So, kids, anyone for double physics? (But no worries if you don’t fancy it)
Official approval at last for school where almost anything goes
Saturday December 1, 2007
It is halfway through mid-morning science class and there is still only one seat occupied – that of the teacher, David Riebold. “It’s my first no-show in a while,” Riebold says wistfully, looking at the test tubes he has laid out. “Ah well, there’s always lesson preparation to do.”Skipping class is no big deal at Summerhill, Britain’s most progressive school, where pupils set the rules and can miss lessons to play or pursue their own interests. Today Riebold’s class of 12- and 13-year-olds may well be out celebrating, if they’ve heard the news. For after a long battle with the government that has included threats to close the Suffolk independent boarding school, Ofsted has delivered its first endorsement in Summerhill’s 86-year history.
It is a historic moment for a school where children decide how to spend their time, swearing is allowed and, weather permitting, staff and students can sunbathe in the nude. In 1999 the inspectorate issued a scathing report, calling pupils “foul-mouthed” and saying that Summerhill had been “mistaking idleness for personal liberty” – prompting the intervention of the then-education secretary David Blunkett.
But the latest report is glowing. “Pupils’ personal development, including their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, is outstanding,” the inspectors conclude in their first full inspection report since 1999, published this week. Students are “courteous, polite and considerate”, make “good progress” and are “well-rounded, confident and mature” when they leave.
The only faults were a bit of worn carpet in the porch, a patch of uneven flooring in the corridor and the absence of a disability policy. (Summerhill has never had to make special arrangements for a disabled pupil.)
Zoe Readhead, the head teacher and daughter of Summerhill’s founder, the avant-garde liberal thinker A S Neill, believes it is not the school that has changed. She calls the government approval “deeply worrying”, then adds: “Not really. We are jubilant. It’s a triumph. A fantastic day for Summerhill. The government has persistently refused to acknowledge the individual philosophy of the school, such as that children can learn just as well out of the classroom. We feel vindicated.”
It is some compensation for what Redhead describes as the “horrendous events of 2000”.
Blunkett’s notice of complaint, issued after the 1999 inspection, would have led to Summerhill closing down in six months if supporters around the world had not donated £120,000 to contest the action. Four days into a hearing before the independent schools tribunal at the high court in London the government’s case fell apart and a settlement was agreed: future inspections would recognise the school’s right to its own philosophy. “It was tense before this latest inspection all the same though,” says Readhead.
Summerhill pupils can choose whether or not to take GCSEs, and A-levels are not offered. Its results are respectable, rather than impressive. The emphasis on “value-added”, or out-of-lesson development, is obvious. Although it is midday and lessons are running when the Guardian visits, many pupils are not in class. A teenage girl is engrossed in a novel, and three friends are adding up the scores of their table tennis tournament. There is busy project work going on in the woodwork room, with music playing loudly.
Surya Gregory-Robinson, 12, says she has grown in confidence since coming to the school two years ago after a year at a state school and the rest being educated at home. She reckons it’s the famous Summerhill “meetings” that have done it. Three times a week after lunch pupils and staff gather to discuss the day-to-day running of the school, where fees are between £2,362 and £4,105 for boarders. Every one of the 78 pupils – aged five to 17 – and the 17 staff has an equal right to speak and can vote on the school’s “laws”. Present “laws” force bullies to the back of queues and forbid them from attending social events.
“We all have a say in how the school is run; it’s like another family that takes care of you,” says Surya. “You can do whatever you like as long as you are not affecting anyone else,” says Rose Hutton, 12. The inspectors were equally impressed. “The democratic process used to manage the running of the school provides pupils with outstanding opportunities for personal development,” they conclude.
“My father would be delighted,” says Readhead. “There is a growing movement towards child-participatory types of education. Their words pave the way for others to copy our model. It’s a recognition that it works. On the other hand, just as you think education is getting more humanised, a government minister will say it’s all about ‘performance, performance, performance’. I’ll always view them with deep suspicion.”
It’s safe to assume Summerhill and the government are not quite the cosiest of classmates yet.
Rebecca De Mornay, actor
Penny Anderson, executive assistant director of finance and business affairs, Channel 4
Angela Neustatter, journalist
Evelyn Williams, artist
Jake Weber, actor
Dr Dane Goodsman, senior lecturer in education, King’s College London
Natali Gansac, television presenter
Tomo Usuda, photographer
John Burningham, author
Michael Boulton, lead dancer, Sadler’s Wells ballet
Prof Mike Bernal, reader in numerical analysis, Imperial College London
School memories: ‘Everyone seemed to trust and respect each other’
Taki Togashi, 20, left Summerhill four years ago. She is now studying stage design at the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London
“Summerhill was an environment so isolated from the outside world that, at times, it was almost a childish illusion.
“Everyone seemed to trust and respect each other. There was nothing I had to do. There was never a moment when I felt alone, so I was able to be alone without being lonely. Nothing was there to prevent me from dealing with – and sharing – emotions of anger, sadness or happiness.
“The democratic education we had made me aware of the need to behave responsibly and to problem-solve tactfully. I may not have attended every one of my lessons, but when I did go I went for the joy of learning, not out of duty. I learned who I was, how to set myself targets and how to commit to them.
“Summerhill has prepared me well for a career in stage design. I need to reflect emotionally on the storylines and to communicate well.
“I’ll never forget the school’s dispute with the government. I arrived in 1999 in the middle of it, when Summerhill was threatened with closure. I could feel a huge anxiety coming from every corner of the school.
“I remember going back to my room at bedtime and sitting with my roommates, Sophie, Hester and Natali. We sat in a circle and cried. We didn’t want Summerhill to close down. Who wants their home to be taken away?”