Monday, 19 October 2020

What to do?


The cherry tree, whose pink blossoms heralded the approach of Spring, is now bringing on another change as its leaves begin to turn the colour of flames. The apple trees are full of fruit, yellow/green and reds that sparkle in the Autumn sunlight; wasps sleepily devour the fallen, rotting carcasses. Early morning mists can be seen lying across the fields and encircling the far woods; the sun now sets low over the woods behind the house.

As the year slowly settles into deepening Autumn, in gentle stillness some days and wild wet storms on others, modern life continues to unravel. The balance and harmony of the turning year is represented by colours changing, movement of birds and animals and a feeling of preparation for the conservation of energy in anticipation of rebirth. Humanity, so out of touch, scrabbles about to avoid, ignore, and desperately engage with the opening of a new decade of chaos – so much the outcome of greed and self-centred behaviour. 

This morning there is much activity of small birds in the garden; at the base of one of the apple trees a spotted woodpecker is working hard to dislodge the loose bark to find the insects beneath. A strong breeze sends down jewelled leaves that scatter across the grass. 

It appears we are reaching the end as we drown under waves of words and images that are serving to create a two-dimensional world of right or wrong, for or against, you or me. The language of conflict is used to divide and feed ideas of safety in separation. Those who have built walls to protect the obscenity of their wealth and possessions continue to send messages of aspiration to the young – ‘you can be like me if you work hard enough.’ But the reality is that ‘you’ll be working hard to make the likes of me even richer’.

I wrote the last blog on 13th April and it still appears that many countries around the world are struggling to come to terms with Covid-19. It is interesting that a significant number of countries experiencing the greatest chaos are those with male-dominated, authoritarian, nationalist governments, desperately trying to ensure that their backers are making money, whilst simultaneously controlling information and communication so they are not tarnished by the deaths of thousands of their country's inhabitants.

As the cold darkness of a Norther European winter approaches, we face the necessity of relearning our existence; finding out what we need to do to stay healthy, socially alive and exploring what we can do to ensure that harmony, balance and wisdom come to the surface of our daily lives. For not only does it seem that the effects of the virus will not diminish, indeed the winter months are likely to see an increase in infections, but the UK has to contend with Brexit; a project driven by conflict, aggression and misinformation.

What to do?

Monday, 13 April 2020

Coronavirus Blog

A few people were wearing masks when we entered Bangalore airport at five in the morning. The small number of cafes that were there were shut, and not many people were about. It was early February this year.

I found a seat whilst Maggie went to have a look around to see what might be open. It was not long before I became aware of the overweight, old man just a few seats away from me; he was wracked in paroxysms of coughing. His coughs came straight from his lungs as he struggled to dislodge some secretion deep inside, and his faced turned rapidly from white to purple. He did nothing to impede whatever matter was projected from those depths; no handkerchief, no tissue, no crook of the arm, not even a hand. I moved away from him.

When we had taken our seats on the plane the same man came stumbling down the aisle and took his seat with much wheezing and grunting, between two young Indian men not far from where we were sitting. Once he had settled himself, he proceeded to surrender to a succession of coughing fits, much to the disturbance of his neighbours. Luckily, soon after we had taken off, he slept for most of the following ten hours. He was not a well man.

Today is Finley’s twelfth birthday, our eldest grandson living in Worthing, and we are unable to visit him. Last week was the birthday of youngest son, Josh, who lives in Oxford, normally we would see him as well. We have planned to stay with our son, Joel, in Copenhagen next month; and, in early June, we were expecting to visit our eldest son, Tom, in Lisbon. These journeys will not take place.

In India vast numbers of migrant workers have been forced by lockdown to travel from the cities in which they were working to their home villages, the majority having to walk for miles without food and water. For the homeless and the poor, who live in cramped conditions, social distancing is impossible, and access to food has been severely limited. Similar conditions are being experienced throughout the world. Jobs have been lost and incomes have dried up with no prospect of improvement ahead. People are dying attached to machines and connected to tubes, surrounded by nurses and doctors who are only identifiable as human through the outlines of their bodies encased in protective clothing. There are no relatives, no friends to hold them, no human face, no peace. It is a catastrophe well beyond human control.

