Progressive experience

OLIVE MARKHAM also writes children’s books, some of which have been illustrated by her daughters.

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 27, 2019

OUR FOUR CHILDREN, ALL GIRLS, were educated at Burgess Hill School, where the three eldest stayed until they were ready to leave. The youngest had to change to a more conventional school when she was thirteen, because Burgess Hill closed down.
Their father and I had been educated at Public Schools, where we had both been unhappy. His was worse than mine and his unhappiness was more acute. I made a sudden unpremeditated attempt to run away when I was sixteen but I was seen from afar (we wore red jerseys under our gym-tunics) and brought back by the matron in a taxi.

When we had children of our own, we cast about for happier ways of educating them. Through an article by Marie Louise Berneri, we became interested in Wilhelm Reich. Then in A. S. Neill. Looking for Neill’s books led us to Freedom Bookshop. Someone in the bookshop recommended Burgess Hill School, then in Hampstead, as being co-educational, fairly free and unorthodox. It was also one of the few schools that didn’t mind taking weekly boarders. Our children had never wanted to be whole-time boarders at any school; partly, I think, because I’m a good cook, and we have a small farm with our own cow, so that they had always been used to good food. It would have been difficult to get them to school daily because the farm is very isolated and I can’t drive a car. There was a village school four miles away, but it was only a primary school and the headmistress used the strap.

When we first saw Burgess Hill School, Geoffrey Thorpe was the headmaster. He interviewed us, or we interviewed him—I think it was mutual—sitting on hard chairs in a big bare room heated by a very meagre gas-fire. Afterwards we went round the school and found it ugly, untidy, bare and comfortless. Only the walls, covered with paintings and drawings, showed signs of creative activity. At the back there was a sooty looking garden with huge leafless trees. But somewhere behind this unpretentious and forbidding exterior, we smelt a whiff of the freedom and non-conformity which we so wanted to incorporate in our children’s education. At any rate, we arranged for our two eldest daughters to start the next term. The school, though extremely poor and without any financial aid from the State, did all it could to help the children of artists, actors and musicians, and for years we paid the ridiculously low fee of £30 per child per term.
When our two eldest daughters started, Burgess Hill was not as completely unauthoritarian as it became later. There was no school uniform, smoking and swearing were allowed, but a few simple rules had to be obeyed. Lessons were compulsory, though games were not. There were fixed hours for going to bed and getting up. If you went out in the evening you had to get permission and say where you were going and when you would be back. There were rotas for washing up and helping to clear away meals.
The teaching was of a very high standard and the teachers were more imaginative and original and less neurotic than in most State schools. A school meeting was held every week at which the children aired their grievances and settled disputes. There were no marks, punishments or examinations, but if children wanted to take the State examinations before they left, and many did, they could get all the help they needed. The theory was that any lively-minded child could pass an examination if it wanted to, without all the pressure, forcing and stuffing that most state-educated children have to put up with. This theory was born out by our eldest daughter, an academic type, who insisted upon taking her General Certificate after five years at Burgess Hill. She went on her own to Hampstead Town Hall and in spite of the fact that she had never taken an examination in her life, passed in five subjects, getting nearly 100 per cent in both the French papers and over 80 per cent in both English papers. This is not written in a spirit of pride (I personally abominate examinations and have never cared whether my children passed any or not) but to refute the charge that schools like Burgess Hill can never get examination successes.

It was in Geoffrey Thorpe’s time that the children were asked to write end of term reports on the teachers and these were sent to the parents together with the reports of the teachers on the children. In spite of some showing-off, the children were honest and were able to judge their own progress far better, in many ways, than the teachers. I still have one of these reports headed: Pupil’s Own Report. It reads like this:

ENGLISH I have nothing to say. Peter thinks I haven’t been working but I think I have.
GEOGRAPHY I don’t think I take it quite seriously enough. I haven’t done enough work on it.
SCIENCE I like it very much and have worked quite hard. Mary is very helpful and cheerful.
FRENCH I know a lot of vocabulary. But I’ll have to do more essays.
ART I have done some good things in clay and was just “letting myself go” over a painting only it was burnt which is rather a waste.
GAMES AND SPORTS Hockey I like. It would do John Rhodes good to play.
OTHER COMMENTS School meetings are much better with John as Chairman and me as Secretary. I like expeditions. I would like very much to do cooking.

