About the Gatehouse School 1948-1979
These children were some of the first at the school. Here we see them at St. Bartholomew the Great, listening with attention to organ music. They will still have been going to school in the gatehouse sitting room.

About the Gatehouse School 1948-1979

The Gatehouse Montessori School started with eight children in 1948 and by the time Phyllis Wallbank, the founder, left to follow her husband into retirement in 1979, it was called The Gatehouse Learning Centre and had over three hundred pupils ranging from 2 to 18 and a long waiting list.

The school began in the living room of The Gatehouse of St. Bartholomew the Great Church in the City of London where Phyllis's husband, Newell, was rector. As numbers grew, it moved to the church's cloister. Once there were eighty children, they moved to Dallington St. and from that time, as demand increased, at times it was located at two or three sites to accommodate all the children. Finally they were reunited in one building again at Sewardstone Road in Bethnal Green.

Maria Montessori visited the school several times in her later years.

Children worked individually, sometimes inspired by stimulus presentations and lectures, but often on things that happened to interest them or that they had become interested in in the course of their studies. All the teaching materials were self-corrective and based on Montessori principles. Each child had to put back any work material that they took out; Phyllis says, "The discipline of putting things back is the self-discipline that is the key to Montessori." The school became known as a place where children could learn at their own pace and reach their potential whatever their capabilities - and this ran the gamut from highly gifted to mentally or emotionally challenged children.

As Phyllis says, "We incorporated mentally and physically challenged children at a time when they were normally segregated. We had groups of eight called 'families', each incorporating one disabled child. The child adapted to normality instead of to an institution. We eventually had all kinds of challenged children: children suffering from blindness, autism, maladjustment, thalidomide, Downs syndrome, cerebral palsy, brain damage and epilepsy. We had a social mix too: many children from professional families, some taking Common Entrance and public school scholarships and some local East Enders with parents known to have serious criminal backgrounds. And yet it all worked! Children were assisted and looked after by their friends and became an integral part of their "family". Often parents had no idea that a fellow student who came up in conversation at home was a disabled child.

People with highly gifted children moved from as far away as Devon to come to the school. We gained many major scholarships. One of our pupils went on to do wonderfully in the Maths Olympiad and got first prize out of 145 nations for "the most elegant solution."

The different groups of children were not in separate rooms. At the original Gatehouse and in the school cloister where the school stayed until it overflowed, there was only one room. In Dallington Street, the rooms were huge and covered a whole floor of a large building, so large numbers of children and teachers were working simultaneously. There was a constant hum as everyone got on with their own activities and related to those around them as they wished. No teachers talked while students stayed silent; there was no blackboard, no bells, no sitting in one place all the time. Nor was there a huge noise either, as everyone learned to talk relatively quietly so that it was possible for each child to concentrate on his or her activities without disturbance. Occasionally, if noise escalated, a teacher might need to stand and clap her hands at which time silence would settle while the teacher talked quietly and then the buzz would resume. Indeed there was a large rectangular board with "SILENCE" on it and any child could hold it up and silence would soon reign over the entire room and continue until the child put the sign down.

Children would go to the subject area they wanted to learn about. Thus there was a history corner, a geography area, a maths corner etc.. The choice of subjects included Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, English, Maths, Sciences, Geography, History, art, crafts, music etc..

There were also times when everyone got together - for an assembly first thing in the morning for example. At these times, although there were one or two prayers that everyone said, children of different faiths would take turns to say prayers from their own religions for the whole school for the course of a week. When any parents wanted to enroll a child in the school, they were forewarned that all children of all faiths and no faith would be taking part in a school nativity play at St. Bartholomew's at Christmas. At this annual event, all the words were taken from the New Testament and there were many carols.

Each afternoon there were various kinds of activities, such as outings or dance or drama or (when they were in Bethnal Green) bike racing on a track for the boys, for example, or various other sports. Victoria Park in Bethnal Green was a wonderful resource and once the school was located there, most of the afternoon activities took place outside. These activities tended to be done by individual forms which normally consisted of a teacher with around 24 children within their own age group. This ratio of 24:1 was recommended by Maria Montessori as being the ideal size as when one child misbehaved it would not disrupt the whole class. The families of eight existed within the forms.