I am sitting writing this in the warmth of a Spring day masquerading as Summer. The cherry tree has blossomed and is at the stage where the fragile petals are drifting to the ground to be replaced by fresh green leaves. All the trees around have that green sheen of new leaves, bees buzz noisily over the grass from dandelion to daisy and then daisy to dandelion. There are a few new lambs in the field at the end of the garden, and the smell of growth and renewal is in the air. Occasionally the scent of bluebells steals across the land from nearby woods. Birds of all variety are gathering for their nests, singing to each other, calling for new life.

However, there is deep disturbance in the consciousness of humanity. It is, of course, possible to cement that wall around yourself in this world of horrific injustice, greed and self-absorption; what you cannot see does not exist. It is possible to separate yourself from all suffering until it comes knocking on your door. We can drum up the language of war to raise the spectre of the enemy outside with which we are doing battle and indulge in the sentiment of victory or defeat. We look to leaders as if we were compliant children, responding to their words with surges of emotion, taking courage from the illusion that they are acting in the interests of all the population.

Are we learning as this crisis moves from moment to moment? Can we observe any changes taking place in our assumptions? Or are we so fixed on getting through each day and returning to the old normality that we are essentially unaware of what is happening around us?

Our frailty is being exposed; our interdependency highlighted; and the imperative to take care of the vulnerable written clear in the way forward to a more just, sustainable and compassionate planet. We are working for the survival of the species; all living things.

May you be safe and healthy.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Fifty Years of Brockwood Park School

In 1975 the well-known theoretical physicist, David Bohm, wrote an article in the Times Educational Supplement on Brockwood Park School titled ‘An Experiment in Learning’ (David Bohm’s Participation in Jiddu Krishnamurti schools).

In this article David wrote:
‘Brockwood Park Education Centre was set up in January 1969, to inquire into a fundamental question posed by J Krishnamurti – can the members of a community of staff and students free themselves, as they learn and live together, from their background of destructive conditioning.’
In 1969 an old mansion house with just under 40 acres of grounds was acquired to create a school. The building stood at the top of a hill on the edge of the South Downs equidistant between Petersfield and Winchester. At this time the founder, J Krishnamurti, had already established two schools in India, Rishi Valley School near Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh in 1931 and Rajghat Besant School on the banks of the Ganges near Varanasi in 1934. During the 1970s further schools in India and one in California were created.

There were several aspects to Brockwood Park that were set up as central to its operation. It was to be international, fully residential, small in size - catering for up to seventy-five students aged from fourteen to nineteen, co-educational, and the diet was to be vegetarian. Fees would be kept significantly lower than most UK independent schools and a bursary fund would be maintained at as generous a level as possible to enable help to be given to students who might not be able to afford the fees. Academically, the subjects covered in the curriculum would be those necessary to obtain entrance to university. However, learning was not seen to be confined purely to the accumulation of knowledge. In one of his ‘Letters to Schools’ Krishnamurti expands on his observation of learning as –
‘The whole movement of life is learning. There is never a time when there is no learning. Every action is a movement of learning, and every relationship is learning.’

Fifty years on these aspects continue to underpin the ethos of Brockwood Park School.
There are, of course, many other elements present the school that are in harmony with its initial foundation. Comparison, conformity and competition are viewed as being central to the fragmentation of the individual and therefore society, thus seriously impeding the exploration and understanding of the unity of life. Whereas, these three elements appear to be integral to mainstream education globally.

Systems of punishment and reward also are to be found in the vast majority of mainstream schools ensuring that effective discipline is used to maintain order in these institutions. These do not exist in Brockwood. There are ‘consequences’ that are a result of behaviour that goes directly against the ‘agreements’ drawn up by staff and students together. However, those consequences will always begin with discussions in order to encourage a spirit of reflection and understanding, encouraging students in taking greater responsibility for themselves and their actions. Occasionally, the behaviour is such that the feeling is that the student should be asked to go home for a period of time. Sometimes, after much deliberation a student may be asked to leave the school.

