Student Well-Being Opinion

Free for All

By Sam Swope — May 01, 2004 25 min read
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The legendary student-centered English boarding school Summerhill still exists—and it’s as eccentric and illuminating, as it ever was.

In 1969, when I was a 15-year-old public school student in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, my English teacher gave me a copy of Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing by A.S. Neill. “This one, you’ll like,” he said. Summerhill describes a boarding school in England that Neill founded in 1921, and his school was so radically different from mine that the book read like fantasy. Classes at Summerhill were optional; instead of being bored all day by mind-numbing lectures, you could do what you wanted. It was a place, Neill writes, where “children are reared in happiness” and given the freedom to be true to themselves.

Neill comes across in his book as a wise, wry, grandfatherly rebel who was “on the side of the child.” He believed traditional schools robbed “youth of its right to play and play and play” and put “old heads on young shoulders.” Summerhill was so vividly written, I could easily imagine myself onto its pages. When Neill describes throwing rocks through windows with an unhappy boy as therapy for the kid, I was that boy. When he tells a student’s parents they know nothing about raising children, those were my parents. I pictured it all—the old mansion where the students lived, the wood shop where they made swords, the theater where they staged plays, and the enormous, ancient beech tree from which they swung on ropes.

But, alas, I was too old to be a Summerhill student. By age 12, Neill writes, a child is pretty much ruined, already rendered passive by mainstream education, and can’t adjust to freedom.

Starting in 1971, though, I got a taste of Summerhill at Middlebury College in Vermont. By that point, progressive educational thought was seeping into the mainstream, and Middlebury had done away with required courses. I was thrilled to choose my classes, and for the next four years I wallowed in the humanities. But later, when I went to Oxford University for my master’s, I was shocked to meet undergraduates—kids fresh out of high school!—who were articulate in all subjects, including some I knew nothing about. This humiliating experience left me feeling ignorant and cheated. Needing a culprit, I found two: I blamed Middlebury for failing to give me a well-rounded education, and Summerhill for making me think it wouldn’t matter.

After Oxford, I moved to New York City, wanting to be a writer. For five years, I worked in the film business as a prop man, hoping this would lead to a glamorous screenwriting career; and when that didn’t pan out, I rented a garret near Times Square and started writing children’s books. To supplement my income, I led writing workshops in public schools. A typical residency put me in three classrooms a day for 10 days. It was frustrating. I didn’t have time to learn the kids’ names, and no sooner did I glimpse some amazing potential than the workshop was over.

Summerhill was a model for the free-school movement in the 1960s.
— Photograph by Sam Swope

I knew I could be more productive with kids, but I needed time and access. So I did something a little crazy: I “adopted” a 3rd grade class in a Queens public school. For the next three years, I was their volunteer writing teacher. We wrote in all genres, using everything and anything as inspiration—paintings, trees, music, gods, and monsters. We went on field trips, acted out stories, and made books, and in the process I became intimately involved in my students’ imaginations and their lives.

When the project was over, I sat down to write a memoir about the experience. As I tried to make sense of my successes and failures, I thought about the people and books that had inspired me. Inevitably, Summerhill came to mind, so I decided to reread it, curious to see what had appealed to my younger self. But I didn’t expect to like it. Time and experience had made me more conservative. My students were poor immigrants who didn’t have the luxury of free schooling. They needed survival skills.

To my surprise, Summerhill impressed me all over again. There was much more to the school than optional classes, and I realized that I’d absorbed the book in many ways. I saw Summerhill in my focus on play and fantasy, in my scheming to get students outdoors, and in my urging them to write whatever they wanted. And Neill’s faith in children informed my basic belief about teaching writing: Kids don’t need to be taught to write stories; they already have stories inside them, waiting to be told, and the teacher’s job is to help bring them out.

Because Neill couldn’t possibly be alive, I assumed his school had died with him, the way most free schools do when they lose their founders. But I was curious to know what today’s academics thought of Summerhill, so I asked a friend studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and another at Columbia’s Teachers College what they thought of the book. Both responded, “What’s Summerhill?” Then I e-mailed James Traub, who writes about education for the New York Times Magazine, and he wrote back to say he hadn’t heard anyone mention Summerhill in years, adding, “This type of Rousseauean, state-of-nature pedagogy is passé with even the Howard Gardner and Debbie Meier types.” Next I queried several education listservs and got a handful of passionate responses about Summerhill, pro and con, but all were from middle-age folk. No young people seemed to know about the book or the school. Hoping to find signs of life, I typed “Summerhill” into Google and was astonished when a link led me to the school’s Web site. It hadn’t closed, after all.

