Summerhill School

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Summerhill School
Established 1921
Type Independent Boarding School
Principal Zoë Neill Readhead
Founder Alexander Sutherland Neill
Location Westward Ho
IP16 4HY
Local authority Suffolk
DfE URN 124870 Tables
Ofsted Reports
Staff approx 10 teaching, 5 support
Students 78 students
Gender Coeducational
Ages 5–18
Houses San, Cottage, House, Shack, Carriages
Publication The Orange Peel Magazine

Summerhill School is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle "Freedom, not Licence." This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend.


Summerhill School was founded in 1921 in Hellerau near Dresden, Germany by Neill as part of Neue Schule ("New School"). However, Neill was dissatisfied with Neue Schule's ethos, and so moved to Sonntagberg in Austria. Due to the hostility of the local people, it moved again in 1923 to Lyme Regis in England. The house in Lyme Regis was called Summerhill, and this became the name of the school. In 1927 it moved to its present site in Leiston, Suffolk, England. It had to move again temporarily to Ffestiniog, Wales, during World War II so that the site could be used as a British Army training camp.[1]

After Neill died in 1973 it was run by his wife, Ena, until 1985.[1]

Today it is a boarding and day school serving primary and secondary education in a democratic fashion. It is now run by Neill's daughter, Zoe Neill Readhead.[2]

Although the school's founding could arguably be dated to other years, the school itself marks 1921 as the year of its establishment.[1]


Summerhill is noted for its philosophy that children learn best with freedom from coercion. All lessons are optional, and pupils are free to choose what to do with their time. Neill founded Summerhill with the belief that "the function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best."[3][4]

In addition to taking control of their own time, pupils can participate in the self-governing community of the school. School meetings are held three times a week, where pupils and staff alike have an equal voice in the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives, discussing issues and creating or changing school laws. The rules agreed at these meetings are wide ranging - from agreeing on acceptable bed times to making nudity allowed around the pool and within the classroom. Meetings are also an opportunity for the community to vote on a course of action for unresolved conflicts, such as a fine for a theft (usually the fine consists of having to pay back the amount stolen).

In creating its laws and dealing out sanctions, the school meeting generally applies A.S. Neill's maxim "Freedom not Licence" (he wrote a book of the same name); the principle that you can do as you please, so long as it doesn't cause harm to others. Hence, you are free to swear as much as you like, within the school grounds, but calling someone else an offensive name is licence.

It is upon these major principles, namely, democracy, equality and freedom that Summerhill School operates.

Conflict Resolution

There are two main methods of resolving conflicts at Summerhill.


In the first instance, one should go to an ombudsman to resolve a conflict. The ombudsmen are an elected committee of older members of the community, whose job it is to intervene in disputes. One party will go and find an ombudsman and ask for an "Ombudsman Case". Often, all the ombudsman has to do is warn someone to stop causing a nuisance. Sometimes, if the dispute is more complex, the ombudsman must mediate. If the conflict cannot be resolved there and then, or the ombudsman's warnings are ignored, the case can be brought before the school meeting.

In special cases, the meeting sometimes assigns an individual their own "special ombudsman", an ombudsman who only takes cases from one person. This usually happens if a particular child is being consistently bullied, or has problems with the language (in which case someone who is bi-lingual, in English and the language of the child in question, is chosen as the ombudsman.)

The tribunal

The tribunal is the school meeting which concerns itself with people who break the school rules. Sometimes there is a separate meeting for the tribunal, and sometimes the legislative and judicial meetings are combined. This is itself a matter which can be decided by the meeting.

A "tribunal case" consists of one person "bringing up" another, or a group of people. The person bringing the case states the problem, the chairperson asks those accused if they did it, and if they have anything to say, then calls for any witnesses. If the accused admits to the offence, or there are reliable witness statements, the chair will call for proposals. Otherwise, the floor is opened to discussion.

If there is no clear evidence as to who is guilty (for instance, in the case of an unobserved theft), an "investigation committee" is often appointed. The investigation committee has the power to search people's rooms or lockers, and to question people. They will bring the case back to the next meeting if they are able to obtain any new evidence. In a community as small as Summerhill, few events go totally unnoticed, and matters are usually resolved quickly.