At meal times each child, including the youngest, would go and get her meal from the kitchen and carry the plate to her room. If anyone spilt his meal he would clean up the mess. In Sewardstone Road, all children would help themselves to their meals. They could take what they wanted and omit what they didn't. There was one stipulation wherever they were: that all the food that they had helped themselves to had to be finished "as we need the plates to be empty for washing up." There were no food disturbances; children soon learned to judge their own appetites and tastes.

Care of other children and care for the environment were values that were "taught" largely by example (by other children and teachers) and quickly assimilated by new pupils. Lilian Carpenter* wrote, "I was present when, after a great fight with the local authority, Phyllis managed to persuade them that a young thalidomide-disabled boy would fare better in her school than with other similarly disabled children. On the first morning of his arrival, she stood the little chap on the platform in front of all the school and said - "Just see how clever Joseph is. He has only these little hands, but you watch how he can tie the laces of his shoes up. His mummy has to cut the sleeves of his coats and shirts so that he can use them." They gave him a clap and from that moment, no curiosity, no whispering - but admiration. All wanted to play with him or help him."

An overall attitude of caring and a feel of freedom and contentment prevailed. The freedom was partly due to the fact that children were able to choose to do subjects when they wished - within stipulated parameters that were individualised for each child. They could also take exams or tests whenever they felt ready and as often as they liked. As children got older, they were expected to cover a certain amount of subjects each week. But they could organise their own time and there was always plenty of opportunity to spend longer on a favorite topic or subject or any kind of activity including art. In fact they could spend five minutes or two hours on a subject. A session in a subject was 30 minutes, but that could easily achieved in any way a child saw fit. Report books were signed by their teacher at the end of their session in any subject area and this showed how long they had spent. As one of the articles ('Unlocking Minds at The Gatehouse') printed on this website says, "What the method teaches - and from an early age- is self-discipline. No one is excluded: from children who have IQs in the 160-170 range, to the child with an IQ well below 100, even down to the severely autistic child with a deteriorating IQ of 30, all have a programme, worked out by teachers, to which they must keep."

There was always a very wide range of backgrounds. Phyllis's policy, from the beginning, was to offer scholarships to around 10 percent of pupils. She always offered full scholarships to the City of London clergy and made sure that there was a good proportion of more disadvantaged children. Some pupils were sent to the school by local authorities who paid for them. These children were usually ones whom no other school could or would take on. As Lilian Carpenter wrote, "I cannot ever remember Phyllis giving up on a child. She always found something in each child to encourage and develop" and such children thrived at The Gatehouse. Take one of the examples cited by the 1975 article "Integration for the Crippled Child"; here they write, "Andrew, who is eight, was found by the local authority to be 'unteachable and disruptive in class' although he was said to have an IQ of 166. The local authority sent him all the way to Bethnal Green by taxi each day from Harrow to the Gatehouse where Mrs. Wallbank soon realised he had a logical, mathematical mind. He was given some maths books and some Latin books which interested him and on which he immediately set to work. When he opened his mouth and made strange noises, no one paid him any attention, having been told about his difficulties, so he stopped. Soon he was learning to take his place in the school community." There were so many success stories of this type.

The nature of the school was very much that of a community. Fees were never very high and many of the parents participated in the school in various ways. Sometimes they might make learning materials, although the majority of the materials were made by the teachers and sometimes by the children themselves.

Phyllis had architectural plans to convert the Bethnal Green building into the ideal learning centre for all ages, young and old, to learn in, although these plans never came to fruition due to the huge costs involved. But in the later years older adults did come into the school and use the learning materials in the afternoons while the children were engaged in outdoor activities, so to some extent it did become the multi-age learning centre that Phyllis dreamed of.

The school was open to all at any time. Anyone could come and observe there whenever they wished as long as they sat quietly without talking. People came from all over the world and of course parents also popped in as they wished. So many observers came that the children just paid no attention to them at all and carried on as usual.

The Gatehouse School is still at the same location and thriving and is still run according to "The Wallbank Plan." As Phyllis says, "I am glad three of my grandchildren went there as I find the atmosphere very much the same. It is caring, kindly and considerate and the pupils do well academically."

*Lilian Carpenter and Phyllis Wallbank were great friends from when they were fifteen when they met being Brown Owls to a pack of Brownies. Lilian married a young curate, Edward Carpenter, who was a friend of Newell's and who later became Dean of Westminster. At Phyllis's invitation Lilian, who was an inspirational lover of poetry and prose, began teaching drama at the school and did so for several years.