Mary R. Wedd taught at Summerhill for a brief period before teaching in a small village school.  She wrote an account of her experiences which I recommend highly. Later, she became a Senior Lecturer in education. One of the quotes that resonated  with me and that I will be using in my own teacher education classes is from her book, Born for Joy: Teacher and Learner in a Village School, London: Macdonald, 1969.

“The first piece of advice I gave myself was this. Before you can understand the child, it is necessary to have at least some understanding of yourself” (p. 88).

“The first piece of advice I gave myself was this. Before you can understand the child, it is necessary to have at least some understanding of yourself” (p. 88). t“The first piece of advice I gave myself was this. Before you can understand the child, it is necessary to have at least some understanding of yourself” (p. 88)

Can Summerhill Values Coexist with 21st Century Learning Theory?

Lessons are optional. That simple directive seized my imagination years ago as I began my work as an educator and read A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. His outline for educating students in a democratically run, free environment resonated with me profoundly. My own primary education was adequate if not inspiring and one that often found me standing in the hallway having been told to leave the classroom due to my “talking too much!” My impulse control was a little ragged when it came to asking one friend a question or feeling the need to make a comment to another. The ultimate embarrassment was to be found standing in the hallway or worse yet, having my desk moved out there, and to have other classes of students pass me by as they went to recess or lunch. My older brother would shake his head when he saw me, I would be chagrined, but it did not seem to stop my talking for long. Reading Neill’s work as an adult opened my thinking to other possibilities where students could learn and play at their own pace and ask all their questions without being punished.

Being a proponent of Neill’s principles while teaching in a traditional California public school was challenging. I soon found that treating students with respect and honoring their ability to make choices was possible but the overall structure of the system didn’t allow more than an infusion of the spirit of Summerhill into my teaching, very little actual practice. When I began graduate work in education, I was captivated by Barbara Clark’s work in gifted education that drew from the theories of Carl Jung and had many Summerhillian elements regarding freedom for students to choose where they would focus their learning. Clark spoke Neill’s language in many ways where students could practice decision making and engage with subjects that were their passion rather than those prescribed by educators who also decided in which order the subjects would be offered. Her laboratory summer school, New Age School, was a success for students, parents, and teachers but when faced with the prospect of running it during a regular school year, Clark’s model still had to bend to requirements for students to spend a set amount of time in mandated subjects. Optional lessons would not be on the table. 

Completing a Ph.D. in Education at Claremont Graduate University opened up further conversations about philosophers such as Rousseau who valued the natural child. John Dewey’s adage resonated with me regarding that if society wanted to produce students who were effective citizens, they needed to practice democratic decision making. Lev Vygotsky’s work and its nexus with constructivist learning theory helped me solidify my educational philosophy and provided me with a deeper foundation upon which I could formulate my thinking about the best way to create an effective learning environment. At the present, having taught a diverse range of students, from middle school science to teacher education graduate students, I am constantly reminded that the Western school system was fashioned for students by adults who believed they had their best interests at heart. It was expected that the students fit into the system in order to become successful adults and those who did not, either due to academic deficiency or disinterest, were labeled wanting and/or were judged failures.

In the course of my academic career, I always came back to Summerhill, wondering how it might work with Millennial era students and if it was really as wonderful as I imagined. I was certain that although all students might not work well within a Summerhill structure, there were many who would have benefited greatly from being able to move along at their own pace, growing in confidence in their abilities, and feeling less judged in their academic struggles.

 I have taught Preservice teacher-candidates as well as in-service teachers for many years now and continue to struggle with how to infuse my educational philosophy in light of the demands of the modern American classroom that focus on quantity of facts learned as opposed to constructing depth of knowledge that lays a foundation for future learning. One session that I have consistently included in my methods course is one on the work of A.S. Neill and Summerhill. A few of my students perk up immediately and identify the positive aspects of the school. A majority of the class is appalled at the idea of this free school and is convinced the students must turn out like the children in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. These two opposing attitudes are reflected in comments that have been made about Summerhill since its inception. Having had the recent opportunity during my sabbatical to visit the school and search the school’s archives gave me a more thorough historical sense of the issues both for and against the school. Speaking with current Summerhill teachers, students, staff and the principal allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of how the school currently works.  Conversations with townspeople contributed insight on how some perceptions of Summerhill are still cloudy. The goal of my sabbatical trip to Summerhill was to see for myself how this school that I had always thought about and admired, operated in reality. I achieved my goal and much more.

