A personal account of being a student at the White Lion Free School in Islington, London, which existed from 1972 to 1990. Its primarily to counter a negative perception given by a former teacher, who wrote a book called 'Free School: The White Lion Experience'.
I was at the White Lion Street Free School in Islington, in north London, from 1973 till 1976/7. My experience of being there is one that felt and continues to feel on the whole a positive experience. It provided what I wanted and needed as a child in the 1970s.
I hated primary school. I truanted for most of year 4 and 5 although in year 6 I did a little work and attended slightly more often. I then spent a year at Starcross Secondary Girls School, now called Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, in Risinghill Street. Before the end of my first year my sister Tina and I had had enough and we told our parents we wanted to leave. My father, who was a middle manager for Initial, the towel provision company, said if we could find somewhere better he would be happy to consider it. We looked around and we stumbled on the White Lion Street Free School, only a short distance away from Starcross.
It was very different and it did take a while for us to appreciate that the too- good-to-be-true factor would eventually wear off. Pete Newell and Alison Truefitt were the founders of the school and the key staff members at that time. I was very much taken by the collective approach to decision-making and our Tuesday morning meetings were based on a whole-school approach to agreements. During meetings we had to be pragmatic, as there were obviously times when not all kids and teachers were present and a decision based on the majority that were there would be the one taken forward.
At the time I was at the school a lot of effort was put into fundraising and the kids played a big part in this. My earliest office experience was at the age of 11 and 12, writing letters asking for support. I also attended Jimmy Saville shows at Capital Radio and met other DJs with a group of pupils from the school to represent its positive aspects as a means of publicising it in its best light. I did a lot of work raising money to get records for the school disco, posters for the disco and other things that the school really needed at the time.
My recollection is that if you were quite well motivated, as I was, it was a great place, but if you were lazy or really not very motivated the school's emphasis on choice around learning became very difficult for teachers to work with. Children are not stupid, and some of them would use it against the teachers, saying it was their choice if they want to learn or not. As a former pupil I feel that there was too much choice, especially for younger kids who were perhaps not really ready to make decisions around their learning, but at times also for those over 11 like myself. It was very easy not to do maths, for instance, if you really hated it, as I did.
Buying the food for the school dinners and cooking it and learning about the school budget and the money the school needed to survive were a different way of learning to understand maths. We knew these were a collective responsibility for all of us, and we gained a lot from being involved.
Many parents took an interest in the school, especially as this was a last resort for some kids who had been excluded from every other school in Islington. There used to be parent evenings at that time and there were always lots of visitors wanting to understand what the school did and how it justified its financial support from the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority).
In his book Nigel Wright regrets that there were so few records kept. I think I would agree with him, because there was a lot of useful anecdotal evidence about those like myself who truanted from previous state schools and became exemplary attendees at White Lion. There was no point in truanting because you wanted to be there. Furthermore the school offered a real sense of belonging in a way that secondary schools were and remain unable to facilitate, especially due to the numbers of kids who attend them.
There was a collective approach to discipline, as there would be in a family, and this made it possible to deal successfully with things like thefts of money or food. It was really effective to leave it with the child who was responsible, who would only need own up or to bring it back anonymously and no more would be said. The level of respect and self-awareness really did limit anti-social behaviour such as theft or vandalism. We all got involved in using psychology to make it easier to return money or to admit to any kind of vandalism because we all had a vested interest in the school; we really belonged to the school so if anything or anyone was hurt it affected all the staff members and all of us kids.
I learnt some brilliant values that have been important to me ever since. Nigel Wright says that bullying was a problem, and I agree there was scope for bullying, but teachers did not just leave things like that – they did intervene if necessary. In my time at the school I only saw a couple of kids, who disliked each other, exchange verbal attacks; these eventually stopped and they just didn't speak together. I never saw any actual fights, gang fights or bullying other than that. On the whole the kids worked well together, doing the same or different things, and everyone respected their choices.
One of the aspects of the school that I most admired was the way that if anyone showed an interest in a particular topic the school would organise trips or a visiting speaker. This showed a real understanding of the child's point of view. I was interested in drugs and wanted to do a drugs project so I was taken to an awful place in Petticoat Lane where junkies used to go for help. I had a long chat with the co-ordinator and that experience actually stopped me getting into drugs. Of course I tried a bit of cannabis at the time but once I had seen people in such desperate states of need I never veered that way.
