Summerhill has long been caricatured as the'Do as you please' school where the children run riot. But with citizenship now on the national curriculum and pupil governors proposed for all schools, a once derided institution is gaining a new-found respect. David Newnham reports
It was Charlie who suggested scrapping the school rules. "Charlie is one of the Carriage Kids," says Natasha. Carriage Kids? "I'll explain later," she says. So we agree to put questions of terminology to one side and concentrate on the central issue: the scrapping of the rules. Was this some act of liberal vandalism, the sort of thing that is bound to occur at a school like Summerhill, where pupil power means more than electing delegates to a school council? Quite the reverse, as it turns out.
"People had forgotten why the laws were there," says Natasha, "and when that happens, they stop respecting them. So Charlie thought we should drop all the laws except safety laws and rules protecting the very young kids, until we learned to respect them again."
Short of spiriting children back to the Athens of Socrates, it is probably the most effective lesson in practical citizenship imaginable. And the lesson has not been lost on 17-year-old Natasha, my guide for the morning.
"Personally, I don't like not having laws," she says. "It happens from time to time, and there is always a feeling of chaos. But it doesn't ever last for long, and the laws are gradually reintroduced again. There used to be 230, and now we are back to 138."
And here they are, pinned up in the Lounge. "If you piss on the bog seat you have to wipe it off," says one of them, in the no-nonsense language that shocks some visitors to Summerhill. "Only Shack Kids and over can smoke," says another. Shack Kids? Carriage Kids?
Never mind all that. Let's talk democracy. For we are standing in the Lounge, which to this little school on the Suffolk coast is what the Agora was to ancient Athens. In an earlier incarnation, this cavernous room with its wood-panelled walls and sweeping staircase was the centrepiece of a swish villa. That was before the Scottish educationist Alexander Sutherland Neill moved in with his "free school"; free in the sense that children had the freedom to discover who they were while living in a self-governing community.
That was almost 80 years ago, and today the rich, dark timber is pockmarked by generations of drawing pins. The remains of paper decorations dangle from the ceiling and a table tennis table dominates the floor. But after lunch (fish and chips today) the table will be wheeled away to make way for the central event in school life: the Meeting.
Now, as in Neill's time, the Meeting runs the school. Here, four times a week, rules are made, amended and occasionally scrapped, decisions are taken about anything and everything, and personal disputes are resolved communally. Someone pinched your new bike and punctured the tyres? Have the culprit "brought up" at a Meeting and perhaps fined. You think lights out should be put back until midnight? Propose it at the next Meeting and argue your case before the whole school.
Not that every one of Summerhill's complement of 92 students and 13 staff must attend, any more than the children are obliged to turn up for lessons.
The important thing is that they can attend the Meeting if they wish. And even on a quiet day, between a third and half of them will be found sitting on the stairs and the floor, joining the debate or just listening.
The Meeting has real authority and is truly democratic. Anyone can bring a case, staff or student, and everyone - even a five-year-old - gets to vote.
The Meeting runs the school and the chairman runs the Meeting ("Shut the f*** up!" today's incumbent tells an out-of-order junior), and anyone over 12 can be chairman for the week, if they get elected.
"It's quite fun," says Natasha, "and good training for being able to talk to large numbers of people. Anyone can be chairman, although you must have attended at least two chairmen's workshops. After all, it would be quite hard for a San Kid to run a room full of people."
San Kids? Shack Kids? Carriage Kids? It's time to define these quaint Summerhill terms. And who better to consult than the ultimate living Summerhillian? Zo Readhead is the daughter of AS Neill and his second wife, Ena. She was born at Summerhill in 1946, which makes her fiftysomething.
"Fifty, er, six, actually," she says. "Or am I going to be 56 this year? I don't really care about it."
What she does care about, particularly after the recent legal battle to save Summerhill from closure by the Department for Education and Skills, is her father's legacy. Which is hardly surprising, considering that the school has been her life.
Zo can remember when two old railway carriages provided living quarters for the oldest children (Carriage Kids). She remembers Neill building the sanatorium which now houses the infants (San Kids). She even recalls the shack-like building that once accommodated the mid-teens (Shack Kids).
She has watched the school grow old. "One of the things I think is so great is that there are people who are retired - elderly people - who were at this really radical school. The press used to call them Do-As-You-Likes, and probably there were pictures of them looking unconventional. And now they are old people."
Like any prophet in his own land, Neill made more impact abroad than at home. His books were translated into Japanese, and the school continues to attract Asian children. Versions of Summerhill have sprung up as far afield as Canada and Israel, while in Germany Neill's ideas have always struck a chord.
In Britain, Summerhill has always been caricatured as the "Do-as-you-please school", where no one went to lessons if they didn't feel inclined. In fact, says Zo , who took over as head when her mother retired in 1985, no summary of what the school stands for could be wider of the mark. "This is actually a strong, measured community, and there are very strong boundaries," she says. "We've probably got more laws than any school in the country."
