No free choice on free thinking

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Summerhill school in Suffolk is the alma mater of free schools across the world. It has seen many govern-ments stand and fall. It is non-conformist and challenges mainstream thinking, redefining the notions of "school", of what constitutes education and learning. It is often referred to as an experimental school, but after 75 years of existence its philosophies have endured long after the educational failures of successive governments.

Its existence is now in jeopardy, not because pupils are not achieving, its parents are objecting or because it has committed a criminal offence, but because its pupils are not learning in prescribed ways.

According to the inspectors, young pupils are not reaching minimum "standards" in literacy. At Summerhill individually differentiated education is embraced wholeheartedly in a philosophy of self-regulation. Children effect their own formal learning as and when they want to - when they are ready. This is quite a different approach to age-related performance levels of the national curriculum. Just because you don't read at nine, doesn't mean that you can't or won't.

Summerhillians sit and pass GCSEs like any other pupils. This year some of them sat them at 14 - because they wanted to. Somewhere along the line they must have learned to read and write.

Summerhill embraces learning for life, not just for a job. It values education outside the confines of the classroom. Not being able to read at nine doesn't mean that you haven't achieved anything. These assumptions underlie the Office for Standards in Education statement that young Summerhillians are failing. OFSTED is constantly pressuring Summerhill to make attendance at lessons compulsory. It is illegal not to receive education over a certain age, but that education does not have to take place in a school. Hence the legality of home schooling.

If, therefore, education is acknowledged as being able to take place outside of the formal learning context, why is Summerhill being challenged on its policy of non-compulsory attendance? Because the current education system values classroom-based formal learning over any other approach, it sees non-conformist approaches as failing. Does this justify the closure of a school?

All that the inspections reveal is that Summerhill is being assessed against an inappropriate and different set of values. This negates the validity of the whole process.

And the hypocrisy. Between 1990 and 1995 there were 12,000 exclusions from mainstream schools. Many of these children receive the barest minimum of education, five hours a week. And it is Summerhill that is failing to provide efficient and effective education for its pupils?

And the dilemma. The criteria OFSTED is applying to Summerhill must apply to other alternative forms of education. Home schooling, for example. How are home-schooled children achieving? Is their learning in line with age-related norms? What about Steiner schools and Muslim schools which have different approaches to education? Are all these alternatives going to be failed as well? If Summerhill goes, then surely these must follow?

What about parental choice? Summerhill parents are being told that their choice is not good enough. After nearly 10 years of the national curriculum, what evidence is there to give them confidence that the Department for Education and Employment knows best?

Why has Summerhill been subjected to inspection activity over and above what other schools, mainstream or independent, have had to cope with? There is little justification - unless there is a wider political agenda ie to get rid of the opposition.

Continued targeting of Summerhill will be evidence of continued abuse of power. To maintain this form of bureaucratic bullying on a small school of 70 children is a sad indictment of education in this country and, it has to be said, of the principles upon which this country is being governed.

Sue Clutterbuck is a Summerhill parent.

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