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The story of The Scotland Road Free School.

The late 60s and early 70s were a period of rebellion and challenging traditional ideas.  People questioned all aspects of society.  Schooling was no exception.  A free school movement took root. Summerhill, established in 1923 by A.S. Neill, was the inspiration for people across the country to establish free schools of their own.  Step forward The Scotland Road Free School, established by two teachers from St. Catherine’s, John Ord and Bill Murphy.

John Ord was from Hornby Street in the Scotland Road area.  His family was moved away to Croxteth. He taught for a while in Portsmouth but returned to Liverpool where he taught at St. Catherine’s RC Girls’ School on Boundary Street. ‘I was living in a bedsit on Limekiln Lane. It was not a conscious intention to set up Free School. I got to know local kids and we turned just being around into a school. We registered as a school and at first rented a couple of rooms above a veg shop. We moved the school around a lot. At one point we used a Protestant Church Hall where the Reverend Ian Paisley would speak when he visited Liverpool. Some of the kids who turned up had been excluded from other schools but most of the kids were local. There was a network of free schools: Barrowfield, London, Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds.’

‘We had a learning culture, not a teaching culture. The textbook is the community, you learn through experience. It was not about policing, learning your station in life. We learned things together, you had to learn to fit in. The kids did not do as they pleased. We made a rule about not swearing on the bus after one incident.  There was no funding, we had no income, everyone was on the dole, but people, organisations, and visitors made donations.  We were invited to give talks and they would have a collection for us.’

‘Our relationship with the local education authority (LEA) was strained at first.  Councillors were supportive and then people brought their kids. In the last year or two the LEA gave us free school meals which we took to St. Peter’s homeless shelter. They then gave us Major Street School. We were inspected at Major Street by the Department of Education. The inspectors wanted to meet parents and governors. The parents drank in F’n Nelly’s and The Green Man on Vauxhall. The Green Man had a weekly draw for the school. So we took the inspectors to The Green Man, where they were told that anyone who comes in buys a round of drinks, which came to about 15 pints. The inspectors went away perfectly happy, if a bit tipsy.  They just said we needed a bit more organisation. We had a lot of criticism from the church.  I got into trouble with my grandmother when the priest denounced us from the pulpit.’

‘Teacher Training Colleges invited us to speak and we would take kids with us. A.S. Neill said he was really pleased with what we were doing. TV companies came as well.  There was immense interest.  The Echo and the Mail of course used the shock horror line characterizing the school as ‘licence not education.’  There was research by Higher Education institutions not just here but in New York, Germany and Korea.’

‘We had a lot of highlights.  It was best when we were a collective, investigating.  We went to the Bendix factory which had been occupied by the workers. We invaded the Lord Mayor’s parade showing photos of terrible housing. Once we were walking up to hill to the hall and the kids saw a circus being set up. They asked to join in and they let us.  Soon a Protestant Councillor appeared and shouted at us to leave the area. We took the kids to a cottage in Wales at Ysceiffiog.   We walked around Liverpool, we went to different places. For example, we saw a water tower; the kids asked what it was and knocked on the door and we went in.’ 

‘But there were also low points. We had no money to do things.  We had no terms, no breaks, no holidays.  We became really tired.  We couldn’t do what we and the kids wanted to do. The school closed about 1975. It was fairly gradual.  We couldn’t pay anyone.  There were stories about bad behaviour.  Some people tried to keep it going but it couldn’t be sustained. My departure was crucial, people saw me as being central to the school.’

After the closure of the Scotland Road Free School, John was effectively banned from teaching and took a job working in a car factory and as a bus conductor.  He tried to set up a building co-op but materials went up in price. He was elected to Liverpool City Council in the 1980s. He eventually got back into teaching and built a successful career, becoming an education officer in Oxfordshire where he has lived for many years.

