No Master High or LowNo Master High or Low: Libertarian Education and Schooling in Britain 1890-1990

by John Shotton

Brief accounts of forty-eight variously libertarian schools are divided into five groups - schools and Sunday Schools 1890-1930, private schools, schools for the unschoolable, libertarian schools inside the state system, and the Free School Movement 1960-1990. Introductions and conclusions to each section link the whole into a coherent, stimulating history.

ISBN 0-9513997-4-X


 Out of print




Reviewed by David Gribble

I found No Master High or Low an extraordinarily interesting book. I have already read it twice. This is most surprising, because it is a book about the history of education, a subject which I usually find so dry as to be almost unreadable.

What makes it such an exception? First it is not a history of mainstream education, but of libertarian alternatives, which immediately establishes a dramatic conflict; the fate of each venture is another episode in the story. Secondly it is well-written and includes a delightful number of unfamiliar but telling quotations from the various protagonists. Thirdly it is tightly constructed; the interest never flats, in spite of the fact that forty-seven initiatives are described individually in only 273 pages.

The construction is formal. Between the introduction and the conclusion there are five separate sections, each with is own introduction and conclusion. Theses sections deal with the anarchist Sunday Schools and international modern schools on the Ferrer model, independent progressive schools, schools for the unschoolable, libertarian ventures in state schools, and the free schools of the early seventies. I was delighted to find that of these five sections only one dealt with fee0-paying independent schools, and that of the forty-seven schools mentioned only nine fall into this category. John Shotton has given ample evidence to disprove the allegation that libertarian education is find for the children of liberal middle-class parents but inappropriate for anyone else. In fact it is even more important for underprivileged children, because the experience is entirely new to them.

The curious fact emerges that the state will only fund libertarian education for you when you have proved that you are rebellious and irresponsible. The idea that only the irresponsible rebels should be allowed to decide how their schools should be run is not only perverse in itself, but also unfair on those who are easy-going enough to accept the status quo.

Within each section is a description of each of half a dozen schools. The variety of approach is astonishing. The Anarchist-Socialist Sunday School in Mile End was started by Nellie Dick when she was fourteen years old, was open on Sundays and weekday evenings and had adults and children learning alongside each other. Summerhill is a co-educational fee-paying boarding school, where lessons are voluntary and such regulations as exist are devised and implemented by a weekly school meeting of children and staff. Rowen House School for girls under stress, who are generally paid for by the local authority; problems are deal with by the Moot, a school meeting which takes place at the beginning of each day. The girls are encouraged to make contacts with the local community, whereas Summerhill is much more inward-looking.

Barrowfield Community School was started at the request of a tenants’ association, with the help of Jordanhill College; children and parents worked together to decide what the school should be like, but one of the things they decided they had to do was play the )-Leven and A-Level game, and play it well. Every school described has its own special character. What they have in common is a genuine respect for children, a desire to enable them to learn what they themselves feel they need to learn, and a rejection of hierarchy.

John Shotton is also interested in the political behaviour of the staff. Why did so few of the schools survive more than four or five years? Why has there never been an organized movement of libertarian teaching? Why have schools not supported each other? As the book progresses we see school after school closed by some superior authority, schools giving up after a few years because the staff have become exhausted by the struggle and the isolation, schools beaten by financial problems, schools dying when a single charismatic figure leaves. Mutual support, learning from each other’s experience and a national profile for a libertarian movement might have saved many of them.

I have taught in libertarian schools for most of my life, and I know a few sad answers. Teachers in libertarian schools are interested in children and not politics; they give their entire lives to their own pupils, and they have no time for conferences or political action. Each school jealously guards its own individuality, and believes that it has a unique way of handling problems which must not be contaminated by influences from outside. Always slightly unsure of themselves, schools need to look down on others in order to boost their own self-esteem. When you life is devoted to breaking down the desire to confirm, the idea of joining a movement is anathema. Trusting, child-focused and lacking in confidence, libertarian teachers are bad at defending themselves.

However, the book shows that there is a fresh assault on authoritarian education roughly every twenty years. We are due for one now [1993]. In the last section of the book there is an example of each of four of John Shotton’s categories from the late eighties – Blackcurrent, a school based in a housing co-operative, Sands, a fee-paying independent school, Lady Jane Grey Primary School and Bath Place School Unit for children excluded from the system. Let’s hope that this time we can keep things moving. It will be a good start for all of us to read this book.


ISBN 09513997 3 X - 292 pages with photographs


 Related items