Summerhill - an Overview

“All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness” wrote A. S. Neill, founder of Summerhill School.

Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, more examinations and more qualifications. It seems to be a modern trend that assessment and qualification define education.

If society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a violation of human rights. But for most of the world's children this is the normal expectation from parents, school and the society in which we live.

Today many educationalists and families are becoming uneasy with this restrictive environment. They are beginning to look for alternative answers to mainstream schooling.

One of these answers is democratic or 'free' schooling. There are many models of democratic schools in all corners of the globe, from Israel to Japan, from New Zealand and Thailand to the United States.

The oldest and most famous of these schools is Summerhill, on the east coast of England.

Summerhill School was founded in 1921 at a time when the rights of individuals were less respected than they are today. Children were beaten in most homes at some time or another and discipline was the key word in child rearing. Through its self-government and freedom it has struggled for more than eighty years against pressures to conform, in order to give children the right to decide for themselves. The school is now a thriving democratic community, showing that children learn to be self-confident, tolerant and considerate when they are given space to be themselves.

Summerhill School is one of the most famous schools in the world, and has influenced educational practice in many schools and universities. The democratic schools movement is now blossoming internationally, with many schools far and wide being based upon the philosophy of A. S. Neill or inspired by reading his books.

Summerhill is a community of around a hundred people. About 75 of these are children aged between 5 and 17. The rest are teachers, house parents and other staff. It is situated in a large much loved, Victorian house and grounds, two miles from the coast of Suffolk.

Most of the children board during the term time, though there are day pupils as well. As the younger ones grow older, they usually prefer to sleep at school. Summerhill is co-educational and enjoys the diversity of pupils from throughout the world.

There is a wide choice of subjects, up to GCSE level. A new timetable is created each term when the older children have "signed-up" for classes, though there is no compulsion to attend.

As well as the structured timetable, there is free access to art, woodwork and computers. There are also open areas where pupils not in classes can hang out, amuse themselves, socialise, play games, be creative etc. Adults are not there to create things for the children to do. They need to create things for themselves. Sports, games and other amusements are all generated by the pupils and adults, according to need.

The staff meet regularly to discuss any problems or concerns. A Special Attention List monitors new children, and those who may have problems relating to learning. Staff will consider various actions to assist the child in. For example, if a child is nervous of the classroom, one-to-one lessons can be offered. This is the case for fast or slow learners. Pupils can take exams early if they wish and most pupils take some GCSEs before they leave, but of course they have the option not to take any at all.

The important freedom at Summerhill is the right to play. All lessons are optional. There is no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up, though the community itself has expectations of reasonable conduct from all individuals. Bullying, vandalism or other anti-social behaviour is dealt with on-the-spot by specially elected ombudsmen, or can be brought to the whole community in its regular meetings.

The school is set in twelve acres of garden and woodland with plenty of space for cycling, hut building, tree climbing, bonfires, camping, imaginative games. There is a swimming pool for use in the summer time, a tennis court, playing field, basketball area as well as table tennis indoors.

During the winter and spring there is a Social Committee elected by the community to organise games and activities in the afternoons and evenings. These include capture the flag, word games, board games, spontaneous acting, story telling, cinema trips, etc.

Summerhill is a happy and caring community that recognises the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings. There is a general openness and honesty among the community members. Staff do not use adult authority to impose values and solve problems; these are solved by the individual with the help of friends or ombudsmen or by the community in meetings.

The school has an outreach programme with its own external affairs committee of pupils who regularly take part in conferences, children's rights programmes, workshops in schools and colleges, etc. As well as this, the school endeavours to allow as many people as possible to visit and see the unique system in action.