Summerhill Visit

Yesterday I wrote about our visit to Summerhill school, but I realize it’s nearly impossible to do it justice in 200-300 words. So, I want to give more detail about our experience.

When we arrived we were greeted by Zoe Neill Readhead, A.S. Neill’s daughter and the current principal of Summerhill. After a short introduction, the large group of parents, teenagers and grade schoolers was divided into 3 or 4 small groups. Three Summerhill students, around 12-14 years of age, were assigned to be our group’s tour guide around the campus. As anyone who has had experience with pre-teens knows, this age group is not renowned for their confidence when dealing with adults or with large groups of people. These kids, however, broke that rule.  As they led us around proudly, they answered our questions with self-assurance and spoke about their experiences in paragraphs (not single-word answers, as is the norm with their peer-group).  We saw the art class, the café (completely student-run), the woodworking shop, the tree house (yep, a tree house) and the cafeteria.  

At this point, Zoe ran a question and answer period, which was very enlightening. One thing I liked was seeing how this idealistic theory works in reality. She admitted that the school isn’t for everyone, but they have never had to ‘expel’ a student. Instead, it’s more of a mutual decision that a particular student needs to leave and that they are obviously not happy at the school.  She also said that every few years, the students decide to get rid of all of the rules as an experiment.  The promising thing is that it doesn’t last long. Most adults assume that if kids get the freedom to write their own rules and only go to classes when they feel like it, chaos will ensue and the school will resemble Lord of the Flies. However, that is entirely not the case at Summerhill.

This was further illustrated at the last event of our day. We were able to witness one of the bi-weekly, all-community meetings. One student presides over the meeting, which was very orderly. If a student or staff member wished to address the group, they had already signed up to be on the agenda. Rules were changed, such as amending the number of students allowed on the trampoline at one time, by being proposed and then immediately voted on. I only wish our Congress could be as efficient.  There were also penalties and fines levied. If a student or faculty member (all of whose votes were equal – from the youngest student to the principal) felt they were wronged, they would bring that person up in the meeting and propose a punishment. This could be anything from a small fine to restricting their visits home (this is, after all, a boarding house).

What struck me about the meeting was the independence and confidence exhibited by these students. The student who wanted to change the rule regarding the trampoline allowances was a seven-year old. He addressed a group of peers and adults numbering around 100, without a quiver in his voice or a hesitation in his manner.  Similarly, when someone was brought up for discipline, both the accuser and accused were very matter-of-fact and civil. It wasn’t personal, it was holding someone accountable to the rules. 

All in all, Josh and I were very impressed with Summerhill. Truth be told, it’s my dream to one day open a school based on this model in my area. But, my first priority is to raise my own children with the best education possible. Whether we will determine that it means finding a free school or embarking on unschooling is yet to be seen.

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