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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 00:49 GMT
School defends its freedoms
Summerhill School in Suffolk is famous for allowing pupils to choose whether to attend lessons - or as some would have it, "run riot". The Department for Education is threatening to shut it down. Alison Stenlake went to see what school life is really like there.
A teacher has broken a school rule. He has not brought his own cup into school to drink from, and has used a school cup instead.
But school cups are strictly reserved for guests and the school's youngest pupils. So now a roomful of pupils and a handful of teachers are discussing the matter at the school's weekly "tribunal".
Someone suggests the teacher should pay a small fine for breaking the rule, but after a majority vote, he gets off with a "strong warning" to bring in his own cup in future.
This scenario would never happen at most schools across the country. But at the progressive Summerhill School, in Leiston, Suffolk, it is commonplace.
And although this particular misdemeanour may seem fairly insignificant, the democratic way in which it is dealt with is at the heart of the school's unusual philosophy.
At Summerhill, everyone - be it young pupils or the school's headteacher, Zoe Readhead - has an equal say in how school life operates.
Weekly meetings are held where school rules, or "laws", are made and changed, and weekly tribunals deal with people, both pupils and staff, who break them.
Many people outside the school find this hard to swallow. What they find even harder is that no pupil at the independent boarding school has to go to lessons if he or she doesn't want to.
Instead, if they prefer, children can play, hang out in the art room, make a hut in the woods, or pop into town (although that is not allowed before lunch - another law).
This freedom of choice is another central part of the school's philosophy. But it is also one which has contributed to the school's closure threat from the Department for Education.
Last summer, a critical report by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), prompted the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to file a formal notice of complaint against the school demanding that it make changes to remedy six specific issues.
The school, which was founded in 1921 by Mrs Readhead's father, AS Neill, has made some changes in response to three of them, involving health and safety issues and the quality of teaching and lesson planning at Key Stage 2.
But it is adamant that it cannot comply with the other three while maintaining its philosophy and principles. So next month, it will appeal against them at an independent schools tribunal.
If the school were to obey the DfEE's wishes, it would have to make lessons or study programmes, and the systematic assessment of all pupils, compulsory.
The Ofsted report states: "The school has drifted into confusing educational freedom with the negative right not to be taught.
"As a result, many pupils have been allowed to mistake the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty."
It also says: "Those willing to work achieve satisfactory or even good standards, while the rest are allowed to drift and fall behind.
"This amounts to an abrogation of educational responsibility and a failure of management and leadership."
But the school says that making lessons and assessment compulsory would contradict its democratic foundations. The freedom to play, rather than the compulsion to study, is what is important to the school, which believes that "creative and imaginative play is an essential part of childhood and development".
To satisfy the DfEE, the school would also have to rule that male and female pupils use separate toilets, and that pupils use separate toilets from staff members.
This does not seem such a big deal. But the school, which has just 58 pupils aged between four and 17, argues that it operates as a "family" community, and that families do not have segregated toilets.
Mrs Readhead, whose own four children have either attended or still attend the school, as she once did, said the closure threat had caused a lot of worry for staff, pupils and parents.
And she said the Ofsted inspectors and the DfEE had, in judging it by standards used for conventional schools, missed the point of Summerhill.
She said: "Summerhill has been running for 80 years next year, and pupils from Summerhill are very successful in the fields they choose.
"You don't necessarily have to learn to read by the age of, say, seven in order for you to be successful in life.
"We know from experience that children who are allowed to make that choice will make that choice in their own time, and will come to the same end by the time they reach 15 or 16.
"The important thing about Summerhill is that we don't see children as victims or people who need to be led in a direction. We know from experience that if you let them choose that direction and do give them an informed choice, then they can decide what they want to do.
"We know that we can prepare children for GCSE in two years. If you're driven to do it and want to do it, then you can work very hard, and you take the information in much faster."
Visiting Summerhill is an eye-opening experience. In many ways, it barely resembles a school at all.
Some of the school buildings, a considerable number of which are temporary, are somewhat shabby. The school fees, at an average of about £6,000 a year per boarding pupil, are much cheaper than those charged by most other independent schools, and the school says there's just not enough money to fund every improvement it would like to make all at once.
