For many, contemporary education is associated with learning the specifics in life; mathematical models, historical dates, and other academic minutiae. However, this overlooks a far more subtle education, an education into authority. For most children in the world, school remains one of the first places where we are taught about authority and how it manifests itself in everyday life. We are taught that obedience shall be rewarded, deviation shall be punished, and that conformity is generally safe and useful. Indeed, many critiques of the ‘Prussian’ education system centre around the way it moulds children into a monolithic mass characterised by an inability to think freely. For many, the underpinnings of such a system, coercion and authoritarianism, remain the same as they were 200 years ago, which is ultimately damaging to liberty and individual thinking.
Educator Alexander Sutherland Neill (1883 - 1973) sought to envisage education in a truly radical way and to create an institution that was built on the libertarian principles of solidarity, self-governance, and democracy. Thus, in the early 1920s, Summerhill was born - a small boarding school nestled in the Suffolk countryside with Neill as headmaster. Representing a total inversion of all ideas about education, Summerhill became the first school to be built on a basis of self-governance and democratic decision making in an attempt to liberate the children and teachers from a relationship Neill felt to be antagonistic.
To this day, Summerhill boarding school continues in a way which has not deviated far from Neill’s original vision. The mechanics of the school and its operations are put to a popular vote in which teachers and children are given one vote each. This dramatically transforms the roles of teacher and student, giving the school a truly groundbreaking and transformative character.
The ethos of Summerhill may seem to be a radical concept of education, but it can be argued that truly, the ‘Freedom - not license’ philosophy created by Neill derives more from classically liberal ideas which put the individual at front and centre, questioning hierarchy. Lessons at Summerhill are totally optional and weekly meetings discuss wide-ranging topics about the future of the school, from sanctions to the syllabus to public nudity. Pupils also decide on their own punishments, meaning that adult intervention is rare. This follows clearly from Neill’s central premise that children learn better on their own accord, so they should be given more power over their own learning. This also manifests itself in individual classes where children from all ages mix together, choosing what to learn at their own pace, therefore handing responsibility right back to the pupils.
Of course, the boarding character of Summerhill has served to extend these democratic practices to every aspect of student life. The boarding houses, once again, are put under the control of those who inhabit them, right down to decorations and artwork, which are all done by pupils. This itself symbolises another key feature of Summerhill, a holistic education in which children’s ‘happiness’ is seen as paramount and where children are meant to be enriched socially, rather than to excel academically.
The ‘Freedom - not license’ philosophy has proved controversial and has earnt Summerhill many detractors, not least, the state. Throughout the 90’s, Summerhill was inspected 9 times and the school was eventually taken to court due to their ‘non-compulsory lessons’, which arguably didn’t constitute effective learning. The state contended that this amounted to denying children education. Despite a number of court battles, the state case being thrown out, and concessions on both sides, Summerhill seems to have improved its reputation, not least due to the lack of OFSTED visits and more control being given over to the school. Indeed, upon a visit by OFSTED in 2007, the conclusion was, ‘Pupils' personal development is outstanding and behaviour is good, mainly as a result of the good quality care, support and guidance they receive.’
This is not to say that there are no wider criticisms of Summerhill. Academic performance appears to be varied and the school is very small, with just 75 children attending, demonstrating a clear point of contention for defenders - just how viable can this model be on a widespread scale and can it be transformative to education in Britain if it cannot be translated to a more substantial scale? Perhaps the focus of democratic, libertarian schooling should be small, local action. Yet, in order to resonate more effectively with people, it needs to be more widespread.
Summerhill’s most resounding success is not its children, nor is it the education system generally - if Summerhill achieves anything, it is in questioning the prevailing orthodoxy that education must be coercive and authoritarian. In challenging that, Summerhill reminds us that another system is available, possible, and more liberating.
*Illustration by Bee Anderson - beeillustrates on insta*