Dartington Hall's sense of community and lack of condescension towards its students made for a welcoming atmosphere. But its emphasis on child-led learning let its pupils down
Dartington Hall school was one of a handful of experimental, co-educational schools founded before the Second World War. It was situated in Devon, in the beautiful thousand-acre estate which had been bought in 1925 by a philanthropic couple-a Yorkshireman and an American heiress. One of their objectives was to build a school in which children would be free from the restrictions and constraints of the educational system which prevailed at the time.
Betrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Sean O’Casey, G.E. Moore, among well-known “free thinkers”, sent their children there; Freud’s grandchildren, Lucian and Clement, were pupils.
The school’s “progressive” ideals were inspired by the American philosopher John Dewey, and involved a wholly unorthodox approach to how children should learn and how teachers should teach. Education, according to this view, was not about one person who knows more than another passing on that knowledge; rather, it was about encouraging children to discover things for themselves. They should be allowed to follow their own interests in their own way and at their own pace; expecting pupils to memorise facts or learn anything by rote was regarded as oppressive.
During the eight years I spent at Dartington these ideas were still regarded by most people as, at best, absurdly utopian or, at worst, hopelessly cranky; later, in the Sixties, many of them were adopted, with disastrous results, in state schools throughout England.
I was sent there in 1948, when I was ten, not because my parents were “progressive” but because most other boarding schools at the time didn’t accept pupils who couldn’t speak English. Until that time I had lived in Jerusalem, speaking German to my family and Hebrew at school. Naturally, I had a hard time at first, particularly as my parents were living abroad; but perhaps not as hard as it would have been at a conventional boarding school.
It took about a year for my English to become fluent at which point my school life gradually began to look up. Luckily for me, there was a terrific craze for roller-skating a year or so after I arrived, and because I had learnt ice-skating in Switzerland, I was a whizz at this “sport”. So my lowly status was considerably enhanced.
We enjoyed a huge amount of freedom-and free time-compared to children in most schools. Classes were very informal and we called teachers by their first names or by nicknames. In other ways too, we were extraordinarily privileged. It was one of the very few schools, for example, where every child had his or her own bedroom. Uniforms were spurned. We wore casual “week-end” clothes. Jeans had not yet become the unisex uniform of Western youth.
In the “Middle School” — for children up to the age of 13 — we were too young to understand the school’s educational philosophy and, luckily, some of the teachers did not seem fully to believe in it. The maths teacher, for example, an elderly lady whose grey hair was tied back in an old-fashioned bun, made us memorise our multiplication tables with the aid of “Smarties tests”. We would be awarded prizes of these much-coveted little multi-coloured chocolates if we did well. This method worked brilliantly (particularly as sweets were still rationed in this post-war period) and I have remembered my times-tables ever since — but it didn’t exactly chime with the school’s anti-rote-learning or anti-competitive ethos.
Most of my memories of this time involve out-of-class activities — going to see a film, for example, which, in those pre-television days, was an intensely thrilling treat. The nearest cinema was to be found in the seaside town of Paignton where, about twice a term, one of the teachers would take us by bus to see the latest “U” (universal, i.e. for all ages) certificate film. The programme would always include two films, one of them a B movie. These shorter, low-budget productions — usually crime stories — which were wonderfully free from “art-house” or any other pretensions, were more lurid and therefore often more gripping than the main feature.
Like all girls in their early teens, we hero-worshipped the stars of the day — Tony Curtis, Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor. (Many years later, at a smart London party, I spent some time politely talking to a stocky middle-aged woman, all the while wondering how I could make my getaway and meet some of the more glamorous people in the room. It was only when another guest joined us that I discovered I’d been talking to Ava Gardner.) On free afternoons, we would often walk to the lovely gardens adjoining the great medieval Hall. There an open-air theatre had been created, surrounded by immaculately groomed hedges. At its edge stood a large stone statue of a reclining woman, known as Big Bottom Bertha. She had a tiny bullet head and huge hindquarters, and was unmistakeably the work of the sculptor Henry Moore. We would spend many hilarious hours climbing around on this curvaceous figure and re-enacting some of the love scenes we’d witnessed on screen. “Take me, I am yours”, “I crave your tender touch,” we would wail. This activity took place exclusively among girls. Boys, as is well known, are much smaller and less developed in their early teens than girls. Because the school was part of a large, cultural community (there was a music school for adults at the Hall itself), it attracted many artistic people and was rightly renowned for its teaching of arts and crafts. We had a wide range of opportunities: we could learn all kinds of musical instruments; we could paint in many mediums in a well-equipped art room; we could be taught how to make clay pots and figurines by a professional potter in a studio complete with potter’s wheel and kiln.
