Monday, July 27, 2015

A Good School: A History of Michael Hall: a Steiner Waldorf School - by Joy Mansfield (with Brien Masters & Stephen Sheen)

“Who forgets the past, loses one eye; who lives in the past loses both eyes,” says the proverb. Without personal history we lose ourselves; without communal history we are alienated from cultures in which humanity is embedded. However, the proverb contains a warning: preoccupation with the past can blinker both present & future. With an institution, such as a school, something similar can be said: the spirit of an organisation is revealed through its past, but that spirit lives only in devotion to the needs of the present, guided by a common-sense for the future.

England has a long tradition of independent, “Public”, schools, tastefully parading their long histories & gilt-edged lineages of former “great & the good” (not to mention Prime Ministers) along with their playing fields & neo-gothic facades. Waldorf schools in Britain have relatively short histories & very different aims to those of those “elite” independent schools. Nonetheless, Michael Hall’s example is one that others might learn from. The life of a school is intense, absorbing & continually in movement, just as children usually are. Asking the question, “where have we come from?” can soon wilt in the glare of immediate concerns. If allowed to wither away completely, then the question, “where are we going?” also dries up, replaced by a series of more-or-less enticing tomorrows, the like of which, Wise-Acre tells us, “never arrive”. Every institution, & every school in particular, needs people connected with it who can stand aside from the hurly-burley, embodying its history: every progressive activity, however youthful, needs its elders. “A Good School” is Joy Mansfield’s labour of love, one which the late Brien Masters &, Stephen Sheen helped to deliver as a richly illustrated & imposing coffee-table volume: a book which conveys the essence of its subject. Stephen Sheen is especially to be congratulated in seeing the book through to completion.    

The story of “A Good School” starts with Joy Mansfield’s own connection to Michael Hall. The personal & the institutional are set side-by-side. What emerges is a picture in which individual intent, the destiny of place & the destiny of those who worked for or on behalf of the school is colourfully drawn. Inevitably, parts of the book consisting of reflections & reminiscences from a number of different people can seem rather uneven &, at times, the text reads like a series of interjections or footnotes. Occasional sections of the text seem over-detailed or over-personalised, closer in spirit to a Christmas round-robin letter from former neighbours than fully researched biography: the authors embrace their subject; rarely do they treat it critically.

Nonetheless, the phases & cycles in the life of Michael Hall are well depicted. The founding years of idealism & sacrifice, the phase of building, that of consolidation, change & development & , finally, that of an “accomplished institution”. These phases & cycles (especially those linked to national economic conditions) will be familiar to many enterprises & especially to other Steiner Waldorf schools. A Good School, notes wryly that, while Rudolf Steiner recommended one hundred pupils as viable number for its founding, the actual roll at the beginning (in Streatham) was “five day pupils” & “two boarders”. Not surprisingly, making ends meet was a major existential threat to the fledgling school. A contribution from Laurence Harwood, quoting a letter written by his mother, Daphne Harwood, which includes an insight into the financial planning early on: estimated income is calculated as £1000 (based on “fifty children”), but expenses of “£1200 or £1400, noting that, “some teachers would no doubt be prepared to forgo part of their salaries”, but adding “let us find out Rates & Taxes at all events”. If we allow for nearly a century of growth economics, which make the 1924 figures seem trivial by modern comparisons (Hansard reports the typical rate paid to a skilled worker in 1920 was 40 shillings, or £2 per week), that situation is likely to be familiar to contemporary schools: pay the bills & adjust salaries accordingly. One advantage the founding teachers had, however, was that some of them had private family incomes, something, once common, that has all but disappeared from the modern middle classes. That, however, does little to diminish the nature of the risk of the enterprise for those founding it.

Events pay a role in determining success or failure of any initiative & Michael Hall, still called the “New School” (which is the name Steiner had suggested) & Waldorf education in the UK certainly benefitted those that resulted in the Second World War. Evacuation from London to Minehead, as well as the influx of long-term students of Anthroposophy fleeing Germany under National Socialism, enabled the schools to gain strength in a way that staying in Streatham might have prevented. Similarly, with the end of hostilities, there was opportunity to purchase large properties, generally those requisitioned for the war effort, at relatively low cost. The Kidbrooke Park & estate, including what became the school’s boarding hostel (later sold), was bought in 1945 for a total of £50 000. The immediate grounds with Kidbrooke House, valued at £30 000would have been roughly twenty-five times the cost of an average family house; a current comparison could give a value for such a property of as much as sixty times that of the house.                 

As numbers grew, the reader is given a view of the new problems to be solved, or of old ones returning with greater intensity. Large properties provide wonderful opportunities, but are costly to maintain & the book is unsparing in its discussion of these; & there were other threats to the school too, like the threatened by-pass. Such worries, natural & inevitable as they are, nonetheless have a secondary place. The centre of interest a school must be its pupils & this reader is grateful that the voices of former pupils are represented throughout, A Good School, including, of course, that of Joy Mansfield herself.

This book with its generous allocation of photographs, viewpoints & differing narratives is beautifully presented. One might be tempted merely to leaf through it for that reason alone, but the text with all its eccentricities, sometimes conflicting thoughts & differing perspectives deserves attention too. The choice of cover design signifies something of this.                           

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