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Summerhill alumni: 'What we learnt at the school for scandal'

At Summerhill, lessons are optional and pupils make the rules. In 90 years, it's caused huge controversy. What sort of people do its alumni become? Sarah Cassidy finds out

It is one of the most famous schools in the world; a place where every lesson is voluntary and where youngsters can vote to suspend all the rules. Founded by the liberal thinker AS Neill, Summerhill turns 90 years old this year.

Famous alumni of the democratic or "free" school include actress Rebecca de Mornay, children's author John Burningham and Storm Thorgerson, the rock album cover designer. Now a new book, After Summerhill, tries to answer the question: what kind of people do Summerhill's pupils become?

Author Hussein Lucas describes the 68-pupil Suffolk school as "a small place but a big idea". At its heart is the thrice-weekly school meeting, at which laws are made or changed by majority vote; staff and pupils have equal votes. For such a small school, it has sparked huge controversy. In 1999 then-Education Secretary, David Blunkett, issued the school with a notice of complaint, demanding mandatory lessons. Failure to comply with such a notice within six months usually leads to closure; however, Summerhill chose to go to court. The Government's case collapsed and a settlement was agreed. This not only annulled the notice of complaint but also made provisions for Summerhill to be inspected using unique criteria, to take account of its special philosophy.

AS Neill himself described his vision, saying: "I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Prime Minister." His belief was that conventional schooling and anxious parents caused immense emotional damage to youngsters.

After Summerhill follows the fortunes of 15 former Summerhillians, recording their memories and charting their progress. Mike Bernal, who joined in 1932 aged six, is the son of J D Bernal, an eminent Cambridge physicist well known at the time for his Marxist views. Mike spent much of his eight years at the school doing arts and crafts and playing sports. After leaving school he got some academic coaching and went on to get a first class degree from Imperial College, London. Now emeritus reader in mathematics at Imperial College, London, he recalls: "I was incredibly lucky to have gone to Summerhill and I don't seem to have suffered academically because of the fact that it wasn't a traditional school. Quite the reverse, I would hope. It may be that anybody who's not been put off subjects wants to go on finding out about the world. It's forcing people that puts them off. Neill was always seen to be very keen that we shouldn't do Shakespeare, for example, because he was afraid – I think quite rightly – that if you did it would put you off."

Hylda Sims, now aged 79, attended Summerhill between 1942 and 1947, and was always drawn to academic subjects. She believes that the school liberated her from a "tendency towards priggishness" which she believes a traditional girls' grammar would have developed in her. After leaving school she went to ballet school, worked in a bookshop, trained as a teacher and became a folk singer. Aged 35, she read Russian Studies at university followed by three years as a postgraduate at the LSE. She then founded a therapeutic community with a fellow Summerhillian, taught English as a foreign language and has written three novels, poetry and songs.

She told Lucas: "I feel saved. I might well have become insufferable and even more opinionated had I gone to a traditional girls' school. I can envisage myself as having become a priggish headmistress. But Summerhill encouraged a sense of fun and spontaneity. Above all, Summerhill has given me a fundamental sense of well-being."

Freer Speckley was a self-confessed problem child when he attended between 1955 and 1963 from the age of six. He left school unable to read or write but went on to become consultant manager to an international charity and run an art gallery in Herefordshire. He said: "Summerhill is a therapeutic community more than a school. It's principally a response to bad parenting, which is actually getting worse. It's needed more than ever today."

But not all former pupils believe that their alma mater prepared them adequately for the challenges of the outside world. Lucien Croft struggled with learning difficulties and attended few formal lessons during his time at Summerhill between 1970 and 1977, preferring pottery and reading. Since leaving school he has held a variety of jobs, working in music technology, as a thatcher and as a pub landlord. He said: "Summerhill prepares you well in certain things, but it actually de-prepares you for a lot of it. There are certain areas in which you mature more genuinely through Summerhill... Equally, in other areas it makes you incredibly naïve."

But he added: "What it did was put me off conventional schooling, but it sure as hell left me with a childlike thirst for knowledge."

Clare Harvie left Summerhill early to attend another more conventional and academic boarding school after being bullied, and later became a teacher herself. She believes Summerhill makes it difficult for some former students to integrate into society because they cannot stomach the "hierarchical and petty" nature of many work environments. "It's all very well to be independent, but you do need to be able to play at the game if you're in a company or a particular set-up," she said. Zoe Readhead, Neill's daughter and Summerhill's principal since 1985, says: "In society as a whole you would be considered 'more successful' if you studied maths and sciences than if you took art, woodwork and drama. Who can define success? The only person who knows if they are successful is the person themselves. We produce people who feel in control of their lives and have the courage to follow their interests."

Hussein Lucas concludes: "The key feature that sums up the distinctive nature of the Summerhill experience is the virtual absence of fear: fear of failure; fear of authority; fear of social ostracism; fear of life and the consequent failure to engage with it with a feeling of optimism and a positive outlook."

AS Neill would have been pleased.

After Summerhill by Hussein Lucas (Herbert Adler, £9.95)

Modern methods: Summerhill today

This term, there are 68 pupils and 15 staff at Summerhill, which occupies a large Victorian house set in 11 acres of woods and fields, two miles from the Suffolk coast.

Bankers and bus drivers send their children to Summerhill, says principal Zoe Readhead. It is primarily a boarding school where fees range from £8,568 and £14,889 a year depending on the age of the pupil, although there are some day pupils,.

Yes, the school produces lots of creative people, says Ms Readhead. But past pupils also go on to become doctors, biomedical scientists and electronics experts, she says.

"I think the school gives people with an artistic bent, the space to follow their inclinations. Perhaps in conventional life these things would perhaps be discouraged. But we also produce people who go into lots of other fields."

The school was jubilant in 2007 when it received a positive Ofsted inspection following the controversy surrounding the 1999 inspection which almost saw the school shut down. But since then the difficult global economic situation has affected recruitment. Pupil numbers have dropped over the last two years. In 2000 more than 90 pupils attended, last term there were 64 students."I think there is a tendency at the moment to depict Summerhill as a rather quaint hippie place that was big sometime back in the Sixties," says Ms Redhead. "But Summerhill is more relevant today than it has ever been."