‘Mr Lyward’s Answer’ by Michael Burn

Michael Burn (1956) Mr Lyward’s Answer London: Hamish Hamilton

Michael Burn, a journalist and former prisoner-of-war in Colditz Castle, was persuaded by a friend to write about the work of George Lyward (1894-1973) at Finchden Manor, for which Mr Burn became a temporary member of staff. So Mr Lyward’s Answer is really an example of participant-observation research. Perhaps because he was trying to puzzle out why certain things seemed to work with young people, it is built around extended conversations with the young people and their views of the work that was being done with and for them.

Key Ideas

  • Residential care should accommodate the needs of the young person, not the other way round.
  • Interpersonal interactions are significant for young people.
  • Young people do not need individual relationships to be helped.
  • Young people can accept ‘no’ and also apparent ‘unfairness’.
  • Even where parents are not actively involved in their children’s treatment, they should be actively informed of and allowed to comment on it.


In Chapter 1 Michael Burn describes his first meeting with Mr and Mrs Lyward at Finchden Manor, Tenterden, the school where there is no curriculum and no methods and agrees to become a member of staff in order to write a book about Mr Lyward’s work.

In Chapter 2 he notes that there are 40 boys aged 15 to 20, though Mr Lyward will occasionally take a 14 year old; half are private pupils and the rest local authority funded. There is a staff of six but no fixed hours.

Trying to come to terms with the school, he first thinks about the work in terms of ‘respite’ and describes several referrals before concluding that the only common factor is that their previous carers had tried to ‘usurp’ the child’s life in some way by making unreasonable demands on or seeking to possess the child.

He notes the impact of the child’s first contact with Mr Lyward and his willingness to make arrangements to accommodate boys’ needs; nothing is locked and there are lots of animals.

In Chapter 3 he describes what goes on during a day, illustrating this through conversations with the boys. Though he advertises his services as a teacher, no-one takes him up. In another attempt to understand what is going on, he reproduces several excerpts from Mr Lyward’s writing in journals such as Home and School, concluding that perhaps Mr Lyward is ‘weaning’ boys who have not yet grown up.

In Chapter 4 he describes how boys engage with the school by adopting something to do; they are protected from parental demands and usually end up by attaching themselves to one of the staff, whom he now describes.

Issues with boys are not taken up immediately and special relationships between staff and boys are discouraged, though staff express their concern for absconders, for example, by following them.

Within the apparent freedom, boys may be told ‘no’ and they are encouraged to accept the ‘unfairness’ of certain decisions about individual boys; in the end the emphasis is on boys making their own decisions, not ones they think others want them to make.

Back-sliding is expected and, though Mr Lyward had originally psychoanalysed boys, he no longer does; he makes no notes of boys’ behaviour.

In Chapter 5 he describes various interactions with boys along with their reactions to Finchden Manor and the staff and the reactions of some visitors to Finchden Manor before looking at various examples of failed placements.

Since Mr Lyward started work around 30 boys had remained less than six months, in half those cases because they were removed by their parents. Of the 220 who had stayed six months and over (the longest stay being six years), ten were too ill to be treated though this only became apparent over time, and seven were discharged because of their impact on others. Parents who had removed their children sometimes admitted they were wrong.

In Chapter 6 he provides a biography of George Lyward. Born a twin with an older sister, he had a difficult childhood but at 18 started to teach in a private school. After attending evening classes at King’s College, London he got a choral scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge and a second in history. After teaching at various schools, he got a post Glenalmond where he taught for several years before he had a breakdown.

To assist with his recovery, it was suggested he teach a couple of failing public school boys and went to live at Guildables with two boys; his success led to further referrals, both male and female, and in 1935 he moved to Finchden Manor on the Tenterden-Appledore Road. During the Second World War, the school was evacuated, first to Hereford and then to Shropshire, and when they returned the Manor was in ruins.

However, the 1944 Education Act opened the way for him to accept state-funded pupils.

“In trying to understand his approach, Michael Burn notes his comment that neither ‘obey’ nor ‘do as you like’ are helpful because they insist on something and he quotes from his review of Makarenko (1936):

“Nothing could be more convincing than the way Makarenko recalls his uncertainties about his own capacity. ‘Am I’, he seems to say, ‘not an educationist after all?’ Every so often he confronts us with incidents which defy simple exposition, but show that there will always be some limit past which it is impossible successfully to push any theory” (Burn, 1956, pp. 129-130).

