David Gribble : Education for Freedom Respect Children
Respect Children





Libertarian Education, 2004, £8.85
ISBN 0-9513997-9-9


Lifelines was selected as the book of the week in the Times Educational Supplement for January 21st, 2001. Tim Brighouse had this to say about it:

'Books such as this test fundamental beliefs. Do we belong to the libertarian idealistic Left that believes in the fundamental goodness of children? Or are we with the Gradgrind disciplinarian Right, which discounts the "Don't smile until Christmas" theory of discipline, because it thinks children should never smile?'

From Deadlines to Lifelines: a review from the The Joint Newsletter of the Association of Therapeutic Communities, Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, and Planned Environment Therapy Trust

David Gribble has written an important and very readable book on ‘non-authoritarian’ education, his preferred term for liberal or progressive education. For me ‘Lifelines’ now joins other inspiring educational reads, such as ‘Mr. Lyward’s Answer’ by Michael Burn (1956), ‘Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children’ by Maurice Bridgeland (1971), ‘The Learning Game’ by Jonathan Smith (2000) and ‘Ahead of the Class’ by Marie Stubbs (2003). These are books to re-read and mull over.

It was Lyward who insisted that deadlines are no use unless they act as lifelines. Gribble is offering four lifelines, four stories or case studies of pupil-centred, non-judgemental, non-authoritarian education. In each the tenacity, goodness and courage of the staff and children shine through. There is at work an unstoppable force for good which David Wills, one of the pioneers, called love. ‘First and foremost and all the time the children must feel themselves to be loved.’

As for those of us who grumble or have our doubts about mainstream schooling today, well here is a message of great hope – real lifelines for us and others to reach for. Among the deadlines that Lyward warned against are unfair pressure, constant nagging and the running of a person down; teaching to the book and clock rather than responding to the emotional readiness of the child; and a failure to include an element of fun.

‘Lifelines’ grew out of a question that had niggled Gribble for some time. He taught at Dartington for 30 years and was a founder member of Sands School and he had long known about A.S.Neill and Summerhill. But weren’t Summerhill and Dartington privileged to draw from middle class and liberal families? They were schools founded to fit a particular philosophy. What would a school be like which was founded to answer particular children’s needs? Were there such places?

He learnt of four such places which he visited. The first was Barns Hostel, a wartime emergency camp in the Manor valley near Edinburgh for young unmanageable evacuees from Edinburgh.,David Wills ran with his wife Ruth ran it for five and a quarter years (1940 –1945). This was Gribble’s one foray into the past. Local people and Craig Fees (and the PETT archive) were helpful.

Then with his wife Lynette he visited a Puerto Rican High School in Chicago which tries to rescue Puerto Rican children from the gangs, racism, violence and even rapes of their local community and so create a safe educational haven for them. His next place was Moo Baan Dek or Children’s Village in Thailand, the creation of Rajani and Pibhop Dhongchai, where some 150 orphaned or homeless children are housed and looked after in the countryside away from all the perils, distractions and temptations of city life. The fourth and last was Butterflies, a Delhi street children project run by Rita Panicker, a very enterprising and dedicated Indian. Here it was accepted that the street children may have to continue to sleep on the street and earn money but schooling and help could be brought to them.

During his visits he read the literature available, he met people, and he observed. He also tape-recorded interviews. The book is mostly the stories and findings of the people involved in their words. He tops and tails these with some definitions and conclusions. For the rest we are left to go with him and meet the people for ourselves.

Among the lifelines he refers to are firstly the staff’s determination to maintain an unshakeable belief in and affection for the children in their care. This was especially so of David Wills at Barns Hostel and of the Dhongchais at Moo Baan Dek in Thailand. The children came to know that they were loved.

The second was a determination to listen to the children and to understand their needs and so to establish ways of providing for them. The exemplar of this was Mrs. Panicker who would daily ask herself, ‘Am I really listening to the children and taking note of what they are saying?’ As a result in Delhi the street educators who go daily to find the street children, start each contact by giving the children the choice of whether they want to study (from the box provided) or talk about their problems.

The third lifeline was a willingness to establish some form of self-government or shared form of responsibility in the maintenance and improvement of the regime that was on offer. David Wills set up a Citizens’ Alliance which ran for eight months, at times virtually without an staff input, and was then replaced by a Cabinet, a group of six who ran much of the daily life of the evacuees from Edinburgh. In Moo Baan Dek the children took it in turns to chair the weekly meeting and nearly all proved very trustworthy. In Delhi a street children’s newspaper was produced every few weeks which two or three of the children gathered stories for and then had it distributed across the city. It was a paper by the children and for them.

