The Summerhill Experience: In pictures

Pupils helped out at the Summerhill Experience Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Pupils helped out at the Summerhill Experience Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

For the first time in its history, the world’s oldest ‘democratic’ school invited people from across the globe to spend a weekend learning about its unorthodox approach to teaching.

Summerhill opened its doors for a unique experience Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Summerhill opened its doors for a unique experience Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

Founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, a Scottish writer, Summerhill School in Leiston is governed by a simple, yet fairly controversial philosophy - children and adults are treated as equals and, for the most part, pupils are free to do what they please.

It's an approach that continues to fascinate educators across the globe, and prompted many to make the round trip to Suffolk last month - as principal Zoe Readhead hosted an international forum, named The Summerhill Experience, for the very first time.

The five-day event was the first in a series of celebrations marking Summerhill's centenary in 2021, 100 years since A.S. Neill's so-called 'experiment' was first put into practice.

It attracted visitors from across the globe - with some travelling from as far as India and South Africa to attend seminars in everything from The Summerhill Core Philosophy to The Realities of Freedom - the dark side!.

Name tags are made in the artroom Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Name tags are made in the artroom Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant


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Abigail Vernon, from South Africa, said she came to the conference with "no expectations" - but has since pledged to save "every penny" to send her son to Summerhill.

"My husband and I came from South Africa to get an idea of Summerhill School, potentially for our son next year," she said.

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"We came with no expectations. We were blown away by how organised, cheerful and helpful everyone was. We are so inspired.

"We have since bought (almost) all of AS Neill's books and read them. We're saving every penny to send our son to Summerhill."

A talk at the Summerhill Experience Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

A talk at the Summerhill Experience Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

Puneet Panday, from India, added: "I am not an educator, but I have a lifelong interest in learning. That, and the fact that I share my life with a third generation educator, who is on her quest to looking at new learning models, experiments and practices, has taken me to various schools across India and the world in search for new perspectives.

"I was expecting to get a thorough understanding of the practices and get to learn about the guiding principles and challenges from a ground-up view. And I got that to a sufficient degree.

"What I was not expecting was the sense of warmth with which the people of Summerhill socialised us to its rhythms and way of life.

"The students seems so well centred in their worldview and the practice of self-governance. It could've only come from a total lived experience of what from the outside seems to be an ideal world."

Henry and Zoe Readhead talk on stage Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Henry and Zoe Readhead talk on stage Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

One English teacher who has worked in Germany and Hungary, admitted that she was initially "sceptical" about life at Summerhill, but now believes the school's philosophy "actually works".

"I was crazy about Summerhill when I was 20 but, to be totally honest, it cooled down and I thought it couldn't be as good as I had thought," she said.

"I was still very curious and bought the ticket the first hour they became available. Then I went to Summerhill and saw how it works. And it works. I've been telling everyone about the school ever since and I probably sound just as enthusiastic as I did when I was 20.

"The most important part for me was to talk to former and present students. It's one thing to read several books about Summerhill and completely different to talk to students.

A number of talks were held at the event Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

A number of talks were held at the event Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

"I was probably more sceptical than I would admit but talking to former and present students I had to realise that what they do actually works. It would never have happened if I had just attended any other conference or summer school; the Summerhill Experience was something completely new and different and made many things clear about Summerhill and Neill that I never really understood from reading all the books."

Janaina Magalhaes, who lives in Norway but originally comes from Sao Paulo, Brazil, added: "I had the opportunity to vividly experience Summerhill, and I miss every single moment.

"I have this strange feeling that going to Summerhill is like going home; it's a feeling that it is possible to give children a chance to flourish as they were born to, that they have rights as citizens of today and not citizens in construction."

Neil Keighery and Fiona Upton, from Nottingham, said their minds had been "completely transformed" by the experience.

Henry Readhead leads a disucssion with attendees Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Henry Readhead leads a disucssion with attendees Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

"Our knowledge of Summerhill was limited - Neil had seen mention of it in a book entitled 'Radical Youthwork'," they said.

"As a mature youth work and community development undergraduate at De Montfort university, wanting to compare extremities of youth-work, he had to discover more and the Summerhill Experience was an ideal opportunity to do so.

"Our minds have been completed transformed. The experience was beyond expectations; to learn about Neill's (still) ground-breaking philosophy and then to live the experience was extraordinary.

"Society still has much to learn from Neill's ideas - which frankly are surrounded by a common sense approach. Why shouldn't we allow children to be children? Why should we allow our children's heads be filled with 'stuff' at such an early age?

Attendees enjoy a woodwork and creativity workshop Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Attendees enjoy a woodwork and creativity workshop Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

"This country is currently going through unprecedented political events, and education (amongst many other highly important issues) is being cast aside while the relentless debates about Brexit continue - in the new world that emerges (hopefully a fresh new government with fresh new ideas) I hope that some of Neill's ideas can be implemented into mainstream education.

"They may be 100 years old, but they are so needed in the 21st Century."

A panel exploring teaching at Summerhill Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

A panel exploring teaching at Summerhill Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

A workshop with Dr Dane Goodsman, an alumna Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

A workshop with Dr Dane Goodsman, an alumna Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

Amira, one of the current pupils at the school acted as a volunteer Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Amira, one of the current pupils at the school acted as a volunteer Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

Attendees take on artistic challenges Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS

Attendees take on artistic challenges Picture: JOSHUA HIGGINS - Credit: Archant

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