The Visit
I arrived in Leiston, a small town in Suffolk, England on the day before my visit. The town maintains some of its 18th century charm but looks mostly as if it lost its heart with the closing of the train line. I stayed at a B & B that was about a 5 minute walk to the school. Arriving at Summerhill on foot, one walks along a residential street and first comes across the imposing brick wall that surrounds the school. There is a very old beech tree that I had seen in photographs that can also be seen from the street. The actual entrance is a narrow drive marked by a small brick wall on which the name Summerhill has been spelled out in mosaic tiles. It is a short walk down the drive where one checks in at the office.







The school is a collection of structures that house the dormitories and classrooms. However, the large brick building that houses the community meeting room, dining room, kitchen, upstairs dorms and various other rooms looks just as it does in the older pictures I had seen, except for the skateboard ramp that students had constructed. Trees are everywhere and a there is a field for playing football (soccer). Summerhillians have a swimming pool and bicycles can be seen left here and there. The setting is quite peaceful and despite my visit being in winter, I enjoyed walking the grounds enormously.

 Mrs. Zoë Neill Readhead, Neill’s daughter, is the current principal of the school. She was kind enough to give me a tour and talk about the philosophy of Summerhill. The reader will remember that Summerhill is a boarding school; current ages of the international student body range from 8 to 16 - 17 years. The school usually refrains from admitting students older than 11 years due to the need to learn the Summerhill structure and the responsibilities that come with having choice. I asked Zoë about how the school balances the ideal of Summerhill with the needs of 21st century learning? This issue is at the heart of my reflections on current educational trends as Summerhill is the antithesis to the hard driving, test monitored curriculum seen in most schools. She observed that current UK government inspectors [like those in the US] want concrete evidence of learning. They don't necessarily see it right off. It is hard for them to believe that something of value could be taking place outside of a traditional classroom. For example, we saw three boys sitting outside talking. It might seem that they were doing nothing but they were actually planning a film they were making. One of the boys is determined to become a filmmaker. Yet, Neill would have said that even if the boys were merely discussing the latest football results, something meaningful was taking place.

On another day some students had posted a British flag they had painted on butcher paper across the main gate. A young gentleman in army fatigues was at the post, a card table (still there the next day but littered with empty drink bottles and wrappers). He told me he was just having fun until he could gain access to the computers at 3:30 pm. He told me the older kids had created the rule to keep the younger kids from gaming all day. One could argue that he was wasting time but one could also argue that he had learned an interesting lesson in democracy. Summerhill was nearly closed down in 1999 around these issues, a topic I will return to shortly.

How Do Optional Lessons Work?
The school was pretty quiet the three days I visited, partly due to the older students taking mock exams for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs). They usually take the exam in the summer and then move on to university the next year. Students have to pay a fee for the exam [like our SATs]. I interviewed a number of teachers who talked about how they structure their day around preparing lessons that may or may not be attended. The schedule goes from 9:30-6:00 with a break from 1:00-4:00 for activities such as the community meeting. One upper grade teacher noted how the exams guided the curriculum if that was needed by the student.  His weekly plan showed seven classes or blocks of time with the names of the students who would attend, which seemed to be about five in number on average. English and Literature are taught separately in Great Britain with English focusing on writing whereas Literature focuses on prose, drama, and poetry. The course readings included Richard III, The Great Gatsby, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, not very different from what a high school student would read in the United States. This teacher had highlighted the names of the students who had attended each day which allowed him to keep track of what they had covered in the curriculum. He made a point that Summerhill kids want to learn.  “They demand to learn.” If they made the effort to get to class they want it to begin on time, last the entire block, and the teacher is held accountable. The teacher creates the lessons but students participate fully. No topic is taboo.

Zoë made an interesting point about a criticism that kids can opt out of subjects they do not like. Summerhill students usually know what they want to study, where they will excel, and the result is higher confidence. Reading and writing are a little more challenging to teach if the kids are having difficulty. The teachers offer plenty of support but the students must have the wish and the determination to learn. Traditional thinking says that children need to be exposed to all subjects or how will they know whether or not they like a field of study? But one can argue that the people who make decisions about which subjects are must haves and to what depth they should be studied also have their own agenda.  A traditional school setting refuses to deal with a student who dislikes literature yet can spend an entire day learning math.

