'Peace cranes' spread wings for freedom

5th August 2005 at 01:00
On the last Saturday in July in Knockvennie community hall in the depths of the Galloway countryside, a dozen Japanese teenagers are showing local people how to make origami 'peace cranes'.

The brightly-coloured paper birds will be presented to the Japanese consul-general in Edinburgh tomorrow, in a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

The paper-folding is part of a peace day organised by the community to raise the profile of the local hall.

The Japanese teenagers are based less than half-a-mile away from the hall, at Kilquhanity House. This, until its closure in 1997, was the home of Scotland's first and only progressive (or "free") school.

It was founded by John Aitkenhead, based on the model established in England by A S Neill (a fellow Scot) at Summerhill in 1921. Famously, both Summerhill and Kilquhanity were known as schools where attending lessons was optional, teachers were called by their first names and pupils made up the rules. Summerhill continues as the world's oldest self-governing school offering non-compulsory lessons.

John Aitkenhead died in 1998, a year after Kilquhanity closed, and, although the small estate was a prime candidate for the second homeholiday property market, his family members were delighted when Japanese educationist Shin-ichiro Hori asked if he could buy the school.

Hori had first visited Kilquhanity in 1972, having been advised to do so by A S Neill. Now aged 62, Hori was still studying English and sociology at university when he came across Neill's renowned book, Summerhill, which at the time had been newly translated into Japanese.

"I was shocked by what I read," he recalls. "Japanese schools were and are very strict and authoritarian; they are teacher-centred and book-centred.

So to discover that a school like Summerhill existed was shocking. It was almost unbelievable."

Hori, whose parents were both teachers, became fascinated by the subject of progressive education and went on to write his graduate thesis on A S Neill and other educationists such as the American, John Dewey. (Dewey argued strongly for "learning by experience and necessity rather than through authoritarian instruction: education should meet and develop the child's own interests and abilities").

A year after first visiting Summerhill, Hori came to Scotland and spent several days at Kilquhanity where he recalls being "charmed by John (Aitkenhead)".

He added: "He drove me to Dumfries to get the train and said to me in the car: 'You're almost 30 years old. I was 30 when I started my school and Neill was in his 30s when he started his. How about you?'

"I told him that I would start my own school but I knew it would be much more difficult than starting a school in Scotland."

As Hori explains, both state and independent schools in Japan must stick to the course of study prescribed by the ministry of education, including which of the alphabet's 2,000 characters should be taught in each year of primary school.

In fact, it wasn't until 1992 - 20 years after his first meeting with Aitkenhead - that Hori was able to open Japan's first progressive school, during which time he had risen to become professor of education (curriculum) at Osaka city university.

Although Hori was initially inspired by Summerhill, he has modelled his own school, Kinokuni children's village, on Kilquhanity. He says: "Neill concentrated on the emotional and social development of students, Dewey on their intellectual development. John Aitkenhead combined those three elements and I developed my school on his model.

"The traditional method in Japan is to teach letters of the alphabet by memorising them. I devised a method whereby literacy, numeracy and other curriculum subjects are incorporated into meaningful, year-long activity projects, allowing students to learn by doing."

So successful has the new method been that the Kinokuni schools (there are now five) have recently won a prestigious prize in Japan for reform in education. Almost 60 per cent of Kinokuni school-leavers go on to university, compared to the national average of 40 per cent.

Hori notes with some satisfaction: "Many teachers from Japan's state schools visit us now, as do government officials."

Using funds raised by supporters in Japan, Hori was able to buy Kilquhanity in 2002 and start work on refurbishment. Groups of students from Kinokuni have been visiting the school since then as part of their education, when the emphasis is on their social development.

Aitkenhead would have approved of the students' involvement in the community peace day. A committed pacifist, he was also a campaigner for nuclear disarmament.

Within the next few years, Hori aims to re-establish Kilquhanity as a full-time school, open to students from anywhere in the world. "The education system in Scotland is much less strict than in Japan," he says, "but I think there will always be a place here for an 'experimental'

school.

"When John (Aitkenhead) closed Kilquhanity, he believed the school still had work to do and I agree with him."

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