I embarked on several artistic activities with great enthusiasm — but I never advanced very far. As soon as I reached the stage when a bit more effort and concentration were required, I quickly lost heart. For example, I made great strides at the piano, learning quite intricate pieces off by heart; but when it became impossible to make further progress without learning to sight-read, I soon stopped going to lessons. The same happened with my attempts at pottery. At first I produced some amusing, oddly shaped vases and ashtrays. Then, when I began to realise that making proper pots, just like becoming a proficient piano-player, required a great deal of practice, I gave up on this challenging activity altogether. I don’t blame myself for these failures. I blame the school, with its misconceived notion that young pupils should be given lots of choices and should never be pressurised into doing anything unless they felt like it. Only the rarest of children, given the option between practising scales and playing with their friends, will choose to practise. At Dartington, there were no rewards for effort in any subject, artistic or otherwise; nor were there penalties for idleness. As a result, at this stage of our education, we learned very little.
What a waste of our potential. It is during these early years that children have better memories than they will ever have again — for absorbing basic historical facts and dates, for example, or for learning poems by heart. And it is at this stage that habits of concentration and application are instilled. People argue that you can always catch up later and that “happiness” is more important in childhood than knowledge. This seems nonsense to me. Children are eager for information and enjoy knowing things by heart-indeed knowledge is one of the more reliable routes to happiness. I can’t speak for others, but at the age of 13, when we moved to the senior school, my “memory bank” was pretty much empty.
Pupils at the senior school were treated, as far as possible, like adults-adults inhabiting a small, self-contained democratic republic. There weren’t many rules, but those that existed were mostly made at a weekly meeting, a kind of mini-parliament, known as “Moot”. Everyone could attend and anyone could contribute. Like everything at the school, Moot meetings were informal, with most attendees sitting — often sprawling-on the floor, while various motions were discussed and debated. When all the arguments had been put, a vote would be taken — sorting out ways in which everyone could do their share of unpleasant domestic chores, for example. Much later, in our A-level days, a friend (Hilary Dickinson) and I wrote a satirical poem about Moot for the school magazine. Its opening lines were:
Thursday after lunch and the room is full,
How eager they all are to govern their school.
Its theme was a motion put forward by some girls who wanted to change the rules about how to obtain second helpings of food:
The girls to queue are much too shy
In case they catch their boyfriend’s eye
Whether this was a real-live motion or whether we’d invented it I can’t now recall.
Moot meetings was presided over with great incisiveness by our distinguished headmaster W.B. Curry (known as Curry), an acknowledged authority on progressive education, a pacifist and the author of several highly praised books, among them Education for Sanity. Curry, who was headmaster from 1931 to 1957 — throughout my time at the school — was a short, round, bald man with, it seemed to me, a startlingly wizened face. Later I discovered to my astonishment that he was a non-stop womaniser.
It was the school’s policy to trust its pupils to adopt a sensible and conscientious attitude to their studies, as well as to their extra-curricular activities. We were expected and encouraged by the teachers to go to lessons and to participate in school sports, but there were no punishments or sanctions if we didn’t. Similarly we were counted on to abstain from anti-social behaviour. Most children, if trusted to behave responsibly, will repay this trust. We did, by and large, go to lessons, we did play school games, we did perform our share of tedious tasks, and we did behave with consideration to others. It was a social contract that worked.
Whether it would have worked in a larger, less well-endowed school (the senior school contained about 100 pupils) where the children came from less privileged backgrounds, it is difficult to say. I rather doubt it. Even at Dartington, standards of behaviour are said to have deteriorated in later years and there were one or two scandals (the school closed in 1987). But in my time there, the atmosphere was one of easy tolerance and equality. There was no prejudice of any kind, no snobbery, no cliquishness and no bullying — or hardly any. Nearly all the children, including me, were unusually stress-free and happy.
Nevertheless, there was something seriously wrong with this form of education, at any rate as far as I was concerned. The absence of grades for school work, the disapproval of competition, the distaste for ambition, the disdain for structure and discipline, the unlimited freedoms — all these “progressive” ideals resulted in a sapping of our energy. We were too relaxed, too laid-back. A faint aura of lethargy hung over the place. Nobody put much effort, or many hours, into learning — at least not until the pressure of national exams started to loom.
