Summerhill's fight with the UK government

In March 2000, after a damning report from an OfSTED (Office for Standards in Education) inspection in March 1999, which demanded changes to the Summerhill philosophy, the school won an historic legal battle against the DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) when it defended the rights and voices of its children at an Independent Schools Tribunal.
After the OfSTED report was published the children contacted the Children's Legal Centre to see if they could get help and a lawyer to represent them. Meanwhile, Zoë & Tony Readhead were taking their own steps to prevent the school's closure.

Stuart Ainsworth, Senior Lecturer in Educational Studies, Co-director of the Equality and Discrimination Centre, Strathclyde University, had contacted them and suggested that perhaps, under European law, the government were acting illegally in threatening closure of Summerhill. His information and support gave them the courage to fight the case legally. A friend from the City of London recommended a prominent lawyer, Mark Stephens, who regularly deals with high profile cases. They visited him and he agreed to act for the school at an Independent Schools Tribunal, the legal framework for appealing against a Notice of Complaint, which the school had now received. The notice of Complaint listed six areas of concern that had to be rectified; otherwise the school would face closure.

The media followed the case with interest. The national papers, foreign papers, radio news and TV covered the threat of closure to the school.

In the summer of 1999 the school hosted an international conference on 'The Free Child', examining issues of how alternative schools could contribute to state education systems. This was also a platform for making joint statements to save Summerhill and the start of a campaign of "Binning the Report", initiated by Michael Newman, Science teacher at Summerhill. He had read an article in the TES (Times Educational Supplement) in which Chris Woodhead (Head of OfTSED) said that if school Heads did not like their OfSTED reports - they should bin them. Michael found the headline for the story and launched a national and worldwide campaign to "bin" the Summerhill report. People were photographed in many different settings "binning" the Summerhill report. Some sent photos of themselves from other countries, the furthest being a school in Australia.

After this conference Professor Ian Cunningham led a team of independent experts from the field of education in their own independent report on Summerhill as a direct response to the OfSTED report. They visited the school and made a thorough evaluation of what they saw. The result of this inspection can be seen at: www.selfmanagedlearning.org.

The school planned a campaign, writing to MP's, getting support from educationalists, parents and children. The response from the public was overwhelming. Letters, emails and donations poured in. It is estimated that the case cost in the region of 130 thousand pounds and that approximately 90 thousand of that was raised in donations, many people giving generously.

The case was defended by Geoffrey Robertson QC, the world-renowned human rights champion. The first three days of the hearing were taken up by him questioning one witness. During this time it came to light that Summerhill was on a secret TBW list (To Be Watched) which was why the school was inspected so often.

After three days of the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, which most of the children attended, the DfEE capitulated, asking for an agreement with the school. This was duly drawn up and voted for in a unique Meeting held, by permission of the judges, in the Royal Court itself. This was a historical moment - probably the first time a democratic meeting had been held in a Royal court of law and certainly the first time a children's meeting had done so.

Summerhill is now the most legally protected school in the country with a unique inspection process that is the first to include the voices of children, preceding the newly announced OfSTED plans to take account of students' views. Summerhill is the only school that has direct input into its inspections through legally appointed experts. MPs from all parties have been highly critical of the fact that this protection was won at such great expense to the school.

In the summer of 2002 the school received its first inspectors since the case, as well as the elected experts. The inspection process went smoothly and, guided by the experts, the inspectors seemed more open minded in their approach. The subsequent summing up and letter that the school received was positive. This was just a registration visit, not a reported inspection.