Once it has been established that a person has broken the rules, the meeting must propose and then vote to decide a fine. For most school rules, there is a "standard fine" mandated for breaking them, somewhat equivalent to a judge's sentencing guidelines, but a different fine can still be proposed. Fines can include a "strong warning" administered by the chair, a monetary fine, loss of privileges (for instance, not being allowed out of school, or being the last to be served lunch) or a "work fine"; picking up litter for a set time or similar job of benefit to the community. In the case of theft, it is usually considered sufficient for the thief to return what was stolen. Although there are some rare cases where the property stolen is no longer in the possession of the thief, in these cases the thief is given one of the two more serious fines and is questioned as to where the property has been sent.[5]

Educational structure


Although Neill was more concerned with the social development of children than their academic development, Summerhill nevertheless has some important differences in its approach to teaching. There is no concept of a "year" or "form" at Summerhill. Instead, children are placed according to their ability in a given subject. It is not uncommon for a single class to have pupils of widely varying ages, or for pupils as young as 13 or 14 to take GCSE examinations. This structure reflects a belief that children should progress at their own pace, rather than having to meet a set standard by a certain age.

There are also two classrooms which operate on a "drop-in" basis for all or part of the day, the workshop and the art room. Anyone can come to these classrooms and, with supervision, make just about anything. Children commonly play with wooden toys (usually swords or guns) they have made themselves, and much of the furniture and décor in the school has been likewise constructed by students.[6]

Boarding houses and pastoral care


Children at Summerhill are placed in one of five groups which correspond to the buildings in which they are accommodated. Placement is generally decided at the beginning of term by the Principal, in theory according to age. In practice, a younger child may take priority if they have been waiting a long time for a place, if they have many friends in the upper group or if they show a maturity characteristic of a member of the upper group.

Certain school rules pertain specifically to certain age groups, for instance, no one else may ride a San child's bicycle, and only Shack and Carriage children are allowed to build camp fires. The rules concerning when children must go to bed are also made according to age group.

Bedrooms generally accommodate four or five children.


Each of the boarding houses (save the Carriages, see below) has a "houseparent": a member of staff whose duty is pastoral care. The duties of a houseparent include doing their charges' laundry, treating minor injuries and ailments, taking them to the doctor's surgery or hospital for more serious complaints, and general emotional support. Depending on the age group, they might also tell them bedtime stories, keep their valuables secure, escort them into town to spend their pocket money or speak on their behalf in the meetings.


Ages 6 – 8 (approx)

The San building is an outbuilding, near the primary classrooms; its name derives from the fact that it was originally built as a sanatorium. When there proved to be insufficient demand for a separate sanatorium, it was given over to accommodation for the youngest children and their houseparent. At one time, San children were housed in the main school building, and the San building used as the library. They have since moved back, and the rooms they previously occupied now house the Cottage children.

The laws of the school generally protect San children, both by disallowing them from engaging in certain dangerous activities and preventing older children from bullying, swindling or otherwise abusing their juniors. San children have the right to bring up their cases at the beginning of the school meeting or have another student or a teacher bring the issue or issues up on their behalf.

San children can sleep in mixed sex rooms, while older children have single sex rooms.


Ages 9 – 10 (approx)

Cottage children were originally housed in Neill's old cottage, at the edge of the school grounds. For some time, the San wholly replaced the Cottage, but Cottage children are now housed in the main school building.


Ages 11–12 (approx)

House children are accommodated in the main school building, called simply "the House".


Ages 13–14 (approx)

The Shack buildings (there are two, the Boy's Shack and the Girl's Shack) are small outbuildings, so called because of the somewhat ramshackle nature of their original construction. The buildings have since been renovated.

Children of Shack age and above are expected to take a more active role in running the school, standing for committees, chairing the meetings, acting as Ombudsmen to resolve disputes and speaking in the school meetings. Of course, younger children can take on most of these roles if they so wish, and none of them are compulsory even for the older children.


Ages 15+ (approx)

The carriage buildings are similar to those of the Shack, only larger. However, they were originally converted rail carriages. Since the last renovation, the Boy's Carriage building incorporates a kitchenette and the Girl's Carriages a common room and shower block (other bathrooms in the school have only baths.) Either facility may be used by both sexes.

The Carriage children each have individual rooms, and are not looked after by a houseparent. Instead they are expected to do their own laundry and generally look after themselves, although there is a rota for staff members to take care of any Carriage children who become ill, and they are free to consult the Shack houseparent if they feel in need of adult advice or medical assistance.

