Free school

For 85 years, England’s Summerhill community has shown children learn more when they are in charge of their own educations

Matthew Appleton | October 2006 issue
A few days ago I dropped off my 13-year-old daughter Eva for a new term at Summerhill—theEnglish school famed for its emphasis on students’ personal freedom. I was in Eva’s room helping her unpack when a couple of girls rushed in to announce that a particularly annoying boy was on his way. She quickly locked the door and got on with unpacking. Moments later there was knocking, and a boy’s voice calling her name. She rolled her eyes and ignored it. After a few seconds of banging loudly he shouted “Bitch!” and theatened to find an axe with which to smash the door, before stomping off. Completely unperturbed, Eva continued her unpacking.
Later as we left the room a spray of water hit me straight in the face and I found myself looking at three girls, who were dissolving into a mixture of giggles and apologies. They had been waiting to ambush Eva or one of the other girls in the room, and did not expect a parent to emerge. Eva found it just as funny as they did.
The atmosphere at Summerhill is more like that of a large family than a school, a family in which adults are included as equals. Some adults might find it uncomfortable to be treated as one of the crowd rather than a figure of authority. Indeed, some parents might find it disconcerting to find a strange boy calling their daughter a bitch and threatening to destroy her bedroom door with an axe. But I felt very relaxed at Summerhill, since it had been my home for nine years, when I lived and worked at the school as a house parent. The easygoing flow of interactions between kids of all ages and adults was familiar. It did not occur to me for a moment that the boy yelling at the door was a pre-adolescent version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The boy was just venting his frustration that Eva had shut him out. The moment passed and later the two of them were behaving toward each other as if nothing had happened.
Summerhill is a boarding school, but it bears little resemblance to the traditional notion of English boarding schools you get from novels. No one wears a uniform. The children swear freely without fear of being told off. Adolescent couples wander about with their arms around each other. Small children weave through groups of adults, totally involved in their own play, with no one telling them to stop running or keep their voices down. Through the years, however, Summerhill has often been a focus of media attention, with journalists who visit for a couple of hours portraying it as the “do-as-you-like school” where unruly children run wild.
Summerhill was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, a Scottish teacher who had become disillusioned with conventional schools. He saw the teaching methods used in those schools as a way of breaking a child’s will, rather than supporting the process of learning. Neill was influenced by psychoanalysis, which had introduced the then-radical notion of the unconscious, and by seeing many of the children he taught going off to be senselessly slaughtered in the First World War. He sought to create an environment in which children were free to be themselves. Motivated by the belief that children are essentially “good” by nature, he believed this “goodness” was too-often warped by adult attempts to mould children into unnatural ways of being. The “goodness” Neill wanted to nurture was not the naïve, sentimental innocence many adults attribute to children, but an innate capacity to develop into emotionally open and socially responsible individuals. It was freedom, he declared, that allowed children to stay in touch with their inherent “goodness” and draw upon it in their personal growth.
Now run by Neill’s daughter, Zoë Readhead, Summerhill—northeast of London on the outskirts of the little town of Leiston—continues to embody those same principles. It is a small school, with less than 100 students, aged between 7 and 17, many of whom come from other countries.
Surprising to many is the fact that Summerhill has many rules, or “laws” as they are called. There may be 200 or more such laws at any time. They are not dictated by adults, but proposed and voted on in regular community meetings, at which everyone, adult and child alike, has one vote. The voice of a 7-year-old has equal weight to that of the principal. When a community of children sits down to decide the parameters by which its members will live, it makes practical laws based on individual experience rather than abstract codes of conduct. For example, if the smaller children are running around the dining room when the older children are trying to eat, someone may propose that they are not allowed in the dining room at that time. This way, everyone comes to understand that freedom means doing what you want so long as it does not interfere with someone else.
Of course, like anywhere, laws get broken all the time, but anyone can raise problems at the community meetings. For example, if someone uses another person’s bike without asking, the owner can bring a case against the offender. The person who took the bike can offer an explanation as to why and a vote is taken on whether a fine should be paid. The fine can be a strong warning not to do it again or having to go to the back of the line for lunch, or paying a small amount of money. In my experience, the community is generally good-natured and fair when it comes to fines.
The meetings are central to life at Summerhill and they help children understand the practical importance of boundaries in personal interactions. There, the children experience neither the powerlessness that comes when orders are barked at them by bigger people, as many do at home or school, nor the lack of clarity that results when boundaries do not exist at all, as happens with neglectful parents or timid teachers.
