Summerhill: 100 years of the school that makes its own rules
- Credit: Joshua Popenoe
Just a stone’s throw away from the Suffolk coast, over in Leiston, is where you will find Summerhill School.
Founded by A.S Neill in 1921, Summerhill was established with the belief that school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around.
Over the years, it since has become a place where children – through primary and secondary school years – can take charge of their learning, and are encouraged to be independent and free-thinking. One of the school’s core beliefs is Neill’s principle ‘freedom, not licence’, meaning those at Summerhill are free to do as they wish, as long as their actions do not impinge on anyone else’s.
During the last century, Summerhill has since become known the world over for its emphasis on freedom, creativity, and expression, with many schools emulating its model.
It is also run as a democratic community, and the children have an active role and voice in how the school is run thanks to regular meetings where anyone, staff or pupil, can attend.
Today, it is run by Neill’s daughter, Zoë Readhead, and students have the choice of either boarding or attending as a day student.
This independent school is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year. Three former pupils look back on their time at the school, and explain how they feel such a unique learning experience shaped them into the people they are today.
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“I was there from the age of nine to 14,” explains Martha, who attended the school between 1969 and 1974.
After her mother read A.S Neill’s book Summerhill, she was intent on sending Martha there – taking her to visit the school when she was just 18 months old.
“I actually grew up in New York City - and still live here now - and my parents sent me to a private day school there called The Fifteenth Street School which was founded by actor and general iconoclast Orson Bean. I was there for a couple of years but once my parents got divorced, the money ran out and I had to go to state school in New York which I hated.”
But one night, Martha’s mother was listening to the radio, where a guest called Ken Saunders mentioned how his three daughters attended Summerhill.
“He was on the radio talking about the school, and my mother rang the radio station and set up a meeting with him to ask him for his help to convince my dad let me attend Summerhill, which worked.
“I think the selling point was that Ken’s daughter Veronica returned to Summerhill as a housemother – and she actually ended up being my first housemother,” she adds.
Martha, who divided her time between Britain and the States due to her Anglo-American heritage, made the move across the Atlantic in the autumn of 1969 to commence her first term at Summerhill.
“I’d just turned nine and even though my mother and I had been back and forth a lot, it was quite the shock. I was moving from the heart of counterculture in the Greenwich Village in New York City, to this rather cloistered community in Leiston in sleepy Suffolk.”
And while Martha grew to enjoy her time at Summerhill, it didn’t start off so smoothly.
“I would say for the first term, I was miserable. My mum came to visit me during half term and I sobbed through her entire visit. My housemother Veronica was getting quite tired of my whining – and I don’t blame her – so she pushed me onto this other kid, Megan, who had been there for a long time. I started trailing after her which I think confused her, but 50 odd years later she’s still my best friend so it worked,” she says.
Returning for her second term in January, Martha was fully settled in, and began to love every moment of school.
But, as many will be itching to know, what is an average day like for a Summerhill pupil?
“It depended a lot on your age, and if you were going to lessons,” Martha explains.
“My first couple of years there, I didn’t go to lessons much. During my first term there, the only one I remember attending was English, and I’m actually still in touch with my teacher Nina.”
Instead, Martha would spend her time riding horses and getting to grips with all of the nature that Summerhill and its grounds had to offer.
“At the time, Zoë Readhead had a stable at the school and was a riding teacher, so I spent a lot of time hanging out in the stables, mucking out and exercising horses. I also did lots a tree climbing, buildings forts in the woods, making toast over the gas fire and drinking hot cocoa in the winter as it was cold.”
But after a couple of years, Martha forced herself to attend lessons, and soon found herself enjoying English, history and biology.
“Biology was especially great, as it was broadly designed to encompass life sciences. So it was ecology in the summer, where we’d go on nature walks and identify wildflowers, and lichen and moss at the beach. And in the winter, we were inside and would focus on human anatomy. Our teacher Maggie would go to the local butchers and get the body parts we were studying, so we’d pick through pig livers and hearts, and sheep eyeballs. As kids, we were delighted by this.
“I think being a teacher at Summerhill, if you were going to last, and if kids were going to go to your classes, you had to be creative and flexible in how you were teaching because no one was going to sit there and listen to a tedious lecture. Most of the time, we had excellent teachers as the uninspired ones didn’t last.”
Martha also fondly remembers her time boarding at Summerhill – and feels it was an important part of the experience that helped shape her time at the school.
“Towards the end of my time there, we started taking day pupils, and I felt sorry for them as they missed out on quite a lot in the evenings and on weekends.
“On Saturday nights when the weather was rubbish, Megan and I had a little business where we’d go to the chip shop and pick up orders for people, and charge them 3p for the visit. And raiding the kitchen was one of my favourite activities.”
After five fun years at Summerhill, Martha left and moved back to the US to live with her father to continue her schooling. “I chose to live with him rather than my mother as she was still living in her flat in Greenwich, and the idea of public high school in New York terrified me after five years in Leiston, so I moved with my dad to this village around called Warwick in upstate New York, which was the same size as Leiston.”
But after being in charge of her own education for so long, did she fall behind her classmates?
“Academically I was fine. I was shocked as I thought I’d be quite far behind as I’d only been to class sporadically two out of my five years there, but none of that was a problem.”
After high school, Martha went to university, and while she dropped out after a couple of years, she returned to her studies 13 years later, gaining both a bachelors and masters in art history and studio art.
“Both degrees I graduated with highest honours, proving Neill’s theory that when you’re motivated and like what you do, you generally do it extremely well.”
Since obtaining her masters, Martha has flourished in the arts world, and has worked as a fundraiser for the last 30 years.
