'Shaw reckons he has had several boys who were potential murderers . . . which is a frightening thought with 1,000 boys failing to gain admittance every year'
Michael De-la-Noy on one way of teaching highly intelligent, severely maladjusted children
FIFTY-FIVE grammar school boys, all with an IQ over 130, being taught by a staff of 10 it sounds like privilege run-riot. No beating, no fagging, pork taken off the menu because the school court objected to it being underdone; you would expect a waiting list a mile long. In fact, Red Hill School at East Sutton in Kent does receive 20 applications for places every week; not, however, from wealthy parents fed up with Eton (the school is run as a charity) but from local authorities, desperately trying to find a place for the normal education of severely maladjusted boys of high intelligence, some of whom are on probation, all of whom have serious emotional problems, many of whom require expert psychoanalytic help.
If the handful of successful applicants in residence at any one time are a privileged elite they tend to pay in advance, and somewhat over the odds. One boy had literally been struck deaf and dumb between morning and afternoon school on learning that his father had gone to prison for a sexual offence.
Another pupil, who arrived by way of the juvenile courts, having taken to house-breaking and the persistent stealing of motor-cycles, had been circumcised on the kitchen table at the age of three without an anaesthetic.
The case history of a boy suffering from acute anxiety when he arrived at Red Hill simply reads like a nightmare. His father, a psychosomatic, was killed in a car accident. His mother went into a mental hospital, where eventually she committed suicide. The boy was then brought up in an orphanage, and at the age of nine he began to develop symptoms of religious mania.
A lad of 12, expelled from his previous grammar school for exhibitionism, had been threatened by the headmaster with castration.
Otto Shaw, who founded Red Hill School 40 years ago, writes in one of his books "As most detective officers will agree, there is little crime that is not clearly motivated sexually." Was that really true, I asked?
Mr Shaw said he had not read the book but he thought the quotation seemed very sound. Then he swung round in his study chair and put through a brisk telephone call to Maidstone CID. It was just his luck to get hold of a rather raw recruit, without Mr Shaw's extensive experience of probation reports (he is chairman of the local Bench), who did not quite confirm the diagnosis. Not in the least abashed Mr Shaw mischievously extended his opinion by saying "The only nonsexual crimes the CID handle seem to be bigamy and rape."
He has a disconcerting habit of talking in riddles, but the fact that he speaks fluent Gaelic may have something to do with it. He also speaks French and Greek, and in defence of his high staffing ratio he says: "We like to think we can teach almost any language. And last year, one boy took astronomy in the GCE 0 levels."
Mr Shaw (or Shaw, as the boys call him) had what he describes as a fairly conventional upbringing "in an utterly respectable Tory atmosphere." He joined Shell-Mex as a petroleum technologist, and happened one day to read a book by A. S. Neill. That was it. At the age of 26, without any educational training, he decided to devote his life to "maladjusted boys" (the title he gave to one of his books, although he prefers today to talk about "boys who have difficulties of adjustment"). Few conventional theories fit his conversion. He says his own childhood was happy, and he never stops talking about his happy marriage, which has produced three children and four grandchildren. I think," he says, that introspections a great thing for other people — just like comprehensive schools." He is now 66, but would prefer to be 46 or 36, "because it’s much nicer: you can be more extrovert and violent."
But this habit of ducking questions: I tackled him about a reference he made in one of his books, to "the failure" of a former pupil to get married. Didn’t this betray a wish on his part, common to many social workers, to tidy up the world ? His reply was to say something rude about his fellow social workers. I tried again. What about his desire to "cure homosexual adolescents?" And would. you believe it, he had the nerve to shoot off at a tangent about the case of a boy who found it difficult to form normal heterosexual re1ationships because he had slept with his mother.
I began to sense that I had met my match, for Mr Shaw has a brilliant technique obviously designed for dealing with journalists and others who are automatically assumed not to comprehend the ethos of Red Hill, and who must therefore be trusted only with as much information as they can safely be expected to digest without distorting. The boys, I might add, are in the conspiracy too. Apparently, when visitors are around, swearing and arguments become taboo.
I met some of the senior boys (the youngest start at 11) in the library, and they were so polite and nice I felt quite ashamed about dragging them away from their work. The nicest thing about them was their relationship with Mr Shaw, whom they treated as an equal, and the impression they gave of caring about each other. Friendships at Red Hill, unlike conventional boarding and public schools, span age gaps quite effortlessly. A boy of 17 went out of his way to introduce me to his closest friend, a boy of 14. And it was a long time before I realised how mixed the school is in terms of class.