Zoë also mentioned that Summerhill students tend to excel in college as they have learned to take charge of their education.  She noted that a few students do leave Summerhill early to go to traditional schools that will require them to work as they do not feel able to tap into the needed resolve to get the work done for college readiness on their own. She added that this is unfortunate since developing that inner locus of control is one of the hallmarks of a Summerhill education.

I met with another teacher who talked further about how it was remarkable to plan lessons with no guarantee that students will attend. He concluded that it was really important to build a relationship with the kids in order to best meet their educational needs. Teachers set a plan but work with the individual or small group of students and as well, respond more effectively to students who need more or less assistance. At lunch he made a great point about my observations of the 21st century/Bloom emphasis on creativity. He wondered if creativity would just replace one forced system with another, “force people to be creative!” He added that it seems the conversations in education are all about economics or in other words, developing productive workers. All the Summerhill teachers with whom I spoke sounded much like any other teacher I have met, concerned about their students’ welfare and learning.

Ian Warder, a former teacher at Summerhill, wrote an essay that is included in the Summerhill archives. It is titled “Some Impressions of Summerhill” (Warder, no date) and he talks about his experience after having taught there for four years. He had diverse teaching experience before coming to Summerhill having taught in public and private middle school, as well as adults and in both the UK and USA. His wife was a Summerhill graduate so they packed up from California when the chance to teach at Summerhill came about. Warder writes about experiencing culture shock despite being familiar with the school’s philosophy. He was used to being the teacher/authority and it took a while to accept his equal status with students. He relates a story about being told to move to the back of the lunch queue after stepping out of it to read a school notice. What I find interesting is that he tried to pull rank and fussed at the students; however, they did not back down. They could deal with this cranky adult and not be intimidated to give into something that they believed was unfair.

Warder muses on students choosing to come to lessons – or not. He found that they mostly did attend and when they didn’t, it was because they had something more important to them to do. He writes:
One aspect of teaching is easy for a teacher in a regular school, where you have a captive audience. And how artificial too – learning is a natural process, and works best when there is an interest and self generated motivation. The captive audience has a number of choices – to either make the best of it, suffer in silence, rebel or of course enjoy every minute of it because it is just the thing they want to do – if my own school is anything to go by, I spent most of my time in the first two modes, and never in the last.  (Warder, no date, pp. 1-2)

 Warder also found that experiencing student-teacher equality allowed him to enjoy the sharing of responsibility. For example, Summerhill has Beddies Officers who enforce bedtimes and Ombudsman who act as arbitrators outside of the school Meeting. These older students have learned responsibility and develop caretaking skills for the younger students. He describes the students as, “friendly, tolerant and patient. They learned this, like we all have to, through their own experience, and through being given the chance to learn it.” (Warder, no date, p. 2) I want to echo Warder in this observation. In my three day visit, the students with whom I spoke were polite, funny, and willing to be open about their experience. They seemed to be a pretty joyful bunch of kids, even in the Community Meeting where disagreement would be expected.

The Community Meeting, Establishing Rules, and Democratic Decision Making
One great misconception about Summerhill that I still heard from townsfolk is that the students are allowed to do whatever they wish.  Many articles from the archives referred to it as the “do-as-you-please school” (The Times, Dec. 29, 1990, p. 3 , 1990).That could not be further from the truth. Anna Knopfler wrote about freedom versus license in a 1993 article where she quoted Neill who had stated ‘“In the disciplined home, the children have no rights. In the spoiled home, they have all the rights. The proper home is one in which children and adults have equal rights” ‘ (Knopfler, 1993). Neill wrote a column for Redbook magazine for a time and answered readers’ questions. One parent asked about her child being a picky eater and he responded, “It is wrong to force a child to eat what he does not want to eat; it is equally wrong to force a family to eat what only one member prefers” (Neill, 1967). Neill advised adults to find places to compromise but not to let one person make decisions for the community [which is not democratic.] Ian Stronach and Heather Piper conducted a research study at Summerhill and later noted:

The core of the school is the Meeting, where students and staff, on a one-per-one-vote basis, decide how the school will be run. The school has obvious affinities with Deweyan schools, in its experience-centered rationale and emphasis on democratic government, and served as a model for over six hundred such free schools in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s.  (Stronach, 2008)


The full community proposes and votes on the rules for the school. The Summerhill Law Book could be found in the dining room where it is available to anyone who is interested. It opens with a statement that summarizes the Summerhill philosophy well. The page heading is, “Notes about Freedom and Licence.”

