Wennington School

Wennington School 1940 - 1975

THE BEGINNING

Original building in Lancashire
Wennington Hall

In 1940 Kenneth and Frances Barnes were offered the tenancy of Wennington Hall, Lunesdale, at a very low rent for the duration of the war, if they would open it as a boarding school for children evacuated from their familiar environment, or bombed out of their homes.

For years both had dreamed of the day when they would have their own school run on progressive lines. Kenneth Barnes had had ten years' experience as senior science master at Bedales, Hampshire's progressive school; he was also well versed in the arts, while Frances was both teacher and poet. They both loved and understood children. They would have been happy to stay at Bedales but wanted that sort of education not only for the well-to-do but for the whole range of income levels.

And so, Wennington School came into being, at a fortnight's notice, one of the first co-educational boarding schools in the country. It was founded on the lines of Bedales except that, unlike its parent, whose pupils all belonged to a high income group, Wennington aimed to cater for all children who had need of it, whether or not their parents could afford the fees, and in particular for the super-sensitive child who had lost his sense of balance because of an insecure background.

It was certainly a venture of faith - the founders had very little educational equipment and only about £200. It was a help when they were joined by one or two families in which the parents were teachers, for there was no question of salaries being paid; in fact the staff paid for their keep at first. Parents paid what they could; the highest fee was £99 a year and the lowest 12s 6d a week, the fee paid by the Government for children evacuated from towns. But as numbers of pupils increased, so did resources, although eight years were to elapse, with the cook and the head being paid the same, before the Burnham scale of payment could be introduced following inspection and recognition by the Ministry of Education.

From the first, all work was shared, both in the house and out of doors, where even necessary construction work was done as far as possible by staff and pupils, partly because this was the type of school Kenneth wanted and also because of lack of funds.

The school was never intended to be run as a private venture; within a short time an Educational Trust Company was formed with a board of governors including Tyler Fox and Alfred Schweitzer, and Professor John Macmurray as Chairman.

Multinational Group
The children came from all nations
Including Canada, France, Ghana, Greece, Nigeria and Uganda.

At the end of the war the school was required to find new premises. This was a major crisis, for being a non-profit-making venture, it had no capital to fall back on. Kenneth was lucky enough to be able to buy a large estate between Wetherby and York, Ingmanthorpe Hall, which had once been the home of the Montague family and was then owned by a Leeds brewer. The house and eighty acres were retained and the rest of the estate sold profitably. At the end of the transaction the school had to borrow only £8,000.

So, keeping its old name, Wennington moved to its new site. The stone house, built in 1833, radiated security. Its rooms were large and lofty, walls were panelled and ceilings and fireplaces exquisitely carved. Set in acres of parkland and woods there was a restful quality of a real home, rather than a school. Settled in its new premises the school soon achieved a reputation, in particular for its sympathetic handling of the sensitive child, and prospered accordingly.

At that time progressive schools did lag behind in academic achievements, for those took second place to the policy of helping children to develop as individuals in a happy family atmosphere. As time went on and world conditions changed, it was realised that attention must also be given to the important task of training boys and girls for a suitable career, although the primary aim remained the same - to develop personality.

CURRICULUM AND PHILOSOPHY

Kenneth Barnes
Kenneth Barnes
 
The power behind the throne
Frances Barnes

As the school developed new science labs were built and music and drama expanded after the building of a theatre. All subjects were taught to A-level but there was no attempt at specialisation in the first four forms; true specialisation came only in the Sixth. Even then, the embryo scientist was required to keep on some arts subjects, and the arts students some science, and all pupils some kind of craft work. But always hand in hand with intensive study there was the do-it-yourself policy, everybody doing something of everything both indoors and out. Boys cooked, girls took woodwork and metalwork, both did pottery. Indoors all participated in cleaning and decorating, preparing vegetables and washing up. The older boys and girls were responsible for organising and supervising many of these chores and became skilled in management and human understanding. They would return to school before the beginning of term to prepare squad lists and rotas. Out of doors there were the gardens (including fruit and vegetable), tennis courts, and swimming pool to be maintained. Some of the major construction projects with which pupils were involved were the building of hard tennis courts, and a larger sewage-disposal plant in ferro-concrete. This kind of work, consciously related to an understanding of the community's needs, developed unusual resourcefulness and initiative.

Always at Wennington there was a relaxed homely atmosphere where rules were few, where regimentation was unknown but good behaviour and respect for others the order of the day, where the 'uniform' was casual and practical, where the staff were friends and called by their Christian names. The size of the school was also a contributory factor to the family atmosphere; the age range was from eight to eighteen and there were never more than 130 pupils. Pupils represented a complete cross section of society - children of peers, professional parents and tradespeople, labourers, factory workers unmarried mothers, and a man in prison - from all over the country and abroad. About a third of children were sent by Local Authorities. Class-consciousness was unknown and there was a very strong feeling against racial discrimination so that no-one ever felt inferior because of background or circumstances. The children took no notice of status and freely went into each other's homes. All proof that an independent school need not be divisive.

Kenneth Barnes was often asked if he ran a school where the children did as they liked; he would reply "No - it's a school where they like what they do". At Wennington they wanted to show that the discovery of freedom could be made within a structure that could be understood and approved by the mass of quite ordinary people. Freedom grew in relationship. The first priority was the quality of relationships; all other aims were secondary and if necessary exams had to wait. In the long run this paid off.

Pupils were not forced to high marks, but over a decade, when five out of 10 grammar school applicants got into universities, nine out of 10 Wennington applicants were successful, and many got unusually high degrees. They did well in interviews because they were not afraid of their inquisitors. Further, the school showed that many children who start off badly could do astonishingly well if they were treated with love and patience.

As for religion, Wennington was primarily a Quaker foundation with many of the Governing Body members of the Society of Friends, but all religions were represented, both on the staff and among the pupils.

THE LATER YEARS

New building in Yorkshire
Ingmanthorpe Hall

In 1968 Kenneth and Frances Barnes retired, handing the school over to Brian Merrikin Hill, who had been English and Latin master from the early 1950's and for fifteen years Kenneth's deputy. Kenneth Barnes remained on the Board of Governors. The school continued to provide a grammar school curriculum whilst aiming to encourage pupils to grow up in a friendly and secure environment which would assure their integrity and yet make them adaptable and able to face new situations and calls for new and original reactions.

Throughout its time, the school had a considerable reputation for being able to meet the needs of the moderately maladjusted, and local education authorities sent a variety of children who were in need of boarding education. By the early 1970's it seems that an increase in the ratio of 'difficult' children with emotional or educational handicap had begun to upset the equilibrium of the school and there was a reduction in the number of private pupils. As the school had always tried to keep its fees low it had no reserves to meet the structural repairs needed after years of 'make do and mend'. The school was in difficulty.

Brian Hill resigned and in 1973 Fred Sessa was appointed headmaster. A valiant attempt was made by staff, parents, and old scholars to raise money for much needed repairs and to save money by their own labour. Ten fewer pupils were enrolled than were needed to break even, so money was being lost each term. With the national problems of the time, rising costs and rising salaries it was necessary to raise the fees, which resulted in fewer private fee-paying children.

Wennington School - small, unique, and way ahead of its time - could not continue and was closed at the end of the summer term in 1975.


The above article was compiled by Pat Mitchell.

For those who wish to read, in depth, the story of Wennington School and its importance in the field of Education, copies of Kenneth C. Barnes' book ENERGY UNBOUND, published in 1980 by William Sessions Limited are available from the secretary of the Wennington Association.
Kenneth's Book

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