For some it's a nightmarish Lord of the Flies dystopia, for others a hippy dream where kids run free - that's why Summerhill is the world's most controversial school.
“I can’t make it to my breakdancing lesson today,” says ten-year-old Freya studying her timetable, “I’ve got Dungeons and Dragons.” It’s just another typical day at Summerhill, the independent school in Suffolk where lessons are non-compulsory and the kids get to make their own rules. The timetable which includes late-night discos and nude sunbathing, may sound like little more than fun and games but the Suffolk school continues to have to fight for its students’ right to party.
Since it was established in 1921 by AS Neill to ‘give children back their childhoods’, Summerhill has faced an avalanche of criticism for its wacky ways. Over the past five years, it has survived the scandal of a television documentary which portrayed it as a modern day Lord of the Flies, endured countless Ofsted inspections and taken on the government in a legal battle to keep its doors open. Now yet another question mark hangs over the school’s future. A recent news story has suggested that an official book about Summerhill to be published next year represents a bid to water down the school’s ethos to make it more palatable to today’s parents. So could this really be the end of the line for Britain’s most ‘progressive’ school?
Set in a sprawling nineteenth century house in 14 acres of grounds, Summerhill feels more like a summer camp than a centre of learning. While students all across the country are knuckling down to the Government prescribed curriculum, five-year-old Jake is exercising his right not to attend lessons, preferring to trundle around on his bike instead. It is this ‘pursuit of idleness’ by pupils which so enraged David Blunkett four years ago and almost led to the school’s closure.
The school of hard knocks this definitely ain’t but that’s the way the headmistress and founder’s daughter Zoe Readhead plans to keep it. Having beaten the government in the legal battle over the right to keep lessons optional, she has no plans to back down now. “The philosophy of the school remains the same as ever. Freedom for children and the importance of living in a community,” she says. “We spent over £100,000 defending our unique principles in court and we won. So why should we change it now?”
Like many of its 83 students, Freya joined Summerhill after having left her old school because of bullying. On visiting the school with her parents and seeing the freedom the children had the decision to join was a simple one. “There were a lot of happy kids here so I decided I want to come,” she says. “I’m much more relaxed now and I get on better with other people a lot better.” When she grows up she says she would like to become an actress but, in true Summerhill fashion, she is not prepared to suffer for her art right at too young an age. “I’d rather have a happy childhood and become a street cleaner,” she says paraphrasing AS Neill himself, “than an uptight childhood and be a successful actress.”
It is this ‘pursuit of idleness’ by pupils which so enraged David Blunkett four years ago and almost led to the school’s closure.
Summerhillians liberty, however, does come at a cost. Parents pay £9000 a year in fees but many pupils leave at 17 without qualifications. The school refuses to divulge the school’s latest results on the grounds that “there is already a ridiculous degree of anxiety about examinations in the world,” but in 2003 a remarkable two thirds of Summerhill pupils left without any GCSES or GNVQs. Despite this, Readhead remains defiant about the way the school is run. “If you look at a league table we’re always at the bottom but who gives a shit, ” she says. “What the kids learn here is so much more important – things like independence and taking responsibility.”
When AS Neill set up Summerhill 83 years ago he did so in response to the brutality he perceived children suffered within education at the time. – no doubtlinked to His own childhood as the neglected son of an austere Scottish schoolteacher. He decided that young and old should stand as equals and live together in a “democratic and self-governing” community. Today, as a result of Neill’s pioneering ideology, students at Summerhill continue to exercise a degree of pupil power not seen anywhere else in the world.
At the school meetings, held three times a week, the children decide how best to run their own community. Rules are proposed and grievances are aired before a vote is taken on the appropriate action. The headmistress’s vote carries the same weight as the vote of the youngest child and, as the staff are outnumbered five to one, the children are essentially in charge. In their last meeting, the assembly discussed what should happen to three pupils who cycled out to the local village of Saxmundham without informing anyone. Their punishment, it was decided, would be a two day gating. A week long ‘wheel ban’ forbidding the use of bicycles or skateboards was, however, overruled. Every few years all rules are abolished but the children soon realise that complete anarchy is not the fun it seems and the rules slowly trickle back.
“If you look at a league table we’re always at the bottom but who gives a shit?”
Pupils and their parents are in agreement that these meetings are at the centre of all that is good about Summerhill. Stuart Truman pulled his heavily dyslexic son Jake out of his local state school after the pressure took the 11-year-old to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Three years at Summerhill has, however restored him to “the kid we always knew”. Morgan Rooms, who joined after bullying at his previous school turned him into “a complete wreck” now runs his own sound recording studio in California. “I think that because they are trusted to make their own decisions ex-pupils invariably end up doing okay.”
Summerhill may not be right for every child, or indeed every parent, but as the school’s continued existence testifies, for some it is perfect. It is this measure of success, not exam grades, that convinces Zoe Readhead that her methods work. “You may not want to send your child here but we should be able to continue what we’re doing” she says. “Even if we are a bit loopy.”