To the North of Bordeaux, South of La Rochelle and poking into the Bay of Biscay like a flipper on the body of France, lies the Isle d’Oleron. With a maximum height of four metres, and seemingly built of stray sand dunes, it looks as if any rise in sea level would have its inhabitants scurrying across the huge modern bridges that connect it with the mainland. Apart from farming, with vineyards, there is some tourism; there are oyster beds and sea food collection, salt-pans, a few woods and, rejoicing in its climate, which is like a warmer version of that of County Kerry, just outside the village of Chaucre you can find an alternative school.
Why? What? How?
In 1982, when their daughter was reaching school age, Thyde Roselle and Jean Marc Raynaud, both active in the French anarchist movement, looked at the alternatives in education for her. Finding none that were acceptable, they decided to create an alternative school on their doorstep, if support could be found to do this.
About half a hectare of land adjoining their garden became available, and with financial assistance, they bought it.
About 250 people, who were supporters of its general aims, came together and built it in a short time. It is about the same size and design as a small village hall, built out of breezeblock, with an extra room built on to its rectangular shape to act as a combined kitchen and refectory. Luckily Jean-Marc’s father was a carpenter and was able to oversee the operation.
Most of these people were members of the 'Association Bonaventure' which is made up of sympathisers with the aim to create an educational environment outside the clumsy tentacles of the French state system with its emphasis on grading and inspecting, and its national curriculum with rigid teaching, rather than flexible learning.
We were able to attend the start of one of the support conferences for Bonaventure which are held regularly to plan and discuss the running of the school. Supporters came from a wide spread of French regions, and some had made lengthy journeys to be there, including senior citizens from the Pyrenees and people from the North of France.
Many of the members of the association contribute a regular sum of 150 francs per month to Bonaventure. The running costs of the school are reckoned to be 7500 francs a month (about £750) – this excludes the cost of the teacher (usually getting an income from Social Security), and the tasty vegetarian school meals, which are prepared by the parents on a rota basis.
A Day at the School
When you walk into Bonaventure, after stacking your outdoor shoes along with the children’s, you encounter a warm environment. There is a photocopier, two computers (one is a bit old); there are tables and chairs and a library. A long window gives an enticing view on to the half hectare of woods that go with the school, and which make for adventurous playtimes.
There are nine young people, aged from five up to ten years, and there is one teacher. Around 9.30 a.m. the young people arrive and settle down to a meeting to share news and plan the day. After this they settle down to work: our first session was maths. It looks a bit like pre-national-curriculum England. The lesson is individualised with the teacher helping each youngster as necessary: the youngest children are involved in drawing and colouring rather than formal maths. The seven to eight year olds were doing maths from a workbook and the nine and ten year olds were doing “regular” maths from books, and they had learned to write neatly and attractively. It was a quiet lesson.
Break was at 11.00 a.m. We joined in a game of Wolf and Sheep. They decided that the three Lib Ed guests were to be the Wolves and the children soon developed foolproof tactics to outwit the Lib Ed wolves and rush back to base and free the captured sheep.
The woods, with their tall trees, bushes and brambles make a wonderful environment for the young people to have adventures, games, and build tree houses and dens. There are a couple of local dogs that join in the fun as well.
In an afternoon there are different activities. For one afternoon a 'ludocaire' (we would call her a play therapist) had been invited. She had brought a number of ‘cooperative’ board games which mostly consisted of the children working together to achieve a desired end. The games produced a sense of relaxed concentration amongst the young people.
The school encourages parents and outsiders to come in and bring activities with them. The Lib Ed trio produced a guitar and a fiddle and encouraged the young people to sing Frere Jacques – which they did know, and Le Coucou – which they did not. The teacher was able to make a quick and successful translation of 'Rabbit had no tail at all' and the young people were prepared to do a simple dance to a few Irish and Appalachian Folk tunes.
