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Summerhill School

Summerhill School

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Summerhill School is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill
A. S. Neill
Alexander Sutherland Neill was a Scottish progressive educator, author and founder of Summerhill school, which remains open and continues to follow his educational philosophy to this day...

 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
Direct democracy
Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote on policy initiatives directly, as opposed to a representative democracy in which people vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives. Direct democracy is classically termed "pure democracy"...

; 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.

Historically, the school has been at best tolerated by the British Government, although a recent positive inspection report may indicate that the relationship is now improving.


Summerhill School was founded in 1921 in Hellerau
Hellerau is a quarter in the City of Dresden, Germany. It was the first garden city in Germany.Based on the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, businessman Karl Schmidt-Hellerau founded Hellerau near Dresden in 1909. The idea was to create an organic, planned community...

 near Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....

, Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 by Neill as part of Neue Schule ("New School"). However, Neill was dissatisfied with Neue Schule's ethos, and so moved to Sonntagberg
Sonntagberg is a town in the district of Amstetten in Lower Austria in Austria. It is an important Catholic pilgrimage center. It has a baroque church that was, in its current form, built in 1706–1732 by Jakob Prandtauer and Joseph Munggenast. The ceilings were painted by Daniel Gran...

 in Austria
Austria , officially the Republic of Austria , is a landlocked country of roughly 8.4 million people in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Slovakia and Hungary to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the...

. Due to the hostility of the local people, it moved again in 1923 to Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis is a coastal town in West Dorset, England, situated 25 miles west of Dorchester and east of Exeter. The town lies in Lyme Bay, on the English Channel coast at the Dorset-Devon border...

 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
Leiston is a town in eastern Suffolk, England. It is situated near Saxmundham and Aldeburgh, about from the North Sea coast and is northeast of Ipswich and northeast from London...

, Suffolk
Suffolk is a non-metropolitan county of historic origin in East Anglia, England. It has borders with Norfolk to the north, Cambridgeshire to the west and Essex to the south. The North Sea lies to the east...

, England. It had to move again temporarily to Ffestiniog
Ffestiniog is a community in Gwynedd in Wales, containing several villages, in particular the settlements of Llan Ffestiniog and Blaenau Ffestiniog. It has a population of 4,830....

, Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

, during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 so that the site could be used as a British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

 training camp.

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

Today it is a boarding
Boarding school
A boarding school is a school where some or all pupils study and live during the school year with their fellow students and possibly teachers and/or administrators. The word 'boarding' is used in the sense of "bed and board," i.e., lodging and meals...

 and day school
Day school
A day school—as opposed to a boarding school—is an institution where children are given educational instruction during the day and after which children/teens return to their homes...

 serving primary and secondary education in a democratic
Democratic school
This is a comprehensive list of current and former democratic schools. Most of these were modeled on the Summerhill School, the oldest existing democratic school founded in 1921...

 fashion. It is now run by Neill's daughter, Zoe Neill Readhead.

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


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."

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
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

, equality
Social equality
Social equality is a social state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group have the same status in a certain respect. At the very least, social equality includes equal rights under the law, such as security, voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and the...

 and freedom
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

 that Summerhill School operates.


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.

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.

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
A sanatorium is a medical facility for long-term illness, most typically associated with treatment of tuberculosis before antibiotics...

. 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.

Children at Summerhill around this age (what Neill termed "the gangster age") often begin to "act out", possibly becoming more aggressive or stealing. For this reason, it is advantageous to separate them from the more vulnerable younger children.


Ages 11–12 (approx)

House children are accommodated in the main school building, called simply "the House". They are generally the most unruly and disruptive of Summerhill children (continuing Neill's gangster age), and often practice late-night "sneak outs", or leaving their rooms without permission after lights out.


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

  • John Burningham
    John Burningham
    -Biography:Burningham was born April 27, 1936 in Farnham, Surrey, England to Charles and Jessie Burningham. After primary school, he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit in 1953. When he was 20, he attended the Central School of Art and graduated in 1959...

    , children's author and illustrator
  • Keith Critchlow
    Keith Critchlow
    Keith Barry Critchlow is an artist, lecturer, author, and professor of architecture in England, and a co-founder of the Temenos Academy.He was educated at the Summerhill School and the Royal College of Art...

    , artist and professor of architecture
  • Rebecca De Mornay
    Rebecca De Mornay
    Rebecca De Mornay is an American film and television actress. Her breakthrough film role came in 1983, when she played Lana in Risky Business opposite Tom Cruise...

    , actor
  • Storm Thorgerson
    Storm Thorgerson
    Storm Thorgerson is an English graphic designer, known for his work for rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, 10cc, Dream Theater, The Mars Volta, Muse, The Cranberries, and Biffy Clyro.-Biography:...

    , rock album cover
    Album cover
    An album cover is the front of the packaging of a commercially released audio recording product, or album. The term can refer to either the printed cardboard covers typically used to package sets of 10" and 12" 78 rpm records, single and sets of 12" LPs, sets of 45 rpm records , or the front-facing...

