Kool Skools Rool OK?

With the threatened closure of Summerhill, the most controversial of all 'progressive' schools, an educational tradition as old as the century seems ready to die. But what does 'progressive education' mean? Why did it always include nude bathing? And who really benefits when the kids rule the roost?
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The Independent Culture
So Summerhill, the wackiest of Britain's progressive schools, is threatened with closure once again. School inspectors have condemned the quality of education at the controversial school where for 78 years - since its founding by the radical Scottish educationalist AS Neill - children have determined the rules and even decided for themselves whether to turn up for lessons.

According to inspectors, the "foul-mouthed" pupils, already infamous for nude bathing with each other and the staff, have been allowed to mistake idleness for personal freedom. The inspectors' threat to close the school raises the question of whether there is still room in league-tabled, national curriculum-obsessed New Britain for the educationally experimental and, in particular, the laissez-faire, free-spirited approach to schooling which began to blossom at the turn of the century, often under the patronage of the ultra-rich, bohemian and, quite frankly, plain wacko.

Times have certainly changed. The early decades of Britain's progressive education movement were heady. Schools like Summerhill, and Dartington, in Devon, founded in 1925 by the American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst and her English husband Leonard, were the darlings of leftist intellectuals. Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and Sean O'Casey sent their children to Dartington, while Benjamin Britten and Henry Moore were regular visitors. In 1923 George Bernard Shaw - like Bertrand Russell, a supporter of Summerhill - had raged that England's great public schools "should be razed to the ground and their foundations sown with salt". It was a time for challenging prevailing orthodoxy, and pursuing utopias. It was also a time for scandalising the neighbours, darling.

At Dartington - as at Summerhill and Bedales - it was the progressives' obsession with nude outdoor bathing which caused most shock. When the Fabians held their summer schools at Dartington in the 1920s, myth now has it that they timed their nude bathing sessions in the River Dart to coincide with the passing of the royal train.

Radical and progressive - like shocking - are, of course, relative terms. Both Dartington and Summerhill were reactions to the brutality children suffered in schools of the time. Neill's own sad, emotionally deprived childhood - he was the neglected son of an austere Scottish schoolteacher - partly drove him to set up a school where children could be "free".

Leonard Elmhirst was moved to create Dartington after his own appalling time at public school. Then, the notion that children could be involved in their own learning, that boys and girls could be taught together, and that they deserved kindness and respect, were not mainstream.

But Summerhill and Dartington went further. Neill's daughter, Zoe Readhead, who now runs the school, says that her father started from the premise that children and adults stand as equals. From that flowed the child's entitlement to equal voting rights with teachers in a "democratic and self-governing" school. While relations between teachers and pupils in schools today are more relaxed, only Summerhill gives children such power.

While a handful of the 1,300 independent schools represented by the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) are listed as "progressive", only Summerhill (not an ISIS member and unlikely to qualify on academic grounds) remains resolutely wedded to the old radical ideas.

Dartington clung stubbornly to some, but closed in 1987 after a series of scandals. In 1983 Dr Lyn Blackshaw, then headmaster, confirmed the prejudices of those who do not hold with Neill's view that children are innately good, and argued that left to their own devices children create the nightmare of Lord of the Flies. Dartington's "self-governing" pupils, Mr Blackshaw claimed, were engaging in underage sex, drug-taking and theft. More tabloid delight soon followed. The headmaster resigned when it was revealed that nude pictures of him and his wife had appeared in soft porn magazines.

The demise of the progressives may, of course, reflect a complete lack of parental demand for the educationally revolutionary. For while the rich and bohemian once regarded sending their children to Summerhill as a positive choice, it is claimed only parents whose troubled offspring have defied all other options choose it now.

Summerhill now draws two-thirds of its pupils from overseas. The largest overseas quota is from Japan, where mainstream education does not come more regimented. It is Japanese educationalists, apparently, who will be gutted as Summerhill closes. For Neill is much more admired abroad these days than at home.

Perhaps parents feel all the major ideological battles in education - as some would have us believe is also the case in politics - have been settled now. After all, many of the principles of the old progressive movement are now adopted - or at least mouthed - by most schools.

Ms Readhead suspects British parents have become more conservative. Mr Crook argues that life is probably just too competitive now for British parents to play anything other than safe with their children's education. He believes the Government's obsession with league tables has permeated parents' consciousness, while Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, says we have become obsessed with the employability of our children.

