The new book by Aonghus Gordon OBE and Prof Laurence Cox:

Place, Craft and Neurodiversity:
Re-imagining Potential through Education at Ruskin Mill

Aonghus Gordon OBE and Prof. Laurence Cox

Foreword by Stefan Geider MD, chair of Camphill Wellbeing Trust

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The book

For over four decades, Ruskin Mill Trust has worked with young people with special educational needs and behavioural issues who learn traditional crafts and organic farming as part of an integrated curriculum of therapeutic education, overcoming barriers to learning and re-engaging with the wider world. This accessible and expansive book showcases how an appreciation of place, traditional crafts, farming and transformative education offers a wider route to human well-being for all. The authors outline the different fields of the “Practical Skills Therapeutic Education” method, which includes developing practical skills, learning the ecology of the farm and understanding therapeutic education, holistic care, health and self-leadership.

Taking the reader on a tour of Ruskin Mill’s many extraordinary provisions across Britain, and going deeper in conversation with its founder, Aonghus Gordon, this book is an outstanding story of creative thinking in an age of narrow focus on classrooms and written examinations, presenting a transformative perspective on education and care. Being grounded in work supporting young people with complex additional needs, it provides a rare insight into the work of one of the world’s leading charities working with neurodiversity.

With its non-specialist language, Place, Craft and Neurodiversity offers ideas and resources for work in different areas of education and therapy. It will inspire parents, educators and care workers around the globe.

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Front cover of Place, Craft and Neurodiversity

The authors

Aonghus Gordon OBE (for cultural heritage and education) is the founder and CEO of Ruskin Mill Trust. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Huddersfield for his work.

Laurence Cox is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

Aonghus Gordon

Aonghus Gordon OBE

Laurence Cox

Laurence Cox


 “This book is a powerful reminder of the importance of the relationship of place to our physical and mental health and our overall sense of wellbeing. The Ruskin Mill approach reminds us to imagine what this can mean for us in practice.”

Patrick Holden, Founder & CEO, Sustainable Food Trust

“Under the outstanding leadership of Aonghus Gordon, Ruskin Mill has set a superb example of selfless service in the field of holistic education. This stunningly inspiring and immensely powerful story of Ruskin Mill gives us the highest hope for a better future for humanity.”

Satish Kumar, Founder, Schumacher College and Editor Emeritus of ‘Resurgence & Ecologist’


Dr Stefan Geider MD, GP is Chair of Camphill Estates and Chair of Camphill Wellbeing Trust

The year was 1982. The place was Camphill School Aberdeen in the granite-grey North-East of Scotland. The person was a young volunteer from a small village in the Rhine Valley of Southern Germany eager for new experiences. The work was living and working alongside young people with learning disabilities. The impact of place, people and the therapeutic practices of Camphill was life-changing.

I know this because I was that young volunteer. What I learned and experienced during my first four-year encounter with Camphill and its integrated approach to health, education and care for people with disabilities and other support needs determined the direction of my life and formed its purpose.

Ten years later, in 1996, having completed an extended medical training encompassing anthroposophic medicine at the newly founded University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany, I returned to Aberdeen to continue my life’s work.

Since then, and for the past 27 years, I have worked as an NHS GP with a special interest in learning disabilities and have also practised the extended AnthroHealth approach (based on anthroposophic medicine) with a wide range of patients. Throughout I have been intimately connected with the therapeutic work of the Camphill organisations, particularly in the North-East of Scotland, living within one of their communities for over seven years.

I first met Aonghus and his evolving therapeutic educational approach over 20 years ago. His thinking and practices had similarities to the Camphill approach with which I was so familiar. Both Camphill and Ruskin Mill Trust aim to create life-changing experiences for people with learning disabilities and other challenges by integrating education, health and care supported by positive relationships and therapeutic environments.

