School, A New View of Childhood
A.S. Neill, Albert Lamb, editor
Introduction: Neill and Summerhill
Sutherland Neill was thirty-seven years old when he started his
school Summerhill back in. 1921 and he was already well
established in England as a radical educational theorist through
his early books on education.
- Neill had grown up
in a Scottish village as the son of the local schoolteacher.
Unlike his seven brothers and sisters he was not deemed worthy of
being sent on to the local secondary school so he was put out to
work at fourteen. Several years later he drifted into
schoolteaching and at the age of twenty-five he took up his formal
education again as a student at Edinburgh University. He began
writing about education and as a young graduate, working as the
acting head of a Scottish village school, he wrote his first book,
A Dominie's Log.
- By the time I got
to know him he was an old man. Gone were the days when he would
join a young hooligan in throwing stones through the greenhouse
windows. Neill's burly old figure was enormously comforting but he
remained something of a quietly canny Scot right to the end. He
combined diffidence with mild impatience in a way that does not
come across in his writing. Still, we kids always found him very
easy to approach. He had none of the adult pride that is so common
in strong grown-ups. He managed to carry great personal authority
while being a non-authoritarian presence.
- He seemed very good
at old age but I don't think he really enjoyed it. He greatly
enjoyed his late blossoming fame, however, even though it brought
him a host of troubles in the form of huge stacks of letters and
busloads of visitors.
- Summerhill first
become well known during the 1930s in Britain and for a while
Neill was much in demand as a speaker. During the period he had a
profound effect on many British teachers as well as on parents.
Since that time Summerhill has been best known abroad and has had
its greatest effect on schools and parents in other parts of the
world. In the 1960s Neill's book Summerhill sold two million
copies in the United States; it also did well in Britain. In the
1970s in Germany a translation of the book sold well over a
million copies. Recently, in the 1980s, there has been a great
vogue for books about Summerhill in Japan. The effect of the
school on modern education has always been way out of proportion
to the numbers attending the school; in the whole history of
Summerhill there have been only about six hundred students.
Perhaps the most profound effect of Neill's work has been on
parents and their attitude to their children.
- Neill was unusual
among educational pioneers in caring more about 'psychology' than
about 'education'. His creation is the oldest self-governing
school offering non-compulsory lessons in the world. During the
early years Neill took many maladjusted children but in the 1930s
he shifted the emphasis of the school and tried to take mostly
children without psychological problems.
- Neill at this time
came to see Summerhill as a therapeutic school for normal
children. The goal was to use childhood and adolescence to create
emotional wholeness and personal strength. Neill thought that once
this wholeness had been achieved children would be self-motivated
to learn what they needed academically. The key to this growth was
to give children freedom to play for as long as they felt the need
in an atmosphere of approval and love. The children were given
freedom but not licence; they could do as they pleased as long as
it didn't bother anyone else.
- After Neill's death
in 1973 his wife Ena, who had been sharing the burdens with him
for many years, took over and ran the school for twelve years on
her own. In 1985 Neill's daughter Zoë Readhead (pronounced
'Redhead'), who had grown up as a pupil in the school, became the
- Summerhill's living
reality seems so powerful and right that it is surprising how
little interest the world has shown in what actually goes on
there. The year 1991 is the seventieth anniversary of the world's
most famous progressive school and yet there has never been a
systematic study of Summerhill's actual mode of operation, its
effect on pupils and its potential consequences for educational
theory and practice in the larger context of the wide world.
- An example of the
latter ... young kids at Summerhill almost always go to lessons
eagerly. Older kids also seem very interested in their studies,
often working much more cheerfully than adolescents in other
schools. However, kids between ten and twelve at Summerhill spend
very little time in lessons. At this particular age they seem to
have a great need to get out from under the weight of adult
expectations. Understanding why these children make this choice
might help educators design schools that would work with a child's
nature instead of fighting against it.
- The social control
at Summerhill has always been invested in the whole community
through the Meeting and that control has always been greater than
the word 'freedom' would seem to imply. Children like rules and
they provide themselves with a great many of them. At any time
during the history of the school there have been hundreds of
'laws' on the books.
- Every week during
term time for the last sixty-nine years Summerhill kids have
settled down after supper on Saturday night to make and change the
laws that administer every facet of their life together. This
General Meeting is concerned with announcements to the community,
questions about areas of general concern, and the proposal of new
laws. Although they are not compulsory, anyone, child or staff,
can come to any Meeting and use their vote.
