Book Review: Dartington In Conisbrough
Dartington in Conisbrough
by Pat Kitto
published by Libertarian Education
Reviewed by C V Pawsey
The title of this book doesn't do it any favours - giving little idea of how convincing and affectionate an account it is of a significant educational experiment. Though it took place in the 1970s, its remarkable results have important relevance today when so many children are still poorly served by the educational system.
Pat Kitto has given us a personal record of her and her husband Dick's involvement in the exchange scheme set up between progressive Dartington Hall School in Devon and Northcliffe Secondary School in the mining village of Conisbrough in Yorkshire and initiated by Dr Royston Lambert, Dartington's headmaster. Pat and Dick were asked by Royston to take over as wardens of the Terrace - Dartington's centre in Conisbrough. Neither of them was a trained teacher but they had had 20 years' experience of working at Dartington in other ways.
The book gives us the background to the setting up of the scheme. For anyone unfamiliar with Dartington, its aims and values, as with other progressive schools, were mutual respect between children and staff, fostering the development of the whole child, their self-determination and critical thinking. Decision-making for rules and sanctions were agreed democratically. The outcome should lead to good, responsible members of society.
Pat gives us a comprehensive idea of life in Conisbrough, the other half of the scheme, with illuminating quotations from local people. At the time a traditional close-knit mining village, worlds apart from leafy Devon, the community swiftly overcame its initial suspension of judgment about these strange newcomers to welcome them with great warmth and friendliness.
The Kittos' remit was in some respects vague. The Terrace was already providing a base and boarding for visiting Dartington students and space for activities for local children and their parents but what else should be available was not spelled out. Pat describes courses they ran for Dartingtonians to understand the life and ethos of people whose experience and expectations were very different to their own. On one such occasion, Arthur Scargill came to the Terrace to address local miners, hosted by a group of sixth-formers who had that morning visited a pit.
It is less clear from the book just how much integration was achieved between the two schools although that had been the original idea; in the event different curricula, diminishing enthusiasm and fear of the unknown created barriers. Those children from Northcliffe who were persuaded to visit Dartington seem to have had memorable and valuable experiences.
To find out what activities the local children would like, the Kittos decided to open the Terrace in the evenings as a social centre with minimal rules. This resulted in rivers of children tumbling in to take part in crafts, stories, drama or folk dancing, or chatting, or just rampaging about, clearly appreciating the space, attention, ready ear and respect awarded them. Pat gives a vivid picture of the way the children would start assembling outside as much as an hour and a half before the doors were due to open.
The account of Pat and Dick's major task is the most illuminating part of the book and gives us the clearest demonstration of the benefit of Dartington's approach to teaching. This aspect of the job was to take responsibility for some of the thoroughly disaffected Northcliffe children: truants, lawbreakers, and non-academic children, who would have left but were trapped by the raising of the school leaving age (ROSLA). Originally Royston Lambert had planned to take charge of this group but in the event it came to Pat and Dick to provide an alternative to the education they had so clearly rejected as irrelevant.
The first group of 15 boys, were chosen by Northcliffe from 30 volunteers, (though on what criteria is not explained). They arrived, responding to questions in monosyllables or grunts, with poor literary skills and scant respect for teachers. Pat paints a vivid picture of children whose school experience had taught them how to avoid being noticed because any notice was likely to be unwelcome, that they were pawns to be pushed around and that their voices would go unheard.
Royston Lambert had outlined the principles to cover what he considered the boys would need: interaction with some other adult(s) than parents; interaction with other groups of young people; a base other than home; work in situations as relevant to the real world as possible; flexibility in the use of time compared to school; access to what schools can offer if appropriate; and participation in making decisions which affect them. The boys should "be able to act openly and fearlessly with adults ….on terms of equality…and be subject to democratic procedures at those points where freedom impinges on that of others." Also that "emotional, aesthetic, moral and social areas matter as much as the intellectual or practical ones". These were the conditions which, with other helpers, teachers and volunteers, Pat and Dick set about creating.
The account of that first year's bumpy journey for these boys is illuminating; those activities that engaged them, the problems overcome, the 'strike' and its resolution, the growing self-knowledge, vocabulary and ability to express themselves, to trust and interact with adults, is really heartening. That ROSLA year was followed by a second, of girls and boys, more complex in its dynamics but still successful in its aim. It is undoubtedly the case that the scheme improved the lives of many children, whether only in the short term one doesn't know, although interviews with some of the ROSLA participants showed they had better jobs than would have been predicted for them. No tests of their IQ were administered so one cannot guess at how many had been seriously under-functioning before being picked to participate. A notable absence in the book is any mention of costs of which presumably Pat did not have an overall picture.
When Pat and Dick left the Terrace she says they had "demonstrated that an alternative to school can be educational to growing children if they see it as interesting and relevant to the real world." In my opinion they demonstrated a great deal more than that.