• Lifelines - David Gribble

Lifelines was selected as the book of the week in the Times Educational Supplement for January 21st, 2001. Tim Brighouse had this to say about it:

'Books such as this test fundamental beliefs. Do we belong to the libertarian idealistic Left that believes in the fundamental goodness of children? Or are we with the Gradgrind disciplinarian Right, which discounts the "Don't smile until Christmas" theory of discipline, because it thinks children should never smile?'

From Deadlines to Lifelines: a review from the The Joint Newsletter of the Association of Therapeutic Communities, Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, and Planned Environment Therapy Trust

David Gribble has written an important and very readable book on ‘non-authoritarian’ education, his preferred term for liberal or progressive education. For me ‘Lifelines’ now joins other inspiring educational reads, such as ‘Mr. Lyward’s Answer’ by Michael Burn (1956), ‘Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children’ by Maurice Bridgeland (1971), ‘The Learning Game’ by Jonathan Smith (2000) and ‘Ahead of the Class’ by Marie Stubbs (2003). These are books to re-read and mull over.

It was Lyward who insisted that deadlines are no use unless they act as lifelines. Gribble is offering four lifelines, four stories or case studies of pupil-centred, non-judgemental, non-authoritarian education. In each the tenacity, goodness and courage of the staff and children shine through. There is at work an unstoppable force for good which David Wills, one of the pioneers, called love. ‘First and foremost and all the time the children must feel themselves to be loved.’

As for those of us who grumble or have our doubts about mainstream schooling today, well here is a message of great hope – real lifelines for us and others to reach for. Among the deadlines that Lyward warned against are unfair pressure, constant nagging and the running of a person down; teaching to the book and clock rather than responding to the emotional readiness of the child; and a failure to include an element of fun.

‘Lifelines’ grew out of a question that had niggled Gribble for some time. He taught at Dartington for 30 years and was a founder member of Sands School and he had long known about A.S.Neill and Summerhill. But weren’t Summerhill and Dartington privileged to draw from middle class and liberal families? They were schools founded to fit a particular philosophy. What would a school be like which was founded to answer particular children’s needs? Were there such places?

He learnt of four such places which he visited. The first was Barns Hostel, a wartime emergency camp in the Manor valley near Edinburgh for young unmanageable evacuees from Edinburgh.,David Wills ran with his wife Ruth ran it for five and a quarter years (1940 –1945). This was Gribble’s one foray into the past. Local people and Craig Fees (and the PETT archive) were helpful.

Then with his wife Lynette he visited a Puerto Rican High School in Chicago which tries to rescue Puerto Rican children from the gangs, racism, violence and even rapes of their local community and so create a safe educational haven for them. His next place was Moo Baan Dek or Children’s Village in Thailand, the creation of Rajani and Pibhop Dhongchai, where some 150 orphaned or homeless children are housed and looked after in the countryside away from all the perils, distractions and temptations of city life. The fourth and last was Butterflies, a Delhi street children project run by Rita Panicker, a very enterprising and dedicated Indian. Here it was accepted that the street children may have to continue to sleep on the street and earn money but schooling and help could be brought to them.

During his visits he read the literature available, he met people, and he observed. He also tape-recorded interviews. The book is mostly the stories and findings of the people involved in their words. He tops and tails these with some definitions and conclusions. For the rest we are left to go with him and meet the people for ourselves.

Among the lifelines he refers to are firstly the staff’s determination to maintain an unshakeable belief in and affection for the children in their care. This was especially so of David Wills at Barns Hostel and of the Dhongchais at Moo Baan Dek in Thailand. The children came to know that they were loved.

The second was a determination to listen to the children and to understand their needs and so to establish ways of providing for them. The exemplar of this was Mrs. Panicker who would daily ask herself, ‘Am I really listening to the children and taking note of what they are saying?’ As a result in Delhi the street educators who go daily to find the street children, start each contact by giving the children the choice of whether they want to study (from the box provided) or talk about their problems.

The third lifeline was a willingness to establish some form of self-government or shared form of responsibility in the maintenance and improvement of the regime that was on offer. David Wills set up a Citizens’ Alliance which ran for eight months, at times virtually without an staff input, and was then replaced by a Cabinet, a group of six who ran much of the daily life of the evacuees from Edinburgh. In Moo Baan Dek the children took it in turns to chair the weekly meeting and nearly all proved very trustworthy. In Delhi a street children’s newspaper was produced every few weeks which two or three of the children gathered stories for and then had it distributed across the city. It was a paper by the children and for them.

For many of my readers David Wills’ life and work may be a familiar topic. I spent a happy day with staff and pupils at New Barns in May 1990, and I have read two of Wills’s later books. Gribble introduced me to the early Wills - how he had been forced at Wallingford Farm Colony to adopt violent forms of punishment, which he later rejected them because they did not work and hitting people sickened him. Barns Hostel was his breakthrough and salvation.

I urge you to get a copy. Having read it, send it to your MP or to someone who can influence the course of local or national education. I am now going to read his previous book, ‘Real Education: Varieties of Freedom’. Jeremy Harvey

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Lifelines - David Gribble

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