It’s 30 years since Zoe Readhead took over as principal at the famously progressive Summerhill School, founded by her father almost a century ago.

East Anglian Daily Times: Art lesson at Summerhill School in Leiston. L-R Letisha Mahm, Simone Padur (Teacher), Jul Henrik.Art lesson at Summerhill School in Leiston. L-R Letisha Mahm, Simone Padur (Teacher), Jul Henrik. (Image: Archant)

Sheena Grant spent a morning there and discovered a few things that surprised her.

It’s safe to say Zoe Readhead is not your average school principal. But then, Summerhill is not your average school.

For a start, everyone, even the youngest pupils, call her by her first name. Oh, and the only thing she’s qualified to teach is horse riding. In fact, to call Summerhill a school doesn’t tell the full story. It’s more of a democratic community than anything else.

If you know anything at all about Summerhill it’s probably this: lessons aren’t compulsory and children make the rules.

While both these things are true, it’s actually more complicated than that, as I discovered when I spent a morning at the school, which is fast approaching its 100th birthday.

Summerhill was founded by Zoe’s father, AS Neill, in 1921, moving to a rambling red brick house in Leiston in 1927, where it has remained ever since (save for a while in Wales during the Second World War). Neill believed children should live their own lives, not a life prescribed by parents or educators. So, he created a community in which children could be free from adult authority to play, interact and learn as they chose.

In the 1920s, it was revolutionary. Ninety four years on, it’s still pretty out there, but for different reasons. In many ways, Summerhill represents the antithesis of risk-averse 21st Century Britain, where education is moving towards ever-more testing and is increasingly focussed on qualifications. These days, says Zoe Readhead, Summerhill is more relevant than ever.

Arriving at the school’s 11-acre site is a bit like entering another world. Here, past a mosaic name plate on the street-side brick wall, down a tree-lined entrance road, the hierarchical rules that most children (and adults for that matter) live their lives by, do not apply.

I sign in at the school office and Zoe - dressed in a woolly hat and casual clothes - gives me a tour. We call in at class two, full of creative projects and things the youngsters have made, and then a science lesson. The science teacher has taught in mainstream schools but, fed up with the disengagement of pupils, moved to Summerhill, where students, she says, are much more interested in their learning. Then it’s the busy music department.

“Music is a big thing here,” says Zoe. It could be possible, she says, for students who are particularly interested in the subject to spend virtually the whole day on music if they so desired.

We call into one of the dormitories and stop off at the woodwork department, where Zoe’s son, Will, is teaching. He’s also the school’s deputy head and, like Zoe and his three siblings, is an ex-pupil. Another son, Henry, teaches music and two grandchildren are current pupils. Her husband, Tony, a farmer, helps with the finances.

In the main building, we look in on an art lesson and end up in the famous Summerhill meeting room, where the community gathers to make or discard rules or perhaps ‘bring someone up’ for something. Everyone’s vote carries the same weight. Recently, the meeting voted to write to the BBC, asking why children’s democracy hadn’t been included in a day of programmes about government and Magna Carta. After all, says Zoe, Summerhill has been doing it for almost 100 years.

On the way we pass notice boards with information about buddies, mediators and fines supervisors, along with the odd child just doing their own thing. Learning to interact with others, expressing emotions and developing a sense of self and self-worth are as important here as spellings and times tables.What seems clear is that Summerhill is not actually the anything-goes cesspit of popular imagination, where children run wild without a thought for common decency.

Zoe laughs at the idea.

“We’ve always been a school the media loved to hate and people have always tried to pick on the negative,” she says. “I grew up being aware this was a precious and fragile place. As a child I would see dad going on TV and often being interviewed in the most unfair way. I remember one interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, who was just so aggressive and out of order. It wasn’t a fair and just way to behave. That leaves its mark.

“Summerhill isn’t about not having rules. We actually have something like 200 rules. It is a really structured environment but we run it together, democratically. You have to be up and dressed by 8.30am and be in bed by whatever your bed time is. The lesson bell rings at 9am and lessons run until three. We have a school meeting at least twice a week, which can go on for an hour and a half or two hours and grievances or challenges to the rules can be brought up.”

