by David Gribble


I first encountered an alternative to conventional education when I was twenty-six, having already found much to object to in the school where I was teaching. One day when I was browsing in a bookshop I came across a description of Dartington Hall School, which seemed to answer all my objections. Within a year I was teaching there.
Almost thirty years later, when Dartington Hall School closed, a group of the children and staff, of whom I was one, started Sands School, which had even more radical principles, I worked there for five years until I reached the age of sixty.
For all those years, I had been searching for an ideal system of education. Teaching is such a demanding occupation that I had to concentrate my attention on the school I was working in, usually trying to solve problems rather than to develop new ideas. It was not until after I had retired that I began to realise how much there was to learn from other schools, all round the world, that shared the same principles and ideals but had found different ways of putting them into practice.
In conventional schools children are literally prisoners: the law keeps them in. Learning according to inclination is not an option; children's inclinations are not considered relevant; adults tell them what they must learn. They make the best of it and enjoy themselves as much as they can, but they are always under someone else's authority, unable to conduct themselves as they would wish, unable to follow up their own interests. School seems to be designed to destroy their individuality, to turn them all, as the Swiss teacher Jürg Jegge says, into cogwheels that will fit smoothly into the machinery of society.
Governments cannot make schools ideal merely by altering the amount of topic work or testing children more often or buying more computers or improving the staff-student ratio. The ideal school must have an entirely different atmosphere. It must not even try to manufacture cogs.
Dan Greenberg, of Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, has commented that when compulsory education was introduced in the nineteenth century, parents objected because it prevented their children from learning anything useful. They wanted their children at home, observing and helping adults at work, teaming the things that they would need in the future. Time directed by a teacher was time wasted.
Nowadays people seem to believe the opposite - for children, time not directed by a teacher is time wasted. The pendulum has swung too far. Educationists have become so fascinated by the concept of teaching that they have forgotten to consider what children actually need to learn.
Ideal school-leavers would be literate and numerate, of course, but they would also be happy, considerate, honest, enthusiastic, tolerant, self-confident, well-informed, articulate, practical, co-operative, flexible, creative, individual, determined people who knew what their talents and interests were, had enjoyed developing them, and intended to make good use of them. They would be people who cared for others because they had been cared for themselves.
Conventional school organisation seems designed to produce superficially competent people who, underneath, are evasive, self-interested, ruthless, frustrated, cautious, obedient, timid conformists; they will be complacent about approved achievements and easily humiliated by public failure; they will have spent so much time at school struggling to acquire knowledge that does not interest them and skills that are irrelevant to them; they will probably have lost all confidence in the value of their own true interests and talents. They will be people who don't care much about others, because most other people have never seemed to care much about them.
The school curriculum is supposed to equip young people for life. If you think back to yourself as a school-leaver, do you see yourself as having been equipped for life? Do you see yourself as having been a knowledgeable person even within the narrow limits of the subjects that you studied in classes? Since you embarked on your adult career, have you not in fact forgotten most of what you were taught? How are you now on the periodic table, long division, Chaucerian English? I would suggest that the lesson that you remember most clearly from all those years in school is simply the importance of doing what is expected of you, the importance of fulfilling a proper function as a cog.
All over the world there are conventional schools that ignore children's curiosity, suppress their energy and overrule their generous moral impulses. And all over the world, as I have at last discovered, there are people who have seen the damage that this does, and have set up schools that are different. Eighteen of these schools are the subject-matter of this book. They are schools which decline to train children to become cogs, and indeed help children who have been so trained to lose their "coggishness."
In all of these schools the adults have a fundamental respect for the children and believe it is right to allow them to develop naturally as themselves. Children are not seen as clay to be moulded or pots to be filled; they are not regarded as trainee adults, but as people, just like anybody else.
It follows that it would have been inappropriate to rely principally on the teachers for my information. The views of current or former students (or sometimes both), are included in the description of almost every school.
The schools are arranged in historical order, by the date of foundation. For chapters seven and twelve the dates of the first schools to be founded have been used. I have visited all the schools except for Neel Bagh and the Kleingruppe Lufingen. In most I spent at least a week.
I chose the schools because I knew them, was impressed by them and felt them to be sufficiently distinctive to warrant separate description, or because what I had heard or read of them promised interest and surprises. I was not disappointed. The first entry in my diary for one of my last visits begins "Astonished all over again."

Back to the bookstore