For my many of my readers David Wills’ life and work may be a familiar topic. I spent a happy day with staff and pupils at New Barns in May 1990, and I have read two of Wills’s later books. Gribble introduced me to the early Wills - how he had been forced at Wallingford Farm Colony to adopt violent forms of punishment, which he later rejected them because they did not work and hitting people sickened him. Barns Hostel was his breakthrough and salvation.

I urge you to get a copy. Having read it, send it to your MP or to someone who can influence the course of local or national education. I am now going to read his previous book, ‘Real Education: Varieties of Freedom’.

Jeremy Harvey


Jeremy is a trustee of PETT and a former headmaster of a Somerset comprehensive, a neighbourhood community school. He studied George Lyward’s life and ideas for his doctorate and is currently writing a book about Lyward and teaching today (for Jessica Kingsley Publishers).



The kind of education that I have learnt to value over the last seventy years is described as, among other things, progressive, free, child-centred, democratic, liberal or non-authoritarian. Any one of these words on its own is either too narrow or too broad, but I can't write the whole list every time, so I shall fall back on the word "non-authoritarian."

My own schooling was of the opposite kind, and at the beginning of my career as a teacher I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to deal with children as I had been dealt with. Finally, after three years in one school, having become disillusioned with the petty discipline, the corporal punishment, the authoritarian hierarchy even among the staff and the impenetrable social barriers between adult and child, I gave in my notice before I had found another job.

By chance I came across an account of an entirely different style of education at Dartington Hall School. I wrote to the school, there happened to be a relevant vacancy, I was called for interview and I was offered the job. At Dartington there were no petty disciplinary issues and no corporal punishment. Social equality between adults and children was taken for granted. Decisions about the running of the school were taken at weekly meetings attended by all the children and staff who wished to do so; each person present had one vote.

I stayed at Dartington for almost thirty years, and when it was closed I was one of the founders of Sands School, which takes some of the principles of Dartington even further.

My experiences convinced me that non-authoritarian methods are successful, but, as those who opposed non-authoritarian methods often pointed out, what I had seen proved very little. At Dartington and Sands the children came from families who were, for the most part, themselves non-authoritarian and from the liberal middle class. For the working class, I was often told, such methods would be a disaster. To believe that children unused to a non-authoritarian approach would be able to make sensible decisions and govern their own lives wisely when they were left free to do so, I was told, was a sentimental Rousseauism, a noble savage fallacy, Wordsworthian happy shepherd-boy naivety. A. S. Neill himself, it was pointed out, thought it would be mad to set up a Summerhillian school in a working-class area.

Since my retirement in 1991 I have visited non-authoritarian schools all round the world and in 1998 the first book about my experiences was published. It is called Real Education: Varieties of Freedom, and it includes descriptions of eighteen different schools. There are two state schools with the ordinary local intake, a school in Japan for school-refusers, two schools in desperately poor areas in rural India and a school in Switzerland for children rejected even by other special schools. Wherever I went, however remote the culture from my own, I found a similar atmosphere of trust between adults and children.

I saw how successful these places were, but those criticisms I mentioned earlier still worried me. I wanted to investigate places that worked with children who faced other kinds of social difficulty. Ideally I wanted to find places that had been not been set up with some particular philosophy in mind, but had developed naturally in response to particular problems. I chose four examples with this end in mind.

The first was the Barns Hostel, near Edinburgh. It was run during the Second World War by the Quaker, David Wills, for evacuees so disturbed or disruptive that no ordinary family could be asked to take them in.

The second was the Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Chicago, where a high proportion of the local teen-agers, both boys and girls, are part of a gang society where rapes and killings are commonplace.

I visited Moo Baan Dek, in Thailand. Moo Baan Dek means "Children's Village", and in this village there are a hundred and fifty children and young people from backgrounds of the utmost poverty who have been abandoned, orphaned or abused. Moo Baan Dek is my third example.

Finally I went to see the Butterflies organisation, in Delhi, which offers non-formal education to street and working children, and helps them to understand and to assert their rights.

I hoped to find evidence that non-authoritarian education is suitable for children even from backgrounds like these.


Other books about democratic education by David Gribble






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