The boy was wandering down a hedgerow in Kent, whistling, with all the fields round him quickening in the spring sun. Once the boy had been driven to steal. Now he was on his way, alone, to collect £200 of wages for the staff of his school.
The job, and its implicit trust, was part of his treatment at Red Hill School, the only grammar school for maladjusted children in the country. At Red Hill School, near Maidstone, youngsters of nine to seventeen were playing in the morning break. The headmaster, Otto Shaw, stood at the bottom of a tree, having a reasoned conversation with two small boys up the tree. Over the hedge a very noisy game of cricket was in progress, a happy game.
"Blast!" cried the bowler. His headmaster bawled across the hedge in mock severity: ‘Don’t swear —we’ve got a visitor." There was a roar of laughter, then a bell rang and the cricketers ran back to class.
All the children at Red Hill are of high intelligence. But, in their old environment, almost all were unmanageable. Some emotional disturbance bad shaken their homes and their lives and made them try their feeble weight against society. Their home atmosphere was almost without exception very bad. They suffered from stammering. They were destructive or they stole. Each boy had to face a problem beyond his years and strength. At Red Hill, at last, each boy was retrieving his right to be happy.
Otto Shaw gave up his work as analytical chemist to found Red Hill in 1935 and to run it. He wrote:
‘The unhappy homes of delinquent children, physical ill-treatment, nagging, animus-ridden parents, vampiristic foster mothers and other evil influences can best be countered and attacked by mildness, cultured and calm environments and love and affection for the tragically unloved child.’
Time is proving his words. Of the first 224 pupils treated, 200 were cured, and in only twenty-four cases did the school completely fail. County educational authorities ask Red Hill to place an average of eighty boys each month, although there are at most two or three vacancies a term. As each new boy arrives the headmaster tells him: "I know what you did. I know what was wrong. Nobody else here does. Don’t talk about it to anyone for a week. Settle in and you and I will have a chat in the morning."
When the week has passed, the newcomer has no desire to talk about himself to the other boys. None of them ever knows why he is there. He settles into the school democracy. There is no corporal punishment. Otto Shaw explained: "We leave disciplining to the school court."
That court is one of the great victories of Red Hill. We gathered in the dining-room, when it sat—the school staff at the back, boys at tables round the walls. Some of them were reading comic papers. Some of the older boys were smoking. Then two sixteen-year-olds climbed ‘The Bench’ under the bay Window and the Elizabethan strap work. They were joined by a very small boy in short trousers who sat as a ‘Citizen.’
The first case was heard. One boy had started a fight in the dormitory. The art master had stopped him, reported the matter to the court and now suggested a fine of half-a-crown. The boy admitted the charge.
Then the two members of the Bench and the small ‘Citizen’ had a whispered conference. "Please reduce the fine to one and ninepence," said the chairman firmly. The art master told me: "The boys always know more of the circumstances of the case than we do. They can’t favour masters against the school; otherwise their authority wouldn’t last ten minutes."
Small boys rose to report the loss of bars of soap, fountain pens, squashed insects or postage stamps. The chairman ordered searches in the more heartbreaking cases.
A master whispered to me: "It all sounds terribly trivial, but they take these things seriously." - The court was cleared for football and we went out into the sun.
"Did you notice," said the headmaster; "that all the boys on charge told the truth? It’s quite fantastic, considering they were so terrified of the truth when they got here."
Art at the school is an important therapy in itself, with weird but wonderful results. One boy had a highly developed taste for destruction. He didn’t intend offence. He just liked pulling down switches, kicking over coal buckets*.
He was given command of the job of converting the school stables into a puppet theatre. He destroyed the old stables with relish—and the whole staff wondered if the job would end there. Then he asked permission to take ‘a few branches from an oak tree.’ He cut down the whole tree. Then, with the wreckage and the oak tree, he built the most ambitious puppet theatre I have seen. From that day, his taste for destruction vanished.
It would be easy to take away a wrong impression of discipline m a school where the boys simply address the headmaster as ‘Shaw’ and most of the masters by their Christian names. It would be too easy for words, until it is remembered that education authorities clamour for places at the school; that all the children of Red Hill take the General Certificate of Education despite the early years of broken schooling and anarchy; the boys who would have become criminals at worst and misfits at best, leave Red Hill as normal citizens, often entering the professions. Only one question arises, in the end, from Red Hill. It can cater for only fifty-five pupils. Why should it be the only English grammar school for maladjusted boys?
* Note by Ralph Gee: The Midget Theatre’s Chief Carpenter was John "Nipper" Spiers, but I don’t remember him manifesting an obsession for demolition. Neither do I remember us losing an entire oak to his enthusiasm – but he did admit to an (unfulfilled) admiration for the Back Stairs. I think this is Ottoshavian licence