The faceless minority
In 1973 Ken Hosey was one of the staff of the Alternative to School Project in Conisbrough, a mining village in Yorkshire, which took on a group of fifteen of the boys thought least likely to gain anything from another year of school when the leaving age was raised from fifteen to sixteen. Now that young people are being kept in school even longer, the experiment has a new topicality.
This article is taken from an account written at the end of the first term.
From the very beginning, one is struck forcefully by the fact that boys were all basically unused to close adult contact - especially of the variety that could impel them into new experience and self-appraisal. The boys had all obviously, and successfully, either missed or avoided meaningful and productive contact with adults. The boys belonged to a group that was fairly anonymous at school, the ones who never put their hands up and automatically sat at the back of the class as far away from the teacher as possible. Most of them were members of that faceless minority who slip through most normal schooling without being touched by it. Obviously, in a school of over 1000, with classes of up to thirty, no matter how enlightened it may be, being anonymous both in the academic as well as social and emotional senses of the word, is a pretty easy task; particularly if you wish the situation to exist. The sheer weight of numbers makes contact between the teacher and this particular type of boy almost impossible.
At The Terrace the situation was completely changed. With a staff ratio of 2 to 15, 3 to 15 and sometimes 4 to 15, the boys' anonymity had completely and utterly gone: they were no longer faceless, they were important individuals, well and truly under the microscope. Just about every move the boys made and almost every word they said was heard by an adult. For the boys it was traumatic and they reacted accordingly. It was the strength and violence of the boys' initial reactions to this situation which resulted in my feelings about their basic lack of adult contact. The boys wanted us off their backs and let us know of their feelings in no uncertain terms.
I can go no further in describing these early reactions to the Alternative to School without drawing in the second major common denominator of the group. This second feature is a fact so tightly bound up with the first that it cannot really be separated. Besides the low standards of reading and writing which were common to all these boys, their standards of attainment in almost every other direction were extremely low. If one asked a boy to do something as simple as sweeping a floor, or washing some cups, or just putting tools away in a cupboard, the job would be left not even half-done - the job would, in fact, be a mess. The floor would still be littered, the cups full of sediment, and the tools merely thrown in a disorganised pile. And if one asked the unfortunate boy concerned: "What's the idea? What do you think you're doing?" he would be shocked, taken aback, and say, "But Ken, I've finished. The job's done!" And the appalling thing about this situation was not so much the bad workmanship or lack of caring - it was the fact that the boys actually thought the job was finished, and satisfactorily! It was no bluff, it wasn't a question of laziness, it was a basic question of standards. What the individual boy was saying to me was not merely, "This is all I am capable of - this is my limit." He was saying, "This is me, this is what I am and I can be no better." The boys were not aware that they might possibly do or be anything more than mediocre. What I am talking about is basic, essential, self-awareness - the feeling that one is dynamic and loaded with potential. This quality is classless, or should be, and grows in childhood largely through contact with caring adults who act as touchstones for standards and generators of awareness. The Terrace group did not think they were capable of anything better, simply because no one had told them, or impelled them into discovering that they were capable of anything better. The Alternative to School is for me inexorably rooted in the task of righting this situation.
The eventual enormous success of this scheme is described in detail in Pat Kitto's book, Dartington in Conisbrough, available from www.libed.org.uk