Notable former pupils

Government inspections

Summerhill has had a less than perfect relationship with the British government, but is still the most respected school in the country. During the 1990s, it was inspected nine times. It later emerged that this was because OFSTED (The "OFfice for STandards in EDucation") had placed Summerhill on a secret list of 61 independent schools marked as TBW (To Be Watched).[8]

In March 1999, following a major inspection from OFSTED, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett, issued the school with a notice of complaint, which took issue with the school's policy of non-compulsory lessons. Failure to comply with such a notice within six months usually leads to closure; however, Summerhill chose to contest the notice in court.[9]

The case went before a special educational tribunal in March 2000, at which the school was represented by noted human rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson QC and Mark Stephens. Four days into the hearing, the government's case collapsed, and a settlement was agreed. The pupils who were attending the hearing that day took over the courtroom and held a school meeting to debate whether to accept the settlement. They voted unanimously to do so.[10]

The nature of the settlement was notably broader than could have been decided on the judge's authority alone. The tribunal only had the power to annul the notice of complaint, whereas the settlement made provisions for Summerhill to be inspected with respect to its philosophy and values, that the voice of the child through community meetings and in other ways be included in the inspection, and that two advisers from the school, and one from the DfE accompany the inspectors to ensure that the inspection respected the schools aims and values. The school was the first in England for children to have a legal right to formally meet with the inspectors to express their opinions. The DfE advisers have included Prof Paul Hirst and Prof Geoff Whitty, Director of the Institute of Education and now on Ofsted's governing body.[10]

The first full inspection report since the disputed 1999 report was published in 2007.[11] The 2007 inspection was conducted within the framework set out by the court settlement, and was generally positive, even in areas previously criticized by the 1999 report. The school maintains that it has not changed its approach since the original inspection.[12]

The last full inspection on 5 October 2011 concludes that the school is outstanding in all areas except teaching, which was seen as good, and not outstanding due to issues of assessment.[13]

In February 2013 the DfE told the school that it is unilaterally rescinding the court agreement as Ofsted claim that they now understand the school and do not need the inspection process to ensure a fair inspection. The school has sent evidence and questions to the Select Committee on Education for their meeting with the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, on February 13, 2013. The evidence quotes a member of the Select Committee expressing shock at the lack of processes for Ofsted to learn by its mistakes.[14]

Drama and documentary depictions

Summerhill at 70, an edition of Channel 4's Cutting Edge documentary series, was transmitted on 30 March 1992.[15][16]

The 2008 television production Summerhill, broadcast on BBC1 and CBBC as a serial and on BBC Four as a one-off drama, was set in Summerhill and presented a highly fictionalized version of the 2000 court case and the events leading up to it. Much of the production was recorded on location at Summerhill and used pupils as extras. The production presented an unabashedly positive view of the school[17] as the Director, Jon East, wanted to challenge the present paradigm of what a school is, as presented in popular culture.[18] It received two BAFTAs, including one for script, by Alison Hume [19]

A.S.Neill Summerhill Trust

The Trust was launched in 2004 by Tim Brighouse, Tom Conti, Bill Nighy, Mark Stephens and Geoffrey Robertson QC to raise funds for bursaries and to promote democratic education around the world. It publishes an electronic newsletter and organises fund-raising events. An elected committee of school children called the External Affairs Committee have over the years, since the court case, and with the support of the Trust, promoted Summerhill as a case study to state school children, teachers and educationalists at conferences, schools and events. They have run full democratic meetings at the Houses of Parliament and London's City Hall. They have lobbied four Chief Inspector of Schools through the Select Committee on Education on the importance of children's rights in schools and school inspections . They have addressed the UNESCO Conference of Education Ministers, lobbied and protested at the UN Special Conference on the Rights of the Child in New York. They took an active part in advising and contributing to events for the children's rights group Article 12. They continue to work with schools, colleges and universities.

Summerhill in popular culture

Enid Blyton's The Naughtiest Girl series is set in a fictional school, Whyteleafe, that shares many similarities with Summerhill. At Whyteleafe, the children make the rules and hold meetings to discuss and amend them; teachers do not punish the children, who are tried and punished by their peers in the school meetings.[citation needed]

The C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series briefly satirizes progressive approaches to education with the boarding school called Experiment House. The description of this school somewhat parallels that of Summerhill.[citation needed]

The book Inspecting The Island by Hylda Sims was set in the fictional school of Coralford, based on Summerhill.[citation needed]

In the book Rosemary's Baby the titular character reads a copy of Neill's book Summerhill.[20][original research?]


