it worked is basically similar to mine - except that she has responded to freedom to attend lessons in a very different way, and felt there was not enough motivation to learn. However I feel that whatever the limitations in her case it doesn't seem to have prevented her following a very interesting career.

  7. Enjoyed this post, Chris. I wonder if you are aware of my own Dartington Memoir? It is available thru Amazon and is called:
    "Elmsworld: My Life At Dartington Hall School 1963 -1971".
    Steve MacManus