The school also had a sense of purpose which was nothing to do with the lessons (although I really liked English). I was very aware of this whole purpose and my part within it.
The staff seemed to manage money matters wisely, because they not only kept the school going but also organised lots of trips. Twice we went to Cornwall, once in the winter to Boscastle, staying in chalets, and then once in the summer we went camping. Both times were excellent. We learnt to live with and enjoy nature and each other's company without any need for all the reckless behaviour that I see so much of now and that was already around then. We did the camp fire thing on the beach with Jim (Dim Dam, as we called him), who brought his guitar with him and strummed along, singing songs of Cat Stevens and Eric Clapton along with some old folk stuff that we all joined in with or clapped hands to. It was really hippy and bohemian but it was great.
My time at White Lion would have been longer but one of the pupils, Victor O'Dwyer, who I had fallen in love with, got in with some kids from another school who were sniffing evo-stick in crisp bags. On 16th May 1975 he died and this devastated me, the rest of the kids and all the adults. For me the school never really felt the same after this and I found it really hard to go in without thinking about the times when Vic was still alive. I did continue to go to school as much as I could bear to until late 1976 early 1977 when I taught myself to type and then went to work. I had my manager ask the ILEA to release me at 15 to start the job with the proviso that I would take a couple of O- levels.
What did I gain from White Lion? Huge amounts. I went on to take my O-level at 15 in English Literature and Music. At 18 I started operatic voice training – no idea why, I hated opera but did have a very good operatic voice. I joined a travelling amateur chorus and we performed at the opera house in Covent Garden, at the Barbican, in the Festival Hall and in Lyon in France, among other places. In retrospect, bearing in mind I was a really shy person before going to White Lion Free School, it must have helped me to be able to take huge risks like this.
I went on to take a working year abroad in Australia with my fiancé and when I returned went into Higher Education and then took my degree. I obtained an Upper Second BSC in Philosophy of Science and Parapsychology. I continued in Higher Education for the next 15 years and ended up as the Head of Assessment at London Metropolitan University which entailed managing 22 staff and leading and managing 17,000 student undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, based on a centralised coursework collection process which I helped to develop and centrally organised examinations and sheltered examination provision. I was also the Unison representative during this time and represented staff in disciplinaries, sick-leave cases, harassment cases etc and was commended by the University Human Resources Director as being the person who was best able to bridge the gap between the management and unions. I stayed there until 2004, when I went on to spend more time with my husband who is disabled and my son who was getting cross about having a workaholic mother.
I still find time to do plenty of other things. I qualified as a massage therapist in 2005, I am a primary school governor, and I manage an under-13s and under-10s rugby club. Last summer I managed the rugby club to go on its first tour for under-17s and under-13s. (We went to Wales and it was very reminiscent of the way things were at the White Lion – all the kids tapped into that immense sense of freedom and collective responsibility for decisions made, experiences shared, communal work undertaken and great humour above all else.)
I also work part-time in a student-counselling service, I do lunch time staff massages at a local school which is working towards healthy schools status, and I am currently completing an Open College Network (OCN) Foundation course at the Place2Be in Counselling Skills for Working with Children (communicating with children through play, creative materials and narrative).
My long-term goal, which seems to be closer to realisation now than it used to be, is to create a new free school which embraces all of the positives from the White Lion but also draws on the mental heath and well-being expertise which was lacking in all schools in the 1970s – though the Free School was probably better than the rest. I now understand enough about organisational structure, reporting mechanisms, business management and budgetary forecasting to undertake something like this. I would want to make use of all the understanding I have acquired from my experience as a pupil at the Free School and as a child devastated by grief at the age of 12 at the loss of a 16- year-old boyfriend. All of my experience, both positive and immensely difficult, has taught me how to work collectively with staff and to help people to develop their potential for further growth – something I have often done.
I have given my son a lot of tools for self-reliance, and along the way I have learnt how to make and observe the immense significance of very small interventions in enabling kids and encouraging them to feel able to support themselves and resource themselves internally.
I hope one day in the not too distant future to bring the spirit of the White Lion Street Free School to life once again.
Jenny Aster – nee Dale