The school at Leiston, Suffolk, where lessons are not compulsory and where disciplinary problems are dealt with by tribunals of staff and pupils, has always been controversial. The report, carried out last June by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, is the second to criticise the school in three years.
Pupils' educational needs were poorly served, the inspectors said. Attendance at lessons was poor, pupils' progress was slow and the curriculum was too narrow. Pupils often gained few qualifications because the number of GCSE exams they took was restricted, and the turnover of pupils was high.
The inspectors found some aspects of the school worthy of praise, but said the world had changed since it was founded 70 years ago. 'Summerhill adheres closely to its unusual principles and, although it meets a degree of success in its own terms, it makes educational provision which in important respects falls short of the standard of other schools,' they said.
Pastoral care and relationships in the school were good and the pupils' behaviour was generally acceptable. However, the 'free use of colloquial language' was tolerated much more than it would be in conventional schools. Older pupils were able to sign up for the courses they wanted to study at the beginning of term. Pupils' parents pay more than pounds 5,000 per year for their education at the independent school.
The school's principal, Zoe Readhead, said last night that the inspectors were wrongly applying conventional standards to the unconventional school. Many of the matters raised in the report, such as improvements to the lavatories, had been addressed, but on others the school and the inspectors would have to 'agree to differ', she said.
'I think the problem is that the inspectors are looking for the wrong thing. We are not trying to do what other schools are trying to do.
'We are not trying to produce academic whiz-kids - we are trying to produce well-balanced people capable of running their own lives.'