Cover story

5th September 2003 at 01:00
'Taking responsibility was tough emotional graft'

Journalist Angela Neustatter was a Summerhill pupil in the 1950s and a step-granddaughter of founder AS Neill "I used to arrive early for the school meeting so I could get a place at the bottom of the stairs curling down into the big, wood-panelled room where the meeting was held. When you stuck up your hand to have your say, the chairperson was more likely to spot you.

"It never occurred to me at the time that having the right to an equal vote, whether you were the youngest pupil or oldest staff member, was a valuable lesson in democracy. But I did get a fleeting sense of the contradictions of self-government when, having voted in a bedtime for my age group and appointed a committee of 'bedtime officers' to enforce this, we led them a merry dance, refusing to go to bed, skimming around the corridor calling "Can't catch me". Or, better still in summer, when we were allowed to pitch tents and sleep in an overgrown field.

"Punishments were whatever the meeting decided - being fined or sent to the back of the lunch queue, which was grim because we were ravenous. We had to make amends if we'd hurt someone: bake them a cake or buy them a cinema ticket. It may have been a haphazard procedure, but I think it was about the most valuable lesson in citizenship one could have. For, slowly but surely, you learned that being anarchic might be fun but it was often unworkable.

"On the other hand, I got a lousy education. Neill's belief that academic learning was an incidental compared with learning about freedom, meant we got a rag bag of teachers. But there was one, an upright ex-army chap who was passionate about the delights of English literature. By contrast, Neill, preparing us for O-level English, grumbled through our required text, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp: "boring piffle." Nevertheless I emerged with four O-levels and a thirst for much more learning.

"I learned raw lessons of love's vagaries. Living alongside the pubescent 'Carriage boys' brought out romantic yearnings. I bribed Tim, of the hooded eyes and insouciant charm, to say he was my boyfriend.

"People often envied what they deduced was a life of careless, carefree fun. In fact, taking responsibility for just about every decision could be tough emotional graft. There were times when I wished my parents had listened when I'd said I wanted to go to Sutton high school for girls."

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