Summerhill rebukes permissive parents

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Head of famously progressive school finds herself in the curious position of having to promote values of duty and discipline to 'spoilt brats', reports William Stewart

Summerhill, the progressive school famous for its free-range pupils, is now having to take on a "disciplinarian" role to cope with the results of modern permissive parenting.

Zoe Neill Readhead, head of the Suffolk "free school" where pupils choose whether to attend lessons, reveals the changes it is facing in a new book, exclusively previewed in The TES this week.

"We see the result of parental interference and over-indulgence all the time," writes the daughter of AS Neill, the founder of Summerhill.

"In the 1940s and 1950s, Summerhill was the place where children learned that adults would not brutalise or frighten them. Now the Summerhill community finds itself in the role of disciplinarian, teaching kids that they can't do what they like and that they have to have regard for other people's rights and feelings. A bit of a role reversal that Neill would have found interesting!"

Mrs Neill Readhead has been head of the school since 1985. She was a pupil at Summerhill, sent her four children there and two of her grandchildren now attend.

Summerhill, often described as the "oldest children's democracy in the world", operates according to the same principles that it was founded on in 1921. Rules are decided in regular school meetings of pupils and staff where the vote of a five-year-old has equal weight to that of the head.

They are pinned up in the lounge and have included gems such as "If you piss on the bog seat you have to wipe it off", and "You can't use animals as shooting targets".

The school retains past idiosyncrasies with different age groups known as san, shack or carriage kids, named after accommodation used in earlier days, such as old railway carriages and a sanatorium.

But Mrs Neill Readhead told The TES that she believed the school was now operating in a different social context with weakened family structures.

"In the old days you brought children up in the same way in which you had been and your mother and probably your grandparents were around to see that you got it right," she said.

"Today that doesn't happen and parents are really desperate to know what to do."

In the book she writes: "I am a bit worried about the new parenting trend that makes parents feel they have to be actively part of their children's childhood at every turn." As a result some pupils constantly sought adult attention.

She writes that even "quite traditional" parents do not give enough thought to the boundaries for children, resulting in the: "Proverbial 'spoilt brat' kind of situation".

"Many of today's families have lost their way somewhat in the child-rearing maze," she says. "Even though the 'old days' were authoritarian and repressive there was at least some security in knowing where everybody stood in the hierarchy of life."

But her concerns have not led to a sudden switch to authoritarianism at the boarding school where annual fees range from pound;5,481 to Pounds 11,166.

While Jamie Oliver's influence means food in state schools will soon be subject to rigorous nutritional standards, Summerhill pupils still eat what they like.

Summerhill went through a tough period in the 1990s with a series of critical Ofsted inspections and a TV documentary that showed pupils decapitating a rabbit and bathing nude.

But after winning a legal showdown with the Government in 2000 (see box, above), which cost the school pound;130,000, it has thrived and now has 84 pupils, an increase on the average of 60 while AS Neill was head.

Summerhill continues to attract interest as far away as Taiwan and Korea, and as Tim Brighouse, the Government's chief London schools adviser, notes in the book's introduction, its democratic approach is having a major influence in Britain as interest in school councils grows.

At Summerhill now there is "a rather strong emphasis on lessons and class work", Mrs Neill Readhead reveals. But the head, who took no exams herself, believes this is just a response to the particular priorities of a generation of pupils. "It is unlikely to be the same in, say, five years' time," she writes. "Maybe by then the school meeting will have put a ban on exams and a fine for anyone going to lessons - who knows?"


Summerhill and AS Neill, is edited by Mark Vaughan with contributions by Zo Neill Readhead, Tim Brighouse and Ian Stronach, including extracts from AS Neill's 1962 book, Summerhill. Open University Press pound;17.99. TES readers can order at the discounted price of pound;14.99 including pp (UK) on 01628 502 700 until July 31, quoting TESR06


1921 AS Neill founds a school in Dresden, Germany, that later becomes known as Summerhill. After moves to Austria and Lyme Regis it settles in 1927 in Leiston, Suffolk.

1949 Two HMI inspectors visit Summerhill and although critical of some areas write: "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."

1962 Publication of AS Neill's book, Summerhill, revives the fortunes of the school, where the roll had fallen to 25. Throughout the 60s, Summerhill inspires the free school movement.

1973 Neill dies and his second wife, Ena, takes over as head for 12 years before retiring and handing over to her daughter, Zoe in 1985.

1992 A Channel 4 TV documentary, Cutting Edge: Summerhill at 70 shows pupils decapitating a rabbit and bathing in the nude. Zoe Neill Readhead later condemns the film as a "complete lie".

1999 Summerhill receives a formal notice of complaint from David Blunkett, then education secretary, demanding that pupils be forced to attend lessons following a series of critical Ofsted reports.

2000 Summerhill wins an independent schools tribunal and closure is averted.

Ofsted agrees to consider pupils' views, a policy which is now applied nationally.

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