The Summerhill Idea and the Working Class

01 January 2012
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brynBryn Purdy

A correspondent who had read an article about Summerhill in a national newspaper wrote a letter to the editor complaining about ‘the same, uncritical, pro-Summerhill propaganda’, based on a few anecdotes. He asserted that the methods which A.S. Neill advocated actually harmed working-class children because they interacted poorly with their parents’ educational backgrounds. Bryn Purdy responded sharply with an account of his own experience of introducing A.S.Neill’s Summerhill idea to working-class children and their parents, offering not only anecdote but also statistical evidence.

My interest in Summerhill was aroused by what I had read about the school at my college of education. It seemed to me absurd, so I visited the school in the early 60s in a mood of anticipative scepticism.

Initially I wandered about the school building and grounds, conversing where opportunity offered, but counting myself only an observer. I was only on nodding acquaintance with the already elderly A. S. Neill so I was taken aback when he approached me, informed me that he was going on a lecture tour, and asked me whether I would mind taking over his class for a few days. ‘What should I teach?’ I asked. Typically, his answer was a response to a question I had not asked. ‘The kids seem to like you.’

On his return, Neill met me in his classroom and glanced at the blackboard which still held my notes from the last informal lesson. It had been on the phenomenology and morphology of the swear-word. He looked me in the eye, and observed tersely, ‘They’ll not get that in G.C.E.’ I could not be sure whether this was a reflection on my teaching or on the public exams, but he did add, “Can you carry on for the next few weeks?”

After that I visited Summerhill, for at least a week each term during a two-year period, and what struck me most was the changes in the children over the months. Each time I arrived, I observed that their faces had altered, or even, in several cases, been transformed, since my last visit.

A number of years later, my wife and I opened a day school for the behaviourally disordered child under the auspices of a County Council, and invited head teachers and parents to visit. I would explain to the working-class parents of this inner city unschool that I disbelieved absolutely in punishment, and also that I had a strong conscientious objection to forcing – as distinct from encouraging – the child to learn.

I invited them to our daily Moot, to see how the community worked and to show them that I disbelieved just as strongly in ‘permissivism’, allowing even instances of minor discourtesy. If the term ‘zero tolerance’ had been in vogue at the time, the children would have recognised its implementation in our small community. The cultural backgrounds of the parents did not seem to inhibit their understanding of these principles; indeed, when they made longer visits during the school day, most endorsed them enthusiastically.

Summerhill School web siteI felt a duty to research what many people regard as a wayward educational practice, to discover what might be the effect of the Summerhill idea on the ordinary child.

After seven years, the results of this research showed that, on average, the referred child had improved in his behaviour by 53%, and that the overall juvenile delinquency index had fallen by 78%. I emphasise that these statistics were not based on the self-serving opinions of the staff working in the school which cared for the children, but on the findings of the teachers at the parent school to which the child returned.

Nevertheless we may well still ask whether the Summerhill idea is more or less effective than other methods, held and implemented by sincere professionals in good conscience. Was 53% good? Was 78% significant?

I’m afraid nobody knew, statistically at least, and I have the highest authority for asserting this. Later on I was invited to join the consultative committee of the Schools Council working paper, Education of Disturbed Pupils, published in1980. I asked my co-directors how my results compared with other research. There were sixteen pages of schools enumerated in their survey, but they advised me that they had not encountered any similar research in any other school.

Perhaps it has been conducted by now. My curiosity persists.

Copies of Girls Will be Grils [sic], by Bryn Purdy, describing how The Summerhill Idea was incorporated into the everyday life of the several schools which he and his wife ran, may be obtained @ £5, postage free, from:

The Laneill Press, C/o 9 St Laurence Gardens, Belper, Derbyshire DE56 1DE

The Oxford English Dictionary has accepted a neologism which Bryn created, based on the word ‘Utopia’. Bryn’s website, www.eutopism.co.uk gives further details about the meaning of the neologism and its history.

 

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