At lunch, a parent does the food preparation but the youngsters, on a rota basis, set the tables and do the clearing up. No-one has to eat anything they don’t want, but it is expected that you will eat all the food that you have served for yourself. The children also clear up at the end of the day, finishing at 4.00 p.m. For the younger ones, it seems to be quite a long day and there was a bit of tetchiness in the air. Young people are not perfect and a few started scuffles with each other. A psychotherapist has advised the school on some techniques for conflict resolution – but the Lib Ed team did not get round to finding out what they were.
On the Friday there was a 'moot' where everyone sat down and made contributions to the 'boite de ralages' and the 'boite de bravos' (literally, the ‘groan box’ and the ‘hooray box’). This necessitated sitting still round the table at the end of Friday and the young people managed quite well, discussing quite earnestly the issues that were raised as the pieces of paper were drawn from the boxes one by one
Issues and Debates
There are issues that need discussing and refining within Bonaventure. Some members of the Association are keenly aware of this and healthy debate is maintained about the directions for the school, as well as how to enhance its progress.
One of the most pressing is the issue of the teacher. There is one teacher who works on a regular basis at the school. Although there is good parental support and other adults are available quite often, the job must be quite lonely at times – even if there are only nine children. In fact it could be said that the school would be a better place if there were a few more children. This would give a wider spectrum for friendships. There were eleven, but a couple of parents left the island at short notice and took their two children with them while we were there.
A problem for the school is that according to its constitution the teacher can only work there for a maximum of three years. This was written in so that one person would not get too much entrenched power over the place. However, the downside of this is that there can be a lack of continuity, and the history of the school can become lost. The school has a tendency to attract young teachers who may need time to think through their ideas and work out an alternative pedagogy. Thus keeping the alternative and anarchist nature of the school alive can be difficult.
The Lib Ed team were pleased to have been invited to the school and stayed with the parents of two of the children, both of whom were enjoying their experiences of this alternative education. It was interesting meeting an ex-student who had had to move on when she had attained secondary age, but looked back with great nostalgia at her primary years in an alternative to the state system. M F G & E C M
School suspends activities
Since Lib Ed visited Bonaventure, we have received this letter…
Bonaventure has found itself at the end of the year in a situation that we do not like - absence of connections with other groups, loss of international relations which we had had up to that time, and so on. For this reason we have decided to suspend school activities for the year 2001 - 2002, in order to reflect on the functioning of our association, and to avoid such a situation arising at Bonaventure again. We hope to have the children back again at the beginning of next school year in 2002. But we will not be idle and have taken a decision to widen our activities with adults:
1. Militants from the Bakunin Group of the F.A. should soon be setting up a philosophical café. Speakers will be regularly invited to speak about current affairs or subjects connected with the libertarian movement.
2. A book about the Centre for Libertarian Education's ten years of experimentation will be written, based on the evidence supplied by children, parents and supporters, but also on the archives. This work ought also to allow us to identify a better way of functioning for the Bonaventure structure, and to prepare confidently for the next return of the children.
3. From the Easter school holidays we will receive children who would like to come for discovery visits in our natural surroundings (the animals which live at Oléron, the marshes, the oyster farms, etc.) In this way they can learn geography, history, and natural sciences while they walk around and visit the island of Oléron. It will be an opportunity for people who may join in the future to get to know more about us and to investigate the place.
4. Workshops in literacy and in ‘catching up’ will also be organised, principally for people living in the area.
5. Workshops on introduction to the internet are also planned, so that we can make this means of communication our own and not a privilege for the few.
6. Courses in political and syndicalist education, dealing with libertarian ideals and practices, are being designed. Members of Bonaventure are intending to start them off, leaving open the opportunity for others who would like to do so to take over the organisation. If this happens, Bonaventure would be pleased to allow them to make use of its buildings.
7. Furthermore Bonaventure is working, and has been working for many years, with AUPEJ, a Senegalese association for popular education, as well as with the Freinet schools. We are hoping to be able to use this year to improve this collaboration between different organisations.
8. Finally, Bonaventure is foreseeing the possibility of organising international meetings about non-authoritarian and libertarian education. Not date has yet been fixed for these, because of the size of the project and the amount of work that it entails, but we will keep our contacts informed regularly about progress.