Wennington School

There are many “lost causes” in this world, and among them is keeping a community of human beings going in spite of distance and having lived our lives in so many different ways. This modest posting draws attention to a school in England that closed in 1975. All that remains are the memories of a small group of ageing men and women, an archive, an association with its website and Facebook page. The establishment was Wennington School near Wetherby in Yorkshire.

I was a pupil there from September 1971 until March 1972, by which time my father had observed disturbing tendencies and made the decision to pull me out and have me put through more traditional methods of education. Truly, in the early 70’s, the school was on its last legs through poor leadership and financial problems.

The initial philosophy was the idea of involving teachers and pupils alike in a healthy community life to promote the development of personalities and help children with social difficulties. The school was founded in 1940 by the Quaker educationalist Kenneth C. Barnes. The headmaster who succeeded him was the translator and poet Brian Merrikin Hill, who was a fine thinker and man of literature but had poor leadership qualities. I lived through a brief part of the declining period of this school under Mr Hill. Wennnington closed in 1975 and the building (Ingmanthorpe Hall) has been rescued from near ruin to be split up into flats. I have chosen to write a little article about this school, because it left its mark on me even though I was there for only two terms. It was my first experience as a boarder at the age of 12.

At that time, I had very little in the way of belief in God. Reports from my previous school mentioned my finding that Moses and the Prophets were not “with it” and that I was profoundly sceptical! The 1960’s had “got” me more than I wanted to believe later on. This is the condition of the “baby boomer” that is so despised by conservatives. We “never had it so good” as Prime Minister Macmillan lamented in the 1950’s. At Wennington, I arrived in a world of 1960’s sub-culture and liberal Christianity seen through Quaker and Methodist eyes. We had no religious services, but we did have Sunday Evening Assemblies when Mr Hill would try to teach us some kind of philosophy of life. There was only so much a twelve-year old boy could take in. We could do pretty much as we wanted, whereas the founder wanted pupils to like what they did. Kenneth Barnes had been controversial and was both loved and hated.

One theme that comes out of that school is the notion of intimacy, the existence of the small in the face of modern gigantism and bureaucracy. In society as it has developed essentially since the late eighteenth century, the more visionary men and women of literature, philosophy and science have tried to fight for the human personality and the whole man. I have written a good amount of stuff on Romanticism and its reaction from the collective and the impersonal. Modern education has been largely based on the same ideas. My schooldays were a time of reform in the most conservative establishments like St Peter’s where I went soon after leaving Wennington. They marked the war against bullying, fagging and corporal punishment, seeking humanity rather than conformity to mindless codes of rules. Kenneth Barnes was a forward-looking pioneer. So was Peter Gardiner at St Peter’s.

In a strange kind of way, my experience of this educational philosophy would remain dormant for many years. I remembered it strongly as I lived many years later in another stately home – in Tuscany and in a very different educational philosophy – when I was in seminary. This is something that would never been seen in the gaunt brown-haired English seminarian playing the little baroque organ for the Latin offices in chapel. I fitted in, but yet fought to keep my own personality. In its first years, Gricigliano was a house of eccentric ecclesiastical dappers, and is now approved by Rome as some kind of institute of secular canons with strange blue garments. Was I going against Christ’s injunction saying that those who value their soul in this world will lose it in the next? Perhaps I could think of the fate of Winston Smith in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four as he finally gives up and affirms his “love” of Big Brother. Clearly, such is not what Christ meant!

Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Mr Hill was an enquiring personality who sought to discover as well as teach truly humanist values. I vaguely remember the slim figure with a beard and glasses, holding a copy of The Guardian, the left-wing national newspaper in England. My memory is vague, but he seemed to try to teach moral values that sounded a little stuffy to some of us. Such was the gulf between a man born during World War I and a load of unruly kids from the 1960’s.