Summerhill’s principal, I learned, was Zoë Readhead, Neill’s daughter. I remembered a very young Zoë from the book. Neill had become a father late in life, at age 68. And I’d been envious of that kid, born into and raised in freedom. I called the school, expecting to reach a secretary, and was startled to find myself talking with Readhead (pronounced “redhead”) herself. In my mind, she was still a toddler, so hearing her middle-age voice was disconcerting. I stammered before blurting out my request: “I’m a writer and a teacher, and I was hoping to come to your school for a few days. I’d like to do a story on Summerhill.”

There was a long silence. Then she asked, “You’re not going to write something horrible, are you?”

“I hope not,” I told her. “I read your father’s book when I was 15, and it’s been a great inspiration to me.”

There was another pause. “I guess it’ll be all right,” she said. “Come along.” But I could tell she was wary, and later I’d learn why. In its 80-plus years, Summerhill has often been mocked by the media as the “do as you please” school. And four years ago, the British government tried to shut Summerhill down, after inspectors charged that it had “drifted into confusing educational freedom with the negative right not to be taught.”

Alexander Sutherland Neill was born in a village in Scotland in 1883. He did not look back on his childhood with fondness. School was a misery of rote learning, beatings, and exams, all suffered at the hands of the schoolmaster, his father. After getting a degree in English from the University of Edinburgh, Neill eventually found his way into teaching and was influenced by Homer Lane, who’d founded a self-governing democratic community for delinquent adolescents.

Because Neill did not believe in compulsory learning, Summerhill’s primary aim was to let students develop at their own pace and discover their own interests.

At age 37, Neill founded a school in Germany, but he soon moved it to England, where it was named after one of the manor houses in which it operated. Because Neill did not believe in compulsory learning, Summerhill’s primary aim was to let students develop at their own pace and discover their own interests. The other radical aspect to the school was its democratic structure. Every person had a say in how things were run, with a 5-year-old’s vote counting as much as Neill’s. Not only did the children have power equal to adults; they also vastly outnumbered them. But this didn’t lead to Lord of the Flies-style anarchy. The kids learned quickly how necessary rules are, and Summerhill has many.

In 1960, after the school had been in operation for almost four decades, Summerhill was published. Neill’s free-thinking, anti-establishment, anti-materialistic ideas made it a book for its time. A huge bestseller with millions of readers worldwide, Summerhill was on the syllabi of countless college courses. During the 1960s and ’70s, the book became the gestalt of educational thought, and Neill, then in his 70s, was the poster “child” of the free-school movement.

After Neill died in 1973, at the age of 89, his wife, Ena, took over and ran the school until her retirement in 1985. Readhead has been in charge ever since.

The book’s impact on education was out of proportion to the number of students who actually attended the school. Summerhill’s student population has fluctuated over the years, from several dozen to the 90 students it has today, and not all stay till graduation. Although no one has kept an official tally, Readhead estimates the number of ex-Summerhill students at a few thousand.

So I wondered: Does the fact that Summerhill is unread today mean the book is a relic, with nothing to offer? As an experiment, I gave a copy to my 15-year-old nephew, who, like me 35 years earlier, couldn’t put it down. Was he responding, as I had, to the fantasy of Summerhill? Was the school Neill described possible? Or did it merely inspire dreams no real-life school could match? There was only one way to find out.

In February, I flew to London, then took a bus, two trains, and a taxi, which carried me through the flat farmlands of Suffolk to the village of Leiston, 100 miles northeast of London. It was a cold and rainy afternoon, and night was falling fast. I asked my driver what the locals thought of Summerhill. He didn’t know much about it, but he recalled taking a Norwegian there once and said his fare had raved about what the school had done for his daughter. (Since the publication of Summerhill, the school has hosted many foreigners, including Europeans and Americans. Today, a third of the student body is from Japan, Korea, or Taiwan.)

Then the driver mentioned he had a child in the local public school who was bored to tears, but he couldn’t afford to send her to Summerhill. Even though it’s cheaper than many boarding schools, the tuition, room, and board comes to more than $16,000 annually.

Yes, kids at Summerhill do work—when a subject’s interesting.
—Photograph by Sam Swope

I checked into the White Horse Hotel, Leiston’s small 18th century hostelry. It has a pub, where Neill must have raised a glass or two, and after a dinner of shepherd’s pie and ale, I walked along the village’s deserted main street. Neill writes about Leiston in his book. He mentions the churches, which are still there, and the movie theater, where he’d take the kids on outings; it’s there, too. From the look of things, the village hadn’t changed much. I went to bed that night feeling I’d gone back in time.

The next morning, I headed for the school. The day was overcast, and a drizzly mist hung heavy in the air. But I hadn’t far to go—a few blocks to the railroad crossing, then left down a residential street, to an entrance bordered by an ivy-covered wall bearing a student-crafted mosaic sign that read “SUMMERHILL.”

