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Russians defend Summerhill ethos

Democrats fear the threat to the school represents a shift towards totalitarian education policies. Nick Holdsworth reports from Moscow

SUMMERHILL, the threatened school famed for its free-thinking but controversial methods, has received a vote of support from an unexpected source.

Leaders of Russia's democratic education movement have rallied to its defence, warning Education Secretary David Blunkett that closing the independent school would "damage the authority of the English education system".

The Suffolk school has been given six months by Office for Standards in Education inspectors to address concerns including students skipping lessons and dirty toilets. But closing it would be a blow to progressive education worldwide, the Russians say.

In a letter to Mr Blunkett, teachers and educationists expressed their anxiety about the fate of the school. They said that the example set by Summerhill, established in the 1920s by free school advocate AS Neill, had remained an inspiration to innovative teachers the world over. The existence of such schools was an essential bulwark against the international tendency towards "totalitarian education policies", they added.

Alexander Tubelski, head of the Moscow School of Self-Determination, a state school where pupils are expected to attend lessons but can choose which activities, projects or studies to pursue throughout the day, said: "Preserving Summerhill is an issue of human rights, academic freedom and educational culture.

"Real developments in education are not due to government standards or policies, but to practical precedents that either live or die. If they live they have influence for all progressive systems of education," said Mr Tubelski, who is also president of the Russian Association of Democratic Schools.

His school, established in the mid-1980s when Soviet orthodoxy still dominated education, had drawn upon the influence of AS Neill despite the fact that no Russian translations were available of his work. News of Summerhill's methods reached Russia through a network of personal contacts, he said.

Professor Yulia Tourchaninova, the deputy head of the Russian national teacher retraining centre, said the fact that Neill's books were never translated in Soviet times demonstrated the threat he posed to totalitarian systems.

Professor Tourchaninova, who has just finished the first Russian translation of Neill's Summerhill: A Compilation, said: "It's ironic that in such a democratic nation as Britain totalitarian approaches to education are threatening a school such as Summerhill."

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