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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), 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, as she was known, until
the war required evacuation of the Leiston house and they moved to Ffestiniog
in Wales. Mrs Lins became ill, requiring constant nursing, and eventually
died. Neill later married a staff at the school, Ena Wooff who had
helped to nurse Mrs Lins as well as cooking and being a 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 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 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.
Ena Neill continued to run the school until her retirement in 1985 when
their daughter Zoë, the current head teacher, took over.
Summerhill has been running continuously since 1921and has not changed fundamentally
since it started. Its success in providing a happy environment for kids
and producing well-balanced men and women, stands as a continuing proof
of Neill's notion that `The function of the child is to live his own life
not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a
life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best.'
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