Axe hangs over the last free school

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Summerhill - famous for giving pupils choice and nude bathing - has fallen foul of OFSTED. Geraldine Hackett reports

THE doors may be about to close on Summerhill, the progressive Suffolk school that for 75 years has allowed pupils to choose between swimming or going to lessons.

It looks as if the privately-owned school has fallen foul of Her Majesty's Inspectors once too often. The clash of ideologies is likely to mean a final warning will be issued this week and that the school will be struck of the list of registered independent schools. Once off the register, it cannot legally operate.

Inspectors say the school has allowed too many pupils to confuse the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty.

This time, there is no mention of nude bathing as there was in an Office for Standards in Education report in 1994, which noted that staff and pupils shared an interest in unconventional extra-curricula activities. But there is criticism of the sanitation arrangements - namely that adults and children of both sexes use the same lavatories.

Zoe Readhead, principal of Summerhill and daughter of its founder AS Neill, fears the school cannot comply with the notice of complaint she is expecting from Department for Education and Employment officials because it would mean insisting that pupils attend lessons.

"I will not compromise on our philosophy that children have the freedom to choose whether they attend lessons. Most of our children have been traumatised in the state system or other private schools," she says.

The future of the school has been uncertain for 10 years. It has escaped closure by making improvements to facilities and producing what HMI describe as "promising" plans of action. However, the latest inspection report suggests the plans have only partially been implemented. It insists that inspectors are not passing judgment on Summerhill's "unique philosophy", but on whether the education being provided is effective.

There are only 60 pupils, aged 10 to 17. The fact that two-thirds are from abroad, is according to Mrs Readhead, testament to the regard in which the British "free" school movement is held in other countries. The school seems to be particularly attractive to families from Japan and Korea, countries with highly-competitive systems.

As the report says, the pursuit of high academic achievement and improved rates of pupils' progress are not regarded as priorities by the principal and staff. The principal puts it more succinctly: "I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street sweeper than a neurotic Prime Minister."

The school is run as a community and its rules are devised and imposed by a two-weekly meeting of all staff and pupils, where fines are handed out for transgressions.

This week the school was published a booklet celebrating its 75th anniversary. In its description of the school its asks the reader to:

"Imagine a world where a child can tell you to fuck off not only with confidence, but with the joy of being an individual, and sharing the revolution against the normal values of adult and child, that brings a warm shared smile or laughter between both of you." Boarding fees are pound;6,250 a year.


SUMMERHILL is the sole survivor of the "free school" movement that began in the 1920s and reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s. The weekly council at which pupils and staff decide the laws of the community is the forerunner of school councils, though none in the state system is allowed to decide policy.

The school's future still arouses passions. June Libardi, who has a 10-year-old daughter at the school, is angry because she believes the school has been unfairly judged.

"The inspectors did not understand the school's way of learning. They are expecting the kind of changes that cannot be made," she said.

Chris Austin, a film-maker, who sent both his sons to Summerhill, said he was appalled at the prospect of the school closing.

"This is a fundamental attack on parents' right to educate their children in the way they see fit. What children do at Summerhill is of far greater value than what is provided at traditional schools."

His sons, he said, benefitted from their time at the school. One is a student at the London film school and the other is an inventor.

Former students look back with nostalgia. Sara Kuwakara, 19, and Yoko Nishimura, 17, are both studying art A-level at more traditional institutions. They chose to go to lessons, particularly in the run-up to taking GCSEs, but they also spent long summer days in the swimming pool.

"We even used to sneak out at night to swim in the pool," said Sara. Their Japanese parents had read about Summerhill and sent them to England to escape their own pressured system.

Among the school's devotees is Roland Meighan, former professor of education at Nottingham and one of the founders of Education Otherwise, the organisation which assists parents who wish to education their children at home. He views the threat of closure as an attempt to impose "an authoritarian domination model".

"I see Summerhill as a candle in the wind," he said. "Other schools, such as Dartington have been closed down. The ethnic cleansing in the Balkans is a direct result of state-imposed domination-based systems of education."


THE school is condemned by inspectors for failing to provide suitable education and for failing to safeguard the welfare and safety of boarders. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, was due this week to issue a notice giving the school six months to improve or close.

The root problem, says the report, is that pupils do not attend lessons. Some abandon maths for up to two years and the curriculum for the great majority is fragmented, disjointed and narrow.

Few improvements have been made since the last inspection and the school has rejected advice from Suffolk social services that separate toilets should be provided for boys and girls.

The report says that many pupils who do not regularly attend classes between the ages of 11 and 16 have poor reading and writing skills. Children with special educational needs make insufficient progress because they do not go to lessons.

Two-thirds of pupils are from abroad and many do not attend the English-as-a-second-language lessons. As a result they do not acquire enough English to be able to take full part in the school's democratic system which is said to be a distinctive strength.

Pupils take GCSEs, but the school was unable to provide the information required to make comparisons with national results. In 1998, 20 pupils aged between 15 and 17 took 69 GCSEs and 52 of these gained A*-Cs.

The school accepts the widespread use by both staff and pupils of crude language that many people would find offensive, though it is a school rule that adults or children should not swear in front of visitors.

The inspectors found pupils to be well-behaved and courteous. Standards of speaking and listening are good, as is the reading of 14 to 16-year-olds.

The school does not have a teacher with a qualification in special education needs. Expectations of children with special needs are generally low and such pupils are not well catered for.

To stay open, the school will have to raise standards, especially in English, maths and science; improve the quality of planning and teaching for seven to 11-year-olds; and make the welfare provision required by the Children Act.

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