Aonghus has since progressed, refined and consolidated the methodology he initially developed at the Ruskin Mill Trust organisations and successfully embedded his approach – now known as Practical Skills Therapeutic Education (PSTE) – into all the Ruskin Mill organisations. By so doing, Aonghus has helped create a cohesion throughout the various organisations, equipping and enabling them to respond successfully to the complex and ever-changing challenges facing providers in this educational sector. Most remarkably he has done this while remaining true to his own identity and his inspirational sources: John Ruskin, William Morris and Rudolf Steiner.

This book for the first time articulates, for a wide readership, the principles and practices on which the PSTE approach is based. As with all successful therapeutic educational models, PSTE has a coherent underpinning theoretical framework which has been developed and tested by Aonghus through 40 plus years of practical experience working alongside young adults with a range of additional support needs. This practice-based approach resonates strongly with my own 40 years of professional experience in applying Camphill’s integrated health, education and social care approach.

The format of the book is reader-friendly – enabling a quick overview of the whole PSTE method before dipping into its various aspects in the individual chapters. The way in which the content of each chapter is presented engages interest throughout – striking a helpful balance between theory and practice, amply illustrated with practical examples and enriched by personal insights from Aonghus himself. The refreshing, easy-to-read style is accessible to a wide readership.

I can fully recommend this book to all whose lives are touched by those with additional support needs or who want an introduction to the Ruskin Mill approach.

For family, carers, friends: this book offers an insight into why your loved ones benefit from the Ruskin Mill approach and might spark some ideas for helpful activities to try at home.

For professionals working in special needs education, social care, therapy or medicine: this book offers inspiration, ideas and models for practice that may serve as a catalyst to enrich or transform your current work.

I not only enjoyed reading this book but also gained new perspectives on Aonghus’s work and the Ruskin Mill methodology. I look forward to further exploring these in my own work to create something anew.

Like Aonghus I too believe that “a fulfilled human life is one which we actively co-create, becoming more and more able to be authentic owners of our own lives while taking account of others and the planet”.

This book offers some signposts along the way.

* Language in this area is changing very fast, and Ruskin Mill’s usage is also changing. We hope it is clear that the language used in this book is intended to convey respect. It is also important to note that usage varies from country to country as well as between different institutional sectors. In England and Wales, “special educational needs” is an official category, and where used, the phrase refers to this.

Preface: Why Ruskin Mill Matters

This is not only a book about caring for young people with learning difficulties and differences. It is also a book about being human, and human flourishing in general.

Place, Craft and Neurodiversity draws on a particular, and very demanding, experience: Ruskin Mill Trust’s 40 years of using traditional crafts and biodynamic/organic farming to help transform the lives of some of the most vulnerable young people in Britain, people with learning differences and difficulties that may be compounded by different forms of disadvantage or experiences of trauma. Some may be on the autistic spectrum or have AD(H)D, some exhibit behaviour that challenges and some have complex additional needs of other kinds.[1]

Ruskin Mill’s approach has developed out of a practical response to these needs, drawing on the work of John Ruskin, William Morris and Rudolf Steiner but worked out in specific contexts and shared across the Trust when a particular approach has proven itself to be effective. At the same time, the method parallels much of what is now, four decades later, becoming widely recognised in research and best practice, not only in “special educational needs” but for everyone:

  • The connection to nature matters, for our health and mental health.

  • Working with our hands, developing practical skills, is regenerative and transformative.

  • We do not live suspended in mid-air, but inhabit specific places with their own histories, whose particular qualities shape our lives within them.

  • Neurodiversity – the rich variety of different kinds of human minds and hearts – is not the situation of a few but our common condition of diversity, and it is important to create education and care that meet each person’s particular needs.

  • Care, and medicine, need to speak to the whole human being.

  • Finally, a fulfilled human life is one which we actively co-create, becoming more able to be actors in our own lives while taking account of others and the planet.

Taken together, these different dimensions of Ruskin Mill’s method have proven to be transformative in the lives of many young people with complex additional needs of many kinds, who have moved from an inability to engage with a world that has often failed them, through mastering practical skills whose results they can see, to being able to give back to others and the community.