Settled in this elevated position, surrounded by lawns and many varieties of trees, the life of the Brockwood resembles more of a community than a conventional school. This is both a strength and a challenge. The majority of the students have never attended a residential school, and most of the staff arrive with little experience of what it means to live their daily lives in close proximity to so many teenagers from over twenty different countries. Consequently, the admission and appointing processes for both students and staff are considerably more exhaustive than those held by most other institutions. After submitting written applications both prospective staff and students are invited to attend the school for a week. At the end of the week, interviews are held to find out from these ‘prospectives’ what they thought of the school and whether they felt it would be a place in which they could thrive. When they have departed students and staff talk over their various reactions to the individuals so that a decision can be reached as to whether the applicants will be offered a place or not.

Another facet of the school as a community is the fact that students and staff share in keeping the place clean and tidy. They work together in the walled garden that produces vegetables for the school, help maintain the grounds, clean communal areas, bathrooms and toilets. This has created an atmosphere where daily life is a collective experience; challenging through its intensity of interaction and yet allowing the possibility of depth in relationship. Compassion and affection are acknowledged as essential to living life harmoniously together.

All residential teachers are paid the same whatever their role, and no special importance is given to any particular function – every task is viewed with equal importance.

What do students go on to do when they leave Brockwood? Being a truly international school, it is evident that the majority of students leave with the sense that they are global citizens – that the world is open to them. This may involve travelling for some length of time; finding a university in a country they have never visited; or seeking work somewhere that interests them, to learn the language and find out more about the culture. Many will eventually take up further study; however, there is a tendency to carefully consider what really interests them when looking for courses to follow.

Do the students have to do exams? No. Many do A Levels, but it is just as possible to create and work on a project or projects. The intention is to encourage and support a sense of being responsible for oneself whatever path is chosen. To develop an independent mind that is not dominated by what others say ‘should’ be done.

Do students become successful people? In a world that is obsessed with success and failure, a central part of the schools either founded on, or influenced by Krishnamurti’s teachings is to question what is generally assumed to be success in this life. It is goodness that these schools are concerned with, something that goes beyond the mechanical, the measurable.

Brockwood Park School continues to be ‘an experiment in learning’, and it is a human experiment, subject to human frailties and misunderstanding. However, the question posed by Krishnamurti as to whether we can free ourselves from our background of destructive conditioning as we learn and live together is of immense relevance to all humanity. We  are facing an array of challenges that threaten our own survival.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The War against Children

‘Yes, I think we can safely say we have won the war against children.’

He had just sat down, fatty jowls melting into the stiff white collar of his shirt. He looks around the room at his colleagues. They are mostly men, mostly aged fifty or over and are suitably dressed in black or dark grey sobriety. Their ties add a dash of colour against a sea of pink/white faces. The room is heavy with history; high-ceilinged with long windows letting in grey light that is absorbed by the oak panelling. There are a few women present, but they are barely visible.

Here we have the Education Policy Committee in all its drab splendour. It is the War Cabinet, the Centre of Operations. They exist all around the world. The faces will be different. The mode of dress may be less constrained. There may also be a few women, but they are still barely visible.

The fat man taps his laptop and eerie lights enliven the ghost-like faces of his fellows as their individual machines fire up.

‘Please look at this presentation that I have had prepared for you.’

A ripple of excitement trembles around the room.

‘Here are some examples of the many lovely new schools that have been built over the last few years. May I remind you that the majority of these have been paid for by private businesses or from the proceeds of selling off excess assets such as unnecessary large playing fields.’

He looks around the room for approval; which duly arrives.

‘They are very shiny!’

‘Lots of glass and natural light.’

‘Very rectangular – no space wasted.’

‘Lovely big corridors!’

Two plump, short fingered hands are held up to stop the flow. He pauses…

‘And, of course, they are all wired up for the 21st Century.’

The fat man shines with self-congratulation.

He continues…

‘Each of these buildings is built to hold at least a thousand children. Inside they are designed so that every age group has its own area and provision is made for the gifted and talented. You will see from the specimen plan in front of you that there is also a space away from the general teaching area. This is the unit where special needs are addressed. You will notice there are no windows here – less distraction. Also, there is a room off this which most schools are calling the isolation unit, where those who have misbehaved have to spend a certain amount of time alone.’

