By Pat Kitto
A staff member’s account of a progressive experiment in a mining town when the school leaving age was raised in 1972, with an afterword by Michael Duane.
'Pat Kitto's book should be compulsory reading for Michael Gove's new radicals. . . . In this wonderful, relevant book the voice of the young person is strong and clear.'
Former head of Totnes King Edward VI Community College
ISBN 0 9538797 1 2
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Reviewed by Martin Mulkeen
This book is an account of a joint venture, in the nineteen-seventies, between Conisbrough Northcliffe Secondary Modern School, then a relatively radical state school led by the charismatic and forceful Arthur Young and Dartington Hall School, a progressive, fee-paying school led by the radical educational thinker, Royston Lambert. The aim of the project was to exchange experience, ideas, staff and pupils on a short-term basis and to establish an alternative option for students struggling in mainstream education. A central aspect of the scheme was the acquisition of The Terrace, a large detached house in its own grounds in the South Yorkshire mining town of Conisbrough to provide accommodation for students visiting from Dartington and those Conisbrough students who were to join them on courses. Similar residential experience was to be provided at Dartington in South Devon for pupils from Northcliffe and from Mexborough Grammar School whose involvement in the scheme soon faded. Pat Kitto, the author of the account, and her husband, Dick, were appointed as wardens of The Terrace by Dartington in 1972 and continued to live and work there until 1975. During that time, The Terrace became the site of educational work which implicitly questioned many of the assumptions made then and now about how schools ought to be run.
The Kittos oversaw three types of activity at The Terrace. The first of these is described by Pat as ‘Open House’ and consisted of The Terrace being opened to kids of the town as a kind of cultural centre cum youth club. Pat herself describes this strand of their work as sometimes chaotic but also points to moments where individuals and groups eventually gained dramatically from the contact that they had with new ideas or ways of thinking. I remember seeing something of these evenings as a young teacher at Northcliffe and being shocked by the way in which the Kittos opened up what was, after all, their home to what seemed like droves of kids in various states of excitement. Pat admits that the two of them took on the role of policing rather than providing experience such as art, drama, folk singing and story reading sessions.
The other strand of The Terrace’s programme was the provision of courses attended by both Conisbrough and Dartington students, often with groups drawn from both schools. Such courses were also held at Dartington. Pat remembers these courses with more uniform satisfaction than the ‘Open House’ strand, although they were beginning to be less frequently run when she arrived at The Terrace. When I arrived at Northcliffe in 1974, they appeared to be largely a thing of the past. The courses took many forms and often involved members of the community talking about their lives or areas of expertise to groups from both schools. The Kittos and the other staff working at The Terrace were adept at ferreting out engaging and challenging people to work with groups and Pat’s account records real engagement across what might have seemed a massive social and cultural divide.
The last and, to me, most interesting strand of The Terrace’s work was in providing an alternative for those kids trapped by the raising of the school leaving age into staying on at school until they were sixteen years of age in 1974. These were disaffected and, in some cases, delinquent pupils selected from a volunteer group who had found that school offered them little other than boredom and frustration. The first group were all boys and were in the care of the Kittos, a Liverpudlian man of action, Ken Hosie and Neal Fitzgerald, a young drama teacher from Northcliffe seconded for a year to work with the group.
Pat’s account of the first year of the ROSLA scheme in particular makes very interesting reading. The group operated largely under principles laid down by Royston Lambert which included a requirement that the activities undertaken by the group should at least be ‘perceived by them as real life ones’ and that the students ‘should have a real share in the decisions that affect them.’ This solidified into the group being involved in various forms of work such as painting and decorating, renovating furniture and raising vegetables. They attended practical courses locally and at Dartington. They put on plays, climbed rocks and went to art exhibitions. What they also did was talk. In regular sessions, they discussed the work they were doing, their relationship with staff and with other members of the group, what they were to eat and who they were going to invite to join them for meals. Notions of teacher dominance were put aside, real pupil democracy flourished and, according to Pat, the boys made progress physically, mentally and intellectually as a result of the programme they followed. Her account records the sometimes rocky progress that the group made and is meticulous in examining the social and emotional problems that were surmounted. Years later ‘outcomes’, as the sociologists would have it, support Pat’s observations insofar as when the first group was interviewed by Neal Fitzgerald 30 years later, they reported universal valuing of their time at The Terrace and satisfaction with their careers. Two of the group are reported as being millionaires.
What this account suggests is what many teachers have long suspected: schools as we know them are built on precisely the wrong model to educate a substantial minority of our children. All children learn better when they see the point of what they are being asked to do. Some can create this relevance from a bank of cultural conditioning which is absent in others. Real pupil participation in identifying aims and means in the process of learning is a pathway to relevance in education for many even if its implementation nationally on a whole school basis is prohibitively daunting.