Wennington was a place of discovery. We were left to manage. The electricity was cut off a lot in 1971, and we would find ways to manage – like stealing candles from churches. We were taught practical skills like wood and metal work, art, cooking and sewing – boys and girls alike. Wennington was closed in 1975. It was a lost cause, either because it would have seemed that children needed a more traditional education or because the progressive ideas went nowhere. Mr Hill was something of a Christian believer and made much of the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Salt of the Earth. He hoped against all hope that the school would survive in some form. The school closed down as a lost cause, but many of us who went through it are still here.

wenningtonIts philosophy has rubbed off in a most unexpected way: I fail to find anything wrong with small and marginal Christian churches like the one I belong to. I have been on many sinking ships, and took something with me as the bow disappeared beneath the waves – figuratively speaking of course.

I remember the reflections of my father about the progressive education movement and Wennington in particular. It all depends on a personality and charisma of a born leader. Kenneth Barnes was that, but Brian Hill was not. Conversely, the eighteenth century was not over when the Royal Navy discovered that ships were sailed better by captains who were loved and respected by their men – and did not rely on keel-hauling, flogging and abuse as Captain Bligh did. Progressive eduction is a science in itself and is a strong theme particularly since the late nineteenth century. It was fostered particularly by the Quakers. The idea declined in the 1970’s as did Wennington. The end came with the tail end of the baby boom and mainstream schools were able to provide a system of options as there were fewer pupils. The economic crisis of the 1970’s made it impossible to run shoestring schools. Again, progressive education was too reliant on headmasters who excelled in their vision and leadership.

The most well-known progressive school in England, Summerhill, is still going. Times have changed and we are no longer in the 1960’s or that winter of 1971 to 1972 during which I was cold and alienated, lost and rudderless. What becomes of children who go through Summerhill? Perhaps someone who reads this blog went there or has experience of schooling and parenting. Much will depend on the family background of a child and his general mental health and stability. As Kenneth Barnes said, children don’t do what they like, but like what they do.

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4 Responses to Wennington School

  1. Hi, my name is Jenny Anthony and I didn’t meet you sadly, I was at wennington from 64-68″I stayed on for one year after Barnes retired and the lower and upper sixth pupils watched with distress and confusion as the school began to fall into decline after Barnes handed the helm to Brian hill, Brian was a beautiful man but not cut out for the kind of leadership wennington needed, that amount of freedom needed a dose of terror to go with it, barnes certainly kept us reined in even tho we felt that we were galloping at times.brian was an idealist and left us to it ,that’s how it seemed.
    I feel very priveledged to have had most of my time at wennington with Ken Barnes as head , it was very sad to be there in the first year of its decline, more and more places were given to children with mental or emotional problems and parents( like yours) began to remove their offspring, but wennington gave me stability ,friendship and a good education, it was such a beautiful time in the sixties anyway, and being at wennington was the cherry on top, hope to meet lots of you in September, Jenny Anthony

    • Thank you for this kind comment. Certainly, Wennington and the Facebook group set up to keep memories alive have made me reflect a lot about education. I have also been to schools where masters and senior pupils believed that progress was made by fear of punishment. I would have like to have known Kenneth Barnes, and he was certainly the sort of person I needed at age 12 with a lot of “baggage”. I don’t know whether schools are more enlightened nowadays, but there seems to be more emphasis on personal progress and fulfilment than on conformity and competition. Perhaps there is progress, at least in the private sector. If you don’t have to have repression and punishment, human nature being what it is, then you need someone with charisma and the kind of personality that attracts and inspires. For me, at the age of 12, Brian Hill – with all his qualities as a scholar and poet – seemed distant and unable to lead.

      I could say that in a more traditional kind of school (after Wennington) with its heavy emphasis on competition, I did badly and have had to piece my life together ever since.

      • Well Anthony it sounds like you had your share of childhood woes, I was sent to wennington with a big bag of problems, but then I think half of that was just being a teenage girl, do you plan to go to the reunion in sept?

      • I don’t think I’ll next be in England before November. Perhaps difficulties in childhood make for a more genuine person as an adult – and less puffed up with excessive pride of achievement and competition. But not necessarily. Perhaps what we went through taught us tolerance and compassion, and those are important for me as a Christian.

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