June 29, 2012 7:24 pm

Small school of thought

The value of small schools, both to individuals and to communities, might well be incalculable
Schoolchildren drinking milk©Mary Evans Picture Library

Promise: Schoolchildren in Colchester, Essex, 1955

My first school was not just a small school but a very small school indeed. I think there were usually around 27 pupils, taught by two remarkable women: a charismatic, creative dynamo called Miss Allen and quiet, wise Miss Bagehot, who apart from keeping us reasonably calm (and providing voluminous bloomers for little girls who had accidents), I guess performed the same role for her gifted, volcanic colleague and friend.

I was always a little bit afraid of Miss Allen because of this explosive tendency but the brightness with which the school shone, the sense of possibilities it gave us, came from her. I went to Little House school aged five, much older than most children arriving at their first schools today, and with considerable reluctance. I had no great wish to go to school at all; I was very happy at home, with the big garden to explore, the vegetable patch where Mr Appleby in his seventies still hoed and dug potatoes and carrots for me to take down to the kitchen, with its wonderful smells of baking and roasting, the marmalade cat Diddles and then the black cat Dusk to play with – not to mention my mother and father and sister.

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Harry Eyres

But Miss Allen and Miss Bagehot knew first how to win me over and then how to inspire me. It helped that we spent as much time outside as inside, going on nature walks and playing in the long garden with its apple and pear orchard and its long grass. Miss Allen was a passionate environmentalist long before that term was widely used. Her own passion for nature was nurtured partly in Pembrokeshire, where she and Miss Bagehot shared a seaside cottage and where she went on mile-long swims in summer. She taught us the names of flowers and trees and birds. For me this was reconfirmation of an existing passion. (Apparently my first ever conversation with Miss Allen, before I entered the school, was about boobies and noddies. I said there were birds called boobies and birds called noddies; she thought only the former; but I was right, and gained some respect.)

The word “creative” has become horribly overused but to remember what it really means I need only think of Miss Allen. For her creativity was not an optional extra, something to be tacked on after you tackled the utilitarian curriculum of reading and writing and maths, but the burning core of both education and life. Art, writing (especially poetry), drama, music, needlework were all things you did, actively and imaginatively, not things you consumed passively.

The only time I can remember watching television at Little House was for the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, a solemn event in black and white, when for an afternoon the whole world seemed to lose colour, to revert to an earlier and more austere mode.

Normally we lived in a world of intense colours, some of them imaginary. We learned geography on Miss Allen’s magic carpet, which took you to all corners of the globe. You might visit an igloo by crawling under a desk; and then eat whale blubber in the form of nougat. Miss Allen was the opposite of insular.

Little House itself was a magic carpet for those children (the majority) whom it inspired. One near-contemporary of mine sums up its influence on her like this: “It was the absolute bedrock of my future life. It taught me how one wanted to live, to keep nature and poetry and art in one’s life, like breathing.” For me, the free writing Miss Allen encouraged was the start of a lifetime’s obsession and joy and guiding thread.

The only criticism I could make of Little House was that it was not more socially mixed and inclusive. There was a strong link to the local Quaker community of Jordans, but it was a private school and not every parent could afford the fees.

Gladestry Primary School in Powys, mid-Wales, which I visited the other day, is a small state primary school with many of the virtues of Little House (an equally inspiring and dynamic head, lots of individual attention to every pupil, creativity, especially in dance) but which also serves and is at the centre of its small rural community.

According to a campaign led by the parents, the local authority (Powys) wants to close the school, which consistently scores high marks in assessment exercises. Cost-conscious councils tend to be biased against small schools and to believe they are less “cost-effective” than larger ones. But this, according to the UK’s National Association of Small Schools, can be challenged with hard evidence from a number of official reports.

Beyond the hard evidence and the narrow accounting, I would say the value of small schools, both to individuals and to communities, might well be incalculable. How can you calculate the benefit of enabling a child to find the bedrock of their future life? And how can you calculate the benefit of an excellent small school to its local community, to which it is fitted as the right species is to its ecological niche?

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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