Some classes, because of the policy of non-compulsory attendance, are virtually empty, yet no one bats an eyelid.
Pupils and teachers, who are on first-name terms, are allowed to swear freely, and in the family ethos of the school, staff and children hugging each other is seen as perfectly natural.
But, contrary to much popular opinion, the pupils are not allowed to run riot. The school, which takes children from a wide range of countries including Japan, Korea and the United States, has nearly 300 laws which must be obeyed.
Confident and articulate
Community members have their freedom, as long as that freedom does not interfere with anybody else.
One of the most striking things is the confidence and articulacy of many of the pupils, particularly the older ones.
They speak very coherently about how much they value the rights and freedom they have at the school, adding that they do choose to go to lessons and plan to go on to further education when they leave.
Nathan Clutterbuck, 15, is a boarder at the school, although his family lives in Framlingham, about half an hour away.
He has been at Summerhill since he was four, except for one year when he attended a state school to see what it was like.
Now on the brink of sitting some of his GCSEs, he comes across as a switched-on teenager who knows what he wants out of life.
"I don't agree with the state sector, because I don't agree with uniforms, I don't agree with calling teachers "Sir", I don't agree with assembly, I don't agree with everything," he said.
'Hopefully I'll do quite well'
"I did learn to read more at state school, because I had a choice of reading or going to assembly. I can read, but I don't read books because I like to get out and do things.
"I'm doing my maths and science GCSEs this year, and my English and other subjects next year. I think I'm going to pass. Hopefully I'll do quite well. Afterwards I will definitely go to a college, and then university or something. I'm interested in the media, drama and the performing arts."
Carman Cordwell, 15, from London, said: "Everybody knows each other here, and it's so much like a family.
"I love being able to do what I want. I wouldn't really change anything. If I could change anything, I would want everyone to leave us alone really, and just let us be."
Vita Gortgens, also 15, from Germany, said: "I like going to lessons. It's really open. You can talk to the teachers, and if you want to learn something you just ask.
"When you're not pushed into something you actually want to do it more."
This last point, says Mrs Readhead, is the key to the success of the school's approach to academic work.
"The children here know that their freedom is real. They know that they really are able to make those decisions about their lives, and that is of huge value to them.
"Ofsted have never made any steps to judge us against the standards that we would like to be judged against. I know that any school in the country can say that, but Summerhill is different from any other school in the country. It has a very unique philosophy."
David Ramm and his partner Rachel, who live about 15 miles away from the school in Shadingfield, have three children who are day pupils at the school.
They are convinced that Charlie, 12, Beth, 10, and Anna, eight, who previously attended state primary schools, are getting the best education possible.
"They've come here because we believe the philosophy of AS Neill. We believe that children develop best in a free environment and we like the democratic nature of the school," Mr Ramm said.
"Also, important for us, the children are taught in small groups. But the primary reason is the democratic nature of the school.
"We think that they have the opportunity here to make some decisions about what they value in education, what they think is important to them, and they pursue those interests.
"The facilities here are good. There is a wide range of teaching activities and other activities. There is a strong academic side to the school that they can take advantage of if they want to.
"We think that over a period of time they will achieve good academic standards, but also have the freedom to develop emotionally and socially, and so on.
"I think it's very sad that the government and Department for Education are unable to see the virtues of Summerhill. They don't appear to have understood the experience that children are getting here".
The Department for Education would not comment on its complaints against the school, saying that all its evidence would be heard at the independent tribunal.
The school says it is determined to stand fast, and, if necessary, will take its fight for survival to the High Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Mrs Readhead said: "I feel confident because I'm right, because we must be allowed the right to be creative and innovative in education.
"Nobody has the right to come and tell me how I can have my child brought up and the kind of school I can send my child to.
"You can't be equal members of a democratic community if some of the members are telling the other members that they've got to do something.
"If we lose that freedom, that the children know is real freedom to make their own choices, then we lose everything, so there isn't any room for compromise on that.
"If it's OK for Tony Blair to send his children to a Catholic school, then it's got to be OK for me to send my child to Summerhill.
"As far as I'm concerned that is absolutely right, and the kind of feedback that I get from other people is that they believe that too."
Links to other Education stories are at the foot of the page.
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