One of the things I always appreciated about the meetings was the lack of resentment when things did not go the way some people wanted. I remember bringing a case against a group of adolescent boys who had been making noise in an area of the school where they were not supposed to be. I had been woken up in the night many times and I argued for a substantial fine. They argued just as passionately against it. But this time the vote went in my favour. As the meeting closed, each of them walked over to give me a big hug and apologize. There was no sulking or leftover tension, on their part or mine.
Another aspect of Summerhill that people often find hard to comprehend is that classes are not required. Children go to lessons only when they decide they are ready to learn. Part of my present work involves teaching adults, and even though they want to learn, I see how much fear they bring to the learning process. Years of mandatory schooling has undermined their capacity to inquire and instilled a need to get it right. Their nervous systems reverberate with a fear of being seen as stupid. They are not in the calm, relaxed state conducive to processing new information.
When Summerhill children go to class, they tend to learn quickly because they are motivated. They have been able to play as much as they liked and are ready to engage with structured lessons. Most children in our society do not get enough time to play and simply be in their own worlds, so they find it hard to concentrate at school. They become bored, restless or anxious.
A.S. Neill declared that if the emotions are free, the intellect will look after itself. Certainly as I reflect on the children I knew in almost a decade as a Summerhill house parent, who are now in their mid- to late-20s, they all seem to be doing well in their careers. Most went on to higher education and have degrees in a variety of fields, some academic, others artistic.
I have met a broad range of Summerhill alumni over the years, spanning 85 years of the school’s existence, and few express regrets that they were not forced to go to lessons. For the most part, they say they were able to develop their own interests and left Summerhill feeling prepared for the wider world. They also cite other qualities that Summerhill offered, which could only have been developed through the freedom not always to be the classroom.
One is confidence. I see this already in Eva, even though she has only been at Summerhill for two terms and was happy in her previous school; she is more relaxed in herself, which allows her to be more outgoing.
Another is self-motivation. Summerhill students are not organized into endless activities by anxious adults afraid the children will not develop into violin virtuosos or speak three languages before age 9 or, God forbid, be bored for half an hour. This allows their inner worlds to remain intact and spacious enough for the children to learn what they want out of life and what they have to offer.
These qualities are not easy to measure, which means they fall outside the criteria for good education laid down by the educational establishment. The process of learning has become standardized, with goals set for specific age groups and progress charted through regular testing.
The Summerhill approach to education has not generally sat well with government inspectors. The attitude of the UK’s Office for Standards in Education toward Summerhill is akin to that of Uncle Vernon’s red-faced indignation at the mention of Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories. Throughout A.S. Neill’s half-century of running Summerhill he was always fearful for the school’s future, citing only one government inspector who seemed to grasp what Summerhill was about. During the 1990s, inspections started to become more frequent and aggressive, until the school was threatened with closure if it did not institute measures that would essentially bring an end to non-mandatory classes.
In March 2000, Summerhill appealed to Great Britain’s High Court to challenge the government’s actions. It soon became clear that the government inspector’s report was full of inaccuracies and prejudices that could not be substantiated in court. It also emerged that despite the inspector’s assurances that Summerhill was not being specifically targeted, it was on a secret list of schools “to be watched.” The government quickly backed down and then-Minister of Education David Blunkett offered a set of conciliatory proposals. To quote The Times of London (March 24, 2000): “In extraordinary scenes at the Royal Court of Justice, the school was allowed to take over Court 40 to hold a student council to debate Mr. Blunkett’s new proposals.”
Just like all other proposals offered at Summerhill, children and adults voted on whether to accept them. They represented a complete turnaround on Blunkett’s part and for the first time in Summerhill’s history, A.S. Neill’s educational philosophy came under the protection of the law. It was the end of a long campaign in which the children had been active throughout. They had taken on the British government and won.
For me and many others around the world, it is a great relief that this small school championing children’s freedom has been able to survive. Summerhill is the living embodiment of a way of raising children that challenges the fear-based approach so prevalent today: fear that if we do not force children they will not learn; fear that if we don’t control them they will turn rotten; fear that at our human core there is badness. If there is one thing that Summerhill offers, it is the knowledge that we do not need to be so afraid.
Matthew Appleton, a psychotherapist and craniosacral therapist, is the author of A Free Range Childhood: Self Regulation at Summerhill School (Gale Centre Publications in Britain, 2002, and Foundation for Educational Renewal in the U.S., 2000).
Taken with kind permission from The Idler (Spring 2006), a feisty English journal that explores a wide-range of curious and compelling subjects

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