2001: Classic Turns 30

Craig Fees, “Classic Turns 30”, Joint Newsletter 3 (2001), p. 3

It’s difficult to believe, but Maurice Bridgeland’s classic text, Pioneer Work With Maladjusted Children (Staples Press, 1971) turned 30 this year. There are few books which both capture an era and stay alive, and this is one of them.

Bridgeland’s career began, in a sense, when he was sent to a special school in Ramsgate at the age of eleven. Why was never explained to him, but he escaped when, having previously sat the scholarship exams, he was awarded a place as a day boy at Sevenoaks Public School. At a time of war, fresh from the closed and constricted world of a boarding school run by nuns, he flourished: “it wasn’t that education became child centred, but it stopped being staff centred, because the staff just weren’t there….” He spent his sixth form year in the rabbit shed, reading “hundreds and hundreds of books.” In university-style tutorials he was tested and drawn out: “That was the crucial experience as far as I was concerned, in my own approach to teaching: that people learn not by your telling them things, but by their finding out things.”

During National Service he had a massive haemorrhage, and in hospitals and sanatoria over the next couple of years had “the most formative experience of my life.” Apparently dying of T.B. – on at least three different occasions he was expected to die – he had the isolation in which he could read, and think, and listen to music. When he finally emerged, it was to go to Cambridge, where he took a degree in history and a Diploma in Education, and began his career proper: Going first as a housemaster and English teacher to Midhurst Grammar School in Hampshire, where the head master had a special concern for disturbed boys and a deep interest in art; then to a new grammar school, Ifield Grammar School, at Crawley (“another good experience in working with disturbed children, because all the [other] grammar schools that had all these bright Crawley children chucked out the ones they didn’t want…”); and then as a housemaster and teacher to Lendrick Muir, a school for disturbed children founded by Janet Grieve in Scotland (“Lendrick Muir was incredible…”). It was there, while waiting later to take up a joint appointment with his wife as houseparents in a proposed new boarding house for girls, that Pioneer Work began. He was accepted on the educational psychology course at St. Andrews University, and Pioneer Work began life as his thesis.

Before that, Lendrick Muir sent Bridgeland to a conference of the young Association of Workers for Maladjusted Children (AWMC, as it then was; now the Association of Workers for Emotionally and Behaviourally Disturbed Children – AWCEBD) in Bristol. Otto Shaw, David Wills, A.S. Neill and others were there, “And I thought, you know, ‘These are extraordinary characters'” and after attending a few more meetings “I thought: ‘Somebody’s got to write something about these people'”. “So I then sent out questionnaires to everybody I could think of, David Wills, Otto Shaw, Lyward…[asking them] what they thought maladjustment was, and what their principles of education were, and so on and so forth. And my tutor said, “We must soon see what you’re going to do for this thesis, and get it planned.” And I said, “I’ve started,” and showed him this stuff. He was horrified, because I hadn’t asked anyone’s permission to conduct a questionnaire or anything like that, and the scheme of work hadn’t been accepted by the university. But… they let me go ahead with it.”

He completed Pioneer Work while lecturing in the Special Education Department at Liverpool University – “after having been at Lendrick Muir where I had these 65 hour stints and so on, being at university was the nearest thing to paid retirement you could imagine.” It came about specifically when a paper by Bridgeland on teaching English to maladjusted children appeared in Child Education and was picked up by Atticus of the Sunday Times. Atticus wrote a column about Bridgeland’s methods, after which he was approached by publishers to write a book. So, with the thesis as its core, the time, and research money from the university, he decided to make it “something like the book that it ought to be.” He built up the sections on Health and Social Services, “and I had time to go round and interview everybody…” And, significantly, was able to circulate his writings about them to many of the pioneer workers involved, and to incorporate their observations in the finished text.

By the time the book was published, in 1971, Bridgeland had moved on to become the head at Frensham Heights, an established independent co-educational progressive school (“being a headmaster is the worst job in the world. And being a headmaster of a co-educational independent boarding school is the worst of all…”). He then moved to Portsmouth, again to work with disturbed children and young people.

If you haven’t read Pioneer Work With Maladjusted Children: Why not? Thirty years after it was published it remains a standard text, unsuperseded; a labour of love by a practitioner turned academic turned practitioner, in which many of the founders of the therapeutic community movement for children and young people remain alive. It is a classic, a primary source for the field.

Craig Fees

Archivist, Planned Environment Therapy Trust