Saturday, 13 March 2010


How many children have I taught? Hundreds? Thousands?
In all types of school, from all over the world.

Today I will tell you about Killy.

My very favourite school, Kilquhanity House, in Galloway.

I went there from a primary in Bradford where I was badly bullied by the deputy head.
That was my probationary year, my first year teaching, and she tried to fail me but fortunately the local advisers were brilliant and saw me through it - just.

I ran away to Killy. I thought I'd never go back to the state system, especially as the very next year the National Curriculum was brought in with SATs close on its heels.

Killy was a kids' paradise and the reason I tend to call kids, "kids" ("Killy Kids" was what we "staff" had to call them and it stuck).

It was also a teacher's paradise.

No set curriculum, no uniform, no surnames (except for John A, John B and John C whose names really did begin with those letters), no risk assessments, no playground supervision (we didn't have a playground, just acres of overgrown garden with huts and treehouses, ponds and streams, ropes and trees) and only 3 unalterable rules:

All members of the school must be in class at class time.
All members of the school must attend council on Thursday afternoon.
All members of the school must do useful work.

I got paid a pittance, worked ridiculously long hours (sometimes past midnight), did my own cleaning, worked on maintenance teams and enjoyed every minute of my 3 years.

Killy was a democratic school where the kids made real decisions; my interview had to be on a Thursday so that the kids could interview me at the council meeting because they had a say in the decision.

Everything was negotiable and negotiated, every opportunity that could be taken to learn was taken - no Maths lesson today, Brian's free so we can go to find amethyst geodes in Creetown instead but it's OK you'll be studying solids with angles and facets galore and learning how to use a lump hammer!
What a day that was, I still have one of the low grade crystals tucked away - the kids, of course, got all the good ones.

I discovered at Killy what teaching is really about and I learned to respect each member of that community, from 5 to 85.
From the stress of a leafy primary where I had had such a terrible time, I entered a world where people wanted to learn what I had to teach them, where my colleagues asked me for advice just as often as I asked them and where I came to appreciate just how well kids can learn if you only let them.

Killy was a very special school opened in the war years as a pacifist school by John Aitkenhead who had been part of the Glasgow experiment till the war disrupted everything.
We took children from 5 to 19 years, some because their parents chose not to send their children to an ordinary school but many because they had been so unhappy in their old schools, and often excluded from them. Around 80% had additional needs, mostly dyslexia, although I can see with hindsight that several were on the autistic spectrum.
Many were also highly disturbed when they first came and bullied other kids mercilessly but the council soon sorted that out - bullies 'undertook' to make reparation and woe betide anyone who didn't meet their undertaking; the council could be a very hard master. Run by the kids and for the whole school, even John A was answerable and, having once been 'brought up' for not letting my class throw their work away, I found it surprisingly hard to face.

John's favourite saying was, "Education is the pursuit of happiness."

And he meant it.

If a child was not happy he wanted to know why and what we were doing about it and, 'should she be in class if she's so unhappy at the moment? Let's find some other structure she can cope with.'

It wasn't an airy, fairy, 'let's all just do what we like' sort of happiness that John was talking about.
What he was really saying is that when a child is happy they want to learn and are stimulated to follow interests from which they can learn.
So our priority was to make sure our kids were happy and well cared for before we even started looking at what they needed to learn.

My class (I had 8-12 year olds and my class was simply 'Adele's Class') did all the basics but a whole lot of other things too.
We followed an eel downstream in the river one day, went otter watching at dawn (every one of them turned up at 5:30am!), built benders and camped out in the school grounds, learned to cook over an open fire, planted beds of wildflowers, cooked lunch for the whole school and built a stunning clay galleon 3ft long only to destroy it with the cannon balls rolled ready for battle.

Here are Chaib, Rowan (who started the galleon that day) and Morris

The sense of wonder in learning never left me again and the ability to connect up the threads of our world and bring them together with the help of my kids was probably the most important thing I learned.

In some ways we did very little formal learning together but in others it was incredibly intense and, by the time they were 14 they were sometimes looking to go back to state schools where there were more exams available.

Every year John would get the same two phonecalls from the local high schools - how many do you have for us this year, John?
Usually it was only 2 or 3 but they would both try their hardest to persuade them to join their schools.

I always found that sort of sadly ironic considering how many of our kids the state system had kicked out - we were actually used as a referral school for kids the local authority couldn't place.
But apparently, a few years with us and they were worth their weight in gold - they were motivated, could hold their own in a debate and usually took about 6 months to overtake most of their peers in their work.

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