Summerhill was founded in 1921 in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden in Germany. It was part of an international school called the Neue Schule. There were wonderful facilities and a lot of enthusiasm, but over the following months Neill became progressively less happy with the school. He felt it was run by idealists – they disapproved of tobacco, foxtrots and cinemas – while he wanted the children to live their own lives.
Together with Frau Neustatter (who later became his first wife and was known at Summerhill as Mrs Lins), Neill moved his school to Sonntagsberg in Austria. The setting was idyllic – a castle on top of a mountain – but the local people, a Catholic community, were hostile.
By 1923 Neill had moved to the town of Lyme Regis in the south of England, to a house called Summerhill where he began with 5 pupils. The school continued there until 1927, when it moved to the present site at Leiston in the county of Suffolk, taking the name of Summerhill with it.
Neill continued to run the school with Mrs Lins who played a crucial role in both the formation and the running of Summerhill. She was a warm, outgoing, talented musician and teacher who also possessed valuable practical and organisational skills. Her gregarious nature enabled her to protect Neill from the more unwelcome visitors the school attracted whilst her patience and kindness ensured that problems presented by both children and staff were handled with tact and sureness. She had enormous respect for Neill as he had for her and she took over in Neill’s absence. The war required evacuation of the Leiston house and the school moved to Ffestiniog in Wales. Mrs Lins became ill, requiring constant nursing, and eventually died in April 1944. She was loved by many and sadly missed by Neill, whose tender obituary clearly revealed her importance to Neill himself and to Summerhill. Neill later married a staff member at the school, Ena Wooff who not only helped to nurse Mrs. Lins but who also worked as a cook and housemother at the school. After the war they returned to Leiston to a dilapidated Summerhill which had been used by the army and left in a poor state. Neill referred to this for many years afterwards, having to put much work into restoring the buildings and cleaning them up.
The school continued to be controversial, being depicted in the press as the “Do As You Please” school. Neill, however, did have the respect of many educationalists and well-known personalities such as, among others, Bertrand Russell and Henry Miller.
Pupil intake fluctuated over the years before taking a final dive in the late 50s. Things were looking bleak as the pupil numbers reached around 25. However, at that time Neill was approached by Harold Hart, a publisher from the USA, who wanted to publish a compilation of Neill’s books. Together they put the book ‘Summerhill – a radical approach to childhood’, on the market. It was an instant hit in the USA, rising to the number one non-fictional best seller nationally. It was soon published in the UK and many other countries and things began to take a turn for the better at Summerhill. Pupil numbers went up, many from the USA; interest in the school bloomed bringing in many visitors, to the dismay of the kids. At times there were coach loads. After a time both Neill and the community became tired of the attention and withdrew into a time of comparative quiet.
Neill lived out his days taking a less active part in the school but keeping in touch with what was going on. In 1973 his health declined and he was admitted to Ipswich Hospital. Later he was taken to the small local hospital where he died peacefully on September 23rd 1973. Five days later the new term started at Summerhill with Ena Neill now officially the principal. In reality though, Ena had been running the school with Neill’s blessing for about three years prior to Neill’s death. Those three years plus the fact that she had first come to work at Summerhill during the Second World War meant that she was more than qualified for the role. She clearly understood the difference between freedom and licence and was always ready, if it was necessary, to make it clear to the kids in no uncertain terms what that difference was. Ena Neill presented a formidable figure but the tough exterior masked a person with considerable compassion who was often called upon to be a mother to both students and staff. Ena had a practical ‘no-nonsense’ approach to life and to the running of the school. She took over at a difficult time. The mid-seventies and early eighties were a period when the economies of the rich nations were in a recession. This, coupled with the fact that Neill’s ideas were not as popular as they were in the 1960s meant that there were fewer students. It required a strong, determined person such as Ena to keep the school running through this difficult period.
Ena Neill continued to run the school until her retirement in 1985 when their daughter Zoë, the current head teacher, took over.
Today the school continues in safe hands. Zoë, her husband and children all play important parts in the administration and practical running of it. William and Henry are Assistant Principals while William is also the woodwork teacher and general manager, and Henry teaches music, sound engineering and is involved in school life as well as running his own recording studio in the school grounds. Amy, an agronomist, manages cropping on the family farm as well as adding her own steady hand to the paperwork needed at the school, and Neill, who works on the farm offers support and advice as well as practical help when required.
Summerhill is a democratic, self-governing school in which the adults and children have equal status. The daily life of the school is governed by the school meetings, usually held twice a week in which everybody has an equal vote. The school’s philosophy is to allow freedom for the individual, each child being able take their own path in life, and following their own interests to develop into the person that they personally feel that they are meant to be. This leads to an inner self-confidence and real acceptance of themselves as individuals. All of this is done within the school’s structure of self-government through school meetings which are at the core of the school and emphasise the distinction between freedom and licence. Living life in a community is of great importance to the pupils here. Through this they learn to compromise, communicate, negotiate and assume responsibility. It also teaches them empathy and a consideration for the feelings of others. The adults and children have equal status in the school but, of course, they have very different roles. Everybody in the school is aware of the responsibilities that the adults have and which the children are not subject to. The atmosphere of the school is informal and first names are always used. The school is international, reflecting the extent of A.S. Neill’s continuing influence in the world.
Summerhill School provides an environment where children can grow up happily, free from many of the anxieties and neuroses of the outside world. They can take part in a caring and active community and assume real responsibilities as they learn more and more about the running of their school. There are good quality lessons for children to go to if they choose, but the real strength of the school is that these lessons are not the central concern.
