Democracy is a family affair

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
In an exclusive extract from a new book about Summerhill, Britain's most famous progressive school, Zo Neill Readhead, current principal and daughter of founder AS Neill, answers the question she is most often asked: what kind of father was he?

I was born at 2am on November 2, 1946, in the upstairs rear bedroom of the main house building at Summerhill, where my parents had a flat. I was two weeks late, so my mother had taken to going for long walks round the local lanes trying to encourage me to put in an appearance. One day she took rather longer than expected and my dad was in a complete state when she finally returned.

Neill was 63 years old when I was born. He had married Ena, my mum, a year earlier after the death of his first wife, Lilian Neustatter, who had helped him to found Summerhill in 1921 and was known to all as Mrs Lins. It is sometimes difficult to remember that Neill was born in 1883. It seems so long ago, given he was such a contemporary thinker. Although his views on education and child rearing were way ahead of his time, he was part of a quite different society, and this showed itself in our family life, as well as in some of his books.

Neill never took part in cooking, cleaning or making "household" decisions - traditional women's roles - though he loved to make soap out of all the old bits and pieces around the house boiled up with sand to make an abrasive paste for getting oil off the fingers - effective, but a bit slimy to use. He also used to wait until my mum was away and then boil up his handkerchiefs in one of her best cooking pots. He couldn't understand why she got so annoyed about it.

He didn't actually resist being a "modern man"; it just didn't enter into his way of life. Of course he was all in favour of women's rights and freedoms and he offered that as part of the Summerhill experience. He loved to see the older girls getting feisty and taking control of school matters.

He loved their strength and held great admiration for them. I sometimes wonder how it must have been for the early Summerhill girls who grew up in this environment where they were complete equals and lived the roles of people rather than women, only to go outside and find that they were still, to some degree, second-class citizens, expected to stay at home and look after the house.

This was also a world where their sexuality was not accepted as openly as it could be and where many men still carried anxieties and prejudices against women and their sexuality. Few people talked openly about orgasm, for instance. For all Neill's slightly old-fashioned approach, he would be perfectly happy to talk to me about my sex life and often asked me if everything was going well in that department, even as a teenager. His agreement with Wilhelm Reich that a healthy sex life was important - no, vital - to health and fulfilment meant that he showed concern for his daughter's sexual fulfilment: not something that many fathers today would find easy to discuss.

The night of my birth was in term time, and the children along the corridor stayed awake to see what sex I would be and who would hear the baby cry first. There was great excitement. My half-brother, Peter, was 14 at the time and was allowed to come and see me soon after I arrived. I recently met one of the other boys - now in his seventies - who said he had been the first to hear me cry.

However, after the initial excitement the children made few concessions to having a new baby in the building and eventually my parents decided to move over into the lodge house at the entrance to the school in Leiston, Suffolk. Not that the children of Summerhill were particularly insensitive, but our flat was directly above the school gramophone and dancing area, which was active three nights of the week. Free children are, by nature, boisterous and noisy so Neill, in his usual perceptive way, decided that rather than create a problem or turn it into a moral argument, he would go with the flow and move out. We moved to Holly Lodge, where my parents remained until they died.

One of the most frequent questions that people ask me is: what was it like being the daughter of AS Neill, and what kind of father was he? I have always felt a dual role as Neill's daughter. First, I was the little girl that he loved, and second, a kind of work-in-progress, a chance to test his ideas on child rearing and education. In my experience as his daughter, Neill always remained true to his ideals. I don't know whether he ever thought in depth about parenting, whether he and my mum ever planned how I would be reared, or whether, like me with my kids, it all came naturally, bearing in mind that they were following the Summerhill idea every day at school.

Neill was the sweetest father a child could wish for - cuddly, funny, wise and companionable. He was always supportive and offered me the most important things a parent can offer: he was unquestionably on my side at all times with no strings attached, and he left me alone.

It all seemed very normal to me, him being my dad. The way I was brought up at school and in my home was the most natural thing in the world. Neill was full of humour and his sense of fun was a great source of pleasure and wonderment for me. When I was small he read me bedtime stories every night; I heard Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit so often that he took to starting every story with, "Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter..." while I squealed with mock anger.

We played cards together; I picked up golf balls for him while he played alone at Thorpeness golf course; we went for walks and did things that I assume all dads do with their kids. He told fantastic stories with great imagination and we often used to "pretend" together. We created some imaginary friends - Rosie, Posie, John and Lon - whom we played with and talked about often until one day, while Neill was giving me my bath, they disappeared down the plughole.

Neill was a figure in the background at Summerhill, a strength that we all knew could be relied upon in an emergency or when needed. But he also very much got along with his own life and work while we, the pupils, got along with ours. As his daughter, I can remember going for long spells of time without seeing much of him at all, except in passing. Many Summerhill kids'

main memories of Neill, apart from a few special ones, will be of rushing past him in their daily play and shouting, "Hi, Neill" with a wave before disappearing. One boy wrote home halfway through his first term: "There is a chap here called Neill. I like him."

