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THE RELEVANCE OF WENNINGTON

KENNETH C. BARNES

December 1978

 

In the nineteen-thirties, teachers from the progressive schools met in conferences at irregular intervals; but after the war they got together to form the Coeducational Conference, to meet regularly. For many years conferences were well-attended and an outcome was the Dartington Colloquy, held in 1965, at which teachers from the progressive schools were joined by staff from state schools, colleges of education, university departments, by H.M.Is., research workers, psychologists, in an attempt to assess the value of our group of schools. It was a most lively and encouraging interchange and was written up in Maurice Ash's book: Who are the Progressives Now?

 

Though Wennington produced many teachers, few teach in indepen­dent schools, but one of these is Richard Jones, at Frensham Heights, and he is trying to hold the Coeducational Conference together. He is finding it difficult. Why? Is it that the battle is won? Is there nothing left to challenge? This seems true in relation to coeducation, with girls now being admitted to boys' boarding schools and Oxbridge colleges, those institutions whose inmates almost fainted with horror at the thought forty years ago. What is left to challenge? Was there anything special about Wennington that, had it not died, would have remained relevant to educational and social needs today?

 

Reports come to me from teachers suggesting that this rapidly expanded coeducation has not been accompanied by recognition of the need it exposes and the opportunity it provides. Sex education often remains inadequate, if provided at all, rarely getting beyond physical facts; whereas for our group of schools it was related to the experience of community life and responsibility, a recognition of the primary importance of personal relationships in growing towards maturity.

 

The expression "small is beautiful" is well known now, the title of Dr. Schumacher's book. It makes an attack on giantism in industry and administration, which results in a destruction of human dignity and personality. The employment of people in huge undertakings leads to a feeling of insignificance, to "alienation", a loss of identity. There is little to encourage responsibility when each one makes only a limited and routine contribution to a final product. Dr. Schumacher - who died recently - had wide productive and business experience, he was no mere theorist and his book made a big impression.

 

His thesis applies even more obviously to education, and he has a chapter on it. Should not education be above all a humanly sensitive activity? There is an article today (Jan. 2nd) in The Guardian by Prof. E.c. Wragge about the consequence of the comprehensive policy. He does not argue against the comprehensive idea, but describes the result in increased size - between 1000 and 2000: the unavoidable bureaucratic control and attitudes within such schools.

 

“Certain areas of face-to-face human relations become bureaucratised" - and that, it seems, is putting it mildly. He shows how, as schools become larger, concerns that really belong together become departmentalised and distorted, as shown specially in the U:S., where at its worst teaching, classroom control, pastoral care, career advice and even punishment are dealt with by groups each having its own autonomy. Many teachers are aware of what is going wrong, "hence the nostalgic yearning for smaller, more intimate, units where interpersonal relations seemed to be natural rather than sculptured ."

 

Some large schools have struggled to create within their structure social units in which people should be more able to know and care for each other. Good fortune to such efforts! for there is probably no going back to bigness, short of a breakdown in society 'or a break­down in education itself such as Ivan Illich foresaw in his

Deschooling Society.

 

In the meantime, do schools like Wennington have any relevance? Yes, because they supply a small number of people who have actually had the kind of experience that others know they need but can't get. This is not to claim superiority but to emphasize that we do need variety of experience in the young adults on whom our future depends. I am saddened when I see politicians who in general seem to seek a better social and economic system, wanting every child to be educated (I am almost tempted to say processed) in a legally enforced universal structure. It would be deplorable if every teacher in a comprehensive school had himself been educated only in such a school, had no experience outside the system or of any school initiated by personal eagerness and kept going by personal commitment.

 

Whatever the future holds, there are bound to be great changes. Inflation is only one result of an economic structure that is inherently unstable. All political policies are little more than palliatives and governments cannot look more than a few years ahead, because human feelings shake everything. Paranoia is the all-corrupting pandemic disease of mankind; the first impulse seems everywhere to see an enemy, to look over the shoulder and cry "Unfair!", to feel deprived and look for someone to blame. Our greatest need is for people who recognize and can begin to resolve this obstacle to cooperation and real justice. Perhaps we can claim that among them there will be people who have lived in a community small enough for responsibility to be given in some measure to all, where the results of irresponsibility can be clearly seen and dealt with by common consent, where those who have leadership are in daily contact with those who have least authority, where the senseless "chip on the shoulder" can be brushed away by fearless friendship.

 

Wennington was a school community in which an apparently hopeless mess or an unexpected situation was not a disaster, but an opportunity that called for insight and action even in those who thought themselves least important, and in which a fearless relation­ship between pupils and staff generated ideas to put into practice. Wennington was known to relatively few people and its life was brief; it will soon be forgotten. But the need it tried to fill will be always there in society, the need for people who are not daunted by confusion and who have the courage to face situations that are totally unexpected, situations where administrators are bewildered and computers irrelevant. It did not breed the exceptional at the expense of the ordinary, because it saw potential in all.

 

I am often asked: "Didn't Wennington people get a shock when they got out into the world - a world that is so different?" I used to answer: "Yes, and I'd be sorry if they didn't; but I hope they were challenged to action by the difference, not defeated by it."

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