Parents in legal fight to keep son at Summerhill

A SUFFOLK school was at the centre of a new legal row last night over its controversial teaching philosophy after education bosses refused to pay a dyslexic boy's �15,000-a-year fees.

Craig Robinson

A SUFFOLK school was at the centre of a new legal row last night over its controversial teaching philosophy after education bosses refused to pay a dyslexic boy's �15,000-a-year fees.

The parents of Tertius Wharton, 17, say Summerhill boarding school in Leiston is the right place for him to be educated.

The school, founded in the 1920s by Alexander Sutherland Neill, is famous for its pupils having the same voting rights as teachers in its rigorous democracy - girls and boys also have the freedom to decide which lessons, if any, they attend.

Tertius, from Kent, who suffers from ADHD and dyslexia, started attending the school in 2003 but since then his parents - Joy and Nicholas - have been in dispute with Kent County Council which insists Summerhill is “unsuitable” for him.

Instead, and against his parents' wishes, it wants him to attend the more expensive New School in West Heath, Sevenoaks.

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The dispute has now reached London's High Court as Tertius' parents can no longer afford to pay for the Summerhill fees themselves.

The court heard a crisis point has now been reached because the downturn in the housing market is affecting his 59-year-old father's solicitors firm and as a result his fees have not been paid since September last year

Council lawyers say that Summerhill “has always been an unsuitable school and cannot meet Tertius' special needs” and that the refusal to cover his final year's school fees is “rational and proportionate”.

But Nicholas Bowen QC, for the Wharton's, argued that the council's failure over a period of years to take any steps to enforce Tertius' move to West Heath amounted to an implicit "acceptance" that Summerhill is suitable for him, "even if they had difficulty with the ethos of the school".

Mr Justice Silber has now reserved his judgement on Tertius' judicial review challenge until an unspecified later date.

It is not the first time the controversial school has hit the headlines.

In 2000 it was faced with the prospect of closure after government inspectors said it was not providing an adequate education for its youngsters.

But an independent team of inquiry that spent six weeks at the school concluded that it should remain open.

Speaking outside court, Tertius' mother Joy, 52, said her son had changed dramatically for the better since attending "progressive" Summerhill School.

“Anybody who knows Tertius even slightly can see the difference it has made to him - he is happy there,” she said. “Since attending Summerhill, he does not have to argue all the time and he is not confrontational all the time anymore.

“He is more aware of the needs of others and the impact his actions have on those around him.”

She said that Tertius was always "articulate", even as a small child, but that when he was put into "conventional" education, that all changed and he began to suffer.

"At Summerhill, nobody tells him to be quiet for the sake of it, but he has had to learn not to cross- talk at the school meetings,” she continued. “You are never stopped from asking questions at Summerhill."

Attendance at Summerhill lessons is not compulsory but Mrs Wharton explained that this has, in fact, helped her 17-year-old son and his brother Silas, 15, who also attends the school.

“The children at Summerhill are left to make their own choices in an environment where adults support them,” she said.

Tertius supported his mother's views, adding that, whatever students at Summerhill want to do, they can.

"People who come out of Summerhill are a lot more mature and have a lot more sense of everything around them,” he said. “It is different, people do not understand it. But people who are willing to accept it really like it.

“Summerhill has taught me to control my ADHD. I would not have been able to sit through a half hour school meeting when I first went.

"They have taught me to manage myself. I used to be hyperactive and had the shortest attention span in the world, now I can control it and pay attention to things.”