Principal & daughter of A. S. Neill
SUMMERHILL by ZoŽ
It is a Friday morning in May and I am walking down a road in Leiston,
Suffolk called: 'Westward Ho!'. On my left hand side are small modern houses,
pleasant but not imaginative. This used to be the railway yard with a station,
in my youth, with a train coming to and fro many times a day. The children
used to arrive there every beginning of term and cart their cases over the
road at end of term to go home again.
On my right is a tall red brick wall worn and shabby behind,
which are trees and bushes, some heavy with blossom. At the end of the wall
there is a driveway and a low wall leading into it with the word "SUMMERHILL"
in bright mosaic. The wall is old and faded, the words often completely
covered by long grass.
As I pause at the top of the drive, with a lodge house on my right hand
side - this was Neill's house and the place I grew up a small boy
with yellow hair cycles towards me on a BMX and stops to look at some
leaves on the bushes that surround the entrance. He glances at me for
a moment taking note of the video recorder I am carrying and then cycles
off doing wheelies as he goes. I follow him down the drive.
There is a tennis court to my left and quite a smart wooden building on my right with "office" written on the door. As I walk on I am conscious of deep silence broken only by loud birdsong. The abundance of greenery acts as a filter, adding a calm semi-tropical feel to the atmosphere.
The front door of the main building, known as the House, is famous and very much photographed. I take the obligatory pictures and swing the viewfinder wide, desperately looking for some children. So far the only thing absent from the scene at this notorious Free School have been children!
There are voices from the skateboard ramp and I finally settle my lens
on a group of youngsters larking around with a skateboard. They are not
in class, they are playing just what Summerhill kids are expected
to do. Satisfied, I lower the camera.
I am principal of Summerhill School and daughter of the late A.S.Neill,
its founder. Today I am making a short film with my personal camcorder.
It is easy for me to walk around quietly taking video because nobody takes
any notice of me. I film some lessons, break time (when everybody rushes
to get a cup of tea), and a new staff member trying to make his first
swing off the Big Beech with much encouragement from some pupils. This
is a huge, old beech tree with a rope attached to a high branch
it is like flying through space when you swing, but takes courage to take
the first leap!
After lunch I film the school 'Meeting'. There are some great cases. Our school meetings are still our party piece as far as visitors are concerned. Four times a week we meet to discuss all sorts of topics from what time the Valentine's party shall end to why the toilets on the top corridor are so disgusting each morning!
It is in the meeting that you try and get a later bedtime or bring up the
fact that people on the 'tea-break' rota are not doing their job. Until
recently there were two meetings each week - a General Meeting and a Tribunal.
We were very strict about bringing up the right kind of case in the correct
meeting and there had to be a vote before you could have a Tribunal case
in the General Meeting or vice versa. However, they got longer and longer
as the number of pupils went up so for the last year we have had meetings
every day at 2pm, hoping to shorten each one and make them less to sit
The Friday meeting was abolished due to the fact that pocket money is given out on that day and sometimes children were getting hassle from local children when they were in the town spending it. It was decided that there would be no meeting so that Poc could be given out earlier and our children would be home again by the time the local schools got out at 3:30. This is a good illustration of how things evolve at Summerhill.
These meetings have been at Summerhill since the school began in 1921. Occasionally
the structure has changed but it has always returned to the form we have
today. Of course the cost of living has gone up, so we now get fined 20p
for things that in my school days would have only cost tuppence, but the
assortment of fines are pretty much the same: Going downtown out of hours
gated for two days.
Refusing to leave someone's room when asked back of all queues
for two days. Lying in bed after 9.30am back of the lunch queue.
Borrowing someone's bike without permission 25p fined.
We have about 190 school laws. Some are permanent, like the safety laws
and the ones which are just common sense, some are seasonal like
the 'going down-town' laws, which change when it gets dark earlier at
night, and some are very individual to people or circumstance. For example
Frank was banned from the San (youngest kids area), not allowed anything
to do with San kids at all and not allowed to ask Peter for anything
EVER! This was in response to him bullying Peter in particular and San
kids in general. The problem was then resolved and the ban lifted.