  • "I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar."—A.S. Neill[21]
  • "No one is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child. What is wrong with our sick, neurotic world is that we have been moulded, and an adult generation that has seen two great wars and seems about to launch a third should not be trusted to mould the character of a rat"—A.S. Neill
  • "What cannot be doubted is that a piece of fascinating and valuable educational research is going on here which it would do all educationists good to see"—Report by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools, 1949
  • "I would as soon enroll a child of mine in a brothel as in Summerhill" -- Max Rafferty Summerhill: For and Against. Hart Publishing. 1970. ISBN 0-8055-1075-3. 
  • "When my first wife and I began the school, we had one main idea: to make the school fit the child - instead of making the child fit the school"—A.S. Neill

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Summerhill - Early days". Summerhill. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  2. ^ "History". Summerhill School. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  3. ^ a b "home page". Summerhill School. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  4. ^ "REPORT OF AN INQUIRY INTO SUMMERHILL SCHOOL - LEISTON, SUFFOLK". Self Managed Learning. 2000. Archived from the original on 2008-01-04. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  5. ^ The School Meeting - interactive page, Summerhill School. Retrieved 24 June 2010.
  6. ^ Truswell, Humphrey (1975). Made In Summerhill. Hawthorn Books. ISBN 0-8015-7322-X. 
  7. ^ Appleton, Matthew. Summerhill School: A Free Range Childhood. ISBN 1-885580-02-9. 
  8. ^ "Education Bill". Parliament. 22 January 2002. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  9. ^ "Summerhill on trial". BBC News. 20 March 2000. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  10. ^ a b "Summerhill closure threat lifted". BBC News. BBC. 23 March 2000. 
  11. ^ "Summerhill Inspector's report" (PDF). OFSTED. 7 November 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  12. ^ Shepherd, Jessica (1 October 2007). "So, kids, anyone for double physics? (But no worries if you don't fancy it)". The Guardian. London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-05-27. 
  13. ^ The Guardian. Ofsted. 27 October 2011 Retrieved 2011-10-27.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ Evidence to Education Committee submitted by Michael Newman | 13 February 2013|
  15. ^ Griffiths, Sian; Chittenden, Maurice (4 June 2006). "Liberal Summerhill tries discipline". The Times. London. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  16. ^ "'Summerhill at Seventy' Channel-4 documentary film (Zoe Readhead on the Cutting Edge film)". Retrieved 2008-01-29. 
  17. ^ "Summerhill: Inside England's most controversial private school". The Independent. London. 28 January 2008. Retrieved 2010-05-24. 
  18. ^ "Summerhill: The school where lessons are optional". The Telegraph. London. 19 January 2008. Retrieved 2013-02-18. 
  19. ^ "Writing Summerhill". The Writer's Guild of GB. London. 18 March 2009. Retrieved 2013-02-18. 
  20. ^ "She read a book called Summerhill that presented a seemingly irrefutable case for permissive child-rearing, and discussed it at Sardi's East with Elise and Joan, their treat". Retrieved 2010-09-13. [dead link]
  21. ^

Further reading

  • Ian Stronach (April 2005). "On Her Majesty's Disservice: HMI and Summerhill School" (PDF). First International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 4–7 May 2005. 
  • Mark Vaughn (ed.). Summerhill and A.S. Neill. ISBN 0-335-21913-6.  — A compilation of old & new writings from Mark Vaughan, Tim Brighouse, A. S. Neill, Zoë Neill Readhead and Ian Stronach
  • Matthew Appleton. Summerhill School: A Free Range Childhood. ISBN 1-885580-02-9.  — A recent first-hand account of life as a member of staff at Summerhill
  • A.S. Neill. Summerhill. ISBN 0-14-020940-9.  — a book about the school and its philosophy, by the school's founder
  • various authors. Summerhill: For And Against. ISBN 0-207-12633-X.  — A collection of essays, arguing both in favour and against the school's approach
  • Jonathan Croall. Neill of Summerhill: The Permanent Rebel. ISBN 0-7100-9300-4.  — This is mainly a biography of Neill but of course has plenty of material about the school and Neill's ideas
  • J F Saffange / Peter Lang. Libres regards sur Summerhill. L'oeuvre pédagogique de A-S Neill. ISBN 3-261-04017-3. 
  • Hussein Lucas (2011). After Summerhill. What happened to the pupils of Britain's most radical school?. Herbert Adler Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84289-052-3.  A selection of autobiographical accounts taken from interviews with one student from every decade of Summerhill's existence.

External links