COMMUNITY SERVICE AND ITS ANTECEDENTS
The recent ISA award for Outstanding Local Community Involvement is a much deserved tribute to the extensive community service undertaken by LP students and staff. It is a good point at which to look back at earlier examples of community involvement and social action in the school.
Although the term ‘community service’ was not in regular use until the 1940s, there is much evidence that the pupils were engaged in all manner of activities of service to the local and more distant communities from a very early stage in the school’s history.
It can indeed be claimed that openness to the outside world, awareness of social problems and an active involvement in community work were ‘baked into’ the school at its foundation. In 1886 , four years before Leighton Park opened, Quakers gathered for a conference entitled ‘Our Need of a New Public School’. They wished to avoid the danger of just being another public school producing young people of ‘polished emptiness and gilded conceit’. Keen to set a tone among governors, staff and pupils that would be far from one of ‘conceited folly’, they discussed various ways in which the development of character could be one of the central functions- suppressing ‘the pernicious habit of ornamental loafing’ and encouraging boys to ‘cover their trouser with sawdust in the workshop and mud in the field… by being thus alert we need make no snobs.’
Leightonians’ capacity for work outside their own school community was very much in evidence during the First and Second World Wars. As well as digging up parts of the park for growing potatoes and other vegetables, they worked in local gardens, and visited farms to help with food production. Many pupils worked as volunteers during the summer. In WW1 the boys made hundreds of splints to be given to the war wounded. By the time WW11 broke out, the school had an established Forestry group, and parties of boys and staff went as far afield as Shropshire and Devon to offer their services.
Many boys were trained as ambulance first-aiders, and others assisted with the distribution of telegrams throughout Reading.
Geography teacher Bill Brown (LP staff 1923-46) was an untiring promoter of service to the local community. He was a genial character who did much to foster links with the young people of the Whitley Estate, notably through the Scouts, Sea Scouts and the ‘Lads Club’ which had its base in a hut in the school grounds. A great deal of community service was undertaken in that framework.
This extract from ‘The School Year 1927-8’ describes the community work done by Leighton Park boys for several years in the 1920s:
‘The main object of the Camp is to provide a good holiday for 24 of the poorest boys from the town of Reading, who would not otherwise get any holiday at all. The first selection of boys is made for us through the kind offices of the Reading Council of Social Welfare, and some account of their home life and circumstances is supplied, so that Leighton Park boys obtain some idea of economic surroundings very different from their own. The running of the camp is almost entirely in the hands of Leighton Park boys. On them falls the onus of catering, cooking and entertainment, and elaborate preparations are made for these beforehand. The spirit of the camp is one of service, and the expenses are made entirely from voluntary contributions and payments from Leighton Park campers. Fellowship and happiness come from it and the change in the physical condition of the Reading boys after 10 days of fresh air and good food must be seen to be believed.’
Bill Brown was also one of the organisers of a link with a school in a deprived area of South Wales. It was an area of great poverty and terrible social conditions, badly affected by the General Strike and the economic crisis of the twenties and thirties. Some would say that LP pupils benefited as much as the people in the community they were helping: their life experience and character were enriched by the contact.
There was an overall acceleration of work for the local community in the 1930s, and the stated aims of the school at that time made prominent mention of the opportunities for social service and the regular exposure through lectures and discussions, to political and social issues locally, nationally and internationally.
Edgar Castle (Headmaster 1928 to 1948) was often quoted in newspapers, his educational ideas being regarded as progressive and innovative at the time. In 1929 his Speech Day address was widely reported:’
‘A public school will fail in its office if it does not send forth young men who have not only the willingness but the ability and technique to serve where service is needed.’
It was in this period that several Leighton Park boys became extensively involved in the League of Nations and in the active pursuit of peace. The school’s membership of the Council for Education in World Citizenship brought with it the opportunity to attend conferences, invite speakers to the school and generally widen the horizons of the pupils. Many Old Leightonians have devoted much of their adult life to social work and the cause of social justice, and some have actually identified Leighton Park as the cradle of their social conscience.
Since that time, Community Service has been a significant aspect of a Leighton Park education. At times, involvement has been compulsory – for many years Friday afternoon was the appointed time – but it has mostly been a voluntary activity. Typical regular activities have included visiting the elderly, arranging concerts and sharing hobby interests with them, helping out in local primary school and schools for children with special needs, helping in hospitals, lending a hand at the Mayor’s Market and other local charity ventures, decorating local community facilities.
One of the regular services in the fifties and sixties was the chopping of wood on the park for delivery to local elderly people. One assumes that this activity had been properly risk assessed and was in compliance with health and safety legislation!
For decades, one of the popular times for choosing a community services activity was the Hobbies Fair at the beginning of the school year. For decades, one of the popular times for choosing a community service activity was the Hobbies Fair at the beginning of the school year. Juliet Straw is seen here with Alyn Still in 1989.