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Once labelled the ‘do as you like’ school, Summerhill prepares to pick up Government recognition

10:45 18 March 2016

Summerhill School, Leiston

Summerhill School, Leiston


A Suffolk school is set to receive parliamentary recognition for its alternative approach to education.

Summerhill School, in Leiston, was established as a ‘democratic community’ in 1921 by Scottish educator and author, Alexander Sutherland Neill.

Since then, it has been recognised by the United Nations, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and in numerous reports on the importance of children’s voice and rights in schools.

Next Tuesday, March 22, Summerhill will be among 40 schools to receive the ‘Discovering Democracy Award’, organised by the British Youth Council and funded by the Cabinet Office.

Assistant principal, Henry Readhead is due to pick up the honour with 16-year-old student, Tom Griffiths, from the Minister for Constitutional Reform, John Penrose MP, at the Houses of Parliament.

Mr Readhead, son of principal Zoe Readhead and grandson of AS Neill, travels the world to discuss Summerhill at international conferences.

He helps run the school, and is head of an innovatory music department that is developing and researching ways children learn to express themselves with music in a democratic setting.

In its last inspection, Ofsted found the school ‘outstanding’ in its personal, social, health education and its citizenship. Inspectors gave an overall quality rating of ‘good’ when they last visited the independent school, which provides boarding and day facilities for pupils between the ages of about five and 17.

Mr Readhead said: “Summerhill is the oldest school in the world based on children’s rights, democracy and active citizenship.

“The children and staff solve problems together and make its rules at their twice weekly democratic meetings. These are chaired by an elected child, with adults and children as equals.”

An example of an ongoing project is the Summerhill’s relationship with local state school, Aldeburgh Primary.

In 2013, the primary school was one of six to attend a workshop and tea party at Summerhill, celebrating the centenary of the Suffragist march to London.

The event included a visit to the local Long Shop Museum and a workshop on democratic meetings run by Summerhill students, during which children from Aldeburgh decided they wanted to run their own school meetings. After three years, they are looking at how to change their meetings, with help and advice from Summerhill children, who have also run workshops at the first children’s organised School Council UK conference, National Student Voice conference, Oxfam Active Global Citizenship Education Conference, Dover Secondary Schools Council Conference.


  • With all the present emphasis on exams, outcomes and discipline it is a refreshing blast to know that democratic citizenship is still seen as an important aspect of the culture of schools and learning. If we look at the history of our schools we will find that in 1914, just on the edge of war there was a conference in Norfolk, in a small coastal village called East Runton, that became a national and then international community of teachers, psychologists, prison directors, actors, headteachers, educationalists, artists, politicians... who believed that to become creative, respected, active citizens children had to be 'liberated' in their schools. This community, the New Ideals in Education conferences, and the New International Education Fellowship, affected schools throughout Europe and the world. In England they affected the 1918 Education Act, and subsequent Acts. The World War I cabinet minister in charge of education H.A.L. Fisher was an active member of this community. The American Ambassador, professors, suffragists, headteachers from state primary schools, government education inspectors, including the ex-Chief Inspector... they all saw a world of peace, of justice, of creativity, of democracy was dependent on the rights of children. Summerhill is a successful part of this history. A history that has been sidelined and then re-written by people who believe in outcomes, league tables, imposed discipline, exam results. Democratic education is ultimately either an add on to a system whose values are training our kids for exams, or it is the ethos and foundation of our school system.

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    Michael Newman

    Friday, March 18, 2016

  • Congratulations Summerhill, an inspirational school, this government could learn such a lot from your understanding of children.

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    Friday, March 18, 2016

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