Even former Summerhill pupils who adored their time there are not immune. Writer and journalist Angela Neustatter is a passionate defender of Summerhill, which she says instilled in her a life-long love of learning. Yet she sent her own son to the ISIS-registered "progressive" Bedales - in philosophy, very much a watered-down version of Summerhill. Reluctantly, Ms Neustatter admits she opted for a safer choice, though she is furious that a private school should be threatened with closure by the Government.

What truly radical options are left for the few parents out of step with educational orthodoxy? What remains for those still brave - or foolhardy - enough to believe that exam results are not all that matters, and that the occasional school scandal - for scandal seems to stalk the educationally avant-garde - adds a little spice to life?

The truth is very little, even for those with lots of money. Perhaps the days of mooning at the royal train, and unorthodox, scandalising schools have gone forever. We might be living in an altogether more sensible world, but one that's a lot less colourful for that.

Progressive education: the front runners

MILLFIELD, Street, Somerset

Fees Around pounds 15,000 boarders, pounds 1,250 pupils.

Founded 1935 by eccentric cricketer Jack Meyer, apparently after a maharajah pal failed to get his son into Eton. Mr Meyer resigned as head in 1971 after a scandal involving his gambling habit and stray school fees.

Ethos Included in the short-list of "progressive" schools in the Independent Schools Information Service handbook, but none of that trendy calling teachers by their first names.

Selling point Sporting excellence (impressive sports facilities, including eight-lane Olympic swimming pool). Comparatively average academic results. "If there's a dispute between teachers over the sporting and academic obligations of a pupil, the sports teacher always wins," says a former pupil.

Uniform None in upper years. But smart dress expected. Lots of very rich kids which means cut-throat sartorial competition.

Scandals Last year a 14-year-old girl died when she fell off the roof of her dorm after sharing a litre of vodka. At the inquest it was claimed drinking was rife among pupils. Just weeks later a teacher was charged with rape of a minor. Previous expulsions for drug-taking.

Famous former pupils Ian Botham, James Hewitt, grandson of Boris Yeltsin and offspring of other foreign politicians and royals (hence the school's private helipad). Also two James Bonds, Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan, have sent their sons there.

BEDALES, Petersfield, Hants

Fees pounds 15,000 boarders, pounds 400 pupils.

Founded 1893 by Victorian progressive JH Badley. In the early years, the co-ed school exhibited the "progressive" obsession with naked outdoors bathing. Some former pupils from the 1970s remember it as a place where those who did not meet the standards of a trendy, beautiful elite were ostracised and bullied.

Ethos Definitely progressive. Pupils call teachers by first names.

Selling point Pupils required to study art, design and music in first two years and to take at least one of these at GCSE.

Uniform None.

Scandals Not as racy as in the early nude-bathing years. But occasional blue-blood bites the dust. Viscount Weymouth was expelled in 1991 for smoking cannabis. Nine pupils expelled for the same offence in 1995.

Famous former pupils Princess Margaret's children, Minnie Driver, Daniel Day-Lewis. Lord Olivier, Mick Jagger and Sir Peter Hall sent children there.

ST CHRISTOPHER'S, Letchworth, Hertfordshire

Fees pounds 12,000 boarders, pounds 503 pupils.

Founded 1915 as part of the Garden City movement.

Ethos Progressive. Co-educational since its foundation. Teachers called by first names. Headmaster Colin Reid - just Colin to the pupils - has been sympathetic to Summerhill. He says AS Neill's writing inspired him to teach.

Selling point Vegetarian for "ethical and health" reasons. Green values encouraged. Emphasises creative and performing arts, and technology.

Uniform None.

Scandals Sadly lacking.

Semi-famous pupils Michael Winner, who is not complimentary.


Fees pounds 13,800

Founded 1925 as part of the progressive movement.

Ethos Progressive like nearby Bedales but parents not all thought to be as rich.

Selling point Strives for academic excellence but not a hot-house. Concentrates on the arts. Lots of its founding principles (child-centred, development of the individual etc) now adopted - or mouthed - by other schools. Tradition of taking in refugees, starting when Jewish children fled Nazi Germany.

Uniform None - but there has recently been a ban on chains on clothes following several near-accidents.

Scandals None (at least none that have reached the papers).

Famous pupils Claus Moser (one of the original Jewish refugees), Valerie Singleton.