Like the first page of a novel, the first scene of a play, or the first chords of a piece of music, the first week of a new school year must communicate a lot. It has to engage, to introduce, to challenge and also to convey the essence of what is to follow. It is the foundation on which the edifice of the school year must rest and there is a lot of spadework involved in getting it right. This year, the Brockwood staff arrived back in the School three full weeks before the students, as there was much to do in preparation for the year, given the many changes we were planning. Preparation for the first week started immediately as we began mapping out the different elements it must contain.

On the pragmatic level, the week had to introduce new students to the School, providing them with vital information about the use of equipment and facilities and some of the day-to-day features of School life. It had to reintroduce returning students, reminding them of their responsibility as key players in the creation of the school ambience and spirit and ensuring that they helped to make the new arrivals feel included from the start. The equivalent of two full days had to be set aside for the Timetable Process during which all students would meet with academic advisers and teachers and after lengthy discussion formulate their own programme of studies. In the midst of all this, time had to be found for students to meet with their pastoral tutors, with floor people (house-parents) and amongst themselves, not to mention timetabling in at least one session of games and outside work in the garden and on the estate.

From the outset, we also knew that we wanted to have a strand of inquiry running through the week that would introduce the students to questions that lay at the core of the School’s intentions. It was decided to frame these questions around the heading‘Education for Self-Reliance’ and we conceived of an introductory presentation on the first day followed by four 1 hour sessions on the following days, all occupying the first period in the morning. In addition, two longer periods dealing with moral dilemmas complementing the theme were planned. It was quite an edifice, but would it stand? The 6th of September came around and the students arrived.

Day one: Questions on learning

They came this year from 19 different countries including such far-flung places as Venezuela, Japan and Kryskstan. On the first morning of the first day we all met in the octagonal Assembly Hall and after a general welcome and one or two announcements launched into our theme. ‘Why is it so much easier to learn some things than others?’ was the question that was put to all present. ‘Why is it that we have learnt how to put people on the moon, create remarkable computers and complex atomic weapons, but apparently we are still unable to live together peacefully as human beings, caring for this planet and for each other?’ The introduction was intended to question what it is we are required to learn and why, and to highlight the importance of considering the learning process itself.

Day two: Understanding ourselves

With breakfast to fortify them and Morning Jobs completed, the students arrived in the Assembly Hall on day two to be separated into small groups and presented with five questions. The questions, which came under the subheading ‘Understanding Ourselves’, were as follows:

  1. Are some places better for learning than others, and if so why?
  2. Why is learning about oneself so neglected, or is it?
  3. Who are we?
  4. What can we do in order to better understand ourselves?
  5. Where do our thoughts come from and why?

We reassembled as a large group and heard the feedback, writing up interesting responses for display on an overhead projector. Because of the relatively short amount of time allowed for each question, the responses were often spontaneous, undeveloped but insightful. In response to question 2, one student felt that we may be neglecting learning about ourselves because there is much that we wish to hide from in ourselves, much that we are scared of. Another felt that we are simply not encouraged in this kind of learning because society doesn’t value it. Considering question 4, a student replied it was important not to build walls around ourselves and that we shouldn’t come too quickly to conclusions 44 about who we are. Another felt that understanding the movement of the mind was the key, and a greater awareness of thiswas called for.

Day three: Meeting fear

The following day, students entered the hall to be faced with two circles of chairs, one inside the other, facing each other. Having seated themselves, they were directly opposite one another with their knees almost touching. With the intimacy of the wheel established, we launched into the five questions for the day, under the subheading‘Meeting Fear’:

  1. What kinds of things are you frightened of?
  2. Why do you have these fears?
  3. Are you aware of trying to escape your fears, and if so how do you escape them?
  4. Do you see a link between fear, conformity and aggression?
  5. How can we meet our fears and be free of them?

Leaning forward so as to hear and be heard, students took turns with their partner in responding to the question. For each new question, either the inner or the outer circle stood and started moving – clockwise or anticlockwise – until a gong sounded and they sat to face a new partner and be presented with a new question. In this way every student got to speak and it proved a lively way of addressing a sensitive issue, with the added benefit of thoroughly mixing old and new students. They were only too willing to share their fears, which ranged from spiders, being in the dark or facing big needles, to disappointing one’s parents, dealing with prejudices and rejection, or being trapped in an unwanted lifestyle. They recognized their own strategies for escaping fear, by avoiding certain situations, occupying oneself with pleasurable activities and simply ignoring fear when it was present. And they saw the links, which result in fear – leading to conformity and a consequent aggressiontowards others or oneself.

Day four: Living without authority

Day four dawned and by now most of the students were over their jet lag, and the initial excitement of seeing old friends again, or being in a new school and a new culture, had begun to diminish. Today we used the Fish-bowl to consider questions under the heading ‘Living without Authority’. The Fishbowl entailed 5 students and 2 staff sitting on the floor in a tight circle, in the middle of the hall and the remainder of the students and staff sitting around them and observing. The observers had to give their attention to listening and pondering the progress of the dialogue, the select group in the middle hadto respond to the questions:

  1. What is the link between fear and authority?
  2. Who do you regard as an authority and why?
  3. What is our role in creating authority?
  4. Is some authority good and some bad, and if so why?
  5. How can we live without authority?

Asking younger students to be attentive to a dialogue on a fairly abstract topic without allowing them to speak was probably asking too much. Of all the sessions this was possibly the least effective for that reason. Nevertheless, a significant number of students did follow it and did have perceptive comments to make during the feedback session. Fear, they recognized, was obviously a tool wielded by certain kinds of authority, but identifying the different aspects of authority was more complex. The authority of the parent, the dictator, the professor, the movie star was in many respects different, but one’s responses to those authority figures may have a common thread. Students spoke of their own insecurities and search for identity, resulting in the need to have someone telling them what to do. Living without authority, they said, required a willingness to think for ourselves, an activitywe might prefer not to do on many occasions.

Day five: Understanding freedom

The fifth and last day, and the students were beginning to flag a little under the weight of all they had to absorb in the first week. We decided to opt for the small group approach of the second day and this time the topic was‘Understanding Freedom’, and the questions:

  1. What does freedom mean to you?
  2. Do you have it, and if not, why not?
  3. Why is freedom so important to us?
  4. What are the necessary ingredients for freedom to flower?
  5. ‘People who have opinions, judgements, conclusions which they hold on to are incapable of living together freely, with intelligence.’ Do you think this is true, if so why?

There are at least two types of freedom, one student asserted, the physical and the mental and you might have the one but not the other. Another student said she is kept from freedom by not yet being 18 years old, while a third felt it is the fact that we generate problems in our own mind that causes freedom to elude us. We need freedom to be our own person, a student claimed, there is more to it than that, suggested others, it is natural and innate, but it requires certain ingredients such as trust, friendship, being liked, space to question and openness. There were no serious challenges to the veracity of the quote in the final question. There is no freedom if there isn’t room for change, a student remarked in closing.

The week was over, and the consensus seemed to be that it had gone well and we were off to a good start. There was a certain buoyancy in the school that took us all a little by surprise; our last term had proved to be quite a grind and we were perhaps expecting more of the same. The daily sessions on the theme of Education for Self-Reliance seemed to have helped. The reasons for choosing this theme were not overtly stated, but students seemed to have understood that the combination of topics explored were meant to get them thinking about what it might take to have a self-reliant approach to life. The emphasis was on raising questions – rather than providing answers – and creating an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable about asking any kind of question. At the end of the week we were left with our own questions: how do we sustain this spirit of inquiry through our classes, our meetings, our games and leisure activities? And what did we do to deserve such a great bunch of students?