An establishment ahead of its time

What can teachers learn today from Summerhill, the original free school? And what became of its pioneering pupils? Joseph Lee investigates
30th March 2012, 1:00am


An establishment ahead of its time

Summerhill School describes itself as the “oldest child democracy in the world”, but many of its ideas are remarkably fresh. Principal Zoe Readhead is wry about how the school’s ideas end up in the mainstream: the latest has been the adoption of the “free school” label. “They stole our name,” she says.

Known by its admirers as Britain’s most radical school and damned by inspectors for confusing “idleness with personal freedom”, after 90 years it still retains the power to shock and inspire.

At the heart of the controversy is the school’s refusal to compel pupils to attend lessons, which prompted Ofsted inspectors to attempt to close it in 1999. It is not a school without rules - there are hundreds - but they are written by the pupils at the democratic general meeting.

“Most schools try to break and control kids, enacting some cleaned-up kind of Calvinism, beating the hell out of them for their own good,” says Bill Ayers, a Summerhill-inspired US education theorist, controversial for his role in violent activism against the Vietnam War. “I embrace a contrary idea: kids are naturally good and will blossom beautifully if raised in freedom.”

The battle with Ofsted has been truly won with the publication of a glowing inspection report in October. Pupils’ progress in their learning was judged to be good, and their behaviour, their spiritual, moral and cultural development and the leadership of the school outstanding.

With the school’s future secure, a new book has been published to look back on its 90 years - After Summerhill, by Hussein Lucas, based on detailed interviews with 15 former “Summerhillians”.

One of the striking aspects is how many went on to become teachers, often as part of a varied career. One is an art teacher in a north London school; another taught in primary schools, held English classes for foreigners, set up a business school and worked in a centre for excluded pupils; another taught design at a technical college; and one former student wrote her education PhD on Summerhill before becoming a lecturer in medical education. Even a pupil who left the school without being able to read and write taught Japanese people to speak English before teaching himself literacy.

That is one way in which Summerhill has entered the mainstream - in the teaching of some of its former pupils. But it also anticipated changes, from the abolition of corporal punishment to pioneering sex education.

Free-range children

Several trends in today’s schools appeared in embryonic form at Summerhill, from the rise of student democracy to an increasing focus on “learning to learn” in preparation for a lifetime of continuous education. So can we still learn from a 90-year-old educational philosophy that stands in opposition to the league table culture of today?

“One of the reasons we’ve got a lot of attention in the education system is because we’ve been raising free-range children for at least 90 years,” says Ms Readhead, daughter of the school’s founder, A.S.Neill. “We learn a lot about the way that children learn naturally.”

She says that there has not been formal research into the learning preferences among pupils given free rein at the school. But some themes emerge from the accounts of former pupils. Surprisingly perhaps, they often preferred the teachers whose methods were most traditional: formal in content, but informal in style (pupils are on first-name terms with teachers). Neill criticised experimentation in lessons as “sugaring the pill”, arguing that without compulsion pupils would be willing to address difficult ideas.

“Traditionally, if you talk to Summerhill pupils, year after year they want to be taught with more traditional methods,” Ms Readhead says. “You get bright young things straight out of PGCEs with new ideas about teaching and often it would be the pupils who say they don’t really like it. We don’t have to make the subject as palatable as possible.”

Former pupils pointed to the influence of art teacher Robert Jones, who taught drawing formally at Summerhill at a time when it was falling out of style at art colleges. Dr Dane Goodsman, a former pupil who is now a senior lecturer in medical education at Queen Mary, University of London, is an advocate for the free ethos of Summerhill as a community. But when it came to the teaching, she says: “All this stuff about kids, be free, let them do their own thing and they’ll develop in their own way - this is fine, but you get to a point where why should you keep reinventing the wheel? So he taught us all to draw.”

Some students reported demanding more exam preparation, against the protestations of Neill when he was principal. “We got rude at Neill and told him we weren’t getting adequate preparation for the School Certificate,” says Robert Townshend, who later worked as a furniture designer and briefly taught at a technical college. “Neill said, `Oh, you don’t want to bother with that,’ and we said, `We bloody well do!’ And after that we were properly prepared.”

