Dennis was a colleague of John Reader, when he was an Assistant Master at Ayton. Reprinted from Ayton Old Scholars’ Association Magazine.
That cherished and delightful Ayton idea – the Long Walk – was often for me, a young teacher, also the Long Talk. The quiet beauty of the moors stirred minds to the sharing of sincere thought so that now, after twenty-five years, I often connect some path, rock, stream, or wall with what was said there so long ago. In such surroundings a senior pupil offered the spontaneous comment that Scripture was a live and well-liked subject. I asked for some reasons. “When Mr. Reader teaches us about the New Testament you can see what it’s all got to do with everyday life. He makes it living and practical.” I asked for an example. “He says that life is largely the making of decisions and real religion has a lot to do with this.” John Reader’s work for Ayton, its characteristic energy, insight and evolving patterns, make true in the deepest sense, those thoughts that, in his early teaching years, he shared so effectively with his pupils.
1938-46, the period of John’s assistant mastership, was significant because the school had its fundamental problems. The late thirties had produced economic difficulties, and then came the war. An unusual situation developed in which teachers of that time, having rejected personal involvement in military matters as a question of principle, felt that their sincerity, their total approach to life and education was being tested in the quality which they could bring to their day by day work in the school. The atmosphere had an unusual spiritual tenseness which stretched the staff to the limit and stimulated vital thought about educational ideas. It is a noteworthy fact that besides laying the foundation for John Reader’s later work as Headmaster, this period produced teachers who were deeply concerned educators. In time the wider world claimed them for highly responsible positions, where outstanding work was done. Mary Reader, then Mary Hodge, doing lively work in art teaching !
In particular, and more generally bringing a distinctively sympathetic and personal approach to the life of the school community, belonged to this phase – an important factor for the later and present development of the school.
What were some of the problems which John Reader tackled in such a characteristic manner? The turn of the thirties saw much indifference to the claims which, in a routine sense, life in a boarding community lays upon its pupils. John Reader saw this as a near crisis involving a personal and absolute challenge. He was strengthened to make a courageous, original, and above all an endlessly tenacious response. John showed a vivid insight into the pattern of human fallibility: disillusionment and acute self- criticism were no strangers to him, nor were their antidotes, self- discipline and an enduring faith in the possibility of constructive answers to human problems. It was for this reason, I believe, that the paternal and authoritarian elements in his disciplinary style were rarely permanently resented. Their core was the genuine authority of life-experience and this was sensed by his pupils. Largely due to his influence, everyday routines fell into a happier and more efficient pattern and the scene was set for wider ventures. It must be remarked too, that in firm association with his colleagues, this was achieved without corporal punishment and artificial aids to “discipline ” such as contrived competitiveness; and written impositions fell into marked disuse. This is not to say that there were not times of whimsical extremity in John Reader’s pragmatically persuasive approach to betterment! I remember a sleepy summer afternoon when our paths converged near a point where a boy was thoughtfully edging his way round and round a ridge a foot or two off the ground on a stone pillar that supported the A bedroom block. “Get down there, boy,’ came the incisive instruction. For once in a way, I took John up on this and pointed out that I couldn’t see that the lad was doing any harm. Keeping that ever useful stern face, but with a twinkle in his eye which both conceded my point and admitted to a schoolmaster’s reflex action to idleness, he said, – never to be beaten, “He’s wearing the stone away.”
At this time of war, in spite of restrictions of every kind – food, clothing, equipment, transport – the school was a happy, busy place. The difficult situation was a spur to activity in which John Reader played a leading part. He had a special talent for turning his interests in new directions. The basic ideas were absorbed, equipment appeared, the active participation of scholars was encouraged and a form of organisation was devised that would enable the project to function with the minimum of personal assistance from himself, once he had shown the way. It all seems to be summed up in a memory of a boiler-suited figure briskly crossing the playground with a screwdriver at the ready. An impressive range of activities – cricket, football, cross-country, religious study group, fire- brigade, stage-lighting, sound reproduction, the annual sports, a small but esoteric group of fishermen: just to instance a few – received the Reader treatment, variously appearing in the forms of initiation, stimulation, organisation, re-organisation or basic rethinking. Two illustrations, perhaps not the best, but vivid enough in my memory, will indicate the general pattern of events.
The military had taken over the school hall early in the war leaving a newly arrived headmaster – Stanley Carr – who was very keen on drama, without a suitable place in which to encourage the school to share his interest. Thus challenged, J.R.R. improvised in the dining room a very respectable stage which was constructed out of platforms, from the classrooms, forms from the gym and stacks of Geographical Magazines for support and levelling, all assembled by Reader-projected boy power. This achieved, he went on to absorb the basic principles of stage-lighting. Footlights were made, spotlights appeared, and all was crowned by a magnificent portable switchboard made of a surplus blackboard plus legs for free-standing, all adorned with the best that could be obtained as regards switches, dimmers and the rest. Thus was the day saved for drama.
Again, I remember a time when games equipment not in use reposed untidily and’ uncheckably somewhere or other. Sharp eyes were open for possibilities and that holy of schoolboy holies, the tuck box room suffered under a take-over bid and tuck ritual was to be consigned to outer darkness in the changing room. Sketch plans soon became reality and the room was quickly and inexpensively adapted for games gear storage – neat racks for bats, stumps and all things rackable or otherwise, a place for everything. Efficient curators were trained and gear could be borrowed and signed for outside the formal games times. Moreover, an informal business organisation “The Games Club” with its own finances, officers, etc. was thought up. New equipment sprouted on every hand, was well cared for and games generally profited. In time a business meeting was held in public (as a matter of informal education) and J.R.R. had written up his balance sheet (in the neat copper-plate handwriting later replaced by an italic version) on a blackboard for all to see the truth. I think the turnover was £250 and the promoter of the Games Club had revealed a certain expertise in economics in the process. Thus started it proceeded largely under its own momentum.
From 1946 to 1952 Ayton had to do without John and Mary Reader, who had removed themselves from the orbit of Quaker education to the “ordinary” world. Then John returned to Ayton as Head, wiser by three jobs: grammar school master, training college lecturer, and a special educational assignment – the upbringing of three lively lads!
As we approach the present time, the continued development of Ayton – the landmarks steadily reached one by one are well enough known to us all. A stage has now been reached where the actual teaching provision in terms of buildings, staffing, curriculum development and so forth is at least as good as in many comparable enlightened day schools which have not the job of the total care of young people to cope with as well. The valuable experience gained by John Reader in his period away from Ayton had no doubt contributed to the clear vision of the objectives now attained.
Long and sensitive experience of boarding education has at every point along the way confirmed in John and Mary Reader the belief that what we can know as education in the deepest sense of the world has its ground in the total human situation surrounding the growing young person. This situation can only hold significant possibilities if it is set in the context of what Christians understand as loving relationships. Ideally this can only be realised within a family, so it must be the case that when young persons are living under boarding conditions the only true approach to their education lies in trying to create such conditions of a family-like character. The uniqueness of the concept of the new boarding unit at Ayton – the “home base” – lies in the fact that it is the expression in terms of appropriate material provision whose every aspect of planning reflects John Reader’s faith in the rightness of the project.
What man could be happier than to know that what might have been an end, and a distinguished one at that, has been transformed into a creative beginning with so many possibilities for those whose work lies in the future?