A free and equal school

IssueJuly / August 2011
Feature by Steve Fawdry, Hylda Sims

The pupil: Hylda Sims

At a time when the term “free school” is bandied about without a hint of irony by the Government as they “improve standards”, it is a wonderful thing to know that Summerhill, perhaps the freest school in the world, is alive and well and about to celebrate its ninetieth birthday.

Being sent there, as I was, towards the end of the Second World War – those dark days of cane, slipper and other ritual forms of child abuse – was about the best piece of luck a child could have. A man I met once told me that as a child he’d fantasised about being magically whisked away by a fairy godmother from his horrid, single-sex, kid-prison and dropped in the untidy grounds of “That Dreadful School” (as A S Neill, its founder, ironically titled a book about the place) with its tree- swings and dens and woods and the freedom to play in them all day and even all night and never go to a nasty lesson again.

Neill wrote:
“a school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects...is a good school if it is desirable to have a population of docile, uncreative citizens who will fit into a civilisation whose standard of success is riches and whose average of living is wage slavery.”

Schools are less savage these days and, at least in the primary schools, there are opportunities for play and fun, but Neill’s words, written in 1937, are still an apt comment on our schools and our society today!

“The aim of life is happiness,” wrote Neill, “The evil of life is all that limits or destroys happiness.” He set out to create a place where children (and their teachers) could be happy. And I was happy. So were most of us. I remember moments like the end of term dances – marvellous occasions when we decorated the lounge in a different theme every term and partied till midnight or more – when I consciously thought to myself at the time, “I am happy. I am perfectly happy”.

At Summerhill there are lessons. But they are optional. Nor does anyone try to persuade you to go to them. If you want to climb trees, or ride your bike round the grounds or lie on your bed reading all day, or just hang about – you can. Children don’t disrupt lessons at Summerhill and if they were to do so they would be told to leave, probably by the rest of the class. Teachers don’t have “discipline” problems but of course they need to make an effort to teach interestingly if they want an audience. In practice most kids do go to most lessons. Refugees from other schools sometimes spend a few months keeping away while they get used to the lack of compulsion, but not many stay away for long. It is rare for people to leave the school illiterate or innumerate – in fact this is more common where children have been subjected to compulsory lessons for many years and acquire a suspicion of everything an adult, their assumed enemy, hopes to teach them.

Power to all the people

The heart of Summerhill is the general meeting which takes place once a week at least. This too is optional but most people go. The rules are made and unmade at this meeting and everyone from the youngest child to the oldest staff member has an equal say and an equal vote. There is a rotating chairperson, usually one of the older kids, and a secretary, also one of the kids, who keeps the minutes. If you break the rules – intended only to limit your freedom to upset other people or damage their belongings – the meeting decides what punishment, if any, you should receive – mostly a strong warning or small money fine or sometimes a community chore. Children, judging by the Summerhill experience, are lenient, thoughtful and flexible legislators. Nor do they hold grudges against others for “bringing them up” in the meeting.

Summerhill is small in comparison to most schools. From the days when Neill had a handful of “problem” kids sent there by desperate parents, the school population is now up to about seventy “normal” boys and girls between the ages of five and sixteen. In my day we all boarded. Nowadays most kids board but the very youngest are day kids. It is a multi-national, mixed-age community of adults and children, all with equal social and legal status. Children are free to spend their days as they think fit.

Some people imagine that Summerhill must be a chaotic and crazy place. It is not. The way Summerhill operates is simply sensible. Strangely, compared with most schools, you rarely see a serious fight at Summerhill – it’s a tolerant place. Children who know they have access to justice, administered by their peers, who are not frustrated by adult prohibitions, don’t often seem to need to fight.

Other worlds

In later life, among other pursuits, I trained to be a secondary school teacher. I spent some time teaching in London schools. Mostly they seemed like mad places to me – enormous, stressful institutions ruled by bells and buzzers with teachers at the end of their tether, trying to assert their will, trying to impose alien patterns on children; insincere, often violent places where children practise dumb insolence or worse; where adults bully children and children bully each other; neither teachers nor children were permitted to be “themselves”. I suspect little has changed.

Primary schools seem a lot better. My five-year-old grandson has some good times at his infant school. It’s a friendly place. But then again, one day, in his second week there, out in the pleasant grassy play area at lunchtime, he needed a pee, so he found a tree at the edge of the grass and peed against it. He was told off for this and because he, quote, “didn’t show remorse” was sent to the headmistress and told off again. When he is “naughty” in class he isn’t sent out to expend some creative energy in playing but is “kept in” during playtime as a punishment. I, ex-Summerhillian that I am, find myself asking, where is the sense in all that?