He pauses…

‘As for behaviour, I know this is something we have all been concerned about for some time.’ 

A subdued chorus of assent arises from the screen-lit faces. A sound perhaps more akin to the clucking of hens than anything else.

‘I am pleased to inform you that the vast majority of schools have taken up our recommendations in this area. Things like the intensive use of sanctions and the creation of order for smooth running. There are many other interventions such as one-way corridors and even security guards.’

Another chorus of approval, although this had more of the sound of sheep rather than chickens.

‘Roger, could you do your presentation on uniforms now, please?’

Roger grins slyly as he clicks into his programme, and all laptops flicker with images of blazers, ties, trousers, school emblems and shoes. Roger is younger than many around him and he has that special intensity of one who knows he is going places.

He begins…

‘From the start our watchwords have always been, identification, belonging, self-esteem, fitting in, serious study, smartness, meaning business and mirroring adult achievement.’

A voice chips in…

‘And formality. Don’t forget the importance of formality.’

Roger’s thin white face sucks in on itself as he looks round for the culprit. This immediately transforms into a sickly smile when he realises these are the words of the fat man.

Roger hurriedly returns to his presentation…

‘Of course, formality. We have been requiring schools to use uniform as the first line of discipline for some time. We take the military view of how to succeed – clean, tidy, attention to detail and pride in appearance. Sanctions must be strong to ensure compliance.’

‘Excellent. Thank you, Roger. Very good work.’

The fat man rises, belly straining over trousers.

‘To conclude this meeting, I want to draw your attention briefly to the final part of my presentation.’

He pauses as if to give his audience time to gather themselves to receive his wisdom…

‘Over the years our biggest campaign success has been our ability to maintain an overwhelming fear factor in education. This we have managed by laying greater and greater emphasis on exams as the only way to achieve in life; by ensuring increasing competition and comparison at every level, and by making sure schools operate within limited budgets. Fear keeps us in the driving seat, it is our control mechanism and keeps schools compliant. Fear is our most powerful weapon.’

He pauses before delivering the final sentence. His pleasure with himself eclipses the combined glow of the assembled laptops.

‘We have won the war and are now successfully maintaining the occupation! All objectives achieved.’

He is about to sit down with as much of a flourish as a man of that bulk can obtain. When there is a cough from one of the recesses of the room. A small, grey-haired woman flutters her hand for attention like a limp butterfly …

‘What about the children? What about the teachers?’

Her voice is measured and calm, her face is barely visible in the half light.

An ungainly sound whispers through the room – a tittering derision.

‘The children, my dear lady, are exactly where we want them; as are the teachers.’

Lights go up. Laptops close. And with an expansively arrogant gesture, the fat man invites the room to empty.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

A Brief Glimpse into a Life of one of the Ruling Class?

I am in the process of writing my memoir as an educator from my schooling to my life in progressive/alternative education as a teacher; a journey taken by way of India. As I have been working on the early years of my education, I have been observing the disintegration of British politics through the lens of my own upbringing. White males steeped in privilege and bolstered by the myths of colonial superiority have dominated the political landscape throughout British History. Institutional arrogance, intellectual bullying, and competitive cunning are the qualities that appear to unite ‘the ruling classes’, successful by-products of the Public School System. Compassion, empathy and sensitivity have so often been lost in the fight to survive the deprivations of these boarding schools.

Change is coming, but it is not one orchestrated by these emotionally stunted men.

Below is an extract from my memoir in progress.

‘I was embarking on, or to put it more accurately, was being placed on a pathway designed for the ruling classes, at whatever level of ruling that might be. This pathway could well be called the destiny of deprived privilege. The Great British Public School System was created in the 1860's to supply the British Empire with manpower, future officers and senior administrators educated as successors to take their rightful places in distant lands; to bestow their superiority in the name of civilisation. Very different from the lesser mortals, whose bodies populated the far reaches of the colonies – disposable bodies, bred for factory or fighting, embodying the industrial military machine. This way of educating young men had been designed so that it that ensured a mindset of superiority combined with an unwavering belief in the power of the Empire. The ability to put up with extraordinary discomfort, physical, mental and emotional was an integral part of this upbringing. Now, after two world wars, the British Empire was in its final death throes, fatally wounded and dangerous, but it would live on in the cold climate of my schooling.