They also underpin a remarkable approach to staff training and development in which staff face the same kinds of challenges they will help students with, as the resistance they encounter in working with the material world compels not just the acquisition of practical skills and understanding but also the overcoming of emotional barriers: from hands, to head, to heart. We think the method and its results may be of interest to a wider audience still, of people seeking to change themselves and their world.

The effectiveness of the method has been acknowledged in many different ways and places: by the parents and guardians who push for their children’s admission; by the young people themselves during and even more significantly after their stay; by the local authorities or tribunals that direct funds to support their education, health and care plans at Ruskin Mill; by donors, volunteers and Trustees who support its non-profit activities; by the Trust’s continued capacity for growth; by many different inspection bodies; by international interest and requests for assistance from the US, India, Malaysia or China; most recently by the awards of an OBE and an honorary doctorate from the University of Huddersfield to its founder, Aonghus Gordon.

However, this book is not a manual for professionals working in the area or an overview of research in the field. A key aspect of the Trust’s own staff training is the understanding that what is beneficial for the young people in its care is also helpful for the staff who work with them. Each may face their own very specific challenges, but the wider questions of what constitutes a fuller human life, what enables development and transformation and how we can become genuinely freer individuals, contributing to the world around us – “self-generated conscious action” as it is called at Ruskin Mill – are not fundamentally different.

This book goes a step further. It presents the different dimensions of Ruskin Mill’s method in ways that will speak to parents and to some young people; that may be helpful to professionals and researchers; and that we hope will inspire related initiatives in other areas. In doing this, it starts from the specifics of what has been found to work and offers these as a wider contribution to everyone’s thinking about what it means to be human and how we can support transformation.

Practical Skills Therapeutic Education and a good way of life

When people visit Ruskin Mill’s colleges, garden schools, RISE provisions and other locations, a common response is “I wish my child could come here” – irrespective of whether that child has particular learning or social difficulties. This is often followed after a time by “I wish I could have gone here”.

It is central to Ruskin Mill Trust’s model that “people with complex additional needs” are not fundamentally different; in fact staff need to understand and transform themselves if they are to genuinely help students. There are many flavours of being human – this is what the term “neurodiversity” points towards – and the specifics of what an individual needs may be different. For example, someone who for whatever reason has missed out on a particular developmental stage may need to “re-step” the process in an age-appropriate way. However, staff also have their own wounds to work with – as do we all – and what is good for human beings is shared, even if there may be different paths in that direction. This is one reason why Practical Skills Therapeutic Education (PSTE) has proven to work for many different specific challenges, for different age groups and in different cultures.

The other is that it speaks to the whole human being in the world. It does not just offer “connection” with people and nature – which we widely recognise as being transformative in many ways – but more specifically engagement, an active and practical process of mutual transformation. By shaping raw material and working the land, we change ourselves.

Moreover, it identifies a need for this active engagement across the whole spectrum of human experience, rather than artificially separating out a single element as equally effective for everyone. Thus, it offers a model where we understand our own situation; we engage transformatively with the physical matter of the world and with the growing processes of plants and animals; we engage with the fundamental human relationships of learning and teaching; we pay attention to a form of care which enables greater freedom; we diagnose where change needs to happen in ourselves; and we take courage for ourselves and for others. 

The Ruskin Mill method

What is now called PSTE was not developed as a scheme on paper which was then imposed on other people. Rather, it emerged organically, starting from the very specific needs of particular young people. At the very beginning, for example, teenagers in a special school were regularly putting chairs through windows. Engaging them in practical outdoor activity – rebuilding an old mill wheel – proved emotionally absorbing, stretched their skills hugely and offered a glimpse of a different kind of future.

Over time, with very different groups of participants, it became clear that practical skills – in craft and landwork – were powerful tools, not to train young people as future farmers or artisans, although that also happens, but as a form of education which is deeply therapeutic: geared not only to the acquisition of knowledge or skills but also to the transformation of the whole human being.

The method’s articulation as “PSTE” only came about in its third decade, as Ruskin Mill’s continued development meant that intensive investment was needed in training, education and research both to embed the method thoroughly in the staff body and to take it forward on the basis of what practitioners were learning.

