The Neill ideal will not be snuffed out

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Summerhill may soon be heading a resistance movement against insidious state control, says Laurence Johnson

"WE WERE indeed lucky to have two broad-minded inspectors sent to us." So wrote AS Neill following HM Inspectorate's visit to his "free" school, Summerhill, in 1949. Fifty years later, they were not so lucky and on March 20 an Independent Schools Tribunal will hear his daughter Zoe Readhead's appeal against a Notice of Complaint served last year.

While critical of several areas, the 1949 inspectors concluded: "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."

Subsequent inspections took place in much the same spirit up to the 1990 report, which contained strong recommendations for improvement while recognising that "the school's unusual approach remains of interest to the educational community both in this and other countries".

Thereafter, the mood changed. After a further routine inspection, there followed another, apparently in response to adverse publicity surrounding a disastrously misleading Channel 4 documentary in 1992. Frequent visits, culminating in a particularly hostile report in March last year, led Summerhill to declare that enough was enough.

Traditionally, Summerhill would have been under threat from a Labour government committed to abolishing private education on ideological grounds. But now, with apparatus partly inherited from the previous administrations, it is the victim of an insidious form of state control pervading the public and private sectors alike.

The issue is not just the survival of a tiny radical school in east Suffolk. On the contrary, by taking its case to court Summerhill may be spearheading a mainstream resistance movement.

The desire to be allowed to get on with the job free from official harassment is a familiar one, and it is hardly surprising that, according to a recent survey, many no longer view teaching as a career for life. So what on earth has happened?

Quite simply, the joy of sharing with young people the skills one is passionate about is so often submerged in the paraphernalia of assessment and there is growing alarm that childhood itself is being lost.

The cumbersome GCSE syllabuses with their coursework elements (supposedly fairer than old-style exams), the national tests, the inspections (extending even to playgroups, as some would like) - all combine to produce a system of continuous examination from the cradle onwards.

League tables, the obsession with "failing" schools - it's a bit dreary. Even payment-by-results, a practic long relegated to history as outdated and discredited, is back with a vengeance.

But all this could change. Insensitivity shown on too many occasions will probably ensure that, in its present form at least, the Office for Standards in Education's days are numbered and we could see a return to a more supportive inspectorate.

A future government may stop going on about standards and results and trust that teachers' professionalism and integrity will be evident without constant monitoring.

Until then, whether or not they agree with Summerhill's principles, teachers can be heartened by this challenge to a body they are weary of.

Summerhill must be refreshed by the world-wide support this crisis has attracted. Worth mentioning are the productive meetings with the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Education; also the findings of an independent inquiry headed by Professor Ian Cunningham of the Centre for Self-Managed Learning. The latter team suggested that closure of Summerhill would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Government must at times privately regret having hounded such a universally-acclaimed institution, potentially a national asset for injecting new energy into our education system. No longer an experiment or research project, it has inspired generations both inside and outside the profession (I knew someone who resolved to become a teacher after reading Summerhill).

If any school deserves "beacon"status, questionable though that policy may be, surely Summerhill does. Its staff are certainly among the most hard-working and dedicated. And anyone who has worked there will tell you that the excitement of learning without coercion or competition is very real - comparable on occasions to university tutorials.

Equally real is the self-government, evolved over many years, that touches all aspects of Summerhill life (excluding certain health and safety matters) and impresses visitors with its combination of tolerance and no-nonsense.

Here especially is a model of good practice for agreeing on community laws and dealing with such universal problems as bullying and anti-social behaviour. The school meetings authority is formidable and, though Neill considered Summerhill would have failed if an ex-pupil became prime minister, our politicians might learn a thing or two.

Sadly, when the school held a meeting last May in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons, very few members bothered to look in. The Department for Education and Employment was not represented.

Laurence Johnson taught at Summerhill from 1975 to 1994 and is now a musician and music tutor

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