I hesitated, worried that the school would be, at best, a depressing shadow of its former self. Steeling myself, I walked down the tree-lined lane and onto the 12-acre campus. Even on this gray day, though, Summerhill was appealing. Its trees, well-worn lawns, cabinlike dorms, and small classroom buildings reminded me of a summer camp, albeit one with a rambling, gabled brick mansion at its heart. What I hadn’t expected was that Summerhill would be so quiet. Where were all the playing kids?

In the distance, a boy of about 4 or 5 was riding a bike. He spotted me, stopped for a moment to size me up, then pedaled off. I would later learn that this was Joshua, Neill’s great-grandson. During my three days at Summerhill, every time I turned around, there Josh was, on his bike or in a tree, a kind of presiding spirit. It was easy to imagine him as Neill come back to life.

After knocking on the office door, I was met by Michael Newman. In his 30s, he was rosy-cheeked and round, with a gentle voice and a memorable laugh that sounded as if he’d just been tickled. Wherever he went, kids raced up, eager to throw their arms around his comfy midsection. Newman had taught science full time a while back but now was only at Summerhill a few days a week, helping out. The rest of the time, he lived in London, where he worked with an organization devoted to children’s rights.

As he took me on a tour, I was surprised to see how much Summerhill was actually a school, with classrooms, a bell, and lessons being given in math, biology, English, and German. Kids were learning, and they were going to classes voluntarily.

Summerhill students range in age from 5 to 17, and we visited the younger children’s class first. There were 12 students on the roster, and eight showed up that day. The teacher, Jude Horne, had a raspy smoker’s voice and braids that made her look like a middle-age Pippi Longstocking, and she played a mean ukulele. When Horne offered a science or math lesson, several kids would join her while others, supervised by her assistant, played with blocks and puzzles or crowded around the computer.

‘Of course they’d rather ride a bike than come to class. But when the children decide they want to come, they do come, and they come continuously.’

Michael Newman,
Part-time science teacher,

Students came and went at will, and some hung out in the wood shop, one of the most appealing spots on campus, full of light and activity. Kids of all ages were working on various projects, the older ones often helping the younger ones, and all were overseen by Readhead’s son, Will, who had grown up on school grounds and was now in his 20s.

Outside the wood shop, I chatted with two boys sitting on a bench. They must have been 9 or 10. “Are you guys going to class today?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” they answered. “Couldn’t be bothered.”

“What are you going to do instead?”

“Dunno, really,” they said, laughing. “Be bored as usual.”

Throughout my visit, though, I’d see them skateboarding, swinging from the beech tree, or playing chess on the outdoor board with the giant pieces made in wood shop. I had read about such children in Summerhill. They were acting out a rite of passage that hadn’t changed since the school opened, one every child I spoke to had gone through. When they first arrive, the kids are so thrilled about not having to go to class that they don’t. They play and play. Eventually, most wind up attending classes. But even though play is sacred at Summerhill, a child’s freedom isn’t total. According to the rules (which students can vote to change), during class time no one is allowed to stay in bed, watch television, play video games, or go on the Internet.

With attendance so unpredictable, Summerhill teachers have to adapt. I asked Newman how he’d taught science, which is usually sequential, one lesson building on the last. He told me he’d offered modular units, with each day’s lesson outlined on the syllabus. If the module was anatomy, and a kid missed a lesson on the eye, a makeup session could be arranged.

“You really indulged your students,” I suggested.

“I wouldn’t call it indulging,” he responded. “I think it’s just facilitating their learning.” Of course, with only 90 students and eight full-time teachers (in addition to a few part-timers), Summerhill classes are small, making individualized instruction manageable.

I said, “It must hurt when you plan a lesson and then nobody shows up.”

“Yes, that’s a bit tricky,” Newman admitted. “You sit and you wait, and no one comes. At first I’d go up to kids and say, ‘Why didn’t you come?’ And they’d lie and make some excuse because they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Eventually, though, I came to realize that was the magic of the place. Of course they’d rather ride a bike than come to class. But when the children decide they want to come, they do come, and they come continuously.”

This was a point many Summerhill teachers made: If a kid attends voluntarily, he or she is focused, making teaching efficient and enjoyable. This made sense to me. I’d noticed back in New York how inefficient it was teaching grammar to a class of 30 students; on any given day, some were ready to learn about periods or commas, but others weren’t, which meant I had to repeat lessons again and again.

