Book review: After Summerhill: What happened to the pupils of Britain’s most radical school?
Herbert Adler, Publishing, available online from www.herbertadler.co.uk at £8.95
This book consists of fifteen articles compiled some years ago from interviews with former pupils of Summerhill. Each article is introduced by a paragraph drawing attention to its particular relevance, followed by a section about the interviewee’s experiences at Summerhill itself, a section about subsequent careers and a brief postscript written in 2011. The work on the book took several years, and the final choice of articles was made from a collection that the publisher, John Adler, says was as big as a telephone directory. His instructions to Hussein Lucas were these:
The book had to be no longer than 250 pages.
It had to have at least one contributor from each decade of the school’s existence and so give an idea of the history of the school.
It was to include a wide variety of people, but there was to be nothing by Neill himself, his daughter Zoe who is now head of the school, or any other staff member.
It should include some contributions from people who made criticisms.
The book starts with Elizabeth Pascal, who was at Neill’s International School in Germany from 1921 – 1923, and ends with Abigail Taylor, who was at Summerhill from 1990 – 1995. The reason there is nothing from any more recent Summerhillian is firstly that the selection and editing took several years, and secondly that the school’s ninetieth anniversary seemed a good time for publication.
The interviewees have between them a huge range of careers, made wider than it might have been by the fact that many individuals changed direction several times. Leonard Lasalle, for instance, gave up working in advertising because it seemed to him to be immoral and ended up as a dealer in antiques, and Lucien Crofts left his own electronics business to become a thatcher’s mate and eventually trained as a psychotherapist. Careers varied from art and music via teaching and electronics to lecturing in physics at Imperial College and from pub landlord to head of graphic design at BBC TV.
The contributors are honest and serious about the school, and make many criticisms. This honesty is in itself an advertisement for their education; at Summerhill young people learn to be honest with themselves and with others. Anyone looking for faults in the school can find mention of homesickness, bullying, stealing and shop-lifting, but what is important is not what went wrong, but how it was dealt with. Happiness, security, self-confidence and concern for the welfare of others feature far more prominently than problems, in spite of the fact that the school often took in children who had suffered miserably or caused trouble elsewhere.
The weekly General Meetings, where rules and social problems and general school affairs are decided on jointly by students and staff, are generally seen as a more important element of the school than even Neill himself, who figures as an admired and much loved part of the background. There is much discussion of the fact that lessons were entirely voluntary. Some of the people interviewed avoided lessons altogether for as much as a year or more. It did not seem to prevent ex-students from leading successful careers. An extreme example is Freer Spreckley. After an irresponsible Summerhill career during which he spent his time with a gang of other problem children from broken homes, he actually left the school at the age of sixteen unable to read or write. He hitched twice round the world, earning enough to keep going from a sequence of casual jobs, and eventually taught himself to read in three months in the Australian desert, where his job left him with plenty of time on his hands. His subsequent career has been astonishing. In 1973 he established the Lifespan community in Yorkshire, in partnership with Hylda Sims, another old Summerhillian. He then set up Beechwood College in Leeds and an organisation called Community Economy, where he helped people on housing estates to set up credit unions and businesses. He developed Social Audit, became managing director of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, and a trainer for VSO. He is now a consultant in Social Enterprise, and his clients include Oxfam and the British Council to the EEC. Summerhill may not have taught him to read and write, but it certainly helped to turn him from an indifferent ruffian to a responsible social leader.
Many of the interviewees found life difficult when they first left Summerhill. They found their contemporaries rather childish and socially inept, particularly in their relationships with the opposite sex. It was hard for them to accept hierarchy, and some of them successfully rebelled against it. However, they all eventually adjusted to the outside world.
This book shows that the benefits of Summerhill education are not limited to a happy, fearless childhood. They include self-confidence, a sense of purpose, a mature understanding of gender relationships, tolerance, responsibility and an eagerness to learn.