The greyness of my garb predicted my entrance to a loveless life. Standing on the step of the front door of my home, pausing before entering the car with its familiar smell of leather seats, I recalled the dark blue trunk that lay inside the boot encased in blackness. I had watched as the starkly new garments of grey and the virgin white underclothes were placed in it. I had noticed a small rectangular piece of cloth sewn on to each item, white with letters of blue sewn in; letters that created a name. This name was not the one which had been used for me up until now, it was that of the family name preceded by two initials, mine - for the next nine years at school I would not have my name. For the next five years this name was also followed by the Latin word ‘minor’ to indicate that someone of the same name was in existence.

My elder brother had the superior epithet of ‘major’ attached to his name. Only thirteen months divided us in age, but the grey journey into manhood he was sent on wrought a separation that could not be reversed. His misery was evident, and he was returning with me - I was not alone.
‘Come on, John. Come on, Andrew. Hurry up.’

Our father was already in the driving seat. Our mother hesitated by the front door, a picture of the conflict of emotions granted to mothers for whom social status triumphed over maternal feeling. There were tears in her eyes.

I gazed at the assembled dogs, au-pair, brothers Peter and Hugh waving. I waved back – never to be the same. We drove slowly down the gravel driveway, young leaves were beginning to unfold in a tender vibrant green, the flowers in the borders threw colour across the well-tended borders. Spring was strong, heralding new, vibrant life.’

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Visit to schools in Southern India founded/influenced by J Krishnamurti: January 2019

India 2019

We’re in a small, rural school in Tamil Nadu.

‘Is this the water that’s alright to drink?’

Outside on the school campus it is already beginning to get quite hot – at least that’s what it feels like to me. Breakfast with the children is over and it is nearly time to join in the presentations around Republic Day that are about to take place in the Art Department.


She looks at me with curiosity as she fills her water bottle from the other urn.
‘So, it won’t kill me then?’


Her curiosity turns to amusement.

‘You see I don’t want to die just yet.’

‘You haven’t got that much longer to live… You’re old!’

Her gaze is direct, very direct.

‘Yes… How old are you?’


‘How old are you?’


‘You have had a long life, so you must be happy.’

‘Yes, I suppose I should be.’

‘I’d be happy to have a long life, like you.’

‘What is your name?’

‘Priya... What’s yours.’


Out side on the school campus the day is already becoming quite hot. Breakfast with the children is over, its Republic Day and nearly time to watch the presentations that are about to take place in the Art Department.

We walk out into the sunshine and I immediately wince as my bare feet make contact with the concrete.

‘That’s hot!’

She laughs and makes her way.

Our time in India this January was coming to a close and this was the final day our final school visit. There had been three visits in the vicinity of Bangalore, one in Andhra Pradesh, and two more in the Chennai area. All these schools have either founded by the educator and philosopher, J Krishnamurti, or deeply influenced by his work.

The man I sat next to at lunch has worked in one of these schools for many years, has been Principal of another, and now was working part time in this school, here in these small purpose-built buildings constructed dotted around the vast flat and grassy land just nine years ago.

I asked him what he felt were the key elements of school founded on Krishnamurti’s teachings.
He replied that he observed that much of the culture of a school is non-verbal, beyond what is written down or spoken. It’s contained in the land and what it communicates, the movement and sounds of animals and birds. It’s contained in the way the children go about their everyday life, the way they converse with adults and each other. It exists in the laughter, the chattering, and the silence. It is held in the stars and darkness, the mist and the heat.

