Inside Summerhill: The self-governing school with ‘free-range children’
PUBLISHED: 19:30 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:13 01 August 2019
It’s got 450 ‘laws’, but no compulsory lessons, homework or exams – some may be baffled by Summerhill School’s unorthodox teaching methods, but its principal believes its “free-range children” are perfectly prepped for the outside world.
The world's oldest 'democratic' or 'free' school is set in idyllic grounds in the town of Leiston - an impressive red-brick building overlooking natural greenery, a trampoline, outdoor swimming pool and skate ramp.
Founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, a Scottish writer, Summerhill 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.
Principal Zoe Readhead, who is also Mr Neill's daughter, said this unusual approach gives the next generation the tools to cope with the challenges of today - from mental illness, to gender inequality.
Speaking at the school's first ever 'open weekend', an international forum dubbed 'The Summerhill Experience', she said: "If you take problems now with young people - you take depression, you take stress, you take bullying, you take low self-esteem, you take gender inequality - all of those things, by default, without us even thinking about it, are being sorted out at Summerhill. They are all being addressed, every day. People need to start realising that."
Summerhill, which is celebrating its centenary in 2021, describes itself as a "self-governing community". The school claims to have around 450 rules - each decided by a combination of pupils and teachers. Matters of health and safety are off-limits, but in the majority of cases children and adults have an equal vote.
Children fill out their own timetables at the beginning of term, the school does not monitor attendance, and homework is optional. Pupils are not even required to take exams - although most do choose to sit their GCSEs.
If they don't fancy studying, the children are free to play, socialise or enjoy some downtime. However there are non-negotiable rules in place preventing them from watching television or sleeping during the day.
"It's freedom without licence - so it isn't complete freedom, because complete freedom means you can do exactly as you like," Mrs Readhead explained.
"Yes, you can do what you want to do, but you have to be responsible for the results of it.
"We've discovered that children learn just as well, if not better, in an environment like this where they can make choices.
"What we're looking for is for children to play as much as they want to - they will be dipping in and out of class. They will be gaining a lot of other skills as well, and they will be feeling emotionally and mentally healthy.
"It's not all a piece of cake - it's not easy living in a school with 75 other children. I'm not saying it's all a doddle, but that's part of the process as well."
A Summerhill education runs in the family - Mrs Readhead was born into a 'free' education, her four children all attended the school, and her grandchildren are among the current students.
"Summerhill doesn't really belong to me, it belongs to the world," she said.
"If there's one thing in the world that I could change it would be that Summerhill was not a private school. It should not be that people have to pay for their children to have this education.
"Most private education is about: 'Oh my child's going to get a better education than yours because I'm going to pay for it.' It's not about that here.
"Here, it's about a philosophy of life, something that you really believe - that you want your child to have."
When asked about the school's claim that, if society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a "violation of human rights", Mrs Redhead said: "The next time you are out among children, if you imagine they were grown-ups, there will be several things that you will think: 'Ooh, I'm not sure if it was alright to do that.'
"Now, I'm not saying you should never tell children they can't do stuff, I mean I'm telling children all the time: 'Oi, you can't do that!', but it's the way in which you do it.
"It's just getting out of that mindset of: 'It's okay to do that because they're a child.'"
She rebuffed the claim that 'undisciplined' children cannot properly integrate into society or hold down a job, adding: "They're not stupid. By the time they leave, we are talking about really emotionally intelligent people.
"For instance, one of the things here is that children are allowed to use bad language if they want to. They're not allowed to do it down town. They probably don't do it in front of Great Aunt Maud because we all know what we can do where, don't we?
"Actually, little children are much better able to deal with their lives than most of us think they are - and it can be shocking to see it on a daily basis.
"This is a very safe environment, but it's not an island. There's a huge awareness of what's out there."
'They treat me like an equal'
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For Amira Hamrat, life at school was always a struggle - until she discovered Summerhill.
The 15-year-old previously attended three schools, each with their own problems - first, the teachers were frightening, then she was badly bullied, and in her last placement her grades slipped, pushing her over the edge.
"I was just miserable," she said.
"I was in three different schools - the first one was from reception to year three. From what I remember, the teachers were horrible. They would shout at us like we were teenagers, but we were really tiny.
"Then I went to a primary school where I got on quite well with the teachers, and I got really good grades, but I was bullied a lot.
"And then I got into secondary school and it flipped again - I had a really great social life, but my grades slipped.
"I really started acting out. I got in fights and got detentions, and my mum could see that I was really suffering.
"The mass amount of work we had to do, and the homework, and just all of it was so stressful. I rebelled against every authority figure that I had in my life."
Amira said she didn't like to blame her behaviour on puberty, which people often associate with teenagers acting out, as she believes it actually stemmed from an education system not fit for purpose.
"It's not necessary puberty - it's the environment that we're all shoved into," she said.
"We're like sardines in a can in secondary school - there's so many people.
"The teachers have no way of connecting with any one pupil. Everyone is just another face, another person to keep in line.
"So when I came here I was still in the midst of puberty, but I was happy - and that made me not want to misbehave because I was treated as an equal."
Amira said the freedom to choose her classes and take just a handful of GCSEs, rather than a dozen, is liberating.
"I only sign up to the lessons I want to go to, and then if I only go to one of the lessons or two of the lessons I have signed up to and realise: 'Oh I don't like that', then I don't go anymore. It's really as simple as that.
"Most kids in Summerhill do their GCSEs, because they want to go to college, and advance in the 'normal' way.
"Whenever I'm doing a GCSE course I am so involved in it that I couldn't imagine doing 10 of those. I have the ability and the option to throw myself at something if I feel like I love it a lot."
'It motivates you to do more'
Ex-pupil Lasse Loettgen left Germany to board at Summerhill when he was just six years old.
"Obviously I didn't really speak any English at all, but that came with boarding - that was the first challenge I had to overcome," he said.
The 20-year-old, who is now studying for a degree in philosophy in The Netherlands, said the freedom given to pupils didn't deter him from pursuing his studies.
"I think if anything it motivates you to do more," he said.
"You still have the discipline but it just comes from somewhere else - it comes from yourself.
"You still know that there is this workplace, and there are these different social rules you might have to play.
"If anything you would be less rebellious, because you're making your own decision."
He added: "Most people will make that same decision of wanting to do GCSEs, because when you're about 14 you realise: 'Actually, once I'm done with Summerhill I'd like to do something else.' And the GCSEs are a stepping stone to that.
"I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, so I went the safe route, I did my five GCSEs and went on to do A-Levels so I could go to uni.
"There are some people who don't do that. A lot of my friends didn't do any GCSEs, or did two or three and then went on to do music - and are now quite successful in that."
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