In modern society parents seem to be unable to leave their kids alone for more than a short while. Maybe there is a concern that "the devil makes work for idle hands", or worry about the failure to be a "good parent" who provides stimulation and excitement at every turn. At Summerhill, we now see many children who are in constant search of adult influence and stimulation, unable to quietly get along with their own lives without the need for admiration and attention. If ever there are visitors or new staff you can always be sure that these children will gravitate towards them, particularly as the rest of the community are experienced at treating them quite coolly. This is not cruel; it is a hard but practical lesson. If you are a pain and constantly wanting attention it makes people irritated and they tend not to want to be with you.

I have watched a father with his 10 or 11-year-old son, tossing him in the air, indulging in "macho" boyish games of play-fighting and generally behaving as you would towards a one or two-year-old. This particular boy was one with serious behaviour problems who was unable to function in the school community without hurting or annoying other children. He found life at school very difficult without constant stimulation from his parents. His mother was always all over him like a rash, whispering sweet nothings in his ear and hugging and kissing him. Whenever his parents were around he reverted to baby talk and baby behaviour. This is an extreme case, but we see the result of parental interference and over-indulgence all the time.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Summerhill was the place where children learned that adults would not brutalise or frighten them; now the Summerhill community finds itself in the role of disciplinarian, teaching kids that they can't do what they like, that they have to have regard for other people's rights and feelings. A bit of a role reversal that Neill would have found interesting!

Neill's ability to leave me, and the kids at Summerhill, alone was one of the strongest foundations upon which the Summerhill philosophy is based. It is part of the freedom to do whatever you want to do with your own life. It is not conditional, you don't have to be answerable to your parents or any adult; you can just get on with your life and learn or make mistakes. You can be lonely, you can be bored, you can take risks, you can be really nice, or you can be quite horrible. So long as what you do doesn't upset or hurt anybody else, you can be completely yourself. How many people get that chance in life, even as adults? Of course, other people may comment on your behaviour, or make suggestions to you about various aspects of your life, for example if you are having difficulties - but there is no compulsion.

This feeling that you don't need to respond and can take your own direction is very empowering. The way that Neill was available to us all but not intrusive has ingrained itself upon me. Only now that I share his role as head of Summerhill (I took over in September 1985 when my mother, Ena, retired) do I realise what an incredibly brave thing it was for him to do in those far-off days when children were supposed to be seen but not heard and were still being beaten at school and in many homes.

I find myself working in much the same way as him. Although I am quick to say my piece, get involved and take part in whatever is topical at the time, as a community member and former Summerhill pupil I let the children individually get on with their own lives, often without even talking to them until I am spoken to.

The new parenting trend makes parents feel they have to be part of their children's childhood at every turn. Parents rush home from work or pick up the children from school and are immediately engaged in the pattern of providing a stimulating environment for the children. We must not let them watch too much TV, play computer games or play outside in the street. We must provide stimulating pastimes and activities for them all the time.

Drive the children to ballet, to swimming, to visit friends. Talk to them at home and make sure we are always on hand to inspire and encourage them.

This in itself causes many tensions within the family for the obvious reasons that parents find it extremely difficult and tiring to provide this constant stream of enthusiasm, and that the children are more often than not quite reluctant participants.

Summerhill children know that they can get help and support either from the adults or from other children if they want it. The strength of the community and its democracy are reassuring; it is a place where you feel it is safe to take risks, both emotionally and physically.

One of Neill's great qualities as a father was that he didn't have any expectations of me. I knew what he would have liked for me, but he never applied any pressure or gave me a bad conscience about it. He would really have loved me to pursue a university career, take a degree and then come back to run Summerhill, thus putting paid to the critics who presumed that Summerhill pupils were not getting a "good education" and also safeguarding the school's future by being qualified on paper to be a headteacher. But I didn't take any exams at all and Neill died thinking that I was not going to be involved in his school.

I have always had a feeling that he knew, deep down inside, how important the school was to me and that I wouldn't let his dream die when it came to the crunch. Why else would he have sent me off to Norway to Ola Raknes, a Reichian therapist, asking him to give me therapy so as to broaden my experience of people and their emotions, as Neill said, "just in case you want to get involved in Summerhill in the future"?

The tools Neill gave me through his remarkable school and child-rearing method have been ample preparation for taking up the position I have at Summerhill. It has been an amazingly steep learning curve for me all the way along - but what a wonderful experience and opportunity! As a former pupil of Summerhill, as a parent of four children who have gone through the school, and as a grandparent of two children at the school, I realise that Summerhill is deep in my bones; it is a great privilege to be principal of the oldest children's democracy in the world.

From Summerhill and AS Neill, edited by Mark Vaughan with contributions by Zo Neill Readhead, Tim Brighouse and Ian Stronach, including extracts from AS Neill's 1962 book, Summerhill. Open University Press, pound;17.99. TES readers can order at the discounted price of pound;14.99 including pp (UK) on 01628 502 700 until July 31, quoting TESR06

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