Monday, October 12, 2015

Summerhill School, an Overview and a Short Book Review

Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A. S. Neill, Revised and Expanded, 1996 American edition, edited by Albert Lamb.

Summerhill is wildly popular in the realm of alternative education today, so let's start with a little general information about the school itself before we get into details on the book.

Summerhill was founded by Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921, first in Germany. It soon moved to Austria, again to Dorset, England, and finally ended up in Suffolk, England in 1927, where it's remained ever since. It's a boarding school that houses around between 60 and 100 students (boys and girls) aged 5 to 18. It is known for being one of the first democratic schools, meaning that rules and general functioning (apart from, in this case, human resources and finances) are conducted by a popular vote in which each student and staff member counts as one voice. Lessons are held by about 10 teachers in traditional subjects, such as math, English, and science, and also in non-traditional things, such as gardening, making paper airplanes, and playing chess, though no lessons are compulsory. Play is seen as more important than academics, and students that come from other schools typically spend an entire year or two attending no classes at all. The selling point of this is that when students do decide to attend classes, it is at their own desire, and, with such intrinsic motivation, quickly excel.

The school has survived the death of its founder in 1973, against his own expectations, and is now run by Neill's daughter, Zoe Readhead. She has pulled the school through a number of inspections by the UK's Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills), one of which ended in an order to force compulsory of lessons. The school took the department to court and won a settlement. The whole ordeal must have been an anxious time for the community, and a BBC movie titled Summerhill was based on that event. It seems as though the government has gotten a better sense of how the school functions since then, and has given it space to exist without fear of being shut down. Their 2011 inspection indicates that they recognize the unique benefits Summerhill offers.

Also interesting to note, possibly to no one but me: as of 2011, Ofsted lists day school tuition as roughly £3,000 to £9,000 ($4,500 to $13,000) and boarding tuition as roughly £8,500 to £14,000 ($12,000 to $21,000). I'm assuming this is per term, which is roughly equivalent to an American semester. That's quite a bit, but then again, I've never looked at prices for boarding schools. The day school prices seem a little much, too, though.

As for the book itself, it's necessary read with some context in mind. Again, Summerhill was founded in 1921. Having been up and running strong for almost 100 years, it's no longer the experimental school it once was. It wasn't even really an experimental school when the book was written in 1960. The author, however, is the same man, and he carries with him some characteristics from his age. Reading his words, Neill certainly seems like someone's grandfather.

He certainly has some mannerisms that would be inexcusable in today's educational setting. The most notable is the way he speaks to the students. He claims that he is meeting them on their level and that that this startles them into realizing they don't have to view him as an authority figure. Sure. But literally cursing at the children? At one point, when a new enrollee refuses a cigarette, but Neill is positive that he's a smoker, Neill scolds him, "Take it, damn you." At points, he seems to bicker with the children as though he is one of them. I'm on board with the idea of treating students like you would treat adults, but this is just too far.

Additionally, he seems to show no regard for real laws outside of the school. He mentions fears of being shut down, say, if a student became pregnant at the school, but then clearly demonstrates a disregard for other laws, like indecency, smoking, and age of consent. The school makes rules democratically, but it's interesting how many things come up that I feel would be outside of the realm of consideration legally. No, children, we can't go sunbathing nude, no matter how many of you think we should, because it's against the law. The police will arrest us. Or maybe laws in Britain are different than the US laws I'm familiar with. Or maybe they were different in 1960. Neill fears different things will shut down the school than I would currently would.

And then there's the small point of him coming to education with an interest in psychology and thinking he needs to "cure" his students...

Apart from that, Summerhill School remains radical for positive reasons, even still. The book garnered a lot of attention when it was published, and it seems like it started quite a movement. I devoured my copy, covering it in highlighting, bullet points, and exclamation points. It was a wonderful read, but alas, for some reason I can't bring myself to go into any further detail here. My brain has processed the information and is ready to move on. I'll have to leave you with links to further research instead. More, undoubtedly, when I take up the concept again.

Summerhill's official website
Wikipedia's Summerhill entry
Zoe Readhead - Summerhill--That Dreadful School!
The Guardian article: Summerhill school and the do-as-yer-like kids
The Guardian article: Summerhill School: these days surprisingly strict
The Independent article: Summerhill alumni: 'What we learnt at the school for scandal'
The Independent article: Summerhill: Inside England's most controversial private school
Centre for Self Managed Learning - Report of an Inquiry into Summerhill School