Unlocking minds at the Gatehouse Centre

Published by 'Community Care', 18 April 1975

A blind boy walks confidently and unaided to a classroom, a severe spastic child climbs the stairs, mongol children learn chess - it's all happening at the Gatehouse Centre of Learning. Tim Justin Robinson visited this unique school to discover its successful ingredients - and its future hopes.

Unexpectedly you come across it amid a cluster of ugly flats. The Gatehouse Centre of Learning, Bethnal Green, in the east end of London, is an unlikely place to find an exciting marriage being planned between education and the whole community, youth and old age.

But the Centre, led by educationalist Phyllis Wallbank, has already witnessed a successful wedding of normal and handicapped children, to the extent that even severely handicapped pupils have to be pointed out to the casual visitor, lest they are missed. Now the Gatehouse School, started by Mrs. Wallbank in 1948 with a few pounds and eight children, has been established in its new premises for six months, there is hope that the plans she cherishes, of broadening its activities into the community, may be realised.

The idea is that with the buildings the Centre now occupies - before the move the school was on three widely separated sites - parents and local people, in particular the elderly, can be involved. Mrs. Wallbank in her wilder dreams, wants to see retired folk coming into the Centre to teach her children local history, folklore, crafts or maybe traditional games. In return she suggests that the Centre - either through the children or the staff - could offer classes in any subject one cares to name. It could mean retired dockers learning Latin.

"I won't feel we will have succeeded until we get young, middle-aged and old here, all learning," Phyllis Wallbank says. "I thought we could start with the old people because they have the time to listen to the children. And they could teach the children crafts or history and in return they would be taught anything they wanted. Teaching," she concludes emphatically, "has nothing to do with age."

There are currently 326 children at the Centre, ranging in age from two to sixteen. About 10 percent suffer from a severe handicap; Mongolism, epilepsy, brain damage, retardation, autism psychosis, spina bifida or spasticity. As well there are 42 strongly dyslexic pupils - one taking O level maths this year. All the children are fully integrated. In practice it means getting both the handicapped and the normal to see and understand the mechanics of the handicap in question and to see it for what it is. Then the sufferer has to learn to come to terms with it.

My photographer and I were astonished to come across Alastair - totally blind - marching unerringly from one lesson to another without needing help. And Stuart, who, when he first arrived could hardly move because of severe spasticity. When we saw him he was with two girls of his age walking by him, struggling on his bottom to get down the stairs to the music room. He now manages to go up the stairs as well, and on his own.

The lower school is taught on a Montessori system, the upper on a tutorial one. Montessori methods rely on giving the child incentives to learn by concentrating on visual aids. But from seven onwards children organise their own timetables.

This does not mean the school is unstructured - rather the opposite. A child will have a week's programme: this could consist of say, six maths, five English, three French sessions and so on. The order he gets through that work is up to him, but get through it he must. In each work area he attends a teacher will sign to say he has done so much work. If the child has been wasting his time, he gets no signature, and the work has to be repeated.

What the method teaches - and from an early age - is self-discipline. No one is excluded: from children who have IQ's in the 160-170 range, to the Mongol child of 13 with an IQ well below 100 even down to the severely autistic child with a deteriorating IQ of 30, all have a programme, worked out by teachers, to which they must keep.

The system is geared very finely to the abilities and understanding of each child. The school has a very high staff ratio; including part-time staff there are about 30 teachers. But Dr. Montessori, with whom Phyllis Wallbank studied, eventually becoming a close friend, suggested her system could be worked on a 1:36 ratio. One teacher at the Centre, Catherine Lazzari, told me: "You can have too few children. That's when they don't work with each other enough and begin to use you more than they should."

Several striking differences exist between the Gatehouse as a school and any other I have ever visited - apart from its handicapped children. The level of noise in classrooms is much lower. There is an intercom system - as in many schools - but here it is often used to praise individual children whom teachers consider have done well. In theory anyone - including a child - can use it for various purposes. There are no bells. Changes in all school activities, for example, morning work to lunch break, are heralded by the playing of music.

In Phyllis Wallbank's office - the main door to which is rarely shut - she has had a second door cut in another wall so that any child may come to her direct, without having to come through the secretary's office. Many children do and Mrs. Wallbank quite literally let her dinner go cold when I was there while she talked to them. In addition, she keeps two dogs with her: One, the largest St. Bernard I have ever seen, wanders lugubriously around; the other, in comparison a ludicrously sized Scottie, tends to keep a constant watch under her desk.

One story, instructive of Mrs. Wallbank's style, was told to me by the school secretary. When she came for an interview for the job and was waiting for Mrs. Wallbank, a teacher asked her to show around a group of parents. Rather surprised, she agreed and on her return a couple of hours later was greeted by Mrs. Wallbank. "Ah," she smiled, "I see you took the job."

