Since Neill of Summerhill was published thirty years ago, the educational landscape of the UK has been transformed, in general to the detriment of the school system. One of the more recent and controversial developments is the creation of so-called free schools. But this notion of freedom, with its highly centralized structure, is a far cry from that offered by Neill at the internationally renowned Summerhill: the original free school.
Given its unique character, it is remarkable that Summerhill has survived these upheavals. Since Neill’s death, the school, based in Leiston in Suffolk, has been run first by his widow Ena Neill and, since 1985, by their daughter Zoë Readhead. For many years, in the face of threats to close down the school by the government’s inspectors, she has had to battle to keep it going.
In 1999, the inspectors issued a highly critical report, calling the pupils ‘foul-mouthed’ and suggesting that Summerhill had been ‘mistaking idleness for personal liberty’. They also demanded that the school should ensure that ‘all pupils should regularly engage in learning’, which prompted Zoë Readhead to say that she would rather close the school. It was this defiance that led to the intervention of the education secretary David Blunkett and, for a time, there was a strong possibility that Summerhill would have to shut down within six months.
However, its supporters managed to raise £120,000 in order to contest the threat of closure. Fortunately, during a hearing at the independent schools’ tribunal at the High Court in London, the government’s case fell apart, and a settlement was agreed on the basis that future inspections would recognize the school’s right to its own philosophy, including that of voluntary attendance at lessons.
In 2007, in the first full inspection for eight years, the inspectors told a very different story from their predecessors. ‘The pupils’ personal development, including their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, is outstanding’, their report noted. They were ‘courteous, polite and considerate’ and were felt to be ‘well-rounded, confident and mature’ when they left the school. The inspectors concluded: ‘The democratic process used to manage the running of the school provides pupils with outstanding opportunities for personal development’.
Today, half the pupils at the school are from overseas: the fees, ranging from of £8,500 to almost £15,000 a year, inevitably mean that not all parents can afford to send their children there. Asked recently if she would consider applying for government funds under the free-schools initiative, Zoë Readhead resisted the idea: ‘I don’t care what their politics are, I wouldn’t trust them. As soon as I had government funds, they might want to make decisions about the toilets and things’. She also pointed out that Summerhill and other schools now tend to call themselves ‘democratic schools’, because ‘free schools sounds as if it could be complete anarchy’.
It’s to be hoped that Summerhill is still alive and well when it reaches its centenary in ten years’ time. Neill himself made the broader point when he observed that the future of Summerhill was of little consequence, but the idea behind it was ‘of the greatest importance to humanity’ because ‘new generations must be given the chance to grow in freedom’.