It is because of the personal and emotional freedom that the school allows pupils that such a detailed code of conduct is necessary. "Summerhill is a beguiling place," Zoe explains. "When people first come here, they think, 'Oh, this is free, I can do what I like'. So it's very important that our meetings and our laws keep telling new children, particularly 11 and 12-year-old boys, that this is actually not okay."
The distinction between freedom and licence is central to the Summerhill philosophy. "This means that you are allowed to do anything you like, so long as it doesn't bother anybody else," says a note appended to the school laws.
It's a message that Zo believes is more relevant than ever. "When my dad was here, children were coming to him who had been tyrannised by grown-ups.
Now, if we get difficult children, the problems will often be because they dominate their parents. Summerhill now finds itself in the situation where, instead of being the place that teaches children they are free, it's sometimes the place that teaches them you can't walk all over other people."
In a high-profile court case three years ago, Summerhill defied government attempts to make it either conform or shut down. Since then, the school has seen increasing demand from other schools - and other students - for information on how self-governance works.
Science teacher Michael Newman has taught at state schools in Maidstone and Bradford, and now co-ordinates Summerhill's external affairs. "We get invited by people who want to set up school councils or youth forums," he says. "We went to Dover 18 months ago and did a conference with 10 state schools there. Our kids ran a workshop on how to run a democratic school, and it's become an annual event now. We were also invited to go to a Schools Council UK conference in London. Our children were invited by the other children because they were so interested in what we're doing."
The thing about Summerhill, says Michael, is that it raises issues that are usually only discussed theoretically, including such fundamental questions as why schools exist and what is the function of education.
When Summerhill students travel the country, offering themselves as living, breathing examples of self-governance, they are occasionally shocked by what they see as manipulation of children in state schools. "At one school we did a workshop that was very positive and progressive, but our children thought it was artificial and too intensive," says Michael. "Why did the school have to do it all in one day? They thought it was like therapy, compensating for the fact that the children weren't making decisions and weren't democratically involved in running their school.
"One of my hopes was that citizenship would allow children to actually control the subject. They are citizens. What do they want to do in this area? Do they want to be assessed? And if so, how? " Zo Readhead insists that Summerhill can only demonstrate its philosophy, not push it. "I don't think we're in the business of trying to persuade anybody to do it like we do it," she says. "We've been doing this for 80 years and we know that it works and I don't feel that I need to justify it any more really. But it's available as a resource for anybody to come and find out about it.
"We will have had four visitors' days this term, and we're getting over 500 hits a day on our website. People are just sucking in the knowledge, like the group of students from Nottingham who were involved in a school council and wanted to come and see how we do it. It's also interesting for their teachers. I speak to so many teachers who say it's really reassuring to know that Summerhill's there, doing what it's doing, because you just know that there's another way that works."
FROM FORFAR TO SUFFOLK: A HISTORY OF SUMMERHILL
1881 AS Neill born in Forfar, Scotland. His father is a village schoolmaster who runs his school and his family with a rod of iron.
1908 Studies English at Edinburgh University. After graduating, he works as a journalist before taking over a school in Gretna Green and transforming it into a place of "happiness and liberty".
1917 Neill meets Homer Lane, who runs a community for delinquents. Lane, who places emotional well-being over academic development, introduces Neill to self-governing meetings.
1921 Neill founds a school in Dresden as part of an international project called the Neue Schule. He soon realises that the project is run by puritanical idealists, and moves his school to Sonntagsberg in Austria.
1923 After friction with the locals, Neill moves from Austria to Lyme Regis, where he sets up a school with five pupils in a house called Summerhill.
1927 Summerhill School moves to the small town of Leiston, near Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast.
1960 After a period in the doldrums, Neill and American publisher Harold Hart produce Summerhill: A Radical Approach To Child Rearing, a book that dramatically raises the profile of the school, whose roll has fallen to 25.
Throughout the 1960s, Summerhill inspires the free school movement.
1973 Neill dies in an Ipswich hospital, and his second wife, Ena, takes over.
1985 Ena retires, passing the headship to her daughter, Zo Readhead.
1999 Inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education visit Summerhill and demand fundamental changes. The school responds by hosting an international conference on "The Free Child", which considers how alternative schools could contribute to state education systems. The school uses the conference to launch a campaign and to mount a legal challenge to the Department for Education and Skills.
2000 Summerhill wins the day at an Independent Schools Tribunal. Not only is closure averted, but Ofsted agrees that, in future, the school will have direct input into its inspections through legally appointed experts. Ofsted also agrees to consider the views of Summerhill pupils, only later announcing a similar policy nationally.
2002 A "registration visit" by inspectors leads to a positive summing-up.
The first full, reported Ofsted inspection will be in 2004 at the earliest.