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.