Schools Without Walls

Schools Without Walls


In 1973 anarchist Colin Ward and journalist Anthony Fyson published Streetwork, a result of their research for the UK's Town and Country Planning Associations Education Service. Their book focuses on the environmental education of the non-academic urban child. Having noticed a recent upsurge in public interest in town and country planning and the physical environment, the two collaborators set about rethinking environmental education. The ideology of Streetwork, was the use of the urban environment as an educational resource and its aim was to develop a school department into an integrated community based program of decision making on local urban issues. The bulk of their research was into existing 'schools without walls' experiments in the US and the UK.


In the US, the Parkway Education Program in Philadelphia was an educational program funded by the local education authority that had no school buildings and students were chosen via a lottery. 


"Each of the eight units or 'communities' (which operate independently) has a local HQ with office space for staff and lockers for children. All teaching takes place within the community. The search for facilities is considered to be part of the process of education." 


"The city offers an incredible variety of learning labs: art students study at the art museum, biology students at the zoo, business and vocational courses meet at on-the-job sites. The program pays for none of its facilities but instead looks for ‘wasted space’. Students, in going from class to class, travel around the city (normally on foot)." 


The Parkway Program was followed by the Metro High School in Chicago, (the Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Study), operating from three leased floors of an old office building in a decaying area of town. The students were also selected by lottery from all parts of Chicago.

According to Ward and Fyson, Metro Education Montreal used the city's underground railway as the central corridor for the same kind of activity - people were approached to give an hour a week teaching about their work. Other spaces used for classes were empty cinemas, vacant office spaces, under used computer centres, restaurants, libraries, clinics and laboratories.


UK initiatives included Dartington Hall and the Scotland Road Free School -


“taking kids from the half cleared townscape of Everton on daily expeditions to see things in and around the city. The kids were taken in an unemployment march and visited the Fischer Bendix factory when it was occupied by the workers” (Guardian 21 March 1972).


"Shouldn't the school become the Enquiring School, and its students the local researchers who service the community with information on rents, traffic densities, current planning proposals, employment prospects and so on."


Ward and Fyson began to develop a handbook for setting up Streetwork Centres, mixing elements from existing models with strategies lifted from Paul Goodman's Skills and Sabotage and Patrick Geddes's writings on 'Outlook Towers'. They believed that schools should have open access to the city's factories, warehouses, offices transport depots, municipal departments, supermarkets and sewage plants. "Our aim is to develop a school department into an integrated community based program of decision making on local urban issues."


'Town Tracking' would be developed, and 'Trackers' were told how to make a Town Trail:
Develop your Town Trail so as to study the floorscape: street furniture, house facades, the plaques on walls. Search out the names of architects inscribed in half-hidden places: ascertain dates of buildings, collect strange patterns in brick or stone. Evaluate different ways of building houses, shops and offices. Compare and contrast one group of buildings with another. Look for distant and unexpected views in the urban landscape. Only enter buildings to sample the contents: not to stay too long but to find one or two things which are relevant to the Town Trail: a picture, a map, and so on. This will whet the tracker’s appetite. Include within your trail the chance of experiencing a wide range of environmental 'stimuli'. For instance, listen for characteristic street noises, take a part in open-air activities like a market or procession: breathe in the air and take note of the variety of smells that can be experienced.


Many kinds of trails were suggested, night trails, industrial trails and anti-trails, as well as high outlook points or 'viewpoints'.


It is unclear how much or if any of this research was put to use by the Education Service or any UK schools. But what seems relevant today are its similarities to the methods used by artists working in a context or site specific manner. Especially artists developing public art projects that are not simply pieces of ‘plop art’ but locally sensitive projects with a critical view on culture and regeneration strategies and the ways that artists are inscribed within them. With this in mind it seems an appropriate model to apply to art education, specifically teaching art students interested in public art projects, gentrification and the city as a site of research and action.