Some Virtuous Circles
When I finally qualified as a teacher, in spite of the fact that my principal inspiration was A. S. Neill, I did not join Summerhill. Instead I became a headteacher of schools for ‘children under stress’ for the next quarter-century, with a panoply of Summerhillian policies: a daily ‘Moot’, practising non-punishment, familial rather than schoolteacherly relationships between child and adult; in short, having become a lapsed libertarian, became an adherent of what I came to call ’responsibilism’.
We named our independent school after Robert Owen, who was, arguably, in certain important respects, the A. S. Neill of the nineteenth century.
It seems to me now, as it did then in the heady days of the pre-budding '60s, that, whatever the faults of the man and the shortcomings of his educational thinking, the Summerhill Idea is at the cutting-edge of the philosophy of education.
I will illustrate the point with four circular stories with an ironic twist, which emerged over the decades through several pupils and one staff-member of our Summerhill-style school.
First Circle: Nell
An educational psychologist visited Rowen House, the Robert Owen Unschool, as I liked to think of it, and told us candidly that 12-year-old Nell, already expelled from all the special schools in the County, was such a disruptive element in her Children's Home that the childcare staff had issued an ultimatum to the Local Authority: if Nell be not removed forthwith, they would remove themselves, and leave the Home unstaffed.
So would we take over the care of Nell? We agreed, and Nell nearly brought us too to our knees, as she recorded in a series of letters of corrosive abuse to the headteacher, published elsewhere (in Girls will be Grils, pages 50 to 58).
We were, however, rescued by a couple of stalwart and loving ‘befrienders’. (Befrienders were local people who volunteered to care for those of our girls who had nowhere else to go during weekends and holidays.) Ronda and Jeff and their two infant daughters took Nell to their hearts and into their home, and under their benign influence Nell became a loving and lovable human being.
So loving indeed, that now, twenty years on, Nell is a senior care worker in a children's home like the one which she once, singlehandedly, came near to closing.
Second Circle: Helen
An educational administrator telephoned one Friday afternoon in 1985. He told us that a secondary school for which he was responsible had advised him that they were expelling an inveterately aggressive trouble-maker forthwith, within the hour, and under no circumstances would they admit her on Monday morning.
‘So,’ Hugh requested, ‘I know it’s short notice, Bryn, but would you . . . ?’
On Monday morning Helen seemed rather to be shell-shocked from the trenches than a teenager on the offensive. She arrived, guarded, insouciant, and self-absorbed, but, once taken to the bunker of her bedroom, proved not to be the problem which her case-papers, which arrived in her wake, might have predicated.
According to our custom, she was inducted into her new unschool by the current girl-mentor. The two girls eyed each other for long moments. Her mentor smiled. ‘It’s all right, Helen; it ain’t that sort of school.’ She had entered the building anxious and tight-lipped, but by lunch-time was – albeit guardedly – friendly and polite.
As the medical orderly tending such casualties, I observed that she spent many early hours of the succeeding weeks just staring at herself in the mirror. During classroom hours, she withdrew herself to the eyrie of her bedroom, where she learned to play chess quickly under my tutelage, almost as if she had known the game in a previous life, and was now only being reminded of its rules and strategy. Maths also seemed to be easily learnt without the need of teaching.
The mirror, looking at herself – into herself – became a metaphor for the next stage in her development. Learning to trust proved a more exacting assignment than chess or maths, as she listened to the indictments of her fellow-communards in the Moot and had quiet conversations with the two counsellors on the staff.
In time, she began to talk, and her counsellors spent many hours listening, just listening, then probing, then . . . mopping up. Hidden issues emerged and were resolved, thanks to their insight and Helen’s extraordinary intellectual honesty and emotional courage
A very valued ‘mentor’ to her fellow-pupils and colleague to the staff she proved – in the course of time – to be.
More integrated now with her new school-friends, she attended class for the more usual academic pursuits, and, so talented an artist did she reveal herself, that she began co-attending the local Secondary School on their G.C.S.E course.
It was, however, during our daily Moot that her most outstanding qualities evinced themselves. Whether as 'chair-girl' or a member of the forum, she was thoughtful, compassionate, incisive in interrogation, and, if one may use such a word for a 15-year-old, wise.
Ten years after her leaving school, we attended her University matriculation in the role of her parents. We still meet with her, as she is employed locally by a national childcare organisation, monitoring and succouring the type of child alienated from society that she once was.
Third Circle: Clare
Since my early days in the specialism of caring for the disturbed child, I had wondered at how much public money was expended in seeking to contain disrupting behaviours in the school before acknowledging that it was a fruitless and costly exercise, causing protracted distress to the child and to other pupils in the classroom. Could not a more preventive national policy be evolved?
Clare was ‘admitted’ to the Rowen House after having been 'asked to leave' from twelve schools previously. (A record which I learnt that she shares with hell-raiser and film actor, the late Oliver Reed.)
I am always on the lookout for likely 'copy' from our communards, and Clare responded willingly to my invitation to write a essay, which she entitled The Thirteenth School, to record her integration into Robert Owen Unschool.
Her absorption into our community was not painless for us, but, when the mood was on her, she became a most valued member of ‘staff’, succouring the emotional needs of the other children.
Several years later, she wrote to tell us that she had been awarded a first in mathematics at university, and that she had decided to train to be a teacher. After her teaching practice at one school the headmaster asked her to return after qualification to teach its Sixth Form.
One was left to wonder whether if Oliver Reed had had the benefit of a ‘thirteenth school‘ he too might have been invited to teach A-Level Maths.
Full Circle: ‘In my beginning is my end’
Recently I called at the Drop Inn, a local centre run by young people, which had been founded by Andrea, who had once been one of our befrienders at Rowen House. I wanted to ask Andrea’s permission to publish an article, of which I had given her a draft. She welcomed me and invited me to sit down.
I saw that she was busy at her desk, so, after a few minutes, I rose to take my leave. As I did so, my eye-level enabled me to catch a legend transcribed and affixed to a pinboard above her head. It was a quotation from Neill himself:
My job is to bring happiness to some few children.