Zoë Readhead on the Free School Summerhill
The Summerhill School in southeast England, founded in 1921 by Alexander S. Neill, has been paving the way for Free Schools all over the world. There are no compulsory lessons, in a weekly school meeting rules can be debated and conflicts sorted. Zoë Readhead, daughter of A.S. Neill, is the school’s principal. In this interview, she talks about educational reform, healthy media consumption at school and the special spirit of Summerhill.
The interview is also available in German and as a shortened video.
„As if they can see into your soul“
Congratulations on over one hundred years of Summerhill. What is happening at the school these days?
We had our hundredth birthday last year, we were geared up for it and then we had to cancel our celebrations. So we’re doing stuff this year, we’ve got a reunion coming up of previous pupils, staff and parents who’ve been connected with the school. And then we’ve got the Summerhill Festival of Childhood which will be a bit like a music festival. People are coming from all over the world for this to do speeches and many of the International Democratic Education Communities will hold their annual meetings there. It’s going to be very exciting.
Do you engage regularly in networking with these groups like IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) and EUDEC (European Democratic Education Community)?
It’s difficult to be involved in everything. But my son Henry is very interested in networking and he started up a business, which is called CIC. It’s a nonprofit business to try and help universities and other institutions to run courses directed more at this kind of education.
I visited one free school in Germany, which in one regard had a very different approach from the Summerhill one, and that was in the way how they organised their learning. In Summerhill, you do have lessons but they’re not compulsory. At this other school, they were saying that the more we influence children and the more options we offer them for engaging with, the more we steer their self-development. So that we might have to work on some restraint on this and not even offer a certain syllabus of lessons because that might influence the kids too much.
For me, that’s just much too pure. We live in a real world, children will need qualifications, if they want to go to college in the UK they need to pass exams to get to them, so why pretend that we don’t even have lessons. We’ve always had lessons, and it works for us, the children are very happy. Particularly when they become new pupils I think it’s actually quite nice for them that there’s a lesson there and they don’t have to go. I’ve got a lesson on the timetable and I’m not going, ha ha ha, you know. If you go into the classrooms, particularly with the younger pupils, there will be often a very empty classroom and lots of children playing out in the sunshine. And so I don’t think we’ve ever thought it was a pressure. For me that kind of idea that we mustn’t steer them at all is just a little bit too purist. We’re very grounded and practical at Summerhill, we’re very down to earth. We just get on with the job.
Have you been able to keep the school life running more or less normally during the Covid period?
We were online for two terms. We used a thing called Discord. It can be a sort of social space and our IT teacher set it up. There were different classrooms obviously that you would go to, but we also had some kind of social spaces were people could hang out together. We still had a school meeting once a week. There was nothing to discuss of course, but we had a school meeting so we could all meet.
Do kids at Summerhill also try to like run around Leiston (the closest town) and make experiences there or do they really find everything they want on the school grounds?
They go shopping in town and occasionally they go down to the skate park or something, but basically they stay at school. The point is that the children at Summerhill learn all the time and we don’t make an issue out of learning. If they go to classes then they will be taught through a curriculum, but their day-to-day learning is not written down or monitored in any way. We’ve just recognised that living life is the most important thing they can do, really. Learning to live with one another, to negotiate, to communicate and get on with each other is probably the most powerful tool they learn at Summerhill. And they’re learning it within the school.
One thing that I am really really interested in is how the use of digital media and social media works. I feel like the idea that you have to pursue your own interest is a great thing if children can really do that and if there isn’t something very strong that is holding them back. And I have the impression that smartphones and social media do steer behaviour in a certain way, that they can keep children from putting the phone away and from doing whatever they want to do instead. At this other school I saw, they hardly regulated media usage. Their approach was based on two arguments, I think. One of them was, this is how our world is, we can’t take phones away from the kids because at some point they’re going to be leaving the school and then develop a phone addiction. And the other thing was to say eventually kids are going to get bored of everything, put it away and then find their true motivation. What is your stance on these things and what rules are in place at Summerhill right now?
