Book review: Summerhill and A.S.Neill
Summerhill and A. S Neill
Edited by Mark Vaughan, with contributions from Zoe Neill Readhead, Tim Brighouse and Ian Stronach
Open University Press, ISBN-10: 0 335 21913 6 (paperback) or 0335 21914 4 (hardback)
For those who know Summerhill well, there is much in this book that is already familiar, but for newcomers it is a splendid introduction, inevitably provocative and entertaining where it quotes Neill himself and elsewhere more soberly demonstrative of the success of his school.
It starts with a short essay by Tim Brighouse, describing the influence Summerhill has already had on the state school system in Britain and suggesting that with the current emphasis on student voice it might have an even greater effect. He wonders, though, whether there are developments in our age which would have caused Neill to modify his approach.
The next section, which at sixty pages is more than one third of the whole book, is the first chapter of Neill's own Summerhill, first published in 1962, when he was eighty-four. This is where strangers to the system get their surprises, and old hands welcome the familiar dicta, such as 'I would rather see a school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar,'We had one main idea: to make the school fit the child – instead of making the child fit the school,' and 'The bestowal of freedom is the bestowal of love. And only love can save the world.'
Neill's views are supported with many anecdotes. Some of them, particularly the ones about the instant therapeutic effects of his own interventions, seem at first sight too good to be true, but perhaps we should believe them. John Burningham, the illustrator of children's books, has elsewhere written about the instant effect that Neill had on him when he had been stealing regularly from the school larder. All Neill did was to remark, from behind the newspaper he was reading when the young Burningham dropped in one day, 'Some bugger has got the key to the store room, Brum. You wouldn't happen to know who that is would you?' Burningham says that he immediately went and fetched the key and never stole again. It is a pity that the book does not include more accounts like this from the children who were affected by Neill's unusual methods.
The next section of the book, though, is actually by an ex-pupil – Zoe Neill Readhead, Neill's daughter and the current head of the school. Her own children also attended the school, and she has two grandchildren there now, so she has seen it from many different angles. She describes her relationship with her father, and how having been a pupil gives her a completely different slant on her role as head, how she sometimes wishes she could tell him, 'Actually, Neill, you were wrong about such and such,' and how she longed for his support when Channel 4 showed its dishonest and destructive film about the school. She tells how Summerhill no longer so often receives children who have been traumatised by their experiences at the hands of adults, and has now become a place which teaches some over-indulged children about how to behave and how to stick to rules. She emphasises the absolute practicality of the school, and says, for instance, 'We just get on and live our lives in a simple, basic and somehow ancient way.'
Ian Stronach's analysis of the 1999 OFSTED report follows, with his account of the resulting independent inspections and court case. The extent of malice and duplicity that he exposes, in careful academic style, is astonishing, and makes for exciting reading. He also gives the solid evidence of the success of the school that the DfES was so determined to suppress. This success extends even to exam results, which were found by the independent inquiry to be 'better than the national average, despite the intake being largely non-UK, and comprising higher than average numbers of special needs pupils and indeed those with school phobias of one sort or another.'
Next come some questions and answers taken from Neill's Summerhill, presumably adapted from real discussions after public talks. Neill's replies sometimes have a period flavour, but many are still relevant, cutting and witty. 'Why does my small son tell so many lies?' asks one parent. 'Possibly," replies Neill, 'in imitation of his parents.'
The book finishes with some more up-to-date questions about things like drugs, the internet and mobile phones, which are effectively answered by Zoë, and a brief account of the A.S. Neill Summerhill Trust, the aims of which are to spread Neill's ideals and to support pupils at Summerhill who could not otherwise afford to attend.
So many people who have read Neill's books, says Zoe, say that they not only enjoyed them, but 'it changed their lives.' If you haven't read anything about Neill and Summerhill before, this book may change yours.