- Each week the
community picks a new chair (at Summerhill always called chairman
or madam chairman) to run the Meetings for the next week. The
secretary, who keeps the record of business, proposals and new
laws, often holds the position for weeks at a time. The General
Meeting starts with a Tribunal report (explained in the next
paragraph). The chairman then calls on those who have put
themselves on the agenda. Each item is handled separately and the
chairman himself cannot speak on a subject without having someone
take his place. A chairman has no vote but he has a great deal of
power over the Meeting. If people disrupt the Meeting he can fine
them or make them leave. The chairman's job is to choose who can
speak from the raised hands being offered, to take proposals and
bring each matter to a conclusion with a vote.
- On Friday afternoon
at two o'clock we have Tribunal. Tribunal is a form of lawcourt
where people can bring up a personal case if they feel they have
been wronged in any way. After individual complaints have been
heard the community can decide on the appropriate fines. As well
as the regular Tribunal and General Meetings, it is also possible
to call Special Meetings. You have to go to the secretary and the
current chairman and convince them of the need for immediate
community action. Special Meetings are run in the same way as a
Tribunal case except that the school is free to speak more
generally and make new laws.
- The Meetings at
Summerhill combine formality and flexibility in a way children
instinctively understand and believe in. Each new generation of
Summerhill kids quickly learns all the subtleties of their
self-government. The General Meeting and Tribunal take up a tiny
part of each week's time but their presence is constantly felt
throughout the school. The number of cases that actually come to
the Meeting is small compared to the times in the week that
someone talks about changing a law or 'bringing someone up'.
- The part that
Zoë takes in the meetings is very different from that taken
by her father. Most of Neill's proposals in the Meeting were
intentionally silly and were voted down. He felt it was important
as headmaster and therapist not to take sides on issues that
involved personalities; Neill had a profound ability to be
nonjudgmental. His whole aim was to stay in the background and
make the kids run their own school.
- Zoë behaves
more like one of the big kids, speaking her piece with the rest of
the community and voting for her convictions. Sometimes, watching
the swift wave of her raised hand when she wants to be heard, I am
swept back almost thirty years to when we were teenagers together.
Zoë's lifelong involvement with Summerhill has made her
something of a natural democrat in this community of children. She
has a sure sense of how she can empower the kids of Summerhill to
take charge of their own school.
- As well as the
Meeting, the school administers itself through the use of
committees elected by a general vote and by ombudsmen. At the
beginning of each term there are often several committees to be
formed or in need of new members. As well as the members of the
regular ongoing committees like the bedtimes committee, the
library committee or the social committee, the ombudsmen are also
voted for at this time.
- Each week three
ombudsmen are on duty to help people who need to bring in someone
from the outside when they are in some kind of row. Sometimes
ombudsmen can settle a disagreement there and then but more often
they act as a witness or a representative when the case is bought
to the Meeting. Even the staff make frequent use of the ombudsmen,
as they don't want to be seen as authority figures handing down
- The place of
ombudsmen within the school shows how the school has evolved
structurally over the years. Older kids always made an effort to
arbitrate in the disputes of the younger ones but an official
title was only found for this role in the mid-ig6os. At the time I
was seventeen and the rest of the school was very young. As I
remember it, it was Ena's son Peter Wood who first read about how
Sweden was employing ombudsmen to settle disputes between
individuals and local government. It was discussed in the Meeting
and a proposal was made that we should have our own ombudsman. I
took on the job for the rest of that term. The idea seemed a
natural for Summerhill and there was a constant parade of little
kids coming to my door with complaints against each other.
- Summerhill is such
a unique community that there are probably many ways to describe
what is going on there. Neill's is only one description. Danë
Goodsman, who was one of the little kids when I was there, has
written about the school in anthropological terms, seeing the big
kids as the true elders of the social structure. According to
- As a big kid the
child can be seen as a custodian of the school's culture, and we
can see that being a big kid becomes a role which is understood as
having high status. The effect of this on the social structure of
the school is most interesting. It means that effectively children
are sent not to the care of adults, but to the care of other
- An important aspect
of the school is certainly the range of ages and interests
represented in a community of under a hundred people, similar in
size to a traditional extended family. Zoë's mother, Ena, had
her eightieth birthday recently and is the oldest member of the
community. The student population goes from seventeen right down
to five years old. The structure provided by Summerhill includes
both the democratic forms of self-government and a hierarchical
structure of social expectation by age. This pluralistic variety
of age, sex, and interests helps keep the school from being what
Margaret Mead once asserted that it was, a 'tyranny of the
community' over the individual.
