Famous Suffolk school where children make the rules to hold ‘democratic education’ conference

A (non-compulsory) art lesson at Summerhill School in Leiston. L-R Letisha Mahm, Simone Padur (Teach

A (non-compulsory) art lesson at Summerhill School in Leiston. L-R Letisha Mahm, Simone Padur (Teacher), Jul Henrik. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The Suffolk school that puts children in charge of their own learning is holding a unique conference next weekend to celebrate ‘democratic education’.

Zoe Readhead, Principal of Summerhill School in Leiston. Picture: JERRY TAYLOR

Zoe Readhead, Principal of Summerhill School in Leiston. Picture: JERRY TAYLOR - Credit: Archant

Founded in 1921 by Scottish educator and author, Alexander Sutherland Neill, Summerhill School in Leiston prides itself as being the “oldest children’s democracy in the world” – where lessons aren’t compulsory and the pupils make the rules.

Now the school, run by A.S. Neill’s daughter Zoe Readhead, will be hosting a forum in which adults and children co-create the schedule.

The Freedom to Learn Forum will take place on April 6-8, and is designed to bring together educators, families and other pioneers with an interest in schools governed by “equality, freedom and collaboration”.

The weekend will include Summerhill students hosting mock-meetings, talks from many different schools around the UK, and a chance to stay in the school dormitories for a Summerhill residential experience.


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Henry Readhead, Deputy Head and grandson of founder A.S. Neill, said: “We warmly welcome anyone with any curiosity, enthusiasm or skepticism for the ideas at our heart… See it as a retreat from your traditional classrooms, a space to have fun, challenge others and be challenged yourself.”

The forum is co-organised by Summerhill School, the Freedom to Learn Project at the University of Hull, and the Phoenix Education Trust (PET).

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Danny Whitehouse, director of PET, said “[The event could] influence the cultures of school communities, and inspire educators to explore practical ways to implement the core values we advocate for: equality, autonomy, collaboration, agency, and authenticity.”

Last year Summerhill School was among 40 schools to receive the ‘Discovering Democracy Award’, organised by the British Youth Council and funded by the Cabinet Office.

In its last inspection (in 2011), Ofsted found the school ‘outstanding’ in its personal, social, health education and its citizenship. Inspectors gave an overall quality rating of ‘good’ when they last visited the independent school, which provides boarding and day facilities for pupils between the ages of about five and 17.

The school’s alumni include actress Rebecca De Monray, famous for starring in the 1983 hit Risky Business.

For more information about the Freedom to Learn Forum, and tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/freedom-to-learn-forum-tickets-40765702313.

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