Still shocking after all these years

Michael Shaw

Long before we had "free schools" we had the real free schools. And they offered true freedom to their pupils, not a variation on the battery- hen approach to education that keeps young people pointed towards the examined curriculum.

Today, only one of those genuine free schools remains in the UK. Summerhill will reach its centenary within a decade, yet it still has the power to shock.

Nowadays the phrase "child-centred education" tends to be said with sneers, league tables have primacy, and if a pupil elects to skip lessons their parents face jail. The free range that Summerhill gives its pupils arguably looks even more radical to teachers now than it did back in 1921 when A.S. Neill founded it.

Over the years, the school has been dismissed as a one-off oddity, a failed experiment and an eccentric irrelevance. Yet Summerhill was decades ahead on a range of approaches that mainstream teachers only began taking more seriously later, including student councils, restorative justice and pupil-led learning.

In one of Neill's letters to TES in 1947, he described how he enjoyed doing maths puzzles on train journeys but wanted advice from other teachers to answer a child's conundrum.

"My pupils' minds enquire more than I explain," he wrote. His delight at students asking questions he could not answer would have helped him to fit in well with today's proponents of enquiry-based learning.

The current tide of education in England may seem to be rolling against such progressive approaches. But that is precisely the reason why it is worth looking at Summerhill once more: the school has zigged where others have zagged, sometimes, surprisingly, by offering more traditional styles of teaching.

Her Majesty's Inspectors got it right in their report on the school in 1949: "What cannot be doubted is that a piece of fascinating and valuable educational research is going on here which it would do all educationists good to see."

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw

The only way to get TESpro is to subscribe to TES,
check out our latest subscription offers

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Michael Shaw

I'm the director of TES Pro and former deputy editor of the TES magazine. I joined the publication as a news reporter back in 2002, and have worked in a variety of journalistic roles including editing its comment and news pages. In 2013 I set up the app version of the magazine, TES Reader, and the free TES Jobs app Michael Shaw

Latest stories

Schools need to be ready for any blame pushed onto teachers by unhappy pupils

GCSE results day 2021: How to handle TAG unhappiness

What should a teacher do if a student blames them for not getting the GCSE grade they think they deserve this year? Tes rounds up advice for those preparing for that possibility
Grainne Hallahan 5 Aug 2021
Teacher assessed grades, TAGs, results day 2021

SQA results day 2021: how we got here

It’s been a frenetic year – with exams were cancelled and the SQA due to be replaced – so here’s a recap of events on the road to results day
Emma Seith 5 Aug 2021