We have laws in school, rules that say when you can use the screens and when you can’t. You can’t use screens until 4 pm in the afternoon. Unless you’re doing it for a class or research or some people ask in the meeting if they can use it because they like to do their art. But you can’t use it just for social media or for watching films and things like that. And then you can use them until half an hour before you go to bed for the younger children. And you can’t use them at night at all. That applies to the adults as well. They would have to get special permission if they needed to use something other than our messaging services and things which we have to have obviously. So that works very well for us, actually. We occasionally get someone who wants to change it and use it all the time and says well, if we were allowed to use it all the time we would get bored of it. And that’s not true at all. What we have to remember about using the internet is that with all of the games, with all of the social media, there are hundreds of thousands of people getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to create these environments which lure you in. They lure you in so that you keep going back all the time, you keep wanting to sit. We have to recognize that you’re taking a child or a teenager, and you’re pitting them against this really powerful, million dollar industry, which is designed to suck you in and keep you there. No child has a chance against that. Of course they will begin to balance out as they see other things in life, but I think they do need help with that. And for us we feel that kids should be playing and being kids. But of course the internet is important. Of course the games that they play are important and the interaction they have when they play is lovely, we’re not denigrating that at all. We’re just saying it has a place but not in our faces all day long.
So how did this develop, was there a phase where you saw overuse and then some of the kids kind of came to their senses?
The laws just gradually became more and more. Because we run as a community and it’s really important that we have a community. And when some people are online all the time they’re not part of the community. And the community just falls apart. One of the tragedies of having internet is that no child ever has to be bored anymore. And I think that’s awful. I like that for the whole of the day, if a child hasn’t got anything to do, they can’t just get on their phone, they’ve got to actually go out and meet people and do stuff and find something to do.
Is there a development towards stronger regulation about media usage at Summerhill?
I think it will probably stay as it is. There are difficulties when you’re learning about personal freedom. At Summerhill personal freedom is really important, we have a very strong distincton between freedom, which is our own personal freedom, and licence, which is those things that interfere with other people. And when you’re a child it’s quite difficult to get the measure of those two things. So people often confuse personal freedom with actually being able to do exactly as they like. And particularly in modern homes, parents are very likely to allow children to do exactly as they like in their homes, so they come to school and think, I should be able to do exactly as I like. And that’s not true, you can’t live your life like that anywhere. And I think that’s one of the difficulties in society at the moment. There are too many people who think they should be able to do exactly as they like, without thinking about the needs of other people.
Do you have the impression that the children at Summerhill develop a very different approach towards the use of digital media compared to other children?
It’s difficult to know, but I know that ours are very responsible about it and they’re very aware of the whole community issue. The older children are all aware that social interaction and the community are important. Children, when they’re young, have no social responsibility, they don’t care about what other people think or feel. They do a bit, but not very much. As they get older we see, certainly at Summerhill they way it works is, they become more and more aware of their social role at the school, it’s not all about me, it’s about everybody and the community, what’s best for all of us. So if somebody says, I think we should all be able to play computer games all day, most of the bigger children will say, well that’s stupid, because it’s going to be really bad for us as a school and for our community. So they will vote against it.
It’s really great to hear that this is actually something that children themselves can develop an understanding of and can decide together with themselves.
Well, it’s important. But when you say children you must remember that when we have our school meetings, there are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen adults there as well. We’re all equals in the community. And I think that’s really important, too, that we’re recognised for our experience. If we are respected it’s because we have experience and we usually have something sensible to say.
Summerhill has existed as a self-governing society for over one hundred years now. What does it mean to live in a century-old democracy that has developed a spirit or a mind and some wisdom of itself?
It’s very, very special, actually. Everybody who visits this school is touched by the atmosphere there. There’s an energy of honesty, it’s just an amazing feeling at Summerhill, and I’m sure other free schools feel the same. It’s amazing that Summerhill has lasted that long, and it’s had so many difficulties over its time. It’s amazing that it’s survived.
Could you give two or three examples of what this spirit of honesty and special feeling of the school mean in a daily context?
