Summerhill school beats closure after deal with Blunkett

Summerhill, Britain's most famous progressive school, was saved yesterday as the Government backed down from its closure threat.

Pupils voted to accept a deal offered by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, after a three-day hearing at an independent schools tribunal. The hearing was over a notice of complaint issued by Mr Blunkett against the Suffolk boarding school, where lessons are voluntary and nude bathing is allowed. Had the notice been upheld, the school would have been closed.

Last year, Ofsted inspectors reported that pupils were allowed "to mistake idleness for the exercise of personal liberty" and that non-attendance at lessons was the root cause of its educational shortcomings.

Yesterday the Department for Education (DfE) said its complaints had been withdrawn after the school agreed to encourage pupils to attend lessons and improve its teaching and assessment. But Summerhill's pupils and teachers said they had won.

Zoe Readhead, the school's proprietor and daughter of its founder, A S Neill, said: "This is the most wonderful triumph for us; my father always had faith in the law and he would be delighted at how it has brought him victory and vindication over a bureaucracy which could never cope with his ideas. We have lived for a year under the Ofsted falsehood that we have mistaken idleness for liberty. Today's verdict refutes that defamation and shows that liberty and learning go hand in hand at Summerhill."

Carmen Cordwell, who chaired the pupil meeting, said: "This is our charter for freedom. It gives us the space we need to live and breathe and learn into the future."

The decision to accept Mr Blunkett's statement was taken at a meeting of past and present Summerhillians at London's law courts. The school will not be fully inspected until 2004.

The DfE said: "We have said all along that we are not trying to close Summerhill. We have always recognised that, as an independent school, it has a right to its own philosophy."

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