Democracy: According to the Children

02/05/2003 Summerhill, an independent school in deepest Suffolk, has been described as the “oldest children’s democracy in the world”. Since it was founded in 1921, it has been a source of horrified fascination to the British media. But serious educators across the world see Summerhill as an important test-bed for libertarian education theory.

Founded as a “free school” by the charismatic Scottish teacher A S Neill, and now run by his daughter, Summerhill aims to give its pupils the freedom to explore themselves and the world. Neill believed children were never “bad,” but that wild and selfish behaviour was caused by unhappiness – often through brutal constraints forced by the distorted values of the adult world.

At a time when opposition to compulsory testing in English schools is growing, Matthew Appleton’s book offers an eloquent and persuasive introduction to Neill’s ideas, as they were lived out at Summerhill during the nine years he was a houseparent there. He notes that new arrivals often adopted a self-conscious “mask of insincerity” to seek adult approval. When they realise such pretence is unnecessary, they move through a destructive anti-social stage that tests everyone’s patience – particularly that of other students, who set and enforce the rules through the pupil council. But most children, says Appleton, emerge as “self-regulating” – autonomous young people whose actions are driven not by anxiety or resentment but by genuine self-motivation.

Children are normally eager to learn, Appleton argues, but when we force them into a mould, they become uncertain and defensive. “We then call it laziness, but we have destroyed their excitement in life and learning.” At Summerhill, some children do spend years riding bikes and building dens in the woods instead of attending lessons – but, according to Appleton, most come back to the classroom when they feel the need, and catch up quickly. In 1998, 67 per cent achieved at least five good GCSEs, and most take more exams at FE colleges – often finding their fellow students childish and unmotivated.

***** Yet in 1999, as the result of a series of negative Ofsted reports, David Blunkett ordered Summerhill to make lessons compulsory – knowing this would force its closure. Supported by an unexpectedly large groundswell of public opinion, the school took the Secretary of State to the High Court in March 2000 – and won. The unique power structure of the school meant the final agreement between Mr Blunkett and the school, guaranteeing its right to continue according to Neill’s philosophy, had to be debated – in court – by the pupil council.

After the council had agreed to accept the Government’s “statement of intent”, the chair of the children’s meeting declared: “This is our charter for freedomI official recognition that A S Neill’s philosophy of education provides an acceptable alternative to compulsory lessons and the tyranny of compulsory exams.” As Appleton remarks: “How many children get to take on a government and win as part of their education?” ******

Neill’s philosophy is not widely known or understood in Britain, and school inspectors apparently say they are not interested in it. Yet his book on Summerhill is recommended to trainee teachers in many other countries. Now every British teacher – and government policy-maker – has an opportunity to read Appleton’s book and enter into a mental dialogue with the ideas it puts forward. What are we so scared of?

Caroline St John-Brooks is a former TES editor