John Walmsley stood in front of a picture he took of John Lennon that featured in the Time Tunnel exhibition in 2018

When asked whether there was a legacy from the school, John is clear, ‘We developed inclusive practice and experiential learning.  We were pioneers of alternative education and giving pupils a voice in the learning process. There were strong relationships between parents, teachers and kids. We had work experience. One lad went on a placement to a croft in Scotland and decided to stay. His mother was frantic to get him to come home. When we closed, the LEA worried about how to deal with excluded pupils.  Pupil Referral Units (PRU) were developed using much of the free school practice and philosophy. Bill Murphy established Liverpool Community Transport to help the school and the community.  It’s still going.’

Scottie Press spoke to a former pupil, Pat Jones, nee Pat O’Neill. ‘I had attended St Catherine’s but heard about the Free School. I wanted to go there so I got a signature from my parents. I was persuasive. The Free School wasn’t like anything you knew. The teachers were John Ord and Bill Murphy.  There were graduates but they were the only teachers.  There were no lessons. The onus was on you to learn and choose subjects to do.

The days were all different.  It wasn’t 9 till 4. There was no discipline, no boundaries, no uniform. Kids dipped in and out. In terms of education, I got absolutely nothing. At the time, I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on school, so it suited me.  I could come and go as I pleased. It made me more independent. I was aware of it not working out financially. I left and went back to St Catherine’s but then I stopped going there as well.’ Pat’s experience of the free school was mixed.  She resumed her education in her 20s and went on to have a very successful career working with young people for various Merseyside councils. She feels that schools do not work without boundaries, ’You need a purpose. We all need boundaries.  They are laid out in childhood and carry on into adult life.  My ambition overtook me and gave me the ability to learn.’

John Ord 2018, teaching in a school for the Young Researcher project

John Walmsley is a professional photographer specializing in education, who studied photography at Guildford School of Art.  He spent two days taking photographs at the Scotland Road Free School in the 70s. 

The Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool featured his photos in an exhibition on the free school last year. He spoke to Scottie Press, ‘I had visited Summerhill and met A. S. Neill.  I’d read about the Scotland Road Free School and hitchhiked up to Liverpool. I was going to sleep on the floor in the building for a couple of days.  It was fascinating what was going on. It was completely different from my school upbringing with all the rules.

I was talking to one of the former pupils who said you could just turn up at the school and John would say, ‘What do you want to do?’ They’d say, ‘Can we go ice skating?’ ‘Yeah, why not, and off you’d go.’ So many kids would benefit from this. The building was run down, nothing like any school I’d been in before because it wasn’t a school building. But, it was comfortable. They got food in and cooked it. Everyone was fed. Everyone was interested. People were doing things. That seemed pretty good to me. The kids were great, they were inventive.

My southern ears struggled with the Liverpool accent and we joked about that. It almost wasn’t a school. It was somewhere where interested adults met with interested kids and did interesting stuff. I had not seen that to that extent in in several hundred schools in my working life. The adults were committed and came from all sorts of backgrounds and places. Some of them had come a really long way to be there.

It might sound odd but I couldn’t see any education because I’d come up through standard schools where it was so regimented. It’s the regimentation which I was associating with education, whereas here they were learning things by osmosis. I can’t recall any sit down lessons. I wish the Scotland Road Free School had lasted longer and spread its effect. These days we have home schooling which I think can be similar especially if you get two or three families who intermingle and do things together. For science you need science kit but for most subjects  you just need interested adults and interested kids and books or these days, internet access, and people to talk to who show you stuff.’

The Scotland Road Free School was a bold attempt to transform children’s education through collaboration and cooperation. It was not perfect and suffered from a lack of funding but it has undoubtedly contributed to the push to make schools kinder and more humane places.

Imagine that.

John Walmsley has nine photographs in the National Portrait Gallery.  His most famous photograph, of Vanessa Redgrave and Tariq Ali at the anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the American Embassy in London in 1968, he has kindly permitted us to print. He has allowed us to use a photo featuring John Ord on a trip to Wales.  Here are links to his other photos.