Hurrah for the school that whacked Goliath

1st February 2008 at 00:00
By now, the real-life BBC drama Summerhill will be over - a David and Goliath story that ended in the Royal Courts of Justice in 2000, when Chris Woodhead's Ofsted was routed and a child was put in the judge's chair for an impromptu "meeting" to agree terms. I have vastly enjoyed the series as an idyll of free children playing pirates while Gradgrind-like inspectors march and fume.

The simple plot involved the arrival in paradise of Ryan, an excluded hoody, and Maddy, an over-pushed lawyer's child with exam stress. By the end, it was not hard to predict that Ryan would learn to learn, Maddy would learn to climb trees, and Summerhill would be cleared to continue its eccentric course amid great rejoicing.

Sadly, filming ended before last autumn's Ofsted report came out. Inspectors wrote of marvellous cultural and social development, satisfactory standards and good tuition, and could find only a few worn carpet tiles to moan about. If that's what a kicking in the Royal Courts of Justice does for a once-bullying institution, bring it on.

I love Summerhill just for existing. It has a priceless quality of being able to get up the noses of education anoraks. Exam enthusiasts hate it for not caring about tests; disciplinarians are horrified that classes are voluntary; adults with authority issues fret about a child's vote being equal to that of a grown-up. Some condemn it for being a boarding school; others are horrified by a boarding school that lets pupils go to the chippy. Prudes don't like the nude bathing, swearing and hugs; teen fashion victims find the hippy dress sense uncool. Those who want all private schools shut down hate it for not being state-run; yet private schools, with their taste for blazers and chapel, are freaked out by the school's permissive ethos.

Cautious liberals like me tend to flannel: "Well, at the time AS Neill founded it, he was rightly defying inhibited 1920s imperialism, but today the best of his ideas are in the mainstream." Yet proper Neillites think people like me are copping out, watering down freedom, caving in to curricula and values imposed from above. As for politicians, they must wince. Neill said: "I'd be very disappointed if a Summerhill child became Prime Minister. I'd feel I'd failed."

What could be more stimulating? Prodnoses harrumph as a cheery little school goes on. Its pupils can be disconcerting, with such confidence of their place in the world and their right to help make rules. But they are not nasty, not gangsters or bullies. And when they learn, they learn. In 1949, Ofsted wrote: "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."

Amen. Floreat Summerhill. I look forward to the furious letters.

Libby Purves, Author and broadcaster who presents 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4.

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