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Thursday, 23 March, 2000, 15:12 GMT
Summerhill closure threat lifted
Celebrations outside court followed the deal
The threatened closure of Summerhill progressive school has been lifted amid remarkable scenes at the Law Courts in London.

Meeting in one of the courts, pupils voted unanimously to accept an agreement with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett.

Carman Cordwell
Pupil Carman Cordwell: "This is our charter for freedom"
As a result, he dropped his notice of complaint and the school dropped its appeal, which had led to the court hearing before an independent schools tribunal.

Pupils and staff hugged each other and wept before leaving the courts complex to open bottles of champagne.

Summerhill's lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC, said the agreed statement - approved by the tribunal - was an "historic document".

The statement said the minister acknowledged that the evidence from ex-pupils, parents and independent experts "demonstrated that there did not now exist a factual situation which would entitle him to serve a notice of complaint".

The school now accepted assurances given on the minister's behalf that he did not want Summerhill struck off the register of schools - which would have meant closure - or to compel attendance at lessons, or to prevent it putting into effect the philosophy of its founder, A S Neill.

Status reviewed

The minister recognised the school had a right to its own philosophy and that any inspection should take into account its aims as an international "free" school.

readhead and pupil
Zoe Readhead: "My father would be delighted"
The statement was on the understanding that the minister and schools inspectorate Ofsted had to exercise their statutory functions in relation to schools.

The minister would immediately review Summerhill's status as a school marked "TBW" (To Be Watched).

It was intended that the usual programme of Ofsted inspections would now apply. In the absence of exceptional circumstances, the next full inspection would occur no earlier than 2004.

The school would also be entitled to submit its own expert report to the minister at the same time.

Pupils must be heard

Both sides went on record as agreeing that the pupils' voice should be fully represented in any evaluation of the quality of education at Summerhill and that inspections must consider the full breadth of learning at the school - learning was not confined to lessons.

It acknowledged the freedom of children to attend classroom lessons or not, in accordance with Neill's philosophy.

Levels of attendance at lessons should not, it was agreed, form the only basis for judgements of the suitability and efficiency of instruction and education at Summerhill.

Student Carman Cordwell, who chaired the meeting of pupils, said afterwards: "This is our charter for freedom. It gives us the space we need to live and breathe and learn into the future.

"After 79 years, this is the first official recognition that A S Neill's philosophy of education provides an acceptable alternative to compulsory lessons and the tyranny of compulsory exams.

'Free at last'

"With this one bound, we are free at last."

The appeal was brought on behalf of the school by the present owner and principal, Zoe Readhead, A S Neill's daughter.

After the hearing, Mrs Readhead hugged pupils and staff and said: "This is the most wonderful triumph for us.

"My father always had faith in the law, and he would be delighted at how it has brought him victory and vindication over a bureaucracy which could never cope with his ideas.

She said the school had lived for a year under the "Ofsted falsehood" that it had mistaken idleness for liberty.

"Today's verdict refutes that defamation and shows that liberty and learning go hand in hand at Summerhill.

"We can now put all the pettiness and incomprehension to which we have been subjected behind us, and look forward to a sensible and productive relationship with Ofsted and the Department of Education."

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See also:

20 Mar 00 | Education
Summerhill on trial
03 Feb 00 | Education
School defends its freedoms
05 Jan 00 | Education
Pupils vote for more lessons
26 Jan 00 | Education
Backing for threatened school
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