School with a difference

BBC Radio External Services, 27 May 1975

A transcript

"Schools in down-trodden areas of big cities can be depressing places with poor facilities, tired teachers and reluctant children. The Gatehouse Learning Centre is in London's East End, an area with more than its share of social problems, and where even the new buildings manage to look shabby. Yet this is a school with a difference as our reporter found out."

Reporter: The Gatehouse, whose pupils range from two and a half to sixteen is 'different' in three main ways. It's a private school, it's an experimental school and it's a school with an unusual 'mix' of children.

The great majority of Britain's schools are state schools providing a free education; but the fact that the Gatehouse is one of the comparatively few private, fee-paying schools doesn't mean that all the parents of its pupils are rich. Many East Enders, such as dockers and taxi-drivers, can afford to send their children there, though it may mean cutting back on other expenses; but parents also include lawyers and accountants from posher parts of the city. The school is housed in a rather drab building surrounded by ugly blocks of flats, yet there's a waiting list of families from all over London wanting to send their children to the Gatehouse.

The Gatehouse is experimental in that it uses an unusual teaching method: the Montessori method, so called after its Italian founder, offers personal teaching to each child and allows each to progress at its own pace. The school is unusual too in another important respect. With the growth of the Welfare State over the last thirty years, and in particular the growth of state education, the trend has been to create more and more special schools for children with special difficulties - for blind children, for the crippled and spastic, for the deaf, and for children who for one reason or another cannot keep up with their schoolmates. The Gatehouse is a challenge to this trend. The bright and the backward, the handicapped and the normal child play and work happily together and there is a happy atmosphere. Nobody looks harassed; nobody seems in a hurry; children help and learn from one another and teachers have time for their problems.

The Gatehouse Learning Centre is the inspiration of Phyllis Wallbank who founded it 28 years ago and is its present director. Her enthusiasm and her faith in the children's capabilities are infectious. To get into her tiny office where she issues orders through a loudspeaker system, you have to climb over a huge St. Bernard dog. There is a stream of visitors and interruptions. Everything stops for a small girl, partially sighted and in calipers and with a self-propelled trolley. She wants to show Mrs. Wallbank how she is learning to walk. "You're not busy, are you?" she asks. "Not too busy for seeing people walk," comes the reply.

The school takes many children rejected by other schools as too difficult, yet these children seem to respond to the atmosphere of the Gatehouse. John is 16. He played truant for four years before coming here. He has not missed a day of school for two years and is now preparing to take examinations.

Alistair had quite a different problem. Three years ago, at the age of six, he lost both his eyes in a brain tumour operation. He is learning to type; but he is also preparing for life in the world outside by finding his own way around the school among sighted people.

The majority of the children have no handicap; some are exceptionally clever while many more have differing degrees of learning difficulty. How does this mixture work? The answer lies in the Montessori methods which allow each child to work at his own pace. During the week he must spend the allocated time on each subject. Yet within that strict framework he can come and go as he chooses. If he gets absorbed in history he can work on that all morning and make up on other subjects later. Latin is compulsory from the age of six; yet it is a popular subject because each child does no more Latin than he can easily manage and it is attractively taught.

Each timetable is made out individually for each child, but he himself decides when he is ready to take examinations. All his achievements and problems are carefully recorded. It is organised chaos and it seems to work. The result is not only happy children but successful ones too.