Maverick school that got one over on Ofsted

Adi Bloom

"Lessons start this afternoon," announces the teacher. Her news is greeted by rousing cheers from pupils. But the mustachioed inspector at the back of the class is not impressed. "Hmm," he says, "that's because they don't have to go."

This is Summerhill - or at least a TV dramatisation of the independent school that famously regards pupils as partners in their learning: they make school rules and attend lessons only if they want to.

The 78-pupil Suffolk school, founded in 1921 by maverick educationist AS Neill, is the subject of a four-part series that depicts the school's 1999 Ofsted inspection.

The real-life report makes for diverting reading. Pupils were praised as "well-behaved and courteous, if often foul-mouthed". And the school is accused of allowing them "to mistake the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty".

Taking the Ofsted report as its basis, the drama characterises the inspectors as joyless automatons in sensible shoes, while the pupils flit about bathed in a perpetual soft-focus glow. To a soundtrack of windchimes, they use lesson time to climb trees, play pirate games and aim water balloons at inspectors.

The series follows newcomers Ryan, who has been expelled from two schools, and Maddie, who previously collapsed from overwork.

Ryan initially dismisses the other pupils as "long-haired weirdos" and opts out of all lessons. But within days he has adopted a rabbit and signed up for woodwork to make it a hutch. Maddie similarly finds her salvation through woodwork.

The programme presents the school's encounter with Ofsted as a straightforward battle of good versus evil. The reality was more complex. Faced with closure following the damning report, Mrs Zoe Readhead, the principal and daughter of the founder, took Ofsted to court. In 2000, the High Court ruled that future inspections should take the school's unique ethos into account.

And so, last month, the school received its first positive report: "Summerhill provides a satisfactory quality of education ... good-quality teaching supports good progress in lessons, and pupils make satisfactory progress ... outside lessons."

Mrs Readhead welcomed it. "It's great to get recognition," she said. "We don't have the success criteria the rest of the education world has. We judge success on how you feel about your life. Children choose who they want to be and where they want to go in their lives."

'Summerhill' begins on January 21 at 6pm on CBBC, repeated on BBC1 on January 23 at 4.30pm.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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