'If it isn't freedom, it isn't Summerhill. It would be an act of educational vandalism to close it'

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The Independent Online

Britain's most famous progressive school, fighting for survival again this week, invariably touches a collective nerve. Is it the nude bathing or the challenge to educational orthodoxy which provokes controversy about Summerhill, the independent school in Suffolk where lessons are voluntary? Or is it the uncomfortable fact that most former Summerhillians, despite a modicum of schooling compared with their fellow citizens, turn into sane and successful adults?

Yesterday, as the school went to an independent schools tribunal at the High Court to protest against a formal notice of complaint issued by the Government, the usual battle lines were drawn. The school is defending itself against charges from Ofsted inspectors that "many pupils have been allowed to mistake the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty". The root cause of its shortcomings, the inspectors say, is the decision to make lessons optional, which lies at the heart of Summerhill's philosophy.

But Geoffrey Robertson, QC, told the tribunal that the right of the school's 59 pupils - two-thirds of whom come from abroad - not to attend lessons was non-negotiable. "It's freedom or nothing," Mr Robertson said. "If it's not freedom, it isn't Summerhill. If you insist that it is negotiable, as Ofsted wants to make it, that will be the end of Summerhill. It would have to close and that would be an act of educational vandalism."

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, is anxious to emphasise that the argument is not about ideology. Alison Foster, his counsel, said: "[Mr Blunkett] is not intent on enforcing compulsory lessons on Summerhill pupils nor on compelling the abandonment of the general philosophy propounded by its founder, A S Neill." But she argued that Mr Blunkett was entitled to consider a particular form of education too narrow and to insist that pupils must be encouraged to pursue learning and skills that would equip them for the future. Non-attendance at lessons had become the norm. The answer, Mr Blunkett believed, was not to make lessons compulsory, but to make them more interesting.

Zoe Readhead, the daughter of A S Neill - who wanted children to "develop free from fear" - and the person now running the school, is appealing to the tribunal to quash the notice of complaint.

Neill, who once said that since none of his pupils had gone on to become MPs, he must have got it about right, set up the school 78 years ago. During that time, its educational philosophy has remained unchanged. It began, Mr Robertson pointed out, as a reproach to the cruelty and repression of Victorian education. For years, it survived untroubled by officialdom as mainstream education became more progressive. Only in the last decade has it fallen foul of the inspectors. In 1990, Kenneth Clarke, the then Conservative secretary of state for education, withdrew a notice of complaint against the school. In 1994, it again escaped closure after acritical inspectors' report.

Last week, a group of Summerhill pupils tackled Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, when he appeared before the Commons Education and Employment Select Committee. They asked why his inspectors had not consulted children when they visited the school. He promised them that they would be consulted on the next inspectors' visit.

Mr Robertson told the tribunal that Neill had changed not only ideas about education, but those about children and their rights.

"Our evidence will prove that his legacy is a living one - that the system he devised to nurture humanity in children so they could fulfil their real potential in adult life, works as well as it ever did and is, for some children, the best education they could possibly have," he said.

Today, he added, Summerhill was needed as an alternative to both state and independent schools, which had failed to find ways of combating bullying, sexual abuse and racism, and where the tyranny of results was worse than ever.

The school's former pupils, Mr Robertson said, offered the most compelling evidence in its favour. "Do they grow up miserable, unqualified and unemployed? Have they taken to drink and drugs and crime? The answer is crystal clear. I wonder whether there's any school of comparable size in this country which can boast such an interesting array of ex-pupils achieving in so many selfless and beneficial ways."

He asked the tribunal, which is expected to last eight days, to note the number of doctorates and degrees among these "so-called failed pupils". They included a Hollywood actress, Rebecca de Mornay, and an astro-physicist. "The only significant occupations not reflected at all are politicians and school inspectors," he said.

A few pupils who had been bullied and beaten at other schools had been saved by Summerhill from suicide and despair. And a survey showed that only two out of 110 former pupils were critical.

Mr Robertson said the evidence of Summerhill's success was truly "devastating" and it was an indictment of Ofsted, which persisted in its prejudices of children who chose not to go to lessons. "We wouldn't suggest that Summerhill suits everyone any more than Eton, Bedales or the Oratory. But it suits 98 per cent of those whom their parents think it is likely to suit," he added.

Observers are not surprised that Summerhill is facing the most serious threat to its future under the present Government, which has prescribed in more detail than ever before exactly how schools should teach literacy and numeracy.

Professor Ted Wragg, of Exeter University, said: "Even the 1901 regulations for schools didn't actually say how you have to spend every 15 minutes of a literacy and numeracy hour."

Conservatives were quick to make comparisons between the Government's approach and their own free market philosophy. Theresa May, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, said that, while health and safety issues should be addressed, the education a school offered was "purely a matter for the school and the parents who send their children there. If parents are unhappy with the education offered, they do not have to send their children there."

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