Summerhill: the early days

Summerhill was founded in 1921 in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden. It was part of an International school called the Neue Schule. There were wonderful facilities there and a lot of enthusiasm, but over the following months Neill became progressively less happy with the school. He felt it was run by idealists – they disapproved of tobacco, foxtrots and cinemas – while he wanted the children to live their own lives. He said:

"I am only just realising the absolute freedom of my scheme of Education. I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value. And if Mary or David wants to laze about, lazing about is the one thing necessary for their personalities at the moment. Every moment of a healthy child's life is a working moment. A child has no time to sit down and laze. Lazing is abnormal, it is a recovery, and therefore it is necessary when it exists."

Together with Frau Neustatter (later his first wife and known at Summerhill as Mrs Lins), Neill moved his school to Sonntagsberg in Austria. The setting was idyllic – a castle on top of a mountain – but the local people, a Catholic community, were hostile.

By 1923 Neill had moved to the town of Lyme Regis in the south of England, to a house called Summerhill where he began with 5 pupils. The school continued there until 1927, when it moved to the present site at Leiston in the county of Suffolk, taking the name of Summerhill with it.

Neill continued to run the school with Mrs Lins who played a crucial role in both the formation and the running of Summerhill. She was a warm, outgoing, talented musician and teacher who also possessed valuable practical and organisational skills. Her gregarious nature enabled her to protect Neill from the more unwelcome visitors the school attracted whilst her patience and kindness ensured that problems presented by both children and staff were handled with tact and sureness. She had enormous respect for Neill as he had for her and she took over in Neill's absence. The war required evacuation of the Leiston house and the school moved to Ffestiniog in Wales. Mrs Lins became ill, requiring constant nursing, and eventually died in April 1944. She was loved by many and sadly missed by Neill, whose tender obituary clearly revealed her importance to Neill himself and to Summerhill. Neill later married a staff at the school, Ena Wooff who not only helped to nurse Mrs. Lins but who also worked as a cook and housemother at the school. After the war they returned to Leiston to a dilapidated Summerhill which had been used by the army and left in a poor state. Neill referred to this for many years afterwards, having to put much work into restoring the buildings and cleaning them up.

The school continued to be controversial, being depicted in the press as the "Do As You Please" school. Neill, however, did have the respect of many educationalists and well-known personalities such as, among others, Bertrand Russell and Henry Miller.

Pupil intake fluctuated over the years before taking a final dive in the late 50s. Things were looking black as the pupil numbers reached around 25. However, at that time Neill was approached by Harold Hart, a publisher from the USA, who wanted to publish a compilation of Neill's books. Together they put the book 'Summerhill - a radical approach to childhood', on the market. It was an instant hit in the USA rising to the number one non-fictional best seller nationally. It was soon published in the UK and many other countries and things began to take a turn for the better at Summerhill. Pupil numbers went up, many from the USA; interest in the school bloomed bringing in many visitors, to the dismay of the kids. At times there were coach loads. After a time both Neill and the community became tired of the attention and withdrew into a time of comparative quiet.

Neill lived out his days taking a less active part in the school but keeping in touch with what was going on. In 1973 his health declined and he was admitted to Ipswich Hospital. Later he was taken to the small local hospital where he died peacefully on September 23rd 1973. Five days later the new term started at Summerhill with Ena Neill now officially the principal. In reality though, Ena had been running the school with Neill's blessing for about three years prior to Neill's death. Those three years plus the fact that she had first come to work at Summerhill during the Second World War meant that she was more than qualified for the role. She clearly understood the difference between freedom and licence and was always ready, if it was necessary, to make it clear to the kids in no uncertain terms what that difference was. Ena Neill presented a formidable figure but the tough exterior masked a person with considerable compassion who was often called upon to be a mother to both kids and staff. Ena had a practical 'no-nonsense' approach to life and to the running of the school. She took over at a difficult time. The mid-seventies and early eighties were a period when the economies of the rich nations were in a recession. This, coupled with the fact that Neill's ideas were not as popular as they were in the 1960's meant that there were fewer students. It required a strong, determined person such as Ena to keep the school running through this difficult period.

Ena Neill continued to run the school until her retirement in 1985 when their daughter Zoë, the current head teacher, took over.

Today the school continues in safe hands. Zoë, her husband and children all play important parts in the administration and practical running of it. William is the assistant Principal as well as woodwork teacher and general manager, Henry teaches music, sound engineering and is involved in school life as well as running his own recording studio in the school grounds. Amy, an agronomist, manages cropping on the family farm as well as adding her own steady hand to the paperwork needed at the school, and Neill, who works on the farm offers support and advice as well as practical help when required.