The last 30 years in state education have been characterised by a relentless move towards the academic. Our conceptions of what children should learn, how they should behave and even dress at school have retrogressed radically and some of the worst casualties of this return to Victorian rigidity have been the disaffected and non academic minority. What happened at The Terrace all those years ago could have presented an alternative model for these pupils. A special irony for me was that I spent a good part of my career coping with students at Northcliffe School who were being forced through a curriculum invented by a Conservative government and slavishly accepted and developed by a New Labour one which offered a good proportion of our kids very little other than boredom, failure and exclusion.
I remember the ending of The Terrace ‘experiment’ at Northcliffe now with sadness, although I didn’t understand at the time that its consequences would be the hundreds of pointless incidents of disruptive, seemingly mindless oppositional behaviour that I and other staff at Northcliffe would have to deal with as a consequence, let alone the sacrifice of a cartload of human potential for a doctrinal whim. Common sense should have told us that what had gone on at The Terrace was a practical alternative for many kids failed by school.
The book is well written, although the accounts of group discussion seem at times stilted and artificial in their presentation and the moments of enlightenment on the part of some kids are sometimes sentimentally presented. Kitto is, however, precise and honest in her recounting of her own emotions in often incredibly trying circumstances and no teacher worth their salt should be wholly without sentimentality when talking about kids. It’s in the end a profoundly sad book in that it records a past in educational thought and practice seemingly without place in modern mainstream education.
(Teacher at Northcliffe for 32 years and in that time Head of English, then Assistant Head and finally Advanced Skills Teacher.)
Reviewed by Stephen Jones
This is the story of a fascinating educational experiment in what might be considered the golden years of progressive education in England. The story covers the years from 1972 to 1975 and yet it is absolutely relevant today.
Michael Gove, the present education minister, talks about his radical plans for schools and in particular the free schools which will allow parents and teachers to establish their own schools. Radical plans existed before this time and this is one of the stories.
In the early seventies progressive education was part of the landscape which include free schools, liberal progressive private schools of which Dartington was one and new community comprehensive schools built to deliver student- centred learning.
Pat Kitto’s book should be compulsory reading for Michael Gove’s new radicals. There is a particular irony in the fact that Toby Young,the son of Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington, should now be one of the pioneers of the new “free schools”. I am not sure that Pat Kitto’s experiences on the Yorkshire coalfield will resonate strongly with him.
Pat Kitto and her husband Dick were long-serving members of Dartington Hall School but not teachers, and yet they were inspired by the new head, Royston Lambert to move over 300 miles away from friends and family to become wardens of an educational experiment in the middle of the mining community of Conisbrough in the south Yorkshire coalfield.
Lambert had set up a link with Northcliffe Secondary School to see how the progressive methods at Dartington, a private school for children who came from rich and varied backgrounds, would stand up to scrutiny and be relevant to the demands of the state system and in particular to the raising of the school leaving age to sixteen. Equally Arthur Young, the head at Northcliffe, was keen to see if there were any benefits for his school students from mixing with the youngsters from Dartington who followed a different curriculum and had a different relationship with their staff.
Kitto tells a compelling story of working with the children of miners in a community that was about as far removed from the pastoral scene of Dartington as can be imagined, a community at that time shaped by the omnipresence of the coalmine and its history and indeed its future. Her stories are of youngsters who challenge, who come from backgrounds that she has never experienced, where the man is the boss and yet the women are the ones who keep their families and the community together while living in the shadows of their menfolk, where consequently the girls struggle to find their own voice – all such a contrast to her experience at Dartington. She shares freely with the reader her astonishments and her surprises.
The Kittos succeeded in Conisbrough because they believed that the values of the Dartington School were applicable in this very different community. They were listeners, they had immense patience and they believed that children should be given responsibility, they cared and they did not stand on ceremony.
In the early days such values were an invitation to the youngsters to run riot round “The Terrace”, the building which housed the experiment. They could not make sense of the fact that there were not long lists of rules or locked doors. The food was different – brown flour, lots of vegetables and salads. The stories the children tell in the book not only reflect the richness of the oral tradition of the coalfield but also describe an awakening to drama and art, visits to the theatre, learning, living and working with the Dartington children and above all a developing confidence in themselves.
The Kittos aspired to and delivered the principles set out by the heads of the two schools. Like all those involved in progressive education these were challenging tasks, much more so than those in authoritarian institutions where the relationship between adults and young people is very clearly defined and there is no doubting who is in charge.
In this wonderful, relevant book the voice of the young person is strong and clear and it will remind all those working with schoolchildren to listen and to demand the very best from all those they work with.