Summerhill School, A New View of Childhood
by A.S. Neill, Albert Lamb, editor
..English edition ................American Edition,,.......,
Editor's Introduction: Neill and Summerhill
Alexander 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 current headmistress.
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 law.
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 Danë ...
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 children.
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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