Sidebar Menu

The new school West 11 was not my initiative but it took up an enormous amount of my time. Both our children initially went to St. James's Norland School which was a Church of England School and I voluntarily taught art there for a year or two. Many of the other parents were very dissatisfied with the conservative nature of the general teaching and they got together to organise an alternative education in the Douglas's basement. Janet was certainly one of those who were dissatisfied. I didn't really have a great deal of expectation of education and so was reasonably happy with what was going on at St James's.

Our eldest Jesse was behaving very much as I did at school; that is sitting at the back and doing nothing. I thought of that as normal. Janet was used to shining at school, I guess she was more or less top girl in her class all the way through school and for her Jesse's performance was alarming. So we joined; at that time there was a most promising master aiming to become head of the school, there were probably about 12 potential pupils. But at the last minute, that is a month before school was due to open, the headmaster pulled out. We could hardly go back to St. James’s with our tails between our legs. So we had to search for a replacement at very short notice; the result was a very inadequate person to lead the school.

Fortunately the Douglas's were very dedicated. Karen was a social worker and stepped into to help; in fact we all had to help by the end. By the end of the first year the school had grown in reputation and a number of new people wanted to come. This made it necessary to find new premises. We were offered an old butcher’s shop in Norland Road which was due for redevelopment and we took it, little knowing that we had to bring it up to the building standard for a school.

It wasn't in bad condition for a butcher's shop but it did require a lot of adjustment to become a school. I being a freelance sculptor somehow got burdened with the main building project. Fortunately, there were other parents who were also very capable but by good fortune an itinerant Australian carpenter with his wife and young son dropped by and were willing to take on the job. I must say together he and I made a good job on a minimal budget. I learnt a huge amount about building which came in very useful when I took on the Verrocchio project. The little family were fully up to the demanding adventure – Australians are tough.

With the new premises we took on a new head who looked terrific. He arrived on a powerful motorcycle, he had an enormous kit of tools and a girlfriend who was also a teacher, the New School now looked very promising indeed. One complication I haven't mentioned was in order to be given the premises in the first place we had to undertake to accommodate truants from the enormous Holland Park Comprehensive up the road. This involved about six or seven boys who turned up pretty regularly. We gave them a clubhouse under the stairs and they spent a lot of time there not really causing a great deal of trouble though they did practice fast escapes from the upper windows by sliding down the drain pipes, a terrifying performance. They did not bother us much as they were self-educating. But our new head was not the hero he appeared, the whole setup was very demanding and distinctly worrying.

The school at this stage attracted a number of parents of a very different class and character to the ones who started the school. We had a fairly punch-drunk, ex-sparring partner of Rocky Marciano and his wife. a very out-spoken, forceful character. They were quite certain that the school was based on the principles of A.S.Neil at Summerhill, a very advanced “free school” - that was by no means our intention; there were also two parents who were pretty high on drugs most of the time. So our parents meetings were difficult and it seems that I was the parent who was the most capable of dealing with this strange stew diplomatically.

I must say our children didn't seem to suffer from the results but Janet became so stressed and I was certainly relieved when we decided to pull them out and send them to a much more conventional school - The Town and Country School in Swiss Cottage. Jesse still wasn't doing very much academically so we sent him to an educational psychologist to see what kind of a school we could find for him now that he was turning 13. The answer surprised us a lot - he was deemed to be very good at mathematics; no one had told him or us that in his whole school life before but it turned out to be true. He proved the diagnosis within 3 weeks.The head of Town and Country was a huge admirer of the psychologist, Oscar Kohnstamm she showed me his fat book, I had never heard of it before. He had been on a par with Freud but died young of appendicitis.

We entered Jesse for The City of London Boys School and he was accepted. Hannah went to a very conventional school round the corner from us which suited her pretty well until she was old enough to go on to Francis Holland School where she thrived. The original New School West 11 struggled on for a year or two.  Most of the W11 parents left fairly soon as we did, the ‘free’ school faded away. Given the enormity of the challenges we got away fairly unscathed.

Stuart Douglas, who with his wife Karen were the driving force of the New School, was the master of ceremonies at IBM; he organised their staff freebies in exotic settings and was in every way up to the job – humorous, musical, inventive and sociable. Many years after our escape from the new school he turned up in Siena and we had a good evening of reminiscences. I was sorry my emigration had interrupted a number of friendships which had resulted from our adventures together. Looking back, I would strongly advise against such a project.

Next Chapter