In Summerhill “freedom” means individual freedom. This means that you can do what you like, so long as it does not interfere with the freedom of somebody else. So, you can wear no clothes if you want to, dye your hair bright pink, and never attend classes at all, because that is your own business – but you cannot play your music at 3:00 am, pee on the lounge floor, or skateboard in the corridor because it affects other people. The Summerhill laws generally define this difference between freedom and licence, though some are there to protect particular people or things. Just because there is not a law against it – does not necessarily mean that you can do it! And if there is a law that you don’t think is good – bring it up in the Meeting![1]

The laws cover most topics one could imagine would emerge in a boarding school including: baths and showers, bedtimes and their enforcement, visiting the town, camping on the school grounds, celebrating Halloween, conduct in various buildings and outdoor areas, end of term celebrations, fines, student bans, and myriad issues that crop up in the course of the year. Following are a few examples.

  • You can’t go back to bed before 12:00. . . .Can’t use vuvuzelas at wake-up.       
  • No swearing downtown . . . . You have to be 13 to go downtown alone.
  • You have to pass your bike test before you can cycle down-town.
  • Fine for smoking – £5 . . . If M. is brought up for smoking, the fine increases by £5 each time.
  • You can’t climb the Big Beech when it’s dark or wet.[2] Visitors can’t climb or swing off the Big Beech . . . Visitors must leave the premises by 17:00.[5:00 p.m.]
  • You can use screens (games including facebook games, movies and YouTube etc) from 15:30 . . . You can’t mention Summerhill or your personal information on teen chats. 
  • Drinking alcohol – sent home for four weeks . . .Graffiting other people’s names to harass someone - £2

Bullying is not a big problem at Summerhill which doesn’t mean it never happens. They experience the typical kind of bullying and harassment that happens with kids but it is not severe. And the significant point is that with community meetings, students have an effective means for addressing the issue. They bring a case against their antagonist and the community decides on the right course of action. The Summerhill Law Book has a section called “People on the Bullies List.”  It lists the consequences for being brought up at meeting and put on the list such as: “Cannot go to any social event . . . cannot talk or vote in the Meetings . . . cannot go downtown . . . must go to the back of all queues.”[3]

Zoë Neill Redhead further stated that the staff is not naïve but child abuse is very unlikely at Summerhill because the kids would stop any action that was inappropriate. Summerhill students tend to have a strong sense of their self and the importance of their humanness and an adult doing something inappropriate or hitting them would just not be acceptable. Summerhill students have the skills to tell an adult to “cut it out.” Ian Stronach included Summerhill in a series of case studies he conducted on touch between educators and students. His researchers found that at Summerhill, the issue of “touch was a banal concern” (Stronach, 2008, p. 9) due to the free flowing ease and trust they observed between students and staff. Giving hugs, massaging a neck, carrying a small child on one’s hip were natural and something that caused the researchers to redefine good touch and bad touch. What was more important was the idea of unwanted touch. As they found, “Ombudsmen and the Meeting empowered children to air any misgivings. . . . there were no private places, there were no adult powers of santion over the child” (Stronach, 2008, p. 11).

The Community Meeting takes place each Monday and Friday unless the day is changed by vote due to something like an end of term party. Emergency meetings can also be called when needed. The community votes to allow a visitor in the Meeting, therefore I waited in the hall for a minute so they could take a vote. Students and staff have equal votes. An older student runs the meeting. I learned later that minutes are not taken as the proceedings are not meant to be public. Thus, I will not identify specific students; however, in general, the kinds of things that were tackled included teachers giving announcements about upcoming events and course offerings, a change in an upcoming Meeting date, safety issues regarding going downtown, and various student infractions. Students were articulate in their proposals around how to deal with each issue. I noticed that when the teachers brought up students, it didn’t seem to be an overly upsetting matter for the student who was present. The process seemed less about embarrassing the student and more about making the offense conscious and dealing with it.  For example, a teacher brought up a student whom he felt was out of order. The student responded, “That is shit!” and the community talked to the student about his temper and need for self-control. They proposed and passed a warning about his behavior and that seemed to be the end of it. It felt very different from dealing with behavior in a traditional school setting where a student can be made to feel singled out and morally in the wrong. Stronach found a similar pattern noting, “The thinking was deliberative rather than recriminatory” (Stronach, 2008, p. 16).

