Introduction to Summerhill
“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 work 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 over a hundred people. About 95 of these
are children aged between 5 and 18. 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 east coast of Suffolk.
Most of the children board during the term time, though there are day
pupils as well. Usually as the younger ones grow older, they 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 and above GCSE level. A new
timetable is created each term when the older children have “signed-up” for
classes, through 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 kids 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. So sports, games and other amusements are all
generated by the pupils and adults, according to need.
The staff meet daily to discuss any problems or concerns. A Special
Attention List monitors new children, and those who may have problems
with lessons. Staff will consider various actions that will assist the
child in learning. 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, some prefer 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 expectation of reasonable conduct
from individual. Bullying, vandalism or other anti-social behaviour is
dealt with by specially elected ombudsmen, or by the whole community
in its daily 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
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, word games, board games, spontaneous
acting, story telling, cinema trips, etc.
Summerhill is a happy and caring community that recognise 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
The school has an outreach programme with its own external affairs person
and an elected 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.
There are further plans for sharing Summerhill's long and unique
experience of freedom with other schools throughout the world. The principal
and daughter of A. S. Neill, Zoë Readhead, and her husband Tony
are regularly invited to lecture abroad. The enthusiastic response reflects
increasing recognition of the school as a beacon of enlightened, pupil-centred
education. Recent visits have included Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Italy,
Portugal, Germany, Spain and Greece.