The alternative pastimes — gossiping, flirting, discussing each other’s personalities, lolling around looking at magazines — were too tempting to resist. I recall one day sitting in the school library — I don’t think anyone else was in it — researching a history project. What a pity, I remember thinking to myself, that I don’t have more time for this fascinating and absorbing activity; if I stay in the library much longer I might miss out on chatting with my friends, or walking to the nearest tuckshop to buy sweets, or hearing some important new development in one of the many romantic relationships being conducted at the time, possibly even my own. So naturally I abandoned my researches and left the library. But this idle way of life troubled me even then. The protestant work ethic (by no means the exclusive preserve of Protestants), must have been instilled in me at a very early age. Or, more likely, there is a gene for it.
The subject I most enjoyed when we first arrived at the senior school was Latin. This may have had something to do with the Latin teacher, a sweet, kind, elderly man, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany. He was known as Rosie — short for Rosenberg. Rosie was an old-fashioned teacher — he had to be: you can’t teach first-year Latin — amo, amas, amat — without throwing in a bit of non-progressive rote-learning. (This may be one reason why Latin was dropped by most state schools when they adopted progressive education.) Because of our similar backgrounds, or maybe simply because he had a German accent like my parents, I felt that there was a special rapport between Rosie and me.
At that time, I only had the vaguest awareness of the Holocaust or of anti-Semitism. My parents, wishing to protect me from the knowledge of human evil, had, as far as I remember, never mentioned it; nor had anyone at school. So I knew nothing of Rosie’s story. But he must have known something of mine, and perhaps my feeling of affinity with him stemmed from what I sensed was a heightened interest in my doings, a covert attentiveness towards me in Latin lessons. We could have talked to each other in German, but we never did — a shadow, at that time, hung over the language.
Sadly, Rosie died soon after we took our O-level exams. As there was very little demand at the school for Latin, no one was appointed to replace him. So when I, and one other pupil, decided that we wanted to take A-level Latin, the headmaster conceived the idea of summoning the Latin master from Totnes grammar school once a week to instruct the two of us in the splendours of Virgil, Horace and Tacitus. This scheme worked brilliantly. I can’t remember the man’s name, but I remember what he looked like — tall, bony, dark and dour. And he was a formidable teacher. It was my first and only experience of rigorous, exacting teaching. Not to have done every scrap of one’s homework would have been unthinkable. I thoroughly enjoyed two years of this stimulating grammar school approach.
During the first few years at the senior school, though, my two main preoccupations, in common with most teenage girls — and many boys too — were music and affairs of the heart. These two realms of experience are of course intimately connected. The music about which I became passionate, believing it to be superior to any other form, was traditional “Dixieland” jazz. I became part of a small group of students, most of them slightly older, who were connoisseurs of this marvellous genre.
We would spend long afternoons sitting in the cramped bedroom of someone who owned a gramophone, and listen, enraptured, to melody after melody — some plangent, some joyful — created by the black musicians of the American South in the early decades of the 20th century. I can now only remember some of the better-known names — Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet — but at the time I could identify dozens of players or singers as soon as I heard their first notes. Some of my fellow jazz-fans had formed a band of their own — in which I occasionally played the drums — which would perform “jam sessions” in the school’s large assembly hall.
But it was not only the strains of New Orleans blues which wafted back and forth across the campus. The air was also thick with our infatuations — requited and unrequited. I must have been about 14 when, to my surprise (and, I think, that of others), two of the school’s most senior boys — they were doing their A-levels at the time — became rivals for my affections. This, for me, was heady stuff and I spent rather too long stringing them both along. Not that I didn’t know which one I “loved” — I knew perfectly well — but I was reluctant to relinquish the other one, who was perhaps the more intellectual of the two. He used to write me long letters, one of which complained that I “turned him on and off like a tap”. This struck me at the time as a brilliant metaphor, indicating a great future writer.
However, I did finally declare my commitment to the other boy. He was an accomplished jazz trumpeter and an excellent ballroom dancer. We embarked on what became a truly romantic relationship, pledging eternal love and future marriage. It lasted until he left the school to go to Cambridge.
It was part of Dartington’s unwritten constitution that sexual intercourse was out of bounds. We went in for a great deal of kissing and smooching and even lying on beds together, but we were trusted not to “go all the way”, and, as far as I know, we didn’t. However, we spent many hours seeing our boy/girlfriends or, when not actually seeing them, talking about them, or when not talking about them, talking about other people’s romances. This goes on in all schools to some extent, especially in schools where there are girls. But it would have been impossible, within a traditional educational system, to devote as much time to relationships as we did.
Matters of the heart are, of course, the stuff of most great art — literature, opera, drama — and it could be argued that discussing them, analysing them, speculating about them, is an important part of the learning experience. There is certainly some truth in this, within limits. But at Dartington there were no limits to our freedom to lounge around gossiping. Since we had no external incentives to study and no penalties for not doing so, we naturally preferred to attend to the urgent concerns of our own and our friends’ private lives than to focus on such matters as the pros and cons of the 1832 Reform Bill. Yet learning about the Reform Bill — which one is unlikely ever again to have an opportunity of doing — provides insights into politics which may prove very valuable in later life. Studying one’s emotional life, on the other hand, can be done outside school hours.
