The inspectors who keep trying to close Summerhill just can't grasp that children have a need to be free, says Julie Allan.
"WE SAID all along that we were not trying to close Summerhill. We have always recognised that as an independent school it has a right to its own philosophy," the Department for Education and Employment stated following the tribunal hearing in which Summerhill was appealing against a notice of complaint.
The pupils, many of whom attended the hearing in the High Court in London, were in no doubt this was about the future of their school, A S Neill's philosophy, their democracy and the fundamental right to choose to attend lessons. I was a member of a research team led by Ian Stronach, research professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, which examined the nature of the complaints. The major issue for us was the validity of the OFSTED inspection process. The lessons that we and the pupils, teachers and parents of Summerhill have learnt have been about mistrust, dishonesty and "spin".
The complaints against the school under appeal concerned voluntary attendance at lessons, the formal assessment of pupils and the school's toilets. The matter of the toilets was annulled on day one of the hearing. The remaining two complaints were annulled on the fourth day, after an agreement was reached by both sides and accepted by the pupils of Summerhill.
So victory for Summerhill, with an acceptance by the Secretary of State that pupils should continue to be free to attend lessons and that future inspections would take both the aims of the school and the views of the school community fully into account.
Why then, did the DFEE go on to claim its own victory, by asserting that "Summerhill will encourage pupils to attend lessons and will improve teaching and learning across the curriculum"?
The research team spent a total of 24 days at Summerhill, observing pupils in and out of lessons and talking to pupils and teachers. My particular remit was to examine the complaints relating to special educational needs, which amounted to a charge that identification, assessment and provision for pupils with learning difficulties were inadequate.
In spite of these claims the inspectors had concluded that the pupils concerned "are independent and able to make choices . . . They are mainly articulate with adults . . . (and) take a full part in the community. They meet on equal terms with their peers at the school meetings." I agreed fully with the inspectors' conclusion. My evidence also indicated that teachers had detailed knowledge of the pupils' difficulties and that the pupils considered themselves to be fully included members of the school community.
But it was the inspection process, rather than educational provision at Summerhill, that troubled us most. Ian Stronach evaluated the 1999 inspection report against OFSTED's claim that t did not pass judgment on the unique philosophy of Summerhill. But judge it most certainly did, by attacking the voluntary nature of attendance at lessons and ignoring learning that took place outside the classroom. It also failed to meet its own standards for inspection and the 1999 report was found to contain unwarranted generalisations, unexplicated judgments, a lack of construct and content validity, and bias.
Of even greater concern was the behaviour of the inspectors. A parent described her daughter being reduced to tears by aggressive questioning, while another inspector was said to have followed two children into the bushes. We were appalled at these activities and at the invalid nature of many of the inspectors' assertions, but a 13-year-old pupil offered a more sanguine view.
"I don't know how (the inspectors) did it, how they managed to miss the point so badly. Maybe subconsciously they want Summerhill to fail because they missed the chance to come here themselves. Maybe they should come and finish their childhood so that they can leave everyone else to get on with theirs."
At the tribunal hearing, Geoffrey Robertson, QC for Summerhill, cross-examined a DFEE official on the annual inspections from 1990, and it emerged that Summerhill had been placed on a "to be watched" list. This had not, however, been revealed to the school, and the judge expressed his "astonishment".
The 1999 report did not come under scrutiny by the tribunal because an agreement had been reached by then. This was probably good news for the DFEE official, who experienced a mauling at the hands of Geoffrey Robertson, and for the remaining witnesses for the Secretary of State.
For us, however, it was unfinished business, leaving some serious questions regarding the public accountability of inspections which must be examined.
Meanwhile, Summerhill lives on and that's as it should be. It has an important place in the education system, as a unique establishment which promotes active citizenship through its own democracy. Citizenship is currently high on the Government's agenda, but we have a very limited understanding, so far, of how to teach this effectively in schools. We would do well to start with Summerhill.
Carman Cordwell, the 15-year-old who chaired the meeting in the courtroom to decide whether to accept the agreement, said: "This is our charter for freedom. It gives us the space we need to live and breathe and learn into the future. After 79 years, this is the first official recognition that
A S Neill's philosophy of education provides an acceptable alternative to compulsory lessons and the tyranny of compulsory exams. With this one bound, we are free at last."
But following the contradictory "spin" put out by the DFEE, we will have to wait and see.
Julie Allan is reader in the Institute of Education, Stirling University.