Topics That Emerged Via Archival Research
 Each day I spent a few hours reading through the archives stored in the main office. It is a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, copies of magazine and journal articles, and pictures that allow one to read about the school’s history as it unfolded. The following are some major themes I found that stimulated reflections and a hope to continue my research in the future.

Defining Success: Neill believed that a successful person was one who found happiness in his or her life. That philosophy is still strong at Summerhill but is challenged by a number of outside influences. Urban society tends to value a competitive model for success. The students who are at the top of the class get the accolades, scholarships, awards and proud parents. Neill believed that if a student became a happy and competent mechanic, he or she had achieved success. This is an antithesis to our hard driven, be the best, do what you have to do to succeed climate in schools. In the past I have carried on an inner dialogue about the need to define for ourselves, at an individual level, what is meant by success?  Neill said it was to be happy. If children finish school happy, feeling good, interested in life, is that not enough? Can I as a parent accept my child who wants to be a mechanic as easily as the one who wants to be a scientist?  Ironically, I read an article that reported on interviews conducted with Summerhill students that highlighted their accomplishments after graduation. There was listed an artist, university lecturer, architect, mathematician and business manager which illustrates that it is still difficult for most to define the success of the school by Neill’s own definition. Alumnae are still identified by their profession but perhaps the public needs that as a marker of success (The Observer, 1999).

 Neill was criticized by some voices that surprised me. He received criticism from the New Radical Left who argued that Neill believed in a peaceful, unbigoted world but did not produce students who went out and made change.
As a radical activist told me recently: Happy hippies do not make good revolutionaries. .  . . Neill is accused of being a reformer out of touch with political realities. He is also accused of being a romantic: of turning out contented cows, who remove themselves from the harsh central arena of modern life. He is also accused of being anachronistic: pursuing methods appropriate for a slow moving, simple society. (Cross, 1972)

Cross added that Neill didn’t care about those criticisms as he believed violent revolution resulted in a new authoritarian regime taking the place of that which was overthrown. Neill believed that it is more effective for Summerhill students to raise their own children in a warm, loving environment implying that like the pebble pitched into a pond, Summerhill students would affect change. Neill was adamantly vocal against war and traced the underlying problems with violence between cultures to infancy and children raised in an ethos of fear rather than love and acceptance (Neill, Our Anti-Life Society). In reply to yet another Lord of the Flies criticism, Neill responded:
I say, and I think that my work has proved it, that the absence of adult authority leads to kindliness, charity, tolerance. . . . But the larger question: Why does man make a sick society? I cannot answer, just as I cannot answer the question why adults- parents, teachers, clergymen- have the nerve to tell a child how to live. It looks as if man puts his God in the skies for Sundays, while on weekdays he makes himself a little tin god. But it seems clear that Golding has shown one thing- that an imposed morality is only skin deep.  (Neill, Savagery Starts at Home, 1996)

Ian Cunningham wrote about how well “managed” Summerhill was in a 1990 article in The Times.
My definition of success should not be controversial. The objectives of education should be to help young people develop the abilities to live and work in the world; to be creative, flexible people; to be able to make independent judgements and act on them; to be autonomous human beings.” (Cunningham, 1990)
The author also argues that the best administrators are not only focused on test scores but must be “holistic” and able to “relate” to people at an emotional level as well as intellectual, something that was very evident in the Summerhill staff.

Closing the School: Summerhill was nearly closed down in 1999-2000. Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) concluded that Summerhill did not meet the standards of the 1996 Education Act. Their chief complaint was non-attendance at lessons  (East Anglia Daily Times, 1999). The BBC filmed a special that related the story of the school’s struggle and subsequent victory. I was eager to watch it as both Zoë and another teacher mentioned that the filmmakers had done a respectable job of depicting the story as well as the school. The school community had to raise over £70,000 to fight their case. The students and staff were successful raising the funds (£25,000 from Japanese parents alone (The Times Educational Supplement , p. 7 March 31, 2000, 2000) and the case was heard in the High Court. The school was so successful presenting their case that after three days, Ofsted offered to settle with a compromise ruling. Ian Stronach, an education professor and researcher from Manchester Metropolitan University was prepared to present his extensive research that showed Summerhill students to be well educated, thriving, and exceptionally able to work together in a democratic setting.