I have never quite forgiven Dartington for allowing me to waste so much time — for not spurring me on to learn more. For example, I didn’t even try to attend classes in physics or chemistry, which at that time were still regarded mainly as “boys'” subjects; I gave up on biology because I found it too demanding; and after being thrown out of a geography lesson for disruptive behaviour, I dropped the subject altogether. Treating schoolchildren like adults is all very well in some respects, but when it comes to school work, it is utterly wrong-headed. Most children, and quite a few adults too, need sticks and carrots. It was only when I started working for O- and A-level exams that I discovered that Noël Coward had had a point: “Work is more fun than fun.” Not that we didn’t have fun at Dartington. One of the greatest sources of enjoyment, as far as I was concerned, was ballroom dancing. Once a week a tall, burly, jovial man who worked somewhere on the estate would arrive in formal jacket and tie and teach us proper dance steps. He had a very straight back, I recall, and his bottom stuck out slightly while dancing (as many people’s do). Foxtrots, quicksteps, waltzes, polkas, even tangos were all part of his repertory. He would have a twirl with each of us in turn, demonstrating how to hold, or be held by, your partner and how to move in unison. We would practise “slow-quick-quick-slow” to the records of Victor Silvester, one of the most popular dance bands of the day. Even more fun was dancing, or rather jiving, to the school’s live jazz band when they held “sessions” on Saturday evenings.
All this now seems impossibly old-fashioned. But I have been convinced ever since that, for a majority of people, dancing — however inexpert or self-taught — is one of the most therapeutic activities on earth and one of the most effective ways of achieving happiness, even if temporary. Unfortunately there isn’t nearly enough social dancing in 21st-century England, not at any rate in the circles in which I move. And most schools seem to have dropped it years ago.
But the activity for which Dartington was best known, or perhaps most notorious, was nude, mixed bathing. The senior school had a swimming pool — about two minutes’ walk away from the main building — at which swimming naked was the order of the day. Teachers as well as pupils — or anyone of any age who wished to use the pool — were expected to take off all their clothes, leave them lying on a grassy bank, and avail themselves of this liberating experience.
I have no idea how this custom originated — probably with the headmaster, W.B. Curry, who, in his book The School, wrote: “It is desirable for boys and girls to see each other wholly or partially undressed as, so to speak, part of the day’s work, and without having to make any special effort to do so. In this way the furtive curiosity from which so many adolescents suffer is greatly diminished […] I think it is almost certain that, in children at least, nudity after the first few occasions, diminishes rather than increases sexual interest.” This is undoubtedly true. The area round our swimming pool was a singularly unsexy place. Boys who might climb up a drainpipe at the school itself in order to catch a glimpse of a girl having a bath, would show not the slightest interest in the same girl’s nude body (often goose-pimply from the cold) as she made her way into the chilly water.
I can’t now recall what I felt about swimming naked in the first year or two of senior school, when I was 13 and 14; I probably went along with it quite happily. But I do know that, as I grew older, I found it increasingly embarrassing. I didn’t dare admit this to anyone — and hardly to myself — or a very long time. Nude bathing was such an integral part of the school’s enlightened ethos that to question it would have been regarded as deeply regressive and bourgeois — the equivalent of objecting to, say, gender equality today. But truth will out, and we older girls finally, and guiltily, started confessing to each other that we felt extremely self-conscious about being seen without our clothes on. We had no wish to expose our wobbly bits to all and sundry. If only we could wear bathing-suits, we all agreed, we would go swimming much more often. I suspect that most of the boys felt much the same way, though I never talked about this uncomfortable subject to any male.
There was, however, one boy who swam against the tide, so to speak, and always wore swimming trunks. Naturally, we all thought there was something fundamentally wrong either with his body, or with his mind, or both. Looking back on it now, it strikes me that he showed exceptional moral courage, or sang froid — certainly more than we older girls did. None of us had the nerve to bring up the topic at Moot meetings, let alone to propose a motion, which we had drafted, to make bathing-suits acceptable. So we continued to bathe naked, but more and more self-consciously, and less and less frequently. (After Curry’s departure as headmaster in 1957, bathing-suits became optional.)
