Inspectors forced to be progressive

Summerhill only just survived its 1999 OFSTED visit. But this time the school enjoyed what was probably the most liberal inspection ever, reports Michael Shaw

SUMMERHILL school was this week awaiting feedback from its first inspection since winning a bitter legal battle for survival.

Inspectors, who visited the school in June, were forced to fit in with the independent school's controversial, progressive ethos. The school - where lessons are famously not compulsory - has become the first in the country where they are legally required to listen to pupils' views following an agreement with the Department for Education and Skills. Under the agreement, the Office for Standards in Education team also had to be accompanied by an education expert of the school's choice.

Although the deal applies only to the progressive school, OFSTED is also planning to give pupils in mainstream state schools a greater say in inspections by including questionnaires for children. Summerhill's landmark inspection came as a result of its court victory over the Government following its last inspection in 1999.

That report criticised the school for making lessons voluntary, which it said undermined learning. Faced with this damning verdict, the Government decided to shut down Summerhill on the grounds that it was not equipping children to live constructive lives.

But an independent report compiled by academics showed that the OFSTED criticisms were "unjustified and unjustifiable". The authors concluded that Summerhill had every right to go on existing. After a legal battle which cost the school pound;150,000, an independent schools tribunal agreed and the Government was defeated.

In March 2000 the school also extracted a legally binding agreement from the DFES: any future inspection had to take into account the aims of Summerhill and "the pupils' voice should be fully represented in any evaluation of the quality of education".

On their visit in June two inspectors spent more than an hour talking with pupils in Summerhill's cafe, quizzing them about what they felt about the school and its system of non-compulsory lessons.

Headteacher Zoe Readhead, daughter of the school's founder, ASNeill, said:

"It was historic. OFSTED keeps saying it listens to pupils, but that wasn't the case last time - this time they legally had to."

The school was also given the right to appoint an education expert to accompany the inspection team. It chose Professor Ian Stronnarch, whose past research helped to reprieve Summerhill.

The school's fight to be inspected in line with its ethos was highlighted by MPs at a parliamentary debate on OFSTED last week.

Members of all three main parties spoke of their concerns that the "one-size-fits-all" approach used by OFSTED is at odds with the Government's drive to create diversity in secondary education.

Junior education minister Stephen Twigg said he would consider issues raised during the debate. He said he wanted inspections to be more responsive to a school's circumstances.

OFSTED points out that it is tailoring its approach to reflect the needs of individual schools. A spokeswoman said that short inspections for the most effective schools had been launched in January 2000, and it was introducing "standard" and "enhanced" inspections from September.

'IT WAS VERY RELAXED'

Summerhill's Alex Coad, 17, on the unusual inspection: "We were sitting on bean-bags in the cafe when three inspectors came in. The meeting was chaired by one of the kids, naturally. Every few minutes another pupil would say how important Summerhill had been to them. I asked an inspector whether she thought Summerhill could have a broad curriculum if lessons weren't compulsory. She got a bit defensive. Otherwise it was very relaxed."

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