The head of Summerhill, Britain's best known progressive school, says she would rather the school closed than compromise its libertarian ethos by conforming to Government inspectors' version of education.
Zoe Readhead, who is also the the daughter of Summerhill's founder, AS Neill, says that if compulsory lessons were introduced "it would completely change our whole approach to children, which is based on freedom of choice". The school, founded in 1921, is based on the Rousseauesque principle that children are innately good and flourish best without coercion. The only way lessons would be made compulsory, says Ms Readhead, would be if pupils voted for it.
Summerhill has always excited extreme reactions, and has been attracting adverse attention from official inspectors since 1990. But the situation came to a head this week with a letter from Education Secretary David Blunkett warning that he had the powers to strike it off the Schools Register and force it to close.
He said that if the school did not improve, a Notice of Complaint would be issued. "Failure to comply may result in a school being struck off the register and therefore forced to close," said the letter. The Department of Education and Employment confirmed this week that once a school is struck off it cannot legally operate and would face prosecution if it did so. However, most independent schools that have been closed have done so because of criminal activity or for health and safety reasons. There is no suggestion that Summerhill is failing for any of these reasons. The school has already survived one Notice of Complaint, given in 1990.
The school, which currently has 65 pupils, many of them from Asia and Germany, was given a full inspection in 1990, after which a Notice of Complaint was issued. Another inspection by OFSTED in 1993 found that standards of achievement were "low", attendance at lessons "poor" and the curriculum was judged too narrow. The most recent revisit found standards of literacy and numeracy too low among the younger children.
But Zoe Readhead argues that the inspectors are missing the point - judging and failing the school on conventional criteria that it was never trying to meet in the first place. Children who are behind in reading at nine catch up quickly once they decide they want to learn, she says, and points out that it is "very unusual" for a Summerhill pupil not to go on to further or higher education.
"Unlike most independents, we are a totally non-selective school. We have a lot of pupils from Asia whose parents have become disillusioned with the rigid educational regimes there.We have also had visits from the education ministers of Taiwan and Korea this year, which is rather ironic when our own Government seems so admiring of their education systems."