When the compromise was tendered, the students held a Community Meeting in the court in order to vote whether or not to accept the agreement. The Education Secretary, David Blunkett agreed to: 1) changes in education would be considered and 2) improved accommodation would be built. (Pupils agree historic deal in school row, 2000) Summerhill must continue to be inspected but not yearly as had been happening which was considered harassment since Summerhill was subjected to something other schools were not. Zoë Neill Readhead was quoted saying that basically the school would continue to provide, “suitable class-based lessons” (The Times Educational Supplement , 2000) but children would not be compelled to attend. Another quote from one of the older students follows.

Carman Cordwell, 15, who chaired the pupil’s meeting, [in the High Court] said: “After 79 years this is the first official recognition that AS Neill’s philosophy of education provides an acceptable alternative to compulsory lessons and the tyranny of compulsory exams.”  (Lepkowska, 2000)As difficult as it must have been for the Summerhill community to undergo the stress of the law suit, the outcome was a significant validation of the Neill’s vision.

Concluding Thoughts
Throughout my visit and upon subsequent reflection a number of questions emerged. Should all schools become Summerhill? Should all children attend schools that give them a choice to attend lessons? I have tentatively concluded in the context of being an educator in the United States, probably not. The small student-to-teacher ratio is not physically practical in large public schools. One of the reasons Summerhill works well is the structure that fosters a close relationship between students and staff. Students do not slip through the cracks, a concern that has led many American schools to adopt smaller schools-within-schools or focused learning academies with varying success. Furthermore, choosing to so something other than attend lessons may work at Summerhill where students have something better to do. I would not like to see students opt out of engaging with school because they are lost, isolated, or feel anonymous. That would not fit Neill’s thinking at all.

Nevertheless, we could certainly incorporate Summerhill ideals into our current dialogue regarding the suitable direction to take for 21st century learning.  Constructivist learning comes close to bridging the gap between Summerhill and traditional education. The essence of Constructivist learning is to build a relationship with children and to give them the opportunity to lead their learning. However, in order for Constructivist learning to be accepted in schools, it is often boxed in by the need to meet curriculum standards. Standards are not such a problem as any expert in a field has a sense of what a student needs to study in order to become proficient in that field. However, current standardized testing has left little room for going further or deeper than the set curriculum which can be quite stifling as it becomes the boundary, rather than a guide, for learning. In light of the emerging work on the need for stimulating creativity in our students, it is clear that they must have the opportunity to be creative.

I also have a lot of questions regarding students who are considered at risk and if a Summerhill structure would serve their interests. Certainly participation in a democratic community could provide long term benefits. However, if “Joey” is reading years behind his grade level, would presenting him with optional lessons benefit? Has he already been behaving as if they were, if not optional, useless? Most likely he feels a failure. However, if presented with choice and acceptance, might he not reach out for learning on his own terms? I have doubts if he is a teen or older when world view has become rather concretized.  A chance for guided self-reflection might bridge the sense of hopelessness with an idea that the future could hold possibilities. This is an area that needs further discussion.

There is an underlying belief in the criticisms of Summerhill that given the choice, children will not attend lessons. I imagine this is a fear based on projection. We adults choose to learn what interests us and are quite happy to avoid subjects that we deem boring or too difficult to master. We also don’t trust children to make effective choices. Yet, we might argue that like any skill, one must be able to practice, make mistakes, reflect, and try again. Learning to make effective choices is messy, a process that is difficult for many adults to endure. The structure of Summerhill with the community meetings and accountability to the school allows that practice to occur in a well contained environment where mistakes can be made and form the groundwork for learning. It is clear why usually, the school does not admit students over the age of 11-12 years. By the time students are old enough to take leadership roles in the school they have been immersed in the democratic decision making process for years. I did not see the eight year olds in the meeting and was told they are often disinterested until older. However, the students I observed in the meeting who were as young as nine or ten were engaged in the topics under discussion and the older students seemed to be quite comfortable stating their opinions or proposing consequences for infractions made by their peers. 

