Jonathan Croall visited his old school where a vegetarian diet is only one aspect of a progressive approach to learning
Whether it is safe to serve beef for dinner is not an issue at St Christopher School, Letchworth. It was founded over 80 years ago, on the principle of vegetarianism, and has served a meat-free diet ever since.
"Physical well-being must always be placed first," wrote the first headteacher, Armstrong Smith, shortly after the school opened in 1915. "The child's body is the instrument which he will have to use through life; if he can grow up with a healthy body - good digestion, strong nerves and sound lungs - he can grasp knowledge later with ease."
The founders, who chose a green and pleasant site in Hertfordshire, were early progressives committed to "developing the whole child" several decades before the phrase became a cliche in school brochures. They were against the harsh regime of competitive public schools, and the dulling conformity, large classes and rigid timetables of the state system. Vegetarianism was only one of St Christopher's distinctive features: it was an all-age co-educational boarding community; it allowed children to wear what clothes they pleased; and it promoted self-government.
"Our vegetarian commitment," says today's headteacher Colin Reid, "is one way in which we nail our colours to the mast, associating ourselves with a particular group of values." These values have always been tolerance, informality, respect for the individual, and an international outlook.
Armstrong Smith took care not to alienate prospective parents from the meat-free regime, which was rare at the time. "Vegetarian diet will be the rule, but a rule that may be broken in special cases," he decreed. In practice, such special cases appear not to have materialised - at least not during term time.
I was a pupil boarder in the 1950s when the nearest thing to uniform was jeans and baggy sweaters. Our clothes, meat-free diet and the fact that boys and girls lived and learned together gave us a reputation for crankiness in Letchworth - the world's first Garden City. We couldn't understand the excitement of boys from visiting football teams when they came across girls in our dining room.
Some of the early traditions still existed then. There were cold baths every morning and a compulsory 15-minute morning walk on the roads around the estate before breakfast. (Michael Winner, demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that got him into films, once took a taxi.) But mostly it was a relaxed, open and friendly place in which to grow up.
Informality between staff and children meant that everyone used first names. So we saw nothing strange in being taught English by Colin and Vera, having a tutor called Peter and addressing the head as Nicholas. Talking to adults was easy and natural, and we respected them or not according to their qualities and the way they treated us: the mode of address seemed irrelevant.
Lessons which had at first been voluntary were now compulsory; but there was no obvious pressure to shine academically. We were, however, given responsibility to plan our own work through a fortnightly "assignment" system that seemed to make studying easier as we got older. The school encouraged individuality - "finding yourself" was a key phrase - and tolerated eccentricity: several children, who would have been hard put to survive in a more conventional school, found a niche in this "atmosphere of ordered freedom".
I was part of a tiny minority of pupils who came from vegetarian families. Most parents evidently sent their children to the school despite, rather than because of, the salads, brown bread and muesli. Some staff were vegetarian, notably a physics teacher (he was actually a vegan) who insisted on chewing every mouthful of food 95 times.
Nowadays it's not only acceptable to be vegetarian but fashionable. Nevertheless a survey done specifically for my recent visit shows that just 22 per cent of senior pupils are committed vegetarians (of these two eat fish and one is vegan). More than a third of this 22 per cent come from families where at least one parent eats meat.
Staff acknowledge that some sixth-formers at the 480-pupil school sneak into the local McDonald's at the weekend, but say the idea of school as a meat-free zone is generally accepted. "Everything else is up for argument," says teacher Betsy Reid, who used to chair the school's food committee. "But the vegetarian principle is never questioned."
As predicted, a group of seniors talking over lunch (vegetable soup, assorted salads and apple crumble) didn't question the basic wholefood diet but expressed a mixed reaction to the food: approving the salads but grumbling about the quality of the bread.
Catering manager John Cooke (a meat-eater) does his best to respond. "We try to educate them, but we also have to be flexible," he says. There is a constant battle to keep down the consumption of junk food. An official tuck shop opened recently selling iced buns, crisps and fizzy drinks, but only after one enterprising pupil set up his own thriving business.
Margaret Armitage, working in a spacious and well-equipped home economics area, emphasises the benefits of healthy eating to her pupils and adapts recipes so that wholemeal flour, fruit and vegetables can be used whenever possible. (I recall making a vegetarian haggis at the age of 11). All pupils do home economics for the first three years in the senior school, and many - boys and girls in equal numbers - take a GCSE in Home Economics: Food.
The school has been through a Quaker period and innovations included the first parent-teacher association in the country and introduction of a Montessori department for the early years. Today some of St Christopher's basic principles are being reappraised. One is boarding: today's parents prefer weekly boarding but this makes it more difficult to retain a strong community life at weekends.
The school largely follows the national curriculum and has good exam results: 70 per cent achieved five GCSE grades A-C last year. Colin Reid disapproves of the league. "But parents need reassurance, so we need to think how we can better project our achievement," he admits. A visiting marketing consultant recently suggested mentioning the results in the prospectus.
Self-government is still a solid theme. The head claims to have used his veto at council and school meetings only four times in 15 years.
With fees now Pounds 10,000 a year, the intake is inevitably middle class. But the school still tries to cater for bright children who might be teased in other schools for being mildly eccentric. Former pupils often say they were more able to express their feelings and views than contemporaries from other schools. "They're people who speak up for themselves, and for others," says Colin Reid.
St Christopher School 1915-1975, by Reginald Snell, (Pounds 5 including postage) from St Christopher School, Barrington Road, Letchworth, Hertfordshire SG6 3JZ.