The other thing that soon becomes clear about Summerhill is how happy and open everyone seems. Children and adults smile at you and say hello. It’s a bit like being in the pages of an Enid Blyton book where everything is jolly and children are free to have adventures and climb trees.

But there are things many would find controversial. For instance, swearing by both pupils and teachers is permitted in the school grounds, although not off-site.

More than 40 years after his death, Neill’s presence still looms large, not least in the photographs of him that hang on the office walls.

Zoe, Neill’s only child, was born in an upstairs bedroom. Her mother, Neill’s second wife, Ena, became principal after his death in 1973 and Zoe took over from her in 1985.

“When I was having my four children, I had very little to do with the school,” she says. “After I left Summerhill as a pupil I went to art college in Ipswich and ended up working with horses, becoming qualified as a riding teacher. As my mum got older, Tony and I rather naively said we would take it on. It was a steep learning curve. I’m only trained to teach riding, but I don’t think that matters. I’ve got a lot of good people around me who are trained teachers, developing the curriculum. But I am the principal and the buck stops with me. If something is controversial I will take it on because it comes with the territory.”

Things she has famously taken on in her 30 years as principal are Ofsted and then education secretary David Blunkett, who tried to get the school to make lessons compulsory, among other things, or face closure. After a tribunal hearing in 2000, an agreement that allowed the school to continue was reached.

“Ofsted changed but we are better at giving information than we used to be,” says Zoe. “Our most recent report, in 2011, was just short of outstanding.”

She admits feeling pleased that Ofsted is “now saying wonderful things about us”, given the past, but is adamant the school will never compromise its principles.

“People have great respect for Neill. But we don’t hold him up as some kind of oracle. He created Summerhill based on the idea of having the freedom to be who you are within the constraints of tribal life. You’re free to make choices about your life here but you can’t play a drum kit at 1am because it wakes others and you can’t pee on the dining room floor because it negatively affects others. We are free to do what we want provided it doesn’t interfere with others’ freedoms.

“It worries me that countries run education systems a bit like ‘GB plc’. It’s always about how good you are in relation to other countries.

The Government says we need to look to China, which has one of the most oppressive education systems in the world. It is always about ‘success’. What happened to life skills and learning to live together as people? Our children have been making decisions since the age of seven and so are well prepared for life after school.

“In society now it is not just about schooling, but not giving children a moment to be themselves. Children here can just sit. In the summer you will see a little child running around the grounds chasing butterflies or picking daisies. Just that moment, where they are allowed to take a breath and say: ‘I haven’t got to do anything’, can be alien for many children.

“I still see Summerhill as a fragile ship because we push the boundaries of what people believe childhood is.”

Most of the school’s 70 students, half of whom come from Asian or other European countries, board with fees ranging from £1,500 a term for the youngest day pupils to more than £5,000 for older boarders. A complete Summerhill education lasts until age 17.

Zoe is convinced more parents would send their children but can’t afford it. “We would love not to have to be a private school,” she says. “But the Government would never fund us and anyway, I wouldn’t trust them enough to work with them. They would try and change us. We’ve got to be independent. What many people want is something the mainstream cannot offer them, which seems so unfair.”

Another common misconception about Summerhill is that children don’t do GCSEs. They do, but only if they choose.

“The wonderful thing about Summerhill is that you can love your subject,” says Zoe. “And why shouldn’t children do things that contribute to their enjoyment of life? Yes, there are lots of mundane things that have to be done in life but to be able to feel good about yourself and what you do is a fundamental right. I still don’t feel mainstream education is providing for that.

“We don’t push people in the direction of university. It doesn’t make you a better person. At the same time we are realistic and will guide children as to what they need to do to get to their next step. I judge success by the kind of people children are when they leave here. If they can feel good about themselves and feel that they are worthwhile, as good as anyone else and can have their own opinions then the school has done its job.”