The Summerhill School curriculum embraces everything that happens here: there is not always a clear line between learning inside and outside the classroom. Summerhill strongly feels that much important learning takes place outside the classroom and is of a more casual nature than is allowed by most schools. Thus we would consider the time that a group of teenagers spend sitting together and discussing topics of their choice to be a valuable learning experience. Just being part of the Summerhill democratic community, living with others in this uniquely free environment and helping one another to do so is an invaluable learning experience.
The freedom to attend formal lessons or not at the school is a central feature of the school’s philosophy. Children have the opportunity for unlimited play, which we believe is good for both their physical and mental health. Children are allowed to fill their time with freely chosen activities. This allows them to develop at their own pace, enjoy what they do and achieve the results they want to achieve. Individual responsibility in learning means that children can continue to work and use spaces whether or not an adult is present. Classes with structured learning are available for all children and are organised in timetable format with flexible content and attention given to individual learning needs and levels. There is also an arrangement whereby students can go into classrooms and access materials and resources to pursue individual activities and projects. There are no limits on the achievements in independent learning: children can do something they want as much as they want.
Children and young people in the school feel safe. Through daily involvement in the democratic community they feel the value of their own needs, desires and opinions. They can make a positive contribution regardless of classroom performance and are well-prepared by their education for taking responsibility in their adult lives. Because of our curriculum and its non-compulsory nature, children develop into life-long learners.
Pupils gain a real sense of achievement from managing their own lives and therefore their self esteem and confidence grows at Summerhill. Non-compulsory lessons ensure that children are motivated to learn for their own reasons and they progress at their own speed. Summerhill provides quality environments, opportunities and support for both formal and informal learning and then allows each child to control their personal learning choices, styles and progress. At Summerhill good progress is defined as a personally chosen developmental narrative that is not obstructed by issues that prevent free choice of action.
The process of being at Summerhill as both part of the community and as an individual making personal choices enables the pupils to develop holistically i.e. to develop their self-knowledge, self esteem and self confidence.
The Meeting is a clear example of children’s involvement in their community. All the laws that govern the community are made in the school Meeting. Many of the most important functions in the school are organised through a system of committees, elected by ballot. Books go around regularly so that everyone can vote for those who will stand on committees such as ombudsmen, ‘beddies’ officers, visitors committee, café committee etc. There are some age and experience qualifications for committees but there is generally no distinction between adult and child. Witnessing the pupils manage themselves in the Meeting supports our belief that the children are happy at Summerhill. Realistically nobody can ever be happy all of the time and it is an important part of learning to experience negative outcomes from time to time. However, the school meetings allow a forum for difficulties to be aired and solved communally. All members of the community are equal and can bring grievances to the school meetings. Elected ombudsmen also act on behalf of the individuals to help resolve disputes. School Meetings provide a medium for pupils to bring inappropriate behaviour such as bullying to public notice and suitable action is taken. Bullying is rare and is mainly low-key harassment like name-calling, which is swiftly dealt with in the school Meetings.
Being part of a community fosters important work-related skills. Some examples of work-related skills that contribute to the broader development of children at Summerhill School are: Working on committees; Taking an active role in the community through the Meeting; Interacting on equal terms with adults; Running shops and working with money; Managing their own ‘poc’ (pocket money) and paying fines when required. They develop skills and awareness of decision-making, teamwork, co-operation, market awareness, budgeting, financial literacy, customer service, marketing and promotion, planning and organising.
Children also learn to take responsibility for their own actions and their impact on others, to consider others’ points of view, to make decisions about what they want to do and follow these decisions through to a conclusion. They are able to spend significant amounts of time on project ideas that interest them. This leads to very high levels of self-directed work.
The accommodation and grounds form an integral part of the values, culture and history of the school, necessary for the quality of learning and care provided. The grounds allow for creative, imaginative play, individually or in groups; the development of a relationship with nature; the sense of being alone, space for reflection and relaxation. Its layout of wooded areas, trees and diverse areas of paths, undergrowth, grass meadows, playing field, tarmac, permits a sense of exploration, of wilderness for camping and children’s games and treasure hunting; and supports a range of games, sports and leisure activities.
The space, importance of play, decision-making, individually and as a community, contribute to the mental, physical and emotional health of the children. Children sort out their own problems, use friends, ombudsman, or if that does not work, the meeting. Empowerment within a supportive community using restorative justice ensures that children are not only solving their issues but are learning together how to solve them.
The community has a culture of learning values though experience, community discussion and living, participation and active citizenship, values that are based on the rights and dignity of the child. The community uses ombudsmen, responsible friends and older children, staff, and full community meetings that express care, stability and the need for security. There is an ethos of involvement and mutual care, together with speaking out about problems and dangers. The community creates laws to protect its members, when they are within and outside the community.
Summerhill is the oldest school in the world based on community decision making, addressing issues including bullying, creating laws and abiding by them. This leads to the development of self-confidence in children speaking their views, representing others, acting as a witness and contributing to decision making.
Our students, due to their self-managed learning, community living, decision-making, representation and responsibilities are able to engage in what they would like to do with their lives after school, either in terms of study, employment or training. Skills needed for work – teamwork, co-operation, decision-making, communication, taking responsibility for yourself and others – are all learnt in the daily life of the school. School meetings, ombudsmen and the community as a whole offer support and care to its members. The Summerhill community has been a trendsetter in participation and care for over 90 years.