OBITUARY: Lois Child

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The Independent Online
Lois Child was an educationalist whose thinking profoundly influenced all those who worked with her in the field of "progressive" education, a label she considered nebulous in its use to cover all departures from traditional education, and not easy to define. For her it meant perhaps evolving ways in which children could learn and find fulfilment in an educational structure which allowed them the freedom to make choices of their own.

Educated herself at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Newnham College, Cambridge, Lois Hare subsequently discovered an unexpected pleasure in teaching while working at Chatelard School in Switzerland. On her return to England in 1929, she took a post at Bedales, teaching history from 1930 to 1936 and then from 1944 to 1946.

At Bedales, she met and married Hu Child. It was an exceptionally happy marriage, and the deep affection and remarkable qualities of their four children suggest perfect parenting. She concentrated on their upbringing and then worked in teacher training as a lecturer in education.

Having been involved in progressive education at Bedales and convinced of its value, it was a natural progression for the Childs, many years later, to take on the joint headship of Dartington Hall School in Devon. When they went there in 1956, this famous co-educational boarding school (founded in 1931) was in decline: falling numbers, finances a source of anxiety, its inspirational first Head, Bill Curry, ill and the trustees divided about the school's role and future.

The Childs tackled this situation with clear-sighted courage. First the numbers had to be built up and the economy underpinned. By 1959, the trust and the Heads were confident enough to plan a new boarding house for 40 children. It was opened in 1961, along with new laboratories, art and craft workshops, an assembly hall, a new dining room, and later a new music room. When the Childs retired in 1968, they left a well-equipped school, recognised by the Department of Education and Science, academically sound and financially viable. The ideals of the founders, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhurst, were upheld and the "freedom" managed in such a way that pupils made good use of their abilities, and the old myths - that no one attended a class unless they felt like it, that promiscuity prevailed - were firmly disposed of.

Underlying all that the Childs did was a profound understanding of child psychology. They recognised the child's need for security and therefore for some forms of discipline, ultimately self-imposed. In an article on discipline for the New Era magazine, later reprinted in the book Let's Teach Them Right (1969), Lois Child wrote:

The task of the adolescent is to internalise authority, and whatever the rationality of the rules he has helped to make, he still has his own irrationalities to face in the matter of obeying them. In this task he is dependent on adult help and it is the quality of his relationship with adults which determines how available that

help is. It is the freedom from au-

thoritarianism that really is the crux of the matter, and from it that the atmosphere and ethos of the permissive school derive.

That freedom from authoritarianism was of value not only to pupils but also to members of staff. New ideas, all ideas, were discussed as between equals and experiment encouraged. When a young science teacher showed interest in early trial materials of Nuffield Biology - the first national science curriculum development project - the Childs backed him. Their support for a new way of teaching science which was child-centred and not didactic was indicative of their educational approach.

As a teacher, Child illuminated any subject she chose. Her classes in Latin proved fascinating even to the reluctant pupil, and her extra-curricular courses on comparative religion, held in the evenings at Dartington, were always oversubscribed. A person of culture and learning, she was ready to consider any question, whether intellectually daunting or simply practical. She had time, or made time, for everyone.

In retirement, there were other interests and activities, including teaching English to Asian women in north London. An abiding leisure pursuit was gardening: a huge garden was lovingly made on a hillside in the Cotswolds, and later, when arthritis reduced her scope, two enchanting adjoining walled gardens behind a towhouse in Totnes. She once casually remarked that the curry plant in one of them was so strong it made the place smell like an Indian takeaway.

Lois Child was ageless. She never became old, except in body. Her mind remained as penetrating and her humour as keen as they ever were, and she never lost her ability to find an affinity with people of all ages, types and conditions. She was a person of rare quality, able to enliven any conversation by her perception and humour. She was impatient of received opinions, always questioning, turning ideas upside-down, provoking thought, and so cunningly that her listeners - participants would be a better word, for she talked with, never at - enjoyed having the rugs pulled from under them. Perhaps it was these habits of mind that made her such a good teacher.

June Marychurch

Lois Aitkin Hare, educationalist: born 10 January 1906; joint Head, Dartington Hall School 1956-68; married 1932 Hu Child (died 1978: one son, three daughters); died 24 January 1996.

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