Inspecting the Island
By Hylda Sims
'This is a powerful narrative of self-discovery, love and drama as well as an exploration of the lives of free children based on the author's experience as a pupil of A S Neill's Summerhill School.'
ISBN 0 9538797 0 4
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Inspecting the Island is a very clever book. It achieves two aims simultaneously. Firstly it paints a picture of what life is like at Summerhill from the point of view of someone who has experienced it - Hylda Sims was at school there herself. And at the same time it tells a number of interlocking stories, each with its own different suspense. The stories illuminate the Summerhill approach, and Summerhill is an essential element in each of them.
The school in the book is not actually called Summerhill, and its headmaster is not called Neill. It is called Coralford, the headmaster is called Muir and it is set in Northumberland rather than Suffolk, but the words, "The Summerhill novel," appear on the cover, and the entire blurb is a quotation from Neill: "So we founded the school and stood back to see what children would do when free from adult compulsion. We had no fears that free children would behave like little savages. Our original hypothesis of the goodness of the child has been completely justified."
The head of Coralford has outlived Neill, though. He is about to celebrate his hundredth birthday. There are two visitors at the school, a hostile inspector on a supposedly informal visit, and a woman journalist who has come to interview Muir in order to write about him.
The multiple plots concern the fate of the school at the hands of the inspector, the contrast between the lives of the inspector and the journalist, who had lived together for a time at their university thirty years ago, an unhappy boy who chooses the inspector as a father-figure, an outsider who hides in the trees to watch the naked children at the swimming-pool and a boy who plays detective on his own, and gets into deep trouble.
Each of these narratives illustrates a different aspect of the school. They raise the questions that cynics have always raised, and as the stories develop we see how eagerly the school is misunderstood and how vulnerable it is to slander. At the same time we hear of self-confident, responsible, relaxed and articulate children, and see how well they run the school for themselves. The inspector and the journalist have based their lives on different values; the spy in the trees has never had a chance to throw off his inhibitions. And at intervals, all through the book, the journalist interviews Muir and extracts a string of Neillian opinions and anecdotes.
Hylda Sims, as an ex-Summerhillian, is obviously partisan, but the book is not didactic. It describes a reality, not a Utopian vision. It would not be impossible for people who strongly favour traditional education to read it and find their views confirmed. Anyone who approaches it with an open mind, though, will find Coralford a delightful place, and the interwoven plots, each demanding its own resolution, make the book difficult to put down.
Published by Seven-Ply Yarns in association with Lib Ed