Mr Lyward may wait for the boys to tell him what is wrong, stressing the importance of timing. He puts much effort into his reports on boys, especially those he cannot help. Mr Lyward’s bons mots, various interventions and the sole incident of an assault on Mr Lyward conclude this chapter.

In Chapter 7 Michael Burn notes the use of paradox and that, though initially the staff were not ex-Finchden Manor boys, Mr Lyward later began to train ex-pupils. He notes his advice not to imply in any criticism that a fault is normal or expected.

There were occasional scraps and occasional interventions to prevent harm but staff never provoked the boys and he concludes that the lack of violence is because the boys know they need Finchden Manor.

Sex is spoken about normally, not stressed either way, with inappropriate conversations being turned and girls attend dances at the school with no problems.

In Chapter 8 he discusses the issues surrounding someone taken on as a member of staff for a probationary period before focusing on discipline at Finchden Manor, arguing that discipline arises through the change which boys experience on their way gradually to acquiring self discipline.

In Chapter 9 he focuses on the story of one boy, Alistair Wilton, who arrived in 1936, and his mother who had an extended correspondence with Mr Lyward even after Alistair had been withdrawn from the school.

In Chapter 10 he suggests that ‘analysis’ should be understood in its original meaning of ‘loosening,’ repeating a comment his friend, Dr Selwyn, had made to the effect that, at Finchden Manor, analysis was ‘lived, not done’ (Burn, 1956, p. 224) before looking at the relationships Mr Lyward has to maintain with parent and child and later with local education authorities and the processes leading up to discharge.

A key factor is change from habit to spontaneity but there also needs to be a degree of maturity in the young person and there are many things which may precede a discharge including, for example, being prepared for exams. He illustrates some of these points through examples of boys who were discharged prematurely.

In Chapter 11 he considers Finchden Manor’s success rate; of the 290 who had been through Mr Lyward’s hands, about twenty of the early ones were excluded from the book along with fifteen short term placements. About twenty had been deemed mentally ill, seven had been expelled, nine ran away indefinitely and about 12 discharged themselves after a year. 35 had been withdrawn by parents, half at the outset, the other half after six months or more, though many had later come back for advice.

Michael Burn sums up Mr Lyward’s work as to do with the impact of parents on their children, especially those who will not acknowledge it, and suggests that healing comes with the acceptance of love.


It is interesting to compare George Lyward’s approach with that of A S Neill (1962). Both had used psychoanalysis at the outset but abandoned it, allowing the environment to be the therapy. Both imply that their task is to enable children to grow up without inappropriate parental interference and emphasise developing the capacity to take appropriate decisions but they approach it in completely different ways, Neill by trying to create a nomocracy and Mr Lyward by retaining dependence (Wolins, 1973). Interestingly, Neill had to have some areas locked but Mr Lyward did not; Mr Lyward also appears to have taken a much greater interest in those whom he could not help than Neill did.

Unlike Neill, who has plenty of advice for parents but does not appear to work with them to any great extent, but like Aichhorn (1951), he regards engaging with parents as an essential part of his work. This may have been a reflection of his background as a public school teacher and, though there is evidence that a number of approved schools had recognised the importance of parental involvement before the Second World War (Committee of Enquiry, 1946; Heywood, 1978), it is not until the 1970s that the issue really breaks through into child care with the reports by Taylor and Alpert (1973) and Fanshel and Shinn (1978).

Like Aichhorn and Makarenko (1936) he is feeling his way in an area where there were very few signposts but Michael Burn’s conclusion that the breakthrough comes with the acceptance of love reflects the experience of Tom O’Neill (1981). The frustrating thing about Mr Lyward’s Answer is that we never do get a clear exposition, just clues about the methods he used. Though interpersonal dynamics clearly play a large part in young people’s decisions to stay at Finchden Manor and, though a lot of individual work is done with young people, George Lyward preferred to stress the group dynamics but without articulating what that entailed.


Aichhorn, A (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago First published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton

Committee of Enquiry (1946) Approved schools and remand homes: remuneration and conditions of service London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office

Fanshel, D & Shinn, E B (1978) Children in foster care: a longitudinal investigation Guildford: Columbia University Press See also Children Webmag March 2009.

Heywood, J S (1978) Children in care: the development of the service for the deprived child (Third ed.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poema See also Children Webmag February 2009.

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz

O’Neill, T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Oxford: Blackwell

Taylor, D & Alpert, S W (1973) Continuity and support: following residential treatment New York: Child Welfare League of America See also Children Webmag March 2009.

Wolins, M (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care In D M Pappenfort, D M Kilpatrick & R W Roberts (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Chicago: Aldine

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.