But such matters shouldn’t detract from Dartington’s real strengths. There were some excellent teachers at the school, particularly in my two main subjects, English and history. I don’t suppose their approach differed greatly from that of good teachers in “non-progressive” schools. They focused on teaching us to think for ourselves, to look at all sides of a question, not to accept anything at face value, to check everything we said or read against the evidence, to discriminate between the genuine and the phoney. And they taught us how to write English prose. Exams were, in those days, almost entirely based on essays. Multiple choice questions had yet to arrive from America. So we had to master the art of essay writing, and we had to get the hang of “exam technique” — the ability to present such facts as we had learned in a way that would make them appear to be merely well-chosen examples from among our vast range of knowledge.
Essay questions were sometimes astonishingly sophisticated. One in particular, part of an O-level history exam on the English Civil War, seemed so mind-bogglingly difficult that it has stuck in my mind to this day: “Is Puritanism recurrent?” My first reaction when confronted with this was that I couldn’t in a million years write an essay on such a theme. But on further reflection I realised that it presented an ideal opportunity for applying “exam technique” — and for indulging in generalised waffle.
It was our English teacher, Raymond O’Malley, whom I most admired and who taught me most, not just about literature but also about morality and about the connections between the two. He had written a much-praised book about his experiences as a crofter in the Scottish Highlands where, because he was a conscientious objector, he had been sent during the Second World War. Malley, as he was known at school, was a person of great sweetness and patience, with a passion for literature and a strong belief in the merits of simplicity. He would often make us try to re-write a passage of prose in fewer words, without losing complexity or comprehensibility. It was a joy to be taught by him.
Most pupils left the school after taking O- or A-level exams. Girls, however, if they wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge, in those days had to take entrance exams. In my year, three of us (whose A-level results were much better than those of boys who had already been accepted) stayed on for another few weeks. I and another girl were trying to get into Cambridge to study English. Another was trying for History at Oxford. There were very few places for women at Oxbridge at that time (I think the ratio was 11 to one) so the competition was fierce. Malley, though, who had managed to get several former students into Cambridge, was so convinced that we would both succeed, that he discouraged us from even trying any other university — certainly not Oxford, about whose English department he was very disparaging.
As it turned out, I was the only one who failed to get in, or even to get an interview. I was bitterly disappointed (particularly as I had achieved the best A-level results of the three of us). Malley too seemed genuinely upset. On the day the results were announced, I lay on my bed for most of the afternoon, feeling miserable. Every half an hour or so Malley would interrupt his lessons and come to my room to comfort me.
On the following day I left the school for good. Malley accompanied me to Totnes railway station to see me off. As we parted — I remember it was pouring with rain — he said something which I’ve never forgotten but which, perhaps, he said to all his long-term pupils: “We don’t often get students like you,” he said. About ten years later I went to visit him in Cambridge where he was then living and though he was friendly enough, he barely remembered me. That, I realised, was the way it went with teachers and pupils: individual teachers are uniquely important in pupils’ lives, while in a teacher’s life past pupils more often than not form a kind of blur.
I discovered something else about Malley which was faintly disillusioning. All his insights into literature, all his interpretations and appraisals of poems and novels which I had found so inspiring, turned out to derive, more or less verbatim, from the books of the renowned Cambridge lecturer and critic F.R. Leavis. Malley had been one of Leavis’s most ardent disciples. Meanwhile, I had married a writer and critic, John Gross, who devoted many pages of his book The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters to arguing — convincingly, in my view — that Leavis, for all his powers of discernment, was a damaging and constricting influence on students of literature — a tyrannical layer — down of literary laws. None of this, though, detracts from Malley’s wonderful qualities as a teacher, or as a man.
I was very sad on my final train journey back from Devon to London — partly because of my failure to get into Cambridge, and partly because of saying goodbye to Malley; mostly, though, because I was leaving behind a place which, for eight years, had become an alternative home. Though I had resented the school’s “do it yourself” educational philosophy and disliked the general laxity of the atmosphere, I had nevertheless been very lucky to be a pupil at Dartington. All its teachers and staff had been unfailingly kind and welcoming — they had acted as role-models for fair-mindedness and unsnobbishness, for civilised behaviour in general. I was only dimly aware, for example, that racial prejudice had not withered away at least in England or that the English class system was still going strong. (I was to discover it the following year, when I went to Oxford; I had applied, at the last moment, to St Anne’s College and been accepted.)
Dartington had given me a sense of belonging — the feeling of being part of a group, or a community, which, it seems to me, is one of the greatest sources of human happiness. By contrast, a friend of mine, a girl of the same age and from a similar background, who had been sent to a traditional girls’ public school, had been made to feel slightly inferior by one or two of the girls there. At that age, even slight condescension can have long-lasting effects. This could never have happened at Dartington, where we were at all times treated as equals.