Summerhill School web siteMatthew Appleton

Illusions and Reality

When a friend persuaded me to read A. S. Neill's book, Summerhill, in the mid-eighties, I was immediately captivated by his description of the school. It sounded like no school I had ever heard of, but the sort of school that any self-respecting child would love to attend. At Summerhill no children had to go to lessons if they did not want to, but could play all day if they so desired. There were no rules or regulations imposed by adults. Instead, there were weekly meetings in which adults and children alike had an equal say in deciding what laws should govern the daily life of the school. I visited the school and was impressed by the seemingly idyllic scenario of children playing freely around the school grounds. Shortly afterwards another friend, to whom I had enthused about the school, sent me an advert for houseparents to work there, which she had seen in a newspaper. It was like having a gauntlet thrown down. I knew that I could not continue to pontificate about Summerhill until I actually had firsthand experience of living there. So, with some trepidation, I applied for one of the houseparenting jobs and got it.

Like so many love affairs, my initial relationship with Summerhill was hopelessly romantic. As far as I was concerned everything was wonderful and everyone was happy. There were some anti-social kids, who obviously weren't at peace with themselves, but no doubt in a month or two they would be playing as contentedly as all the other kids.

It turned out to be not quite like that. After a while I started to find myself feeling angry at these kids, who didn't fit into my version of Summerhill as an earthly paradise. The impression I had got from Neill's book was that a little freedom and approval would cure any child of unhappiness and anti-social behaviour. I felt disillusioned with the school and angry that it did not live up to my expectations. If I had left then I would probably have continued to feel this way. But there was something about life at Summerhill which still felt very right, and I decided to stay.

Over the next few years I did see changes in these difficult children. I saw shy, emotionally withdrawn children, traumatised by their experiences in other schools, turn into confident and open young people. I saw children hardened by what life had thrown at them soften and relax. Re-reading Neill a few years later I became aware that between the stories of almost miraculous changes in children's behaviour – and yes, over the years I did see some of these – he stressed that what Summerhill staff needed more than anything was patience. It can be very hard work living with children who are acting out their anti-social impulses, week after week, month after month. But what Summerhill gives these children is time. It takes off them the pressure of having to go to lessons and gives them time to sort themselves out.

To become disillusioned is not, in itself, a negative thing. It is, quite simply, to give up an illusion. In giving up my illusion of Summerhill as a kind of never-never land in which everyone is happy all the time, I was able to become more grounded in the reality of the place. It does take a lot of patience to give children time to sort themselves out, but if we are not patient with our children, cane we then expect them to be patient with us? In fact it is only ever a very small minority of the Summerhill community who are pushing the patience of the staff and other children. Most of the children are quite happy and getting on with life just like anyone else, and therefore have ups and downs like anyone else. The fundamental difference is that they can be truly themselves whilst being like anyone else, instead of having to surrender their emotional development to the pressures and strains of compulsory education, with its above-the-neck only approach to learning.

An illusion that many people have about Summerhill is that, because the lessons are not compulsory, the children do not learn and are therefore not prepared for the wider world when they leave the school. This illusion was implicit in the recent report by the inspectors from Ofsted, who visited the school in 1999.

During my time at Summerhill the school was inspected nearly every year. Neill once wrote 'Summerhill is possibly the happiest school in the world.' To this we added, 'Summerhill is possibly the most inspected school in the world.' I was struck by the inability of the inspectors to grasp what Summerhill was trying to do. I remember one inspector asking me how we dealt with the problem of children not attending lessons. When I responded that it was not a problem, as the children learnt what they needed to learn in their own time, she gave me a look of utter incomprehension. The concept that children need time to play and sort themselves out, free of academic pressure, was alien to her. Nor did any of the inspectors seem to see the self-confidence and openness of the children as important, indeed they often seemed to feel uncomfortable with it.

When the children I knew left Summerhill, they were not unmotivated or unable to fit into the wider world. They went on to qualify and work in a wide variety of settings. Most went on to further education, studying subjects as varied as biochemistry, marine biology, dentistry, medicine, art, dance, boat-building, astrophysics, music, psychology, carpentry, sculpture, business studies, tourism and catering. The majority are happy, well-adjusted young people. It is some years since I left Summerhill. Many of the children I was houseparent for are now friends who still keep in contact. I cannot think of one of them who was not upset and angry at the way Summerhill was judged and condemned by Ofsted. Far from seeing it as a place that let them down educationally, they see it as a place that supported and respected them in their growth as individual human beings.

If I had left Summerhill when I first began to question it, like the inspectors I would probably be saying now that it doesn't work. But, just as Summerhill gives children time to understand who they are, I needed time to understand what Summerhill is. My disillusionment gave way to a deeper understanding and faith in the process. If Ofsted were to take the time to really try to understand what Summerhill is about, they too might abandon their illusions and gain a deeper understanding.

Matthew Appleton's book A Free Range Childhood: Self-Regulation at Summerhill School, is published in the USA by The Foundation for Educational Renewal Inc, ISBN 1 885580-02-9






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