Taken together, the seven fields of the method provide staff with an overview of areas in which they can both support and positively challenge pupils, students and post-education participants. They also provide a checklist for areas in which staff can engage in personal development to help them support others better. This book suggests that the method also offers a wider model of what a full human life consists of and how we can transform ourselves. Each chapter introduces one of these fields.

About this book

This book aims to show, not tell. Each chapter starts by inviting the reader to share something of the experience of visiting one of Ruskin Mill’s many different provisions – an old Cotswold mill valley, a re-imagined metalworks in Sheffield, a Scottish woodland, a garden school in Bristol – as concretely as we can. Depending on the season and the path you take, these are some of the things you might see and hear, touch or smell, and some of what you might see happening. This section of the chapter builds on the “genius loci walks” that the Trust offers visitors as the best way of coming to understand its work.

The second section of each chapter steps back from this to answer some of the questions that are often raised by this kind of visit, in everyday language: responses to “why do you do this?” Each chapter focusses on one of the seven fields of PSTE, building up an overview of the different aspects of the method in as clear and accessible a way as possible.

The third section goes deeper; drawing on interviews with the Trust’s founder Aonghus Gordon, they unpack some of the wider questions and challenges involved in the work of the Trust, combining a depth of reflection honed by four decades of ground-breaking work in the area with the flow of everyday conversation and reflection on some of the moments that led to the development of the Ruskin Mill method.

This book could have been written in many different ways, but three choices in particular need mentioning. One is that it does not attempt to duplicate Ruskin Mill’s own internal training material: this is not a manual or a how-to book which would only be of interest to people already working in the field. Similarly, we have not tried to duplicate the research effort mentioned above, but rather to present the method of PSTE for a wide audience, with references kept to a minimum.

Lastly, we have chosen not to place the book’s emphasis on the sometimes very severe challenges and difficulties faced by the young people at Ruskin Mill. As noted in Chapter 7, for people who aren’t familiar with these difficulties, this can lead to an overly sentimental response (“that’s so awful!”) which makes people objects of pity and does not help practically. Conversely, the young people themselves, their parents and guardians and those who work with them already have a very clear sense of just how hard things can be and do not need to have this reinforced. What they may need, and what this book attempts to provide, is a practical sense of hope about what may make a difference.

The book is shaped by the process of writing it. When we started, Laurence was a sympathetic outsider, an academic researcher with an interest in radical initiatives for cultural change, familiar with care work and Steiner education but new to Ruskin Mill. Over time he visited the different provisions profiled in this book and gained a deeper understanding of the method through talking to staff as well as doing a series of in-depth interviews with Aonghus Gordon about different aspects of the method. Aonghus and Helen Kippax, Vice-Chair of the Trust, carved time out from their intensive schedules to work through a draft of the text with Laurence, and senior staff also gave up their time to give very helpful feedback.

We hope this book will be helpful to the parents and guardians of young people struggling to find their place in the world, as well as to some of those young people themselves if they like reading books like this. It also aims to be useful to craft practitioners, organic and biodynamic farmers, therapeutic educators, carers and other professionals working in the different areas touched by the method.

Beyond this, the book is intended to share what has been learned and developed over 40 years in Ruskin Mill Trust with the wider world. We hope it will benefit some readers who find this method helps them to transform their own lives in different areas and make their own contribution, as well as inspire other initiatives for cultural transformation.

[1] Language in this area is changing very fast, and Ruskin Mill’s usage is also changing. We hope it is clear that the language used in this book is intended to convey respect. It is also important to note that usage varies from country to country as well as between different institutional sectors. In England and Wales, “special educational needs” is an official category, and where used, the phrase refers to this.

* Language in this area is changing very fast, and Ruskin Mill’s usage is also changing. We hope it is clear that the language used in this book is intended to convey respect. It is also important to note that usage varies from country to country as well as between different institutional sectors. In England and Wales, “special educational needs” is an official category, and where used, the phrase refers to this.