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Monday, 20 March, 2000, 15:18 GMT
Summerhill on trial
An appeals tribunal has begun a hearing which could decide the fate of Summerhill, the progressive independent school in Suffolk where pupils choose whether to attend lessons.
Students, teachers, the cook, the cleaning staff, some parents and ex-students were travelling to London in a coach to attend the hearing, which is expected to last more than a week.
Last year, 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.
Summerhill has appealed against three of the six demands - hence the sitting of the independent schools tribunal, chaired by a retired circuit court judge.
The tribunal could quash the notice, or - if it is upheld - strike the school immediately from the register of independent schools.
Alternatively, it could give the school time to comply with the requirements.
The school's lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC, said in his opening remarks that closing it would be an "act of educational vandalism".
He said the freedom exercised by the pupils whether or not to go into the classroom was not negotiable.
"It's freedom or nothing. If it's not freedom, it isn't Summerhill," he told the tribunal.
"If you insist that it is negotiable, as Ofsted wants to make it, that will be the end of Summerhill.
"It would have to close and that would be an act of educational vandalism."
The school was founded by the educational philosopher A S Neill in 1921 as what he called a "free" school. His daughter, Zoe Readhead, is the present headteacher.
'Not about ideology'
Counsel for the education secretary, Alison Foster, said he was not trying to close the school.
"It is not his intention to enter into an ideological battle - this appeal does not concern a battle of ideologies," she said.
"He is not intent on enforcing compulsory lessons on Summerhill pupils nor on compelling the abandonment of the general philosophy of education propounded by A S Neill."
But, she added, the minister was entitled to regard a particular form of education as being too narrow.
History of concerns
Ofsted's permanent inspections staff (HMI) say they have had "significant concerns" about Summerhill for a number of years.
The Department for Education issued an earlier notice of complaint after an inspection in 1990, but this was lifted when it appeared the school intended to take action on the weaknesses identified.
Ofsted says subsequent monitoring indicated that the planned actions were not generally being implemented, leading to another full inspection.
"Since then the pattern has been repeated of strongly critical inspection findings being followed by promising plans of action that were only very partially, if at all, implemented by the school," it says.
After the last visit, a year ago, the inspectors said: "This report cannot and does not pass judgement on the unique philosophy on which Summerhill is founded. It focuses upon the issue of whether the quality of the education provided is effective in practice."
They concluded: "Summerhill is not providing an adequate education for its pupils.
Letter to MPs
"Whether the pupils make sufficient progress and achieve the standards of which they are capable is left to each child's inclination. As a result, those willing to work achieve satisfactory or even good standards, while the rest are allowed to drift and fall behind."
Summerhill's complaint is that it is being judged against criteria which it has never set out to meet.
A letter from students was submitted to the House of Commons education select committee last week as part of its inquiry into the work of Ofsted.
"We are angry that we are being denied our rights, and our parents' right to choose the education we feel is best for us," they wrote.
"We are being threatened with closure because we are different."
In January, Summerhill received a boost in its fight for survival in the report of an independent inquiry team called in to examine Ofsted's judgments.
The team, headed by management consultant Professor Ian Cunningham, said the government would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights if it closed the school.
His team of heads, inspectors and businessmen disagreed strongly with Ofsted's findings.
After spending 17 days at the school, they said the freedom enjoyed by Summerhill pupils did not mean it was "anarchic, ill-organised and unstructured".
But by law, all independent schools must register with the Department for Education, and there is an inspection to see that they meet an adequate standard.
The government can issue a notice of complaint against any independent school, leading to it being struck off the register - and making it illegal for the school to continue teaching.
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