 He added that he also observed the quality of the energy that emerges from this culture is contained in the children and teachers. ‘It can be felt as soon as you enter a school, if you are open to it.’
We had met him several times in the last fifteen years – once in a school deep in the city of Chennai in an oasis of jungle and sand, and another by the banks of the Ganges near the ancient city
In the evening as the sun goes down in the West you can stand on the roof of the guest house and watch the dusk rise and the sun sink into crimson, leaving an orange glow. You can hear the parakeets chatter their way home before you see them. The crows’ harsh calls echo, providing a soundscape to the storks that fly majestically in the distance. Dark comes and all is silent, except for the occasional haunting laugh of the jackal in the distance.

For the last three years Maggie and I have spent January in Southern India visiting these schools. Each time has shown evidence of change in the environment of the schools. In one a wild area has become wilder - supporting the existence of at least one leopard, numerous birds, porcupine, slender loris, so many creatures. The encroachment of the mega-city slowly strangles another school, but its proximity to the forest means that leopards, wild boar, monkeys, so many birds, still roam freely around the campus. Just before we arrived this time three elephants had been seen, and elephant dung had been identified on the path regularly taken travelling from the School to the Study Centre. At the longest established school where ancient granite hills overlook the valley, another year of drought is in progress; here the breeze whispers through the trees and the leaves’ dry rattling replies. Two years ago, there had been a good monsoon and everywhere was overgrown with shades of green; now it is parched yellow/brown.  Another school is in the process of building a new campus amongst fruit trees and granite rocks. Whilst another one is in its first year after having to move to a new, much smaller, campus cleverly designed and constructed around existing broad-leaved teak trees. The land creates its own atmosphere.

In these schools we have also been asking the older children questions over these three years – about how they see their future, and what significance they perceive their education has had and is having on their lives. These meetings have been an important part of our trips. It has been a significant factor of these very diverse schools that we have been able to have friendly, intelligent, thoughtful and articulate conversations with all students. We put the questions we were asking to each child in turn so that there would be a comment from all those present; they were quite happy to contribute, after all there is no right or wrong answer, and they appeared to find the opportunity to think about these things interesting.

To observe, listen and respond to young people in any setting is always interesting, exhilarating, and often challenging to closely held assumptions. Being older does not necessarily mean superiority of understanding, expression or application of knowledge. What it may do is to provide the ability to take what the children say seriously, not interfering in any way with what is being said. However, in these schools the whole existence of psychological authority is questioned, and a strong sense of mutual respect is clearly present.

Our meeting venues from place to place. We met outside under trees, sitting on granite slabs surrounded by birdsong. We met on the pathway, under a beautiful tree outside the school dining hall. We met in the old, open-sided assembly hall where Krishnamurti would often speak to the students. We met in a classroom where we competed with the noise of the fans whirring in an attempt to circulate cool air in the middle of the day. We met in the open space of the Director’s office as he called in the students who were working in the library opposite. Our meetings lasted from half an hour to an hour and a half.

What was said? What gems of wisdom did these bright-eyed, energetic young people come out with? It was not so much what was said, although there were many insights, but how they were communicating. They listened intently to each other, built on what had already been said, and occasionally gently disagreed. At no time in any of the schools was there a feeling of competition – my opinion versus your opinion. We were not aware of any incidents of ‘putting another down’ as so often occurs in groups of schoolchildren – not only schoolchildren by any means.

They spoke about the freedom they experienced and were experiencing in their education – the ability to explore beyond individual subjects, to find things out for themselves, to learn about themselves. They talked about gaining independence and self-reliance both physically and psychologically. Many spoke about the environment in which they were being educated – the space around them; being directly connected to nature and their friendships. The relationship between staff and students featured quite significantly in their comments, the freedom to question without judgement and a willingness to listen.

One girl spoke of the conflict that existed between her and her parents: they were traditional in their outlook and demanded a certain way almost submissive acceptance from her, whilst she was being educated to question and explore. Others outlined the freedom that they were experiencing at school as opposed to their homes. One mentioned the ‘noise’ at home – the constant demands, suggestions as to what he should or should not be doing; at school he felt he could be himself without judgement.

We have walked in the footprints of leopards and elephants; watched the daily life of monkeys, a large deer has crossed our path in the jungle, and a substantial family of wild boar suddenly appeared in the headlights of the stationary car from which we were about to disembark. All manner of birds regaled us with their sounds and the beauty of their flight. We are grateful for their existence, and we are eternally thankful for the friendship and affection we have been shown.