At one time Red Hill did experiment by taking girls, but it's an experiment Mr Shaw seems reluctant to recall. He says, "On theoretical grounds I prefer coeducation for maladjusted children, but it's much nicer if other people do it. There are all sorts of problems in society today over sex that didn't exist 40 years ago. Coeducation may lessen certain tensions but it doesn't seem to lessen pregnancies."
Around 50 per cent of the boys are in need at any one time of psychoanalysis. Mr Shaw is a trained psychoanalyst who has himself been psychoanalysed. Two other members of the staff are in a position to give what he calls "psychotherapeutic assistance." One criterion of a boy's acceptance is the likelihood of him responding to psychoanalysis once it is determined that this is his need. But Mr Shaw agrees that in deciding whether a boy will respond, "the objective assessment simply doesn't exist. One has to make a guess, based upon one's experience." On the whole, he seems "to be looking for boys" with a compulsive stratum to their delinquent behaviour; "they are boys who can be helped very easily."
But he adds, "Although we are certainly in a position to choose children we really think we can help, that doesn't mean to say we choose easy cases. Indeed, if one did start by choosing what promises to be an easy case one would be rather disappointed from time to time."
Art features in the school's therapeutic curriculum to a large extent, and the corridors are hung with hundreds of examples of the boys' work, much of it primitive and peaceful. But one gruesome affair dripping with blood caught my eye. "That's not a happy person," Mr Shaw remarked, apropos the artist.
Many of the boys have only found it possible to communicate their inner feelings by writing letters to Mr Shaw; others have kept prolonged and detailed diaries. Some have met with astonishing intuition on the part of the staff, which may account for the remarkably sensitive insights into each other's behaviour they often show as they progress through the school. Mr Shaw once brought a boy a wrist watch to forestall him stealing someone else's, and he has made gifts of money to a boy who had already started stealing. He admits to a 10 per cent failure rate, perhaps not a surprising figure, for although he deliberately refuses to accept deeply schizoid children he reckons he has had several boys who were potential murderers. "Such children are not as rare as is generally believed. Hardly ever is their anger carried into a murderous assault, but often feelings sufficient to generate it are present. Had such boys remained untreated it is more than likely they would have been brought into court, accused of murder, before they were 30".
Which is a frightening thought, with 1,000 boys failing to gain admittance every year. Mr Shaw puts down the lack of alternative facilities simply to a shortage of suitable staff. And what about the problems of emotional involvement with children in need of specialist help? "One naturally prefers some children to others, and if one asks children to dinner one naturally thinks of one’s favourites first. Consequently, we have a routine of inviting four or five children to a highly formal dinner once a week— highly formal, wines, liqueurs, and so on — and in order that there is no ignoring the less favoured child I keep a very strict list of those invited."
Formal dinner parties apart, no glib dismissal of Red Hill as an experiment in permissiveness is possible when you hear Mr Shaw’s own summing up, In the past 40 years, he says, "Society has changed and I have said "to change willy-nilly with it. But I think at the moment I’m far more reactionary than I appear to be. But there are other people here to correct that imbalance. I have to remind myself - occasionally it is absurd to insist on having one’s own way with children."
Mr Shaw is a Roman Catholic, and he also talks quite a bit about sin, which, perhaps discounts the theory that he is just a fashionable innovator. "Do remember," he says, "that people were cured long before Freud. People like St Thomas Aquinas could turn out some very good cures." He seemed genuinely shocked that I had not asked the boys about religion, so I asked if they did go to church, and I was told there was a meeting of the school court at 10.30 every Sunday morning that just had to be attended, even if there was an earthquake. Mr Shaw pointed out there was an early mass, but for once I felt he wasn’t making much headway.
With infinite patience the boys tried to explain to me the complex system of discipline who reported whom and who fined whom and who stood over you while you did whatever it was you had to do, and what happened if you refused to do it, and I began to feel my own meagre IQ on the wane.
"One tenth of our boys are in the genius class," Mr Shaw informed me. The genius class? What was that? "Oh, an IQ of 150 or over." A boy who was teaching himself German in his spare time gave me a comforting look. "Anyway, to get back to the point you originally raised . . . " the head of sport was saying to me, having waited for an interruption from Mr Shaw to subside. "I say, did you hear that, that’s brilliant !" Mr Shaw rather surprisingly exclaimed, nearly falling off the edge of the table with excitement.