Wennington School from the perspectives of those who lived, learned and experienced it

Lockdown at the Planned Environment Therapy Archives has meant that we are mostly working from home. This has given us the time to focus on the digital collections, primarily the oral history collections. I am currently cataloguing the oral history recordings of ex-Wenningtonians who were interviewed as part of a wider project in 2010-2011. The project was called Therapeutic Living with Other People’s Children. It was undertaken by The Planned Environment Therapy Trust, and aimed to capture the life stories of ex-pupils. 

It is clear from the interviews that for many of it’s ex-pupils and staff, Wennington is seen as a precursor for residential therapeutic communities and enabling environments. 


Wennington School was founded by Quakers Kenneth and Frances Barnes in 1940 in Lancashire inspired by the philosophies of John Macmurray. Wennington accommodated evacuees from northern cities whose ‘new’ family found their behaviour challenging. Often children whose parents were enlisted or had to provide a service during the War were sent to Wennington, and over the years Wennington has also accommodated children with learning and behavioural needs, alongside children from private fee-paying families.

The emphasis was on ‘character development’ rather than formal education and pupils were encouraged to take-up outdoor pursuits such as sports and camping, and learn through arts, music and theatre. The school operated as a democratic community, meaning staff and children were equals, with a School Council run by and for the children, holding each other accountable for misdemeanours. Teachers and staff were hired on their artistic talents, but with the understanding that Wennington was not a ‘conventional’ school; that living onsite at Wennington and being a part of the community was part of the job. 

As such, the ‘residential care’ provided by Wennington School was the community itself, and the recognition that children need to play, to express and create, to feel safe, and to be given the freedom to ‘be themselves’. 

The interviews:

So what can the oral history recordings tell us about Wennington from the perspectives of the people who were there? Having listened to over 20 interviews from children, teachers and family members of those who were there, it’s clear that there are two perspectives on life at the school. 

The interviewees who were at Wennington in the early years, 1940s-1960s describe an idealistic life, where they made their own bed frames, repaired windows if they broke them, got up at 7am to work in their ‘squad’ to make breakfast for the school, played outside, slept outside if they wanted to, enjoyed the 7am naked dip, were happy to be woken by the ‘school bell’. The headmaster and his wife, Kenneth and Frances Barnes, were seen as substitute ‘parents’ who lived in the nucleus of the school ‘family’, always available 24/7.  

One of the most apparent themes from this period is that the interviewees are proud ‘Wenningtonians’, proud of being at such a progressive and ‘liberal’ school. They talk with ease about the pioneering sex education that was fundamental to Kenneth Barnes’s Quaker beliefs, and they talk very fondly of their teachers and peers. 

It is worth mentioning that at this stage in Wennington’s life, around one third of children were from council placements, often from deprived parts of London, which was always part of Barnes’s dream for a ‘classless society’. The interviewees recalled being able to choose to attend lessons, and if they could present a strong argument as to why they didn’t want to attend, then they could go and do something else more productive. They were given the freedom to learn in their own way, at their own pace, alongside more academic subjects of science and maths. 

Some of the interviewees reflect on what it was like in mainstream schools during this period before or after attending Wennington. Some now recognise that they had (undiagnosed) Dyslexia, Autism, and other learning disabilities which were at the root of their behavioural difficulties. Some interviewees recognised other children as having clear behavioural needs at the time, but never judged them, just accepted them. This is almost unanimous in the interviews from people who were at Wennington during the Kenneth Barnes era. Part of the therapeutic ethos of the school was that by working together, learning together and living together as a residential community the children ‘regulated’ each other and themselves.

One interviewee from a difficult childhood recalls being able to ‘sleep out’ in his tent for several years because the staff understood that this was what he needed to do to feel ‘free’.  He explains that he would have found it very challenging to be indoors for any length of time because of his background, but nobody questioned his decision or tried to change his mind. He feels that his choices of how he wanted to live were respected, and seen as an important part of his personal development.   

Many of the interviewees felt that Wennington fostered a strong personal resilience which has led them to pursue their passions. Some have had successful careers as musicians, mountaineers, artists, teachers, leaders in the arts, peace workers, engineers and university lecturers. Even those that seem to have led ‘ordinary’ lives have retained a philanthropic world view. For example several interviewees were involved in the Volunteering Services Overseas, and have spent their lives campaigning and dedicating themselves to social equality. My interpretation is that the overriding theme, or perspective from the interviews of people involved in Wennington during the 1940s-1960s is community, acceptance, freedom.

Processing the digital files

In stark contrast, the interviews of people who were involved with Wennington from 1970 until it’s closure in 1975 have a somewhat more negative perspective on their time at Wennington. A change in headmaster left both pupils and staff feeling disillusioned. The interviewees almost unanimously describe the huge gap that Kenneth Barnes’s strong character left when he retired and Brian Hill took over. By all accounts Brian Hill was a good man, but the interviewees feel that he did not understand the school, and he did not have the right disciplinary skills. This lack of discipline led to Fred Sessa being appointed in 1973 as headmaster, to ‘sort it out’, as he says. One interviewee explains the conditions in which he found the school as being ‘squalid and unruly’, and in grave financial difficulties. 

The teachers from this period describe a ‘different’ kind of pupil in the 1970s. They were no longer prepared to make their own breakfasts or sleep in cold bedrooms with no heaters, or wake up at 7am for a cold skinny dip! One of the reasons stated for this in the interviews is that councils placed more children with complex behavioural problems at Wennington. This is attributed to the fact that in the 1950s a child of divorced parents was seen as ‘troubled’ or in need of care, but by the 1970s children with pathological issues and a history of violence were seen as needing to be placed at a school like Wennington. This is echoed in the interviews of pupils at the school at the time. 

From listening to the interviews during this period, I feel the overriding theme, or perspective is a lack of community, and a feeling of confusion over what school was – was it residential care for children with complex needs? Or was it a progressive boarding school with a unique liberal history? 

No doubt there are other political and economic reasons which contributed to a change in perspective in the post counter-culture years, and this article only takes into account the small number of interviews we have within our collection. It also sounds as though there was a misunderstanding of the ethos of Wennington from councils who were treating it as a residential care home, and that the later headmasters came under pressure to accept children with more complex needs for financial reasons. To my knowledge, Wennington never had any therapists – the environment and community was seen as being therapeutic enough.

Closing thoughts:

As an Archivist, the Wennington oral histories have been a very interesting and thought provoking collection to work on, and I would welcome any further perspectives people may have from their own experiences of Wennington School. The original project was supported by the Wennington Old Scholars Association, who are still an active part in helping us catalogue and make the interviews accessible. 

If you would like to explore some of the interviews, or learn more about records relating to Wennington School, Kenneth Barnes and other therapeutic communities, you can view our online catalogue here:  https://archives.mulberrybush.org.uk/records/OPC/WEN or drop us an email at [email protected]. This is an ongoing project, so make sure to check back for further updates.

Article by Debra Doggett, Archivist at the Planned Environment Therapy Archives, The Mulberry Bush Third Space.


Leave a comment

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