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Order in anarchy

Summerhill School, where reading is optional, was facing closure. Now it is being praised. Josephine Gardiner went to visit

Staff at Summerhill, the archetype of progressive education in its purest form, are somewhat bemused by the pat on the back they have received out of the blue from Stephen Byers, a minister who is increasingly associated with the traditionalist wing of educational thinking.

This is a school where you are more likely to find yourself involved in philosophical discussions about the nature of freedom than talking about numeracy targets or international competitiveness. The very idea of the urbane, ambitious and tidy-minded Mr Byers being associated with this ramshackle outpost of pre-War idealism in the wilds of Suffolk is intriguing.

Last year the 76-year-old independent school's future began to look fragile after inspectors criticised the fact that pupils were not under any obligation to learn to read and that some were still not reading by the age of nine. This followed a highly uncomplimentary report from the Office for Standards in Education in 1993 which said that standards were too low, pupils' progress too slow and the curriculum too narrow. The school was warned that unless it pulled its socks up, a "notice of complaint" would be served and it would face closure.

The only thing that has changed since then, says Zo Readhead, the headteacher, is that staff have written an action plan which makes aims and objectives more explicit and introduces a new emphasis on documentation. She has no idea why Mr Byers suddenly decided to congratulate the school and has had no conversations with the Department of Education or inspectors.

Summerhill's uncompromising commitment to children's rights to make their own decisions remains inviolate. Mrs Readhead, who is the daughter of the school's famous founder, AS Neill, has always insisted that she would rather see the school closed than introduce anything that would dilute her father's principles. "We can't say to the children you have freedom of choice, and then give them a list of exceptions or tell them that lessons are voluntary, but they must do English and maths." The only compulsory activity is fire drill.

Children who show no interest in learning are discreetly monitored by the staff, who will try to establish whether the reluctance is a genuine exercise of free will or if there is another cause, such as shyness, fear of failure or unpleasant past experiences. "What we do not do is start panicking because the child has not reached a certain standard by a certain age and say "this child is failing'."

But anyone who thinks Summerhill is a free-for-all would be seriously mistaken. This is anarchy, not chaos: pupils and staff here must all obey over 200 dauntingly complex and detailed rules, covering everything from bullying to what you are allowed to eat for pudding. These rules, known as "laws" are made, remade, abolished or amended every week by the pupils at the school meeting. More than anything else at Summerhill, this meeting is the soul of the school, and watching it is a curiously moving experience.

Attendance at the meeting is good (usually around 75 per cent). About 45 pupils, aged between nine and 16, together with the staff, sit unceremoniously in a circle in the school's battered hall. It lasted an hour and a half, during which there were no disturbances - no shouts, no yawns, no interruptions, no fidgeting or giggling. Even the youngest child showed a formidable and consistent concentration and a respect for the opinions of others that would put most adults to shame.

The subject matter under earnest discussion was, to outside ears, less than elevated: who irritated who during breakfast, should dinner-slops be put in a plastic bucket or carried to the kitchen, should Stephen be fined 20p for annoying Camilla on the phone, can the 12-year-olds stay up an extra 10 minutes on Wednesdays to watch the X-files, should two boys be taken to a "Tribunal" for "f* about in the kitchen", and do any of these matters need new legislation?

But what seems trivial to adults can be overwhelmingly important to children or adolescents, who tend to have a keen sense of justice. To hear pupils' "petty" preoccupations treated so seriously and dignified by scrupulously democratic procedures is very strange, which shows perhaps how rarely young people are listened to. There was, however, a slight tendency for boys to speak more often than girls.

"This is a painfully law-abiding community," says Mrs Readhead. "People are much less likely to rebel against laws they have made themselves."

But Lord of the Flies casts a long shadow, and many people find the idea of children making their own rules deeply frightening. What happens if the school throws up a fledgling Hitler, or legislative assembly becomes dominated by a revolutionary clique?

Mrs Readhead, who was educated at Summerhill herself, insists that this has never happened, and that these fears are rooted in a mistaken presumption of Original Sin. "Lord of the Flies is more about the destructive effects of the public school system, and what happens when authority is removed." Summerhill pupils have no experience of authority and are steeped in democracy, she argues, so "if these pupils were stranded on a desert island, they would just call endless meetings. People's fears are based on the idea that children are barely civilised and if control is removed all sorts of horrors will break out. " Safeguards against bullying are built into the system, with older children acting as "ombudsmen". The fact that the school has only 65 pupils must also make it easier to spot. Ms Readhead also dismisses the argument that adolescents need something to rebel against in order to find their identity; "that's just a way of justifying the fact that teenagers do rebel. We had no teenage tantrums in my family".

Only 18 of the school's 65 pupils are from Britain. The diverse nationalities of the rest show just how far the ideas of AS Neill have travelled. But what is particularly noticeable is the preponderance of pupils from the "tiger economies" of the Pacific Rim, especially Japan and Taiwan. This is ironic given the enthusiasm with which British politicians and education gurus have praised the traditional teaching methods in countries such as Taiwan.

Aesthetically, they may have been disappointed. It cannot be denied that Summerhill is decidedly tatty, especially for an independent school. Despite being housed in a rambling Edwardian house, it has the impermanent feel of a gypsy camp or a squat. Rooms and corridors are bare and scuffed, the inspectors even called it "squalid". But this is how the pupils want it. "This is a children's environment and children like to romp about. If they want pictures, they can put them up," says Mrs Readhead. "I don't see it as my job to impose my taste on the school."

Summerhill costs pound;6,000 a year and rarely has more than 75 pupils. Would it matter much if it closed?

"If you get rid of Summerhill, you lose 76 years of children's culture," Mrs Redhead says. While only a few children come here, she argues, there's a lot to be learnt about how children choose to do things, which teachers in state schools might find interesting. "It's also a question of parental choice. I would never dream of sending one of my children to a Catholic school, but I respect Tony Blair's right to do so. So why can't parents have the freedom to send their children here?"


Some of the more unusual rules which have evolved at Summerhill

* You can't watch TV or eat during a meeting

* You can't change the law in the last meeting of the term

* Staff get a pound;5 fine if drunk

* No sheath knives downtown

* No one allowed on the railway

* Crossbows and arrows allowed only on the hockey fields if no one is around

* No one may lock people in rooms (including using ropes)

* Kids are not allowed to drink alcohol. Not even one sip

* Carl and Juan not allowed fake blood

* Barry, Nick, Al and Steve are banned from having machetes. (They can use axes to carve under supervision)

* You have to change into sleeping clothes before you go to bed

* No one can play the piano after house lights out

* House and under must pass Simon's test before they cycle downtown

* You can't use animals as shooting targets

* No one is allowed to bark or anything doggy at Stevie

* No one must harass day staff

* You can't throw stones at people

* You can't walk on the (dining room) table

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