We shoot from the hip, you know. We say it like it is, we’re very honest, we’re very blunt. We have a lot of humor. We laugh a lot, we tease one another, but in a gentle and kind way. If somebody needs anything, you just say something. Children are very special, they’re wonderful creatures that are slightly different to us because they’re children. But they’re capable of taking it on the chin. A child might come up and ask you a really blunt question about death or sex or anything and you think, wow. But I will always answer as honestly as I can because they deserve us to do that, they deserve that respect. There was a drama about Summerhill made by the BBC. When they were making that film, one of the technicians, who would have no particular interest in education, he said to one of his friends, the children here are amazing, when they look at you, it’s as if they can see into your soul. And I think that’s a very telling thing. Because that’s what grown-ups say to me all the time when they come to Summerhill. And the other thing about Summerhill when you visit is that although it’s very lively, it’s very very calm. There might be screaming and laughing and running around or riding bycicles or something. But the atmosphere is calm, it’s very safe and very cool.
Can you see elements of the political landscape in the UK reflecting in the democracy and the society at the school?
I think Summerhill could do a lot to help democracy in Westminster. If we could fill the House of Commons with Summerhill pupils it would be a very different country to the country it is now. Because first of all they would know how to manage their lives in a way that people who’ve been to Eton and things often tend not to. Most of our politicians have been to very posh private schools and I’m not sure how much that really teaches them about humanity and about life. I think what’s lovely is the fact that Summerhill has remained the same through all the different political things and although it has had to fight for its life and it still does to a degree. I’m very frightened when I look at the new Secretary of State for Education and the things they’re talking about.
Where is the progress of mainstream school reform standing at the moment, how far has the discussion come concerning the Summerhill model?
Summerhill is a bit like a soufflé. They’re very difficult to make because if you’re not careful they fall down. I think Summerhill is a little bit like that. People often imagine that if they can make small changes to Summerhill they can make improvements. But what they don’t understand is if you have a recipe for a soufflé, and you take an ingredient out, it might be the main ingredient that makes it work and the whole thing might fall. For instance, the rules and regulations for boarding schools say that boys and girls have to be in separate rooms. Which is fine, our boys and girls are in separate rooms. But they say boys and girls have to be in separate areas. Now on our main area where the middle aged group live, say nine to thirteen year olds, they live in rooms that adjoin each other. We love that because that’s part of learning to understand equality and that’s why our girls are all so incredibly assertive and strong because they live with boys all the time. And the boys live with girls which is why the boys are so understanding and gentle. But the school inspectors don’t like that, they would like us to separate them. It doesn’t sound like an important issue but it’s a huge issue to us. It’s really important that our boys and girls can live together because it’s through living together that you learn about the opposite sex. And you learn about yourself better, too. I can guarantee that the next time we get an inspection, there will be a problem, they will make demands on us. They’re talking about standards, standards, standards. And they can not understand how a child could not go to classes for five years and then suddenly be able to take their school leaving exams. They can’t understand it and because they can’t understand it they won’t accept it.
Have there been any developments over the last couple of decades where you were feeling like the pedagogical discussion and debate in the UK has developed a bit towards the direction that you have been working on for such a long time?
We get a lot of interest from universities. This summer, we’re just about to do an associated work with the Institute of Education which is part of the London University. They’re going to do a whole sort of program on alternative education and democratic education and we’re going to do some work with them. So that’s very exciting because they are actually recognising it and forging forward. I think the reason that we deserve more recognition is because there is clearly a huge mental health issue in schools at the moment. Children are leaving school completely traumatised for whatever reason. And we have answers because our children are not. We did get a lot of interest but not from the people that matter. The people that matter, the government, ministers and people, they’re not interested at all.
In a political situation where people were more open to the ideas that you pursue at Summerhill, would there be a possibility for reforming the state school system and can there be step-by-step progress towards the model that you have?