Dr Goodsman, who trained as a teacher in South London and wrote her PhD on Summerhill, says teachers also tend to feel liberated by the lack of compulsion, even though it can mean an empty classroom. “Most teachers are happy that they’re not responsible for putting bums on seats. There are no discipline issues - it’s not up to them to keep control.”

Most students avoid lessons for a while, but the majority take GCSEs. Results are not published, although an independent inquiry at the time of the closure threat found they were above average - considered no mean feat, as the school attracts many non-native English speakers and those who have had negative experiences of school. The lesson Summerhill draws is that, left to their own devices, children want to learn.

This manifests itself in the learning that takes place outside the classroom. Dr Goodsman says learning was more like a university seminar, or, in a way, the “flipped learning” adopted by some schools today: pupils would read and research outside class and lessons would be freed for discussion.

Summerhill has long promoted independent study and this was at the heart of Ofsted’s case against it. Ian Stronach, professor of education at Liverpool John Moores University and one of the school’s defenders, says that inspectors conflated the “quality of education” with the “quality of teaching” and ignored self-directed study. Now, “learning to learn” is seen as central for young people in a world where they may have to retrain throughout their lives for multiple careers.

Dr Goodsman, who attended last year’s inspection as a lay observer, gives the example of students’ passion for technology. The ICT teacher said that he prepared lessons, only to find that the pupils arrived at class having learnt so much on their own that they were three weeks ahead of his planning.

Balance of power

One of the more extraordinary tales in After Summerhill is that of Freer Spreckley, a pupil in the 1950s and early 1960s. Describing himself as a problem child, he embodied what people fear most in Summerhill: he left without being able to read and write. But what happened next was far from typical.

He travelled the world, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. When he ended up in Australia, frustrated by his difficulties with visas and immigration, he taught himself to read in three months with a dictionary and a handful of books. His story is a marked contrast to the difficulty many other adults with literacy problems have, returning to education.

“The great benefit of Summerhill is that you learn how to learn,” Mr Spreckley says. “Many people who have done well in formal education are stuck, but Summerhill offers you the skill to learn new tricks.” Today he works as a consultant for charities such as Oxfam.

Another irony that Professor Stronach observed was Ofsted’s attitude to pupil choice. It places an “unacceptable burden of responsibility on these pupils” for things that should be a matter for “the professional responsibility of the school”. Now the National College for School Leadership urges pupils to be involved in designing the curriculum and in observing staff, approvingly quoting a pupil saying that if the teaching is not working for him, he can say so.

According to one of Summerhill’s first pupils, Elizabeth Pascall, by giving up authority and status, teachers could be more effective educators. After leaving the school, she worked as a tutor and Neill’s influence helped with a struggling pupil. “She felt she could do nothing right, then one day I added up a sum wrongly and she, very tentatively, corrected me,” she says. “I wasn’t at all embarrassed by this, as many teachers would have been, but instead admitted my mistake and congratulated her. From that moment on, her confidence grew in leaps and bounds. It’s important for everyone to demonstrate they can be wrong and that it doesn’t matter.”

Perhaps the final lesson of Summerhill goes back to its Ofsted inspections. As well as a lay observer, the inspection team is accompanied by an expert who ensures that its judgements incorporate the school’s unique ethos. What Summerhill’s experience suggests is that schools can build a distinct mission and defend it from the accountability culture.

Lucas, H. After Summerhill: what happened to the pupils of Britain’s most radical school? (2011). Herbert Adler. Available from


Summerhill’s policy statement:

- To provide choices and opportunities that allow children to develop at their own pace and follow their interests.

- To allow children to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, to develop their own goals and sense of achievement.

- To allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like.

- To allow children to experience the full range of feelings, free from adult judgement and intervention.

- To allow children to live in a community that supports them and that they are responsible for; in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through the democratic process.

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