Freedom for the masses

Have the libertarian ideals of AS Neill spread beyond a narrow middle-class circle? Tim Brighouse reads an ambiguous answer


By David Gribble

Libertarian Education pound;8.95

Books such as this test fundamental beliefs. Do we belong to the libertarian idealistic Left that believes in the fundamental goodness of children? Or are we with the Gradgrind disciplinarian Right, which discounts the "Don't smile until Christmas" theory of discipline, because it thinks children should never smile? Or do we hover between the two, or (fatally) hop from one to the other and back again?

The career of Chris Woodhead - remember him? - is living proof of the dangers of the hopping strategy. An advocate of the free-wheeling avant-garde when he started teaching; way to the pessimistic Right at his inspectorial conclusion, convinced of the need to inculcate - I use the word advisedly - the most basic skills, information and values.

Here's a book positioned clearly and unashamedly to the Left. David Gribble and his wife, Lynette, have spent a lifetime in what might be called the private, "third" sector of schooling: first at Dartington Hall, Devon, and then at Sands school, which they founded, in the same county. Neither establishment provided the privileged passport to social advantage that might have been expected from independent schooling; these were experimental places for the children of those among the middle classes who held views that some might label cranky.

Gribble has been worried about this. He quotes AS Neill as saying it would be "mad to set up any school like Summerhill for the working class". Neill, it is worth reminding the modern reader, was a revolutionary and a hugely influential teacher and writer who, in the 1920s, founded Summerhill, a small residential independent school in Suffolk based on principles of respect for the child, allowing pupils the freedom to attend lessons or not and to govern themselves through a weekly meeting. Gribble has spent the past 10 years or so seeking out examples worldwide to prove that the Summerhill approach would work for disadvantaged youngsters. In this book he uses four case studies to support his theory.

The Pedro Albizu Campos high school in Chicago underlines the city's social and educational problems, which make those faced by our metropolitan areas (including London) seem modest. The school is a refuge for pupils suffering a form of double exclusion. First, they've been excluded from, or opted out of, other high schools; second, they are Puerto Rican, a largely excluded sector of US society.

Gribble's account conveys the shadowy, ambiguous, dangerous world of the streets of Chicago's West Side and the haven the youngsters find in the shambolic buildings of Pedro Albizu Campos. There they work with each other, the local community, their teachers and the activists who are trying to improve their chaotic living conditions. For all its vivid human interest, however, this is the least persuasive of the book's case studies.

The description of Moo Baan Dek children's village near Kanchanaburi, Thailand, is a riveting account of a residential community, initially for 20 and finally 150 children variously abandoned, homeless, abused or orphaned. The community is modelled on Summerhill; its principles of freedom and self-government underpinned by Buddhism and a belief in the healing properties of natural surroundings. A school council determines rules, sanctions and changes to the way the community works.

There are sufficient illustrations to persuade all but the unreasonably cynical that this isolated residential school is hugely successful. That is more than can be said for a third example drawn from the streets of Delhi.

All this account achieved, for me at least, was an even more sobering reminder than the Chicago example of just what a mess people have made of living in large cities - a mess that needs urgent international attention.

Butterflies is an educational charity working in various locations with children and young adults united in the sheer hopelessness and degradation of their experience. The "school", if you can call it that - its "street educators" meet their pupils at railway and bus stations, in marketplaces or wherever they can be reached - aims first to persuade street children that education is worthwhile, then "to equip them with the knowledge and skills to make correct choices and decisions in their lives". So it aims "to enable children to reach the modest but vital foundation level of being able to read and write to get to a high school and ultimately a good job".

The success stories are many and salutary, as are some of the failures.

The book begins with a compelling account of the "Barns experiment" in Scotland, led by the inspirational David Wills 60 years ago. Gribble has talked to original staff and eyewitnesses, so we can see how far Wills was influenced by Neill and Summerhill. The Barns Hostel was a residential community for difficult-to-place evacuees from Edinburgh during the Second World War, set up in a country house close to the River Tweed. "Pupil voice", as we would call it, was so well developed that there was a "prime minister" and various ministerial portfolios among the equivalent of what in state schools we now call school councils.

This brings me to the final thought prompted by reading this book. To what extent have the ideas of what Gribble describes as "progressive, free, child-centred, democratic, liberal or non-authoritarian" education influenced the mainstream?

The answer is ambiguous. At one level, direct or indirect imitation, not much. The Sutton centre in Nottinghamshire, Countesthorpe in Leicestershire, Madeley Court in Telford and Stantonbury in Milton Keynes have all tried alternative approaches at various points in their history, which they have been forced to modify substantially. But at another level, for example in the resurgence of school councils and in circle time, meditation in schools, pupil courts and restorative justice, Neill's influence is there for all to see. And, whisper it quietly, what is "personalisation" (as promoted by this government) if not child-centred?

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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Tim Brighouse

Sir Tim Brighouse is a British educationalist. He was schools commissioner for London between 2002-2007, where he led the London Challenge. He has previously been chief education officer in both Oxfordshire and Birmingham