If there is an inspired feeling at the Centre then it is Phyllis Wallbank who is at its heart. A jolly woman, an archetypical English clergyman's wife, bounding with energy and common sense, she demurs at any suggestion that without her the Centre would be unlikely to exist.

The school began in 1948 "for a mixture of reasons." One was that, having been what is now known as a child care specialist, with Buckingham CC, Phyllis Wallbank had become aware of the difficulties children had in schools: "I realised that when kids had problems they couldn't concentrate. Consequently in school they went down fast." She wanted also to put into practice ideas that Dr. Montessori had developed. Finally when the school began - in the gatehouse of the priory church of St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield - her husband was the curate there on £150 a year and she had a child of two. " I had to work for us to be able to live," she points out.

Like Topsy the tiny school just grew and grew. The first eight children came from very mixed backgrounds, although none were handicapped. The first handicapped child - a mongol - was the brother of one of her early pupils. His parents were desperate over his schooling. Mrs. Wallbank, typically, said she would try. "It just grew from that. We gradually extended it as we realised it was possible - as long as they (the handicapped) get the requisite therapy as well. We always consult with their doctor before a handicapped child comes."

There is now a general waiting list of well over 300. The school has never advertised, never printed a prospectus. "The list was always too long but now it's ridiculous," bemoans Mrs. Wallbank. Partly the reputation of the Gatehouse is due to its educational successes which are many. It is also due to the atmosphere, created by Mrs. Wallbank and her team, all determined to do more than cram children full of facts, however useful.

There is a strong parents' association, completely integrated in class terms, Mrs, Wallbank insists: "They mix extremely well, irrespective of their backgrounds," she says. "But," she insists, "we never have set parents' meetings - just an open door." Parents come in during the afternoons and help and there is a parent/children choir.

Yet despite all this the Centre is facing massive problems. For a number of reasons most pupils are fee paying. The principal cause has been the refusal by the DES to recognise the school. In the past this has been lack of playground space, now, in Bethnal Green, hopefully resolved. But about 10 per cent of the children do not pay any fees because their parents are too poor and because Mrs Wallbank is anxious to have a good social mix including local children.

Some children - usually the handicapped or disturbed - are sent and paid for by their local authorities, principally Harrow, Islington and Tower Hamlets. Among fee paying parents are a Greek shipowner, whose child is brought in a chauffeur-driven Rolls, and Simon Ward, the actor.

The £63,000 needed to buy their present building, gloomy 19th century premises, but with a big roomy hall, was raised entirely by parents' appeals, and through gifts from charities like the Variety Club of Great Britain. There is no luxury. At the moment the Centre has no central heating and believe me, it was cold there in March, despite the heaters turned up full. The lack of central heating, which will cost around £7,000 to install, is one reason the plans to invite pensioners in as teachers/learners has not started.

Lack of capital is also hampering plans to reconstruct the interior in a highly imaginative way. Architect for the Centre is Robin Webster who won a prize for his design for the new extension to the House of Commons. His ideas for the Centre include using the large hall-sized rooms, with their high ceilings, to create a series of galleries, offering a chance for children to explore and understand the building and its spaces.

A wide ramp would wend its way through the building linking all levels. There would be a number of small interior play spaces with climbing frames, a ladder to a bird's nest, a cat walk and an aeroplane cockpit fixed to an exterior wall. For teaching space, Robin Webster wants to carpet all floor spaces - many children like working on the floor - but he also wants to leave "private spaces" where children can work away from the open areas.

The building would incorporate a number of teaching features, including sections with different architectural styles: the ramp would be laid out with rock surfaces representing the chronological ages of rock strata. Robin Webster also has exciting plans to use water collected on the roof to feed a series of fountains and pools. Phyllis Wallbank has seen water used creatively in this way in US schools.

If the plans are realised the Centre would undoubtably become even more of a Mecca for those educationalists, social workers and fascinated laymen, who make the trek into the arid wastes of Bethnal Green. In the meantime the school struggles on, trying to meet its quarterly bills, and hoping to find perhaps just one philanthropic organisation or individual willing to foot the massive bill for the alterations.

Through it all Phyllis Wallbank manages to keep smiling, enthusing about the progress already made - undeniable, and in many respects staggering. What, I wondered, made her leave social work? Her answer will be of much interest to social workers, worried by the workings of successive Children's Acts since the war. "The one thing I couldn't stand was the care and protection orders," she recalls. "It just seemed to me the whole family should be helped. I remember a little Gipsy child who was placed in a lovely home, but who sobbed every night in her sleep."

Mrs Wallbank was convinced too that children of markedly different IQ's could be taught under one roof and in one community and she was anxious to prove it. And if any single achievement points to the success of the Gatehouse Centre, in spite of the worries about money, it is that they can boast they have accomplished the seemingly impossible. "We have had mongol children playing chess," Phyllis Wallbank proudly told me, "although many doctors say it's not possible." Those doctors have almost certainly never visited the Gatehouse Centre of Learning.