Obituary: John Aitkenhead

Click to follow
AT A TIME when the dominant direction in education is toward the standardisation and regulation of schools, it seems particularly important to take note of the few individuals and institutions that have followed the beat of a different drum. Continuing in the libertarian tradition of Homer Lane and A.S. Neill, John Aitkenhead, founder and for over 50 years Head Teacher of Kilquhanity House School in Scotland, spent his life putting into practice and refining the ideal of a school that was self-governed by its pupils and teachers together.

Aitkenhead was born in Glasgow, the son of a ship's carpenter, and attended Eglinton School before winning a bursary to Ardrossan Academy. He completed degrees in English and Education at Glasgow University, the latter at the newly instituted Honours School of Education. Afterwards he worked as a secondary school teacher in various posts in Argyle, Glasgow and Ayrshire.

Growing increasingly disaffected with the style of teaching he was practising, he spent two summers looking at alternatives at A.S. Neill's Summerhill School. He found the experience of "the free-est school in the world" intoxicating, but as no job was available there, he decided to follow Neill's suggestion and start up on his own. Going against Neill's advice, he decided to return to his home country, to try and "do in Scotland what Neill had had to leave Scotland to do". A search for suitable premises eventually led to Kilquhanity, a small rambling estate and farm in a remote part of south west Scotland.

The new school opened in September 1940. Aitkenhead made no attempt to hide his debt to Neill, and initially Kilquhanity faithfully followed the traditions of Summerhill. However, as it developed a character of its own, Aitkenhead's influence became apparent. Decisions about the day- to-day running of the school were made at weekly council meetings, attended by all staff and pupils.

Where possible this was done through consensus rather than by majority vote. This would take a considerable amount of time, yet again and again those who were present were struck by how a group of adults and children aged between 5 and 85 could give close attention to subjects ranging from the ethics of an ongoing biology class experiment involving animals to the financial aspects of replacing the school's football. As a practical lesson in civics, and as a way of "learning patience, tolerance and charity" this method of governing the school could not be bettered.

Aitkenhead believed that children benefit from being given responsibility for their education. What he had maybe not foreseen was the powerful therapeutic effect contained in this approach. From Kilquhanity's early days, a small number of students came to the school primarily because they were unable to cope in mainstream education whether for emotional or other reasons. Aitkenhead's willingness to accept them, and his belief that they (and the school) would benefit by being placed among a majority of "normal" children (as opposed to being sent to "specialist" units) led to interesting and productive links with senior professionals from other disciplines involved in working with young people throughout Scotland.

Though Kilquhanity was a boarding school, Aitkenhead was often openly concerned about the strain such an arrangement put on relationships between parents and children - something he may have come to acknowledge from the experience of his own children being pupils at the school. Thus, as well as taking on pupils from around the world, it also became a truly "local" school, where day pupils were encouraged, and active links with the surrounding community developed.

These links were not confined to education issues. John Aitkenhead's active commitment to Scottish nationalism, his love of the Galloway countryside, the pride with which he would point out to visitors the copy of the Declaration of Stranraer which hung prominently in the school's entrance hall, the kilt and sporran which he always wore, were all proof of his passionate identification both with his local community and with Scotland.

Kilquhanity closed in 1997. John Aitkenhead described it as "an experiment in education". In some ways this experiment was open to criticism: for the insufficient depth or width in its academic curriculum; for the fact that its healthy functioning was dependent on its unique location and on relatively small numbers; for relying on the goodwill of staff prepared to work for very low salaries; and for remaining a relatively isolated educational project.

However the testimony of the overwhelming majority of past pupils and staff, as well as that of the many visitors both from Britain and overseas, suggests that Kilquhanity met the primary task of education, both in motivating people to follow their own interests and beliefs, and in equipping them with the ways and means to do so.

Likewise John Aitkenhead's life should not only be judged by what he did or didn't accomplish but by the example he gave in the way he lived. He himself admitted regret at not having found the time to write or publish more about his work. His charismatic style of leadership led to inevitable difficulties around the question of succession. However, his love of teaching, his energy and enthusiasm, and his ability to inspire and infuriate at the same time, means that he will not easily be forgotten by those lucky enough to have come into contact with him. His life certainly meets Bettelheim's criterion that a person's choice of work should reflect how he reaches towards self-realisation, so that the results of his work reflect his own purposes in life.

He leaves behind his wife Morag, without whose support none of his life's work would have been realised.

Nadine Greening and Kajetan Kasinski

John Marjoribanks Aitkenhead, teacher and educationist: born Glasgow 21 May 1910; founder and Head Teacher, Kilquhanity House School 1940-97; married 1938 Morag MacKinnon (two sons, two daughters); died Kirkpatrick Durham, Galloway 26 July 1998.