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Hussein Lucas, After Summerhill: What happened to the pupils of Britain’s most radical school?

Herbert Adler Publishing, 2011; 224pp; £9.95

This book consists of fifteen articles compiled some years ago from interviews with former pupils of AS Neill’s radical educational establishment, Summerhill. The interviewees have between them a huge range of careers, made wider than it might have been by the fact that many individuals changed direction several times. Leonard Lasalle, for instance, gave up working in advertising because it seemed to him to be immoral and ended up as a dealer in antiques.

The contributors are honest and serious about the school, and make many criticisms. Anyone looking for faults in the school can find mention of homesickness, bullying, stealing and shoplifting, but what is important is not what went wrong, but how it was dealt with. Happiness, security, self-confidence and concern for the welfare of others feature far more prominently than problems. The weekly General Meetings, where rules and social problems and general school affairs are decided on jointly by students and staff, are generally seen as a more important element of the school than even Neill himself, who figures as an admired and much loved part of the background. There is much discussion of the fact that lessons were entirely voluntary. Some of the people interviewed avoided lessons altogether for as much as a year or more. It did not seem to prevent ex-students from leading successful careers.

An extreme example is Freer Spreckley. After an irresponsible Summerhill career he actually left the school at the age of sixteen unable to read or write. He hitched twice round the world and eventually taught himself to read in three months in the Australian desert. His subsequent career has been astonishing. In 1973 he established the Lifespan community in Yorkshire, in partnership with Hylda Sims, another old Summerhillian. He then set up Beechwood College in Leeds and an organisation called Community Economy, where he helped people on housing estates to set up credit unions and businesses. He developed Social Audit, became managing director of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, and a trainer for VSO. He is now a consultant in Social Enterprise, and his clients include Oxfam, the British Council and the EEC.

This book shows that the benefits of Summerhill education are not limited to a happy, fearless childhood. They include self-confidence, a sense of purpose, a mature understanding of gender relationships, tolerance, responsibility and an eagerness to learn.