Of course, there were doubts, regrets and difficulties. The school, being tolerant and without racial prejudice, took in many problem children who were often a great trial to the more normal pupils. A child with violent tempers (during which she attacked, shook and bit those nearest to her) shared a bedroom with two of our children who became so terrified of her that at one time we told Geoffrey Thorpe that either our children or the problem would have to leave. The staff were very sympathetic but nobody wanted to abandon the difficult child who had already been expelled or rejected by various State schools, and was unhappy at home. In between tempers, the child was friendly and co-operative. The whole thing was discussed at a school meeting when all the children put their points of view and it was finally decided to give our children a bodyguard of tough boys who would come to their assistance at the onset of an attack. As far as I remember, the tantrums gradually decreased. Or perhaps our children, as they grew older, learnt how to deal with them.

Another of our troubles was the Press. Progressive Schools have a weakness to opening their doors to “sympathetic” journalists whose articles always turn out to be anything but sympathetic. The closing down of Burgess Hill was assisted by two journalists of this kind, who bought a bottle of whisky at a nearby pub and tried to persuade some of the children to drink it so that they could take pictures of them wallowing in a drunken orgy. As parents, we suffered a good deal from seeing lurid pictures of our children used as illustrations to untruthful and salacious articles in the gutter-press. Relations and friends harassed us with criticism. Were our children turning into savages? Were they learning enough? What would happen when they had to fend for themselves in the real world?

Some of these questions we are now in a position to answer. Two of the children are self-supporting. The eldest has held for several years a difficult and responsible job requiring extreme tact and forbearance. If she had shown even the slightest inclination towards savagery, she would have been out on her ear at once. The youngest child likes an occasional cigarette; the other three don’t smoke. They are all excellent cooks. Their sexual relationships have varied according to their temperaments, but so far, unwanted babies have been avoided. They have a great affection for us and we for them. What more could parents ask?

During the last few years, interest and support for schools like Burgess Hill, has been growing less and less. When Geoffrey Thorpe retired and Jimmy East took over the headmastership, the numbers were already dropping and the L.C.C., which had for years regarded Burgess Hill as an unsightly boil upon the residential face of Frognall, had condemned the building because of supposed bomb damage. Eventually, the house in Hampstead had to be evacuated, and after frantic efforts to raise money to add to the miserable compensation paid by the L.C.C., the school moved out to High Canons, a derelict mansion in Hertfordshire.

By this time, our two eldest had left and the two youngest were installed. The school had become in some ways more anarchistic and experimental. School meetings continued, but carried much more weight. The children did really run school affairs. Bed-time and getting-up time were left to the child’s discretion. You could stay up all night if you wished: some children, who came from authoritarian homes, did, at first. If you got up too late you missed your breakfast. Lessons were no longer compulsory. At the beginning of each term, children made contracts with the teachers whose lessons they wished to attend. One child went to no lessons at all but planted out a big patch of garden where he worked all term, producing a wonderful crop of vegetables and flowers for his grandmother, who looked after him. Reports were abolished. We rather missed them but made do with verbal ones. I think Jimmy East felt that reports were incongruous when staff and children lived on such equal terms.

At High Canons, the staff problem, both domestic and academic, became much more acute. No-one who has not actually had children at a Progressive School, can realise the awful conditions, due to perpetual shortage of money, which such places have to contend with. Not only is the teaching of voluntary pupils more exhausting than the teaching of conscripts, but the staff and children have to cope with most of the domestic duties as well. Jimmy East was a very competent cook, but it wore him out and shortened his teaching periods. One of the things that Burgess Hill can be said to have proved is that children, whatever their home environment, are not naturally tidy and clean.

The move from Hampstead to Hertfordshire might have put new life into Burgess Hill, but, in fact, it killed it. For one thing, a huge financial debt was incurred, which lay like a deadweight on staff, parents and even children. There is no doubt that all those forty-five children who followed Burgess Hill from town to country, cared enormously about the school. You had only to see the efforts they made when they heard that the School Inspectors were coming, the startlingly beautiful mural that two of them painted along one wall of the vast dining-room, the pride they took in showing visitors round, to realise how they felt.

It was the adults who bickered, vacillated, were unreliable and failed to clarify, let alone live up to their ideals.

Even so, behind all the ambiguities and excuses, a real spirit of tolerance and freedom, unique in many of its expressions, existed in Burgess Hill to the end. An imaginative Ministry of Education might have thought it worthwhile to preserve such a place, if only as a study for anthropologists.