For we, the older ones, must listen to voices of the children as we would listen intently to the song of the birds. We must observe with care all that is around us, the beauty and the destruction. Our moments of silence are vital, but we must add our voices to point out the destruction that is leading to a dying world.

How we educate our young is vital to their future – the future of humanity.  But we must ask the question together: What is education for? And we must get together to explore this before it is too late.

From a teacher one comment echoes  – ‘I think we must look at schools and fundamentally reassess what they are for, and who they are for.’

Monday, 1 October 2018

Why we need Informality in Education

For 34 of my 43 years in teaching I have been referred to as ‘Andrew’ by students and fellow teachers. Andrew is my name – others called me ‘Andy’ when I was at college, but that has never stuck. I have always had difficulty seeing myself as an ‘Andy’, the name holds connotations of one who likes to go out with his mates, have a good time, and be the life and soul of the party – I’m afraid that is not and never has been part of my character, believe me I have tried!

‘How can the children possibly respect you if they call you by your first name?’, my mother was aghast when she heard that I had found a job at a school in which informality of relationship was deemed as integral to its ethos.

‘How can there be discipline when the children can wear what they like?’ She added, as all the formality of her own background and way of life came rushing to the surface like a flood of disbelief. My mother thus encapsulated the authoritarian outlook that has dominated schools for many, many years.

Recently, I read about a mainstream state secondary school that on the first day of the school year made nearly 200 students sit in silence in the school hall for about 2 hours for ‘uniform infringement’.

The school’s stated uniform policy is this –

‘We believe that correct uniform is very important in encouraging self-respect, pride in the school and a sense of community. It’s also an excellent indicator of a student’s attitude, state of mind and readiness for work.’

Bohunt School, Liphook, Hants

An informal ethos in educational establishments questions assumptions about regimenting children, systems of punishment and reward, and allows for relationships to blossom. Undoubtedly, teaching in an informal situation is very challenging – there is no hiding place, no status to cling to, little in the way of a formally designed sense of hierarchy, and there is an obligation to respond to questioning of authority by giving attention to the question itself, and listening to the student.

I have had the very good fortune of teaching in 3 schools* in which informality forms the ground upon which learning takes place. The level of informality has differed in each place, but the school in which I am now working, and have had significant involvement in over the last 40 years or so is probably the most informal.

It is a residential international education centre for around 75 students aged from 14 to 19. Staff and students live together, sharing many of the day to day tasks of taking care of the place and each other. The community exists to learn about what living is – not what someone’s idea of what life is, but to find out what it means to inquire into life with an open mind. This cannot effectively take place in an authoritarian atmosphere; it cannot exist in the systems that exist in most schools. However, this sense of informality does require consideration of others, a willingness to withhold judgement and an acknowledgement that mistakes are made. For learning to be effective there must be affection, which implies a lack of coercion and a willingness to listen.

Formality implies control; the formal gardens that became fashionable in stately homes of the 18th Century are testament to the obsession in taming the wild. And that obsession was also translated to the treatment of children. Formality is mechanical, requiring pre-determined responses and ensuring outcomes that have also been prescribed. Consequently, formality limits freedom, limits spontaneity and denies humanity. Formality forms the basis in the language of fear.
The current approach to education is all about a faceless, standardised production line from which some children will emerge as successful achievers and many others will be spat out as failures, losers. This lugubrious machine hoovers up money as the segregated masses are processed, but the residual fallout of individuals through this system is requiring even more funding.

Learning is the lifeblood of being human; there is no price; there are no limits and learning cannot be formalised.

My mother did change her attitude to the schools in which I taught, even supporting our youngest son in his final year at the school at which I now work. Sadly, the formality of her own upbringing could not leave her. She died after 2 years at a care home where she was seen as a cantankerous, self-important, superior nuisance; until she succumbed to dementia and softened slowly into a self-imposed death – no longer eating or drinking.

*St. Christopher School, Letchworth; Bedales School, Hants; Brockwood Park School, Hants.