The parent: Steve Fawdry

Having robustly resisted the government’s attempts to close the school in 2000, Summerhill continues to be a respected model for progressive, democratic education around the world.

As a result of a major ruling at the Royal Courts of Justice, the school’s philosophies and modus operandi are now properly recognised and legally protected. OFSTED awarded the school “outstanding” after their most recent inspection.

In reality though, little has changed over the 90 years that Summerhill has been in existence. Kids and staff come and go but the way of life remains the same. The age old philosophies of A S Neill have been etched in stone, tried and tested by many generations. They are now taught to student teachers and endorsed by many progressive educators who have adopted Summerhill practices in both state and private schools.

From a parent’s point of view, Summerhill’s caring, compassionate ethos has helped my son to flourish and grow into a happy, healthy teenager. At 13, despite a poor start in a state school, he is beginning to take an interest in lessons and now understands why qualifications are relevant. He is an articulate communicator, a skilful negotiator and he makes many of his own decisions about what is useful in life. Each time he comes home we are positively reminded of the tremendous value of Summerhill in his and our lives.

Happy Birthday Summerhill.

The Ballad of William James

William James was sent to public school
Had to stand in line for assembly in the morning
A surly sea of grey full of fidgeting and yawning
Buzzing through his brain went the telling-off and warning
While somewhere in the sun we kids were having fun at Summerhill

William James would dream of girls in class
Passed a silly note with F words as a feature
When he got found out, said, It wasn’t only me, Sir
Got beaten by his chums and a caning from his teacher
It’s not against the rule to swim naked in the pool at Summerhill

William James could never tell a soul
Couldn’t tell his Pa, he’d be sure to get another
Had to be a man, not go blubbing to his mother
Hid it in his head, like a corpse inside a cupboard
It isn’t a disgrace when tears run down your face, at Summerhill

William James goes back to school today
Had a troubled night with dreams of blood and thunder
Had to take a pill to keep his breakfast under
Screwed his mouth up tight so he wouldn’t make a blunder
The first kids to arrive run shouting down the drive at Summerhill

William James grew up to be a judge
Underneath his wig, a pile of bones lay hidden
Screwed his mouth up tight as he sent boys off to prison
Got an OBE as a man of strength and vision
But every child of mine gets love sent down the line from Summerhill

Hylda Sims
from Sayling the Babel – poems and songs by Hylda Sims, published Hearing Eye, 2006

Summerhill timeline

1921 A S Neill goes to Germany. He and Lilian Neustatter (‘Mrs Lins’) open the International School, forerunner of Summerhill, as a wing of the Dalcroze (Eurythmics) school in Hellerau, a “Garden City” near Dresden.
1923 political events (street fighting in Dresden) cause the school to move to Sonntagsburg, near Vienna.
1924 the school moves to England to a house in Lyme Regis called Summerhill.
1927 the proceeds of Neill’s book The Problem Child allow him to buy a spacious building and grounds in Leiston, Suffolk where the school remains today.
1940s (Second World War) the school is evacuated to North Wales to a house below Llan Ffestiniog owned by Lord Newborough. The Leiston building is requisitioned by the army
1945 the school returns to Leiston
1960 Neill’s book, Summerhill, a radical approach to child rearing, is a best seller in USA and brings money, trippers and an influx of American students.
1992 The New Summerhill ed. Albert Lamb & Zoe Readhead published
1996 In a scurrilous film about the school made for Cutting Edge on Channel 4, filmmakers persuade a child to kill a myxomatosis-infected rabbit on camera. Animal lovers protest; questions are asked in Parliament; the school becomes infamous and is dogged by inspectors for the following five years 2000 Ofsted demands that Summerhill make lessons compulsory. Summerhill refuses. There is a court case at which Summerhill is represented by distinguished human rights QC Geoffrey Robertson. Summerhill wins the case and has been left in relative peace ever since.

Further Reading:

  • Summerhill and A S Neill, ed Mark Vaughan, St Martin’s Press
  • The New Summerhill, ed Albert Lamb and Zoe Readhead, Penguin Books
  • Inspecting the Island, the Summerhill novel by Hylda Sims, Seven-Ply Yarns
  • See also Jonathan Croall’s biography Neill of Summerhill, The Permanent Rebel, Routledge & Kegan Paul and of course A S Neill’s many books