I sense the issue is that adults have a difficult time believing that when children are given the option to make their own choices that they will choose wisely. Adults define what is prudent and assume that children will not have the ability to choose in their best interests. The optional lessons are a great stumbling block for many. Yet, it is apparent that children do choose to learn and explore subjects that are appealing to their imagination or in the best interest of being able to achieve their goals. Summerhill is not a Lord of the Flies scenario as many of my own education students fear. I think there are many misconceptions about children’s ability to think. When given the space to practice decision making and reflection, at least the students who attend Summerhill seem to be up to the task.

It was obvious that Zoë, the teachers, and the support staff care deeply about the students and the school. Libby Purves gives some interesting background in an article on Zoë who told the reporter that she had not planned on running Summerhill until she had her own children and realized how “unusual” her growing up had been. Zoë makes a point about the Lord of the Flies comparisons stating, “Lord of the Flies is a portrait of hateful, repressed children. The sort who become hateful repressed adults” (Purves, 1991).

Sir Ken Robinson gave a TED talk in February 2010 where he argues:
Education, in a way, dislocates very many people from their natural talents.  And human resources are like natural resources; they're often buried deep.  You have to go looking for them; they're not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.  And you might imagine education would be the way that happens, but too often it's not.  Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment and it's not enough.  Reform is no use anymore, because that's simply improving a broken model. What we need -- and the word's been used many times during the course of the past few days -- is not evolution, but a revolution in education.  This has to be transformed into something else. 
He read a quote from Abraham Lincoln who used a term, disenthrall, as a way to urge us to reconsider our hard held positions. Robinson then added:
I love that word, "disenthrall."  You know what it means?  That there are ideas that all of us are enthralled to, which we simply take for granted as the natural order of things, the way things are.  And many of our ideas have been formed, not to meet the circumstances of this century, but to cope  with the circumstances of previous centuries.  But our minds are still hypnotized by them, and we  have to disenthrall ourselves of some of them.  Now, doing this is easier said than done.  It's very hard   to know, by the way, what it is you take for granted. And the reason is that you take it for granted. 

 Accolades are not the focus of Summerhill but instead the emphasis is on supporting the students to find their passion. Their growth is not narcissistic but self-actualizing.  I found Summerhill to be a wonderful place. Students and staff I met seemed content, happy, and very busy. One of the groundskeepers ran into me at the local grocery and it was obvious from our chat that he loves the school. After speaking with Zoë and seeing Summerhill for myself, it is as I suspected, a place where students are free to discover who they are as well as a time where they can practice decision making that will be vital in the future.

( 1999., May 27). East Anglia Daily Times.
(1999, May 30). The Observer.
(1999, May 27). East Anglia Daily Times.
(2000, March 31). The Times Educational Supplement , p. 7 March 31, 2000, p. 7.
(2000, March 31). The Times Educational Supplement .
Pupils agree historic deal in school row. (2000, March 24). Metro.
Cross, J. ( 1972, Autumn). Is Neill a Petty-Bourgeois-Liberal Reformer-Idiot? New Horizons in Education, pp. 2-4.
Cunningham, I. (1990, April 27). The Times Educational Supplement.
Knopfler, A. (1993, September). Summerhill School Revisited. Hersay, p. 18029.
Lepkowska, D. (2000, March 24). Pupil Power Saves School. The Express, p. 35.
Neill, A. (1967, April). Redbook, pp. 109-113.
Neill, A. (1996, January). Savagery Starts at Home. Anarchy 59, p. 25.
Neill, A. (n.d.). Our Anti-Life Society. A Way Out: School of Living, pp. 326-328.
Purves, L. (1991, January 2). How Did the Guru's Daughter Grow Up? The Times, p. 14.
Robinson, K. (2010).
Stronach, I. &. (2008). Can Liberal Education Make a Comeback? The Case of ‘Relational Touch’ at Summerhill School. American Educational Research Journal, March 2008, Vol. 45(1), p.7., 7.
The Times, Dec. 29, 1990, p. 3 . ( 1990, December 29). The Times, p. 3 .
Warder, I. (no date). Some Impressions of Summerhill. unpublished essay.















The following unpublished article deals with philosophy of education. This project was part of a sabbatical my university was generous enough to grant me in 2011.


   by Robin L. Gordon, Ph.D.

     For more information you can visit the Summerhill web site at:


You may also want to find  Neill's original book about

Summerhill - it is a wonderful read. You can also find a newer edition at their store on their web site.