School with no rules is forced to lay down law because of spoilt pupils

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For years, Summerhill, the "free" school founded by the philosopher A S Neill in the 1920s, gained notoriety for its pupils skipping lessons, outdoor bathing in the nude and voting for their own school rules. It was, in fact, the very epitome of the kind of liberal progressive school so frowned upon by education traditionalists such as Chris Woodhead, the former schools inspector.

Now, in a new book, its current head, Zoe Neill Redhead, the founder's daughter, reveals the school is having to adopt a more disciplinarian tone towards its current pupils, who have been so pampered by their parents, she says, that they no longer know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

"We see the results of parental interference and over-indulgence all the time," she says in the book Summerhill and A S Neill, previewed in this week's Times Educational Supplement and published by the Open University. "In modern society, parents seem to be unable to leave their kids alone for more than a short while. At Summerhill, we now see many children who are in constant search of adult influence and stimulation, unable to quietly get along with their own lives without the need for admiration and attention."

The result has been that - while the school still adopts its liberal approach with pupils able to make their own rules - it has had also to adopt the role of a disciplinarian towards them, because they know no rules. In Mrs Neill Redhead's words, it has had to start "teaching kids that they can't do what they like, that they have to have regard to other people's rights and feelings - a bit of a role reversal that Neill would have found interesting".

The philosophy of Summerhill, which is in Leiston in Suffolk, has always been that the individual has control over his or her own life. Hence the policy that pupils are allowed to decide for themselves which lessons they want to attend - a policy criticised by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, in the late Nineties, which led the then education secretary David Blunkett issuing a notice of complaint against the school which could have led to its closure.

He was insistent that pupils should be compelled to attend lessons - but ultimately lost a court battle with the school.

So Summerhill continued with its ideal that "you don't have to be answerable to your parents or any adult; you can just get on with your life and learn or make mistakes".

"You can be lonely, you can be bored, you can take risks, you can be really nice or you can be quite horrible," says Mrs Neill Redhead. "So long as what you do doesn't upset or hurt anybody else, you can be completely yourself." Unfortunately, she argues, this philosophy does not fit in with modern parenting. "The new parenting trend makes parents feel they have to be part of their children's childhood at every turn," she writes. "Parents rush home from work or pick up the children from school and are immediately involved in the pattern of providing a stimulating environment for the children. We must not let them watch too much television, play computer games or play outside in the street ... Talk to them at home and make sure that we are always on hand to inspire and encourage them.

"This in itself causes many tensions within the family for the obvious reason that parents find it extremely difficult and tiring to provide this constant stream of enthusiasm and that the children are more often that not reluctant participants."

As for Summerhill, it is thriving again with 84 pupils (its average was 60 while A S Neill was head), after winning its legal showdown with the Government.