  • Gus Dudgeon
    Gus Dudgeon
    Angus Boyd Dudgeon , most commonly known as Gus Dudgeon was an English record producer, most notable for production of many of Elton John's recordings.-Early career:...

    , record producer

Government inspections

Summerhill has had a less than perfect relationship with the British government, and is still the most inspected 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, Children's Services and Skills is the non-ministerial government department of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools In England ....

 (The "OFfice for STandards in EDucation") had placed Summerhill on a secret list of 61 independent schools marked as TBW (To Be Watched).

In March 1999, following a major inspection from OFSTED, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett
David Blunkett
David Blunkett is a British Labour Party politician and the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, having represented Sheffield Brightside from 1987 to 2010...

, 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.

The case went before a special educational tribunal in March 2000, at which the school was represented by noted human rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson
Geoffrey Robertson
Geoffrey Ronald Robertson QC is an Australian-born human rights lawyer, academic, author and broadcaster. He holds dual Australian and British citizenship....

Queen's Counsel
Queen's Counsel , known as King's Counsel during the reign of a male sovereign, are lawyers appointed by letters patent to be one of Her [or His] Majesty's Counsel learned in the law...

 and Mark Stephens
Mark Stephens (solicitor)
Mark Howard Stephens CBE is a British solicitor specialising in media law, intellectual property rights and human rights with the firm Finers Stephens Innocent...

. 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.

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 using unique criteria in future, to take account of its special educational philosophy.

The first full inspection report since the disputed 1999 report was published in 2007. 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.

The last full inspection on 5th October 2011 concludes that the school is outstanding in most areas and good in others.

Drama and documentary depictions

Summerhill at 70, an edition of Channel 4
Channel 4
Channel 4 is a British public-service television broadcaster which began working on 2 November 1982. Although largely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned; originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority , the station is now owned and operated by the Channel...

's Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge (Channel 4 TV series)
Cutting Edge is a British TV documentary series broadcast by Channel 4, it has been its flagship documentary series since 1990 that focuses on political and social issues.-Graham Taylor: The Impossible Job:Original airdate: 24 January 1994...

documentary series, was transmitted on 30 March 1992.

The 2008 television production Summerhill
Summerhill (TV series)
Summerhill is a British children's television drama about the famously radical Summerhill School. Written by Alison Hume and directed by Jon East, it was first broadcast on the CBBC Channel in January 2008 and was subsequently nominated for three children's BAFTA awards - Best Drama, Best Writer ...

, broadcast on BBC1 and CBBC
CBBC is one of two brand names used for the BBC's children's television strands. Between 1985 and 2002, CBBC was the name given to all the BBC's programmes on TV for children aged under 14...

 as a serial
A miniseries , in a serial storytelling medium, is a television show production which tells a story in a limited number of episodes. The exact number is open to interpretation; however, they are usually limited to fewer than a whole season. The term "miniseries" is generally a North American term...

 and on BBC4 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.

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 commmittee 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
Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton was an English children's writer also known as Mary Pollock.Noted for numerous series of books based on recurring characters and designed for different age groups,her books have enjoyed huge success in many parts of the world, and have sold over 600 million copies.One of Blyton's most...

's 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.

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.

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

In the book Rosemary's Baby
Rosemary's Baby
Rosemary's Baby is a 1967 best-selling horror novel by Ira Levin, his second published book. Major elements of the story were inspired by the publicity surrounding the Church of Satan of Anton LaVey which had been founded in 1966.-Plot summary:...

the titular character reads a copy of Neill's book Summerhill.


  • "I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar." -- A.S. Neill
  • "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
    Max Rafferty
    Maxwell Lewis Rafferty was an author, educator, and politician.-Early life:...

  • "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

  • Anarchistic free school
  • European Democratic Education Community
    European Democratic Education Community
    The European Democratic Education Community is a European organisation which aims to further democratic education in Europe. Founded in February 2008 as a project of the United Kingdom-based Phoenix Education Trust, the organisation has been an independently registered not-for-profit NGO in...

  • European Democratic Education Conference
    European Democratic Education Conference
    The European Democratic Education Conference is a biennial conference of the European Democratic Education Community, a European network of people involved in democratic education. The first conference was held in Leipzig, Germany, from July 25 to August 3, 2008...

  • International Democratic Education Conference
    International Democratic Education Conference
    The International Democratic Education Conference, or IDEC, is an annual academic and youth conference hosted by a variety of schools and organizations in cities around the world.- History :...

     - I.D.E.C.
  • Democratic education
    Democratic education
    Democratic education is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely and equally in a school democracy...

Further reading

— A compilation of old & new writings from Mark Vaughan, Tim Brighouse, A. S. Neill, Zoë Neill Readhead and Ian Stronach — A recent first-hand account of life as a member of staff at Summerhill — a book about the school and its philosophy, by the school's founder — A collection of essays, arguing both in favour and against the school's approach — This is mainly a biography of Neill but of course has plenty of material about the school and Neill's ideas