“I’m currently interim president and CEO at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden in Staten Island, and I will say that my time at Summerhill means I can talk to anyone I interact with – whether it’s the janitor, or the multibillionaire whose money we’re trying to get. Summerhill taught me resilience, independence, and a certain level of fearlessness, which is an absolutely priceless asset in my career as a fundraiser.”
Summerhill through and through, Martha not only keeps those values and memories close to her heart, but she is still incredibly close with her former schoolfriends, and is actually a member of the A.S. Neill Summerhill Trust. Set up several years ago, the trust’s aim is to provide bursaries for children at the school, as well as further democratic education worldwide.
“My husband went to boarding school in New Zealand and his experience was the polar opposite of mine. He’s not in touch with anyone at his school, and he’s surprised at how many of mine I’m still in touch with. Besides my husband and children, the people I’m still closest to are those I met at Summerhill all those years ago. It's always fascinating to go back for reunions. Of course, there’s been changes but it always feels like coming home.”
And while Martha didn’t send her own children to Summerhill due to being based across the Atlantic, they did attend a state school in New York that she describes as ‘Summerhillian in its orientation’, so they had the best of both worlds. “It would’ve been great if they went, as I got so much out of it,” she adds
A big fan of the Summerhill style of teaching, Martha definitely thinks the free and democratic model should be more widespread: “I recognise that it’s not for everyone, and some kids perhaps require more structure, but I think Neill was onto something. Child-centred education is important at the end of the day. The kid knows what they need, and I think most schools teach to the test – there's no room for developing a separate interest. Compromises should be made where they can, to benefit teachers and pupils alike.”
Pera attended the school from September 2002 and left in July 2012, spending virtually her entire school years there (sans one year in elementary school in Taiwan). “I went here because my sister also went there – but we missed each other as she’s 10 years older than me,” she explains.
Recalling what an average day at the school was like for her, she says: “You’d get woken up at 8am by ‘beddies officers’, who are students who sign up to do wake up calls for the whole school. You’d then have breakfast, and then go to lessons if you wanted to.
“Most of the time, it’s a matter of deciding how you want to spend you day there. I spent a lot of time climbing trees, hanging out with friends, exploring things in the classrooms and seeing the animals. We had quite a few chickens when I was there. Then we’d have dinner before bedtime.
“I think when I was about nine or 10, I started to like art a lot. And although we had timetables, you could go to your timetabled lessons, or you could ask the class who was already in there if you could pop in and use the art room, which I used to do a lot.”
Like Martha, Pera boarded at Summerhill. “I think everyone who’s ever been to Summerhill says you haven’t had the full experience if you didn’t board there. Most day kids, if not all of them, eventually became boarders after spending a term or year there during the day, as they could see there was a lot going on in the evening.”
And it’s not just her fellow boarders that Pera was close to, but the staff too. “We all knew each other, it was like a great big family there. Pretty much all of the teachers were my favourite, and all of the staff who worked there were really cool. It's a small school – during my time there, the most staff and students combined was about 100, but it usually fluctuated between 50 and 70.”
Since leaving Summerhill, Pera has gone on to become a music teacher, and definitely believes the school and how she was taught shaped her own teaching methods.
“I don’t think I’d have taken the same path in life if I didn’t go there. It was pretty drilled into you to be what you want, express your thoughts and feelings and speak about what you feel passionate about. And for me, that’s music.
“I think Summerhill is the kind of school that nurtures students to become individuals as opposed to trying to fit into a larger group. Going there not only shaped who I am, but it really helped me become a teacher who is able to interact really respectfully with my students.”
Georgia left Summerhill just a few years ago, having attended between 2011 and 2016 – and thanks her time at the school to her love of science and creativity.
“I loved science and art - I couldn’t pick a favourite between the two,” she explains.
“I loved my science teachers, Lizzie and James. They were both incredibly understanding and versatile in being able to change their teaching to the style that the student needed, and Lizzie especially had this passion for making lessons interesting. My English teacher Joan was great. I’m dyslexic so find reading and writing difficult, but she managed to help me get a good GCSE, and it was down to her taking the time to talk to me proper and understand everything – she was amazing.”
Georgia, like all Summerhill students, chose when she attended lessons - but was disciplined when it really mattered. “When I was younger, I went to as many lessons as I missed. But as I got older and was trying to get my GCSEs, I knew I needed them for college and university, so I went to more than I skipped.”
Georgia has since remained in the local area, and is currently studying to be a paramedic at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
“Going to Summerhill definitely did shape me as a person, as my time there made me realise I couldn’t tolerate being inside for long periods of time. I’m just not an indoor person, and Summerhill let me express myself which I’m thankful for. I really enjoy helping people, and I think that’s what helped me decide to become a paramedic.”
And being in charge of her own education, rather than being spoon-fed, helped set Georgia in good stead for her time at university, where independent learning is more commonplace.
“Being at Summerhill definitely helped me in learning how plan my time so I could achieve these things, and it’s meant I’ve been able to look after myself throughout university as well. I think a lot of people focus on how we weren't forced to attend lessons, but they often don’t consider the awesome things we did instead, and how open and green the school is. If you ask anyone who went to Summerhill something they loved about it, it would be the grounds, or the trees, or the open spaces. It certainly gave me an appreciation for the outdoors.”
While Georgia doesn’t have children, she wouldn’t hesitate to send any potential future offspring to the school – and definitely thinks the Summerhill model of teaching should be more commonplace.
“If I ever do have kids, I would happily send them there if I had the funds to – I think it would be the best thing that would ever happen to them.
“I think if you’re going to start the Summerhill model, it should be done from an early age, as I’ve witnessed it not work for kids who feel pushed into it if they haven’t done it from the beginning. They can’t get their head around being the only person responsible for their learning. But I would love for more people to be in control of their own learning.”
To find out more about Summerhill and its history, visit 100yearsofsummerhill.co.uk