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Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Wednesday, 16 June 2010 15:28 UK
Summerhill School ten years after victory over OFSTED
By Anna Dobbie
BBC Blast reporter

Summerhill School, Leiston
Summerhill was founded in 1921 in Germany and moved to Leiston in 1927

Pupil numbers have risen year-on-year at Suffolk's famous 'progressive' boarding school Summerhill.

The Leiston school won a court battle with OFSTED inspectors to stay open following a critical report in 1999.

Ten years on, there are now 76 pupils (fees are £13,500 a year for over-13s) compared to 61 on the roll in 1998.

The school has a philosophy where children make laws and decisions at regular school meetings and they can choose which lessons they go to or not.

In 2000, Leiston's pioneering co-educational boarding narrowly avoided closure by OFSTED.

As Summerhill approaches its 90th birthday, is the oldest 'children's democracy' and its founder's philosophy still relevant?

AS Neill of Summerhill School
AS Neill outlined his educational ideas in his book Summerhill

The school with no rules?

The founder of Summerhill, AS Neill, was named by the Times Educational Supplement in 1999 as one of the 12 most influential educators of the 20th Century.

He believed that children learn best with freedom from adult coercion: "The function of a child is to live his own life - not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best."

Members of the Summerhill community can do as they please, so long as they don't harm others, according to Neill's principle of 'freedom, not license'.

Lessons are optional and pupils choose how they spend their time. For instance, students can swear within school grounds, but calling someone an offensive name is considered harmful, and therefore, license.

However, Summerhill does have hundreds of rules. Regular school meetings are held where 'laws' are made and changed.

Tribunals allow the school to decide penalties for pupils and staff who break them and vote on punishments for unresolved conflicts, including theft and bullying.

According to Neill's daughter, current headmistress Zoe Redhead, more and more of today's children never face the results of their actions.

"Being able to make decisions for yourself from an early age teaches you how to deal with the results of wrong decisions and shows you how it feels to be on the wrong end of decisions made by other people," she said.

Courtney Love
Courtney Love on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in 2010

Summerhill in the media

Summerhill has been presented in the media as a 'do as you please' school, arousing the public's curiosity enough for CBBC to produce the Summerhill drama in 2008, which won two children's BAFTA awards.

Various websites report that rock singer Courtney Love claimed to have been the school's first expulsion, although there are no records of her attendance.

However, neither contemporary ex-pupils nor Redhead remember her.

"I suppose it sounds good to have been at Summerhill, it being so 'different'," said Zoe. "But I think she must have had some concrete reason to be saying that - an enigma."

OFSTED's criticisms

Summerhill's relationship with the government was turbulent during the 1990s, when it was inspected nine times by OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education).

In 1999, the school was issued with a notice of complaint over the policy of non-compulsory lessons.

The entire school contested the notice and four days into the court hearing, the government body's case collapsed.

After a school meeting held in the court, both sides agreed that further inspections must consider learning, in and outside lessons.

In 2007, OFSTED tested the school against the new criteria and their report was positive: "Pupils' personal development is outstanding and behaviour is good, mainly as a result of the good quality care, support and guidance they receive."

Nevertheless, some authorities still won't accept Neill's philosophies.

Kent County Council decided that Summerhill was unsuitable for 17 year old ADHD sufferer Tertius Wharton despite his family's claims that he'd made excellent progress there.

His parents therefore paid for his tuition rather than sending him to a council-funded special needs school.

Tom Conti
Tom Conti in a publicity still for Radio 4's Fame & Fortune in 2007

AS Neill's legacy

Parent Steve Fawdry, who writes the Summerhill newsletter, thinks the atmosphere in the school is more relaxed without the pressure of frequent inspections.

He believes Neill's philosophies are even more relevant with what Steve calls the "over-prescription and over-education of kids".

"Despite there being no adult coercion, once the kids decide for themselves what interests them, they just get on and do it," he said.

"Summerhill pupils grow up as motivated individuals knowing what satisfies them, what nourishes them. Creativity is often forgotten in schools, but here, it is very much encouraged."

Summerhill's GCSE results are above average, but they don't offer A levels.

The true measure of Neill's influence may be outside the school. Actor Tom Conti, who appeared in a Summerhill documentary, has described Neill as one of his two mentors.

"I was taken with Neill's logical approach to children," he said.

Conti applied Neill's philosophies to raising his daughter by finding a day school that was "wholly respectful of the importance of 'joy' of learning".

"Summerhill is of great benefit to youngsters and it would also be of great benefit to society if we could embrace how they think," said Conti.

Courtney Love gives Oxford talk
13 Feb 10 |  Oxfordshire
Welcome to the school run by teens
17 Oct 07 |  Magazine
Summerhill on trial
20 Mar 00 |  Education



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