I think it’s a long way off because people can not get out of this fixation that success is about achievement. They can not get away from it. People ask me all the time, are your pupils successful? And I say, what do you mean successful, who can define what success is? Success is a different thing to a different person and I’m not going to define whether they’re successful or not. For me, if they’re leaving and they’ve had a good childhood and they’re happy people and they’re gonna go on with their lives then they’re successful. But the criteria for success in the outside world is very much based on academic achievement. The first people you’d have to change would be parents. And parents are not gonna change like that in a generation. It might be five generations, it might be ages. Maybe mental health will begin to chip away at that. So you can’t really make major changes without the parents being behind you. And I think most parents still want their children to go to a good school. They think the teacher can teach them to be clever, that if they go to a good school and they have a good teacher they will be a success in life. And then they will be rich and famous and everything will be lovely. It’s a shame, but that’s really what society as a whole seems to think. I think if you gave me a few million pounds I could create schools and towns. I have a recipe in my head how it would work. But it would mean major changes. And it would first of all mean that children were not expected to do well academically, but that we would need to give people the same respect if they are brick layers or sweep the streets as we would give to the Prime Minister. And not many people will do that, they still feel like the Prime Minister is somebody special. Even our Prime Minister.
If I was to become an education politician and I had to tackle reality and the people who are not convinced at all by this, what would I have to do to make small changes that still go in the right direction?
I think the first thing to do would be to change the relationship between the adults and the pupils and make them much more equal. But of course I realise that in a mainstream school you have to keep control. I do understand that. But you can still be nice and reasonable to people and still maintain control. I think it’s really important that children would have other options to academic classes. So they need somewhere they can go that may make demands on them but would not make those academic demands. They need to be able to let off steam a little bit, an area where they can go out and spend an hour running about and being silly. Or a place where they can go and get involved in woodwork or art or sport on a casual basis, not organised sport but just fun sport, playing, skateboarding, doing things that they like to do. At Summerhill we have proven that free range children who don’t have to go to classes can still achieve a high level of academic achievement, if they want to. Sometimes in this country you would hear people saying, the children are going on a march with Greta Thunberg about the environment, and they’re wasting a whole day at school. They need to understand that children don’t need to be working from nine until three five days a week. They could actually have a day off where they could go and do other things. And when you’re Secretary of State for Education I think that’s the sort of thing you can bring in. That might upset a few parents but it would also give a lot of parents a lot more confidence that their children are actually having a bit of a childhood as well.
So the most important aspects are breaking down the barriers of an understanding of a natural authority that the teachers have and also this idea of compulsory sitting there and taking lessons?
The last one is important, yeah. The relationship between the adults and the pupils which I said first is actually of secondary importance. The most important is that children are going to be given space where they can just not be in class. If I had to go and sit in class now, I’d just switch off, too. I’m not gonna listen to something I’m bored of and that’s what children do all over the world. They sit in the classroom and they don’t engage.
For parents that have their children in a state school, is there a possibility for them to design family life in a way that kind of counteracts this influence of the state school?
I’ve just written a book about it. It’s trying to give people an idea of the things that Summerhill children have, how you can kind of recreate those a bit at home. Things like leaving your child alone, just let them get on with their lives much more and not constantly trying to entertain them. And giving them space to just be themselves. Which doesn’t mean they make a mess in your house or they make a noise. No, they can’t do that, but they can actually be themselves. Just being much more direct in a way but also treating them more like you would treat friends or flatmates.
Is the legacy of your father as school founder a thing that puts a lot of pressure on you? Have you abandoned parts of his legacy of his approach or developed a very different approach to how you run the school?
No. We’ve stuck to the original recipe. The fundamentals of Summerhill are in my opinion the way human beings developed to live, I think it’s a very natural way to live. So we haven’t made any changes but we don’t do it out of honour to AS Neill. We do it because it bloody well works. Summerhill has adapted amazingly well because it is an organic process. In the fourties or fifties Neill would have children who would have been beaten by their fathers. And now we have children who are coming to school who have no boundaries at all, who are completely allowed to do as they like at home. So Summerhill suddenly finds itself being the disciplinarian in their life, which is kind of a joke. And the school hasn’t changed at all, it never did let anybody do exactly as they like and it still doesn’t. But that’s why it works so well, because it is actually about humanity. It’s about our own personal freedom and our relationships.
Main building of the Summerhill School in Leiston, England