Peer group pressure is still one of the most significant aspects of the fines system (hence the 20p fine for not attending Tribunal when you are being brought up). It is considered of vital importance that people hear what the community has to say about them.
Fundamentally Summerhill is the same as it always was. The philosophy has not changed at all. Freedom for the individual, freedom as opposed to licence. Times may have changed but kids have not, in spite of what public opinion believes. It takes millions of years to change a species. Today's kids may look very different from kids in the 30s, but they still have the same needs. Kids need to play, they need the companionship of other kids, they need supportive adults, a secure loving environment and, of course, parents who love and approve of them.
At the time of writing Summerhill has 91 pupils and 14 staff. This is higher
than ever before. Approximately half the pupils are from UK while the
remainder are from Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Korea, France, Holland, Israel,
USA and Switzerland. The influx of South East Asian kids is comparatively
new. In the 60s the school was full of Americans I grew up knowing
the difference between a trunk and a boot, gas and petrol and an elevator
and a lift, as well as that in America it may be okay to say that you
have a great fanny, while in UK it is definitely not!
Most of the foreign kids learn English pretty quickly. It is great for
the kids to be growing up in such a mixed race group with so many languages
and cultures. At the end of the day we all tend to gravitate towards the
Summerhill language which shows traces of American, London Cockney,
local Suffolk accent (a strong country dialect) and a touch of pigeon
English from speaking to so many non-English speakers.
My husband Tony and myself have both felt that moving Summerhill forward was the only way. We have rebuilt and improved as much as we can and have usually got something on the go. Tony is blessed with amazing talent when it comes to making a silk purse out of a sow's ear!
There is absolutely no doubt that without Tony's tremendous ability in that department the school would not be here today. The constant pressure from government authorities to upgrade and improve would have been the school's downfall. Whatever else may come along, at least we know that we can meet the physical standards if we need to, provided we have the funds. Tony looks after the purse strings carefully and is a great believer in keeping something for a rainy day (and weren't we grateful for that when we had to go to court against the Department for Education?).
We get inspected by the Government officials (OFSTED) regularly. Up until the recent court case (see separate article on this site) we were being inspected yearly. The standard time between visits should be four years. Occasionally we wondered if there was some sinister hidden agenda that was sending them here to plague us so often. What is it about this little community of a hundred people on the Suffolk coast that poses such a threat?
Just before he died in 1973 Neill wrote a letter to be published after his death if the Inspectors caused trouble for the school. In it he said:
"The Inspectors are blind to the fact that Summerhill runs on the principle
that if the emotions are free the intellect will look after itself. And
to be fair to them they can inspect the teaching of Maths but they cannot
inspect sincerity, balance, tolerance, happiness, but then no one should
try to. One cannot teach anything of importance... to love, to have charity,
and one cannot inspect anything of importance."
The Meeting over, I take my camera outside again and spy a group of adults and children playing Badminton and larking about. Big kids, little kids, adults, boys and girls all mixing together without any tension. It looks an idyllic picture.
I take some shots of this and then walk backwards up the front drive, filming as I go. This is to be the end of the film and I am trying to make an 'arty' finish.
Reaching the road I film a parting shot down the drive, lingering on the old wall with the name 'Summerhill' in bright mosaic and the two guardian figures, a boy and a girl, made by an art teacher over 40 years ago. Harry has now passed on, but still his children sit by the entrance on the wall.
Wandering around the grounds at Summerhill, you get a strong feeling
of its long history. It feels old and wise. The house, the Big Beech tree
over three hundred years old the woods. There is a sense
of strength and comfort about it.
I don't suppose my old Dad ever thought his experiment would grow to such importance, be an inspiration to so many people over the years, or survive for so long.
I sometimes wonder what he would think if he could walk down the front drive today and see the old place that he loved so much...
ZoŽ Neill Readhead
This was adapted, in April 2003, from an article in the "Children's Voice"
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