- I like to look at
Summerhill as a democracy on the Athenian model. Above the free
citizens stands the central figure of the headmistress. Matters
that are not of real concern to children or that would weigh them
down with responsibility are reserved for the staff and Zoë.
For instance the children do not have a final say in hiring new
staff or expelling children. Standing to the side of the free
citizens there is a kind of hidden support similar to the 'slave
class' in Ancient Athens. Many issues that would be divisive to
the community do not come up because the food is cooked, the
floors' are cleaned and the clothes are washed without the
children having to say a word about it. These are important
differences between Surnmerhill and some other free schools and
part of why our community of children is such a strong one. Our
children are given great responsibility over their lives but are
still provided for in such a way that they can enjoy their
childhood unhampered by social concerns that are beyond them.
- Many things that at
other schools are now being taught as part of the curriculum are
at Summerhill dealt with within the course of daily life. Children
do not need to be taught about racial tolerance when they are in a
sort of extended family that is an inter-racial group; the same
could be said for respect for women's rights. The school is
effectively run by the oldest children. When there is a body of
older girls at the school, because they are so quick to mature,
they usually have a leading role in the management of the school -
and another lesson is learned without a teacher.
- No sooner did we
decide that I should edit a new version of the book
Summerhill than the word came down from Her Majesty's
Inspectorate that they wanted to come and settle in with a team of
inspectors for their longest-ever visit to the school. In the past
these occasions have cost the school a lot of sleepless nights and
ultimately a lot of money too, repairing and rebuilding old
facilities. The inspectors arrived at the end of the first week of
the summer term.
- Soon after they
left Zoë wrote, 'Having Her Majesty's Inspectors visiting for
five days is something akin to having a distant, nosy, and
somewhat prudish relative poking around your house, looking in the
oven, smelling the fridge, and rummaging through your knicker
drawer. It can only be described as an imposition.'
- In their verbal
report they were friendly and respectful - perhaps Summerhill is
at last becoming a kind of grand old British institution but they
gave the impression that they will be keeping their eye on the
place. In the future, red tape may be the tie that binds.
- After the
inspectors left us the summer term settled down. The big kids took
their General Certificate exams during the first half of the term
and then the school relaxed into its comfortable summer routine
that resembles a very loose American summer camp more than
anything else. Lots of kids running around outside (or rolling
around on skateboards) and lots of swimming in the pool. As always
the end-of-term committee closed the lounge for the final week of
term to prepare for the big end-of-term party. The walls of the
lounge were covered with drawing paper and huge murals were
painted and streamers and balloons were hung. The actors stuck
themselves into the theatre to prepare for the end-of-term play
(appropriately entitled 'The Inspectors are Coming').
- On the last
Saturday of term, after the play, everyone trooped over for the
opening of the lounge and the traditional end-of-term party began.
During the evening the school's rock and roll blues band played a
long set. At midnight the kids who were leaving went into the
middle of a human circle and 'Auld Lang Syne' was sung by all
those who were staying on.
- While Summerhill
provides a traditional academic education and is proud of the
academic achievements of its pupils the real benefits of its
educational programme are more profound. Many children come to
Surnmerhill with emotional problems and go away whole and strong.
At the moment over a third of the children in the school are
Japanese, quite a few are from other countries, but all of them
are Summerhillians. Warmth, optimism, independence, and
self-reliance are contagious qualities at the school. The
structure of the school lets kids be independent and at the same
time accept their responsibilities towards each other just as the
best families do.
- Many of the
benefits of a Summerhill education are not apparent until later in
life. This 'invisible' aspect of the school is one of the hardest
things to describe to visitors or new staff. Neill himself was a
late bloomer and in some ways Summerhill is the ultimate
environment for late bloomers. With a happy childhood tucked under
your belt your future development is almost assured. We at the
school believe that in this time of rapid technological change.
Summerhill has a formula that could help produce the men and women
we will be needing in the future.
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