Kilquhanity set to rise from the ashes

7th August 2009 at 01:00
Closed in 1997 and bought by a Japanese educationist, the controversial private progressive school is to reopen its doors

It's an unusual situation for a journalist to be in - interviewing someone who is promoting a new "product", but not being subjected to a hard sell. That "someone" is headteacher Andrew Pyle; the "product", Kilquhanity School in Dumfries and Galloway.

If the name Kilquhanity rings a bell, that's because the controversial private school - first opened in 1940 and run by founder John Aitkenhead and his wife Morag for almost 60 years (it closed in 1997), with a progressive ethos based on AS Neill's famous Summerhill School - attracted both praise and criticism during its lifetime.

The Kilquhanity estate was bought in 2002 by Japanese educationist Shinichiro Hori, who founded his own progressive schools in Japan on John Aitkenhead's model (TESS, August 5, 2005). Interviewed at that time, Shinichiro said Kilquhanity was being used as a base for overseas cultural visits for his Japanese pupils, but he hoped to reopen the school in the near future.

Just under four years and a Pounds 500,000 refurbishment later, the new Kilquhanity School is ready for business. Andrew Pyle has been appointed headteacher, the Care Commission has given its approval and HMIE . well, HMIE is allowing it to operate as a primary school for day pupils. Like John before him, Andrew failed to persuade the inspectorate that "useful work" - the 40 minutes of practical chores that start each day - can be counted as part of the formal curriculum.

Here I must declare an interest. I was a boarder at Kilquhanity for three years in the early 1960s, as was Andrew for three years in the latter part of 1960. Andrew, 55, went on to train as a biology teacher, working initially in mainstream schools but latterly in special needs, where he eventually became a head. "Small numbers of kids meant there was greater scope for human interaction and there was an opportunity to practise something of what Kilquhanity was about," he says.

Like many former pupils (there were rarely more than 40 on the roll in any one year and numbers sometimes fell below 20), Andrew kept in touch with what was going on at the school, eventually becoming a trustee. Its purchase by Shinichiro coincided with a time when his two children had left home and he was in a position to take on a new challenge. He accepted an offer to become manager of the school's residential accommodation for the Japanese visits, as well as headteacher of the new school for primary day pupils.

Andrew and PE teacherestate manager Gavin Aitkenhead, the founder's younger son, are the school's only staff. The plan is to employ a full or part-time primary teacher when a minimum of five pupils have been enrolled. But will they get that many? Most state schools embrace the principles on which Kilquhanity and Summerhill were founded (and for which they were vilified): no corporal punishment; child-centred education; pupil councils; project-based, cross-curricular learning. According to Andrew, an inspector praised the school's syllabus as "the best Curriculum for Excellence he'd ever seen".

On the other hand, while the brochure states that: "English and mathematics are core studies for all students", it goes on to point out that Kilquhanity will "not participate in standardised assessments" and "does not participate in any formal testing of students, unless by agreement with individual students and their parentscarers".

Andrew believes the sticking points will be money - fees of Pounds 3,600 a year - and transport to a day school in the countryside where the bus stop is some miles away.

Despite that, interest from parents is such that Kilquhanity could have its five pupils, and possibly more, by the end of this month. In the meantime, Andrew is keeping his finger on the educational pulse by tutoring trainee teachers at Strathclyde University one day a week on "Barriers to Learning" and working towards his PhD on - appropriately - the history of Kilquhanity and its relevance in the 21st century.

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