Ironically, one of the biggest academic motivators at Summerhill is the standardized test. In Britain, colleges require applicants to attain General Certificates of Secondary Education in various subject areas, and GCSEs are awarded on the basis of government exams. Most Summerhill students take at least a few exams, and for that reason, the faculty does some teachingto the test. Summerhill students who take GCSEs perform, on average, slightly better than their counterparts in public schools. Some, however, do much better. If Summerhill has a well-earned reputation for doing well by kids ill-suited to traditional schooling, it also does well by academically driven kids. One 13-year-old I met had already taken her math GCSE, a test usually taken at age 16, and was studying to take others.

Jason Praeter, a calm, thoughtful English teacher, assured me that “interest learning” is also a Summerhill tradition. Instructors offer some courses they want to teach and design others based on student interests. Groups of friends, for example, might ask for courses in poetry and creative writing. But no Summerhill teacher I talked to claimed that academics are—or should be—the main event. (In fact, they worry when kids spend too much time in class.) Like me, they find it hard to argue with Neill’s contention that “learning itself is not as important as personality and character.” These are, of course, notoriously difficult qualities to teach, but the school’s exercise in democratic decisionmaking, the General Meeting, makes a good stab at it.

Attendance isn’t mandatory, but better than half the school showed up for the meeting I observed. It was held in the mansion’s living room, and students, faculty, and staff sat on the floor and on the steps of the big wooden staircase. A girl of 12 chaired the meeting, and after announcements, it was time to “bring up” people on various charges. The first to raise his hand was a teenage boy, who accused a few students of swearing, smoking, and spitting in the village. “There’s a rule against that,” he said, “and I think it’s really important people respect it because we want Summerhill to have a good reputation.” Fines were proposed, but the community voted instead to deliver a “strong warning.”

During a General Meeting, kids and adults both have equal votes on rules and discipline.
—Photograph by Sam Swope

Then a 7-year-old boy claimed that his best friend had said something mean to him, hurting his feelings. The friend defended himself, but his argument wasn’t convincing, so he was fined 10 pence, to be deducted from the weekly pocket money each student receives.

Later, a houseparent was brought up by a teenage girl. I didn’t catch all the intricacies of the complaint—something about laundry routines—but the girl also said the houseparent was “always in your face.” When another student chimed in, saying he sometimes found the woman intimidating, several others shouted, “Hear! Hear!”

It was shocking, and thrilling, to see students charge an adult, and it made me wince to imagine what my students might have said about me. A teacher learns humility at Summerhill. You’re stripped of authority. Yet every faculty member felt that this was a good thing. “It makes you a better teacher,” Newman told me. “You can be yourself. You don’t have to play a game.”

After the meeting, I asked the 7-year-old who’d complained about his friend if he thought the friend would be mad at him. “No,” he answered. “Bringing someone up doesn’t mean you’re not best friends. It’s just the way we sort out problems here.”

As both a former student and the principal, Zoë Readhead has been taking part in Summerhill’s rituals all her life. I asked if the school had changed since her father’s time. “The only differences are superficial,” she said. “Summerhill’s a bit like the sea. The tides come and go, yet it’s always the same. But the school’s philosophy doesn’t have to change because children don’t change. The needs of kids will be the same 500 years from now as they were when my dad started this school.”

Readhead has basset hound eyes and her dad’s prominent nose and long face. People described Summerhill as a big family, and she was considered the mother. But Mom could be prickly. I asked, “What do you say when people ask how a child can know if they’re interested in chemistry, for example, unless they’re exposed to it?”

“But that’s just stupid!” she snapped. “How can a kid know if he’s a champion sky diver if you never put him in a plane? Where do you stop? You can’t expose a child to everything! And people do know where their areas of interest lie. They do!

She had a point. I was always interested in the arts, always a bookworm. I’ve never needed trigonometry, which bored me to tears in high school. Then again, I might have liked trig if I’d had a better teacher. That was certainly the case with chemistry, which I didn’t need, either. But my chemistry teacher was brilliant, and I still remember what he taught me. Chemistry has made my life richer.

A teacher learns humility at Summerhill. You’re stripped of authority. Yet every faculty member felt that this was a good thing.

As always, it comes down to the teacher. I spoke to several Summerhill alumni who told me they only went to classes if they liked the teacher. Even if they adored a subject, they stayed away from incompetent instructors. And Summerhill, they added, tends to attract “wannabes,” teachers more interested in experiencing freedom than in helping kids.

I asked Readhead what she looks for in a teacher. “Someone good at their job and who fits into the community,” she said. “It’s not easy to find a person who does both.”

That task is harder because Summerhill salaries are pathetically low—less than half those at public schools. Moreover, it’s an all- consuming job. You live in a dorm or trailer on campus and work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and get only three weekends off each term. Not that any of the teachers I met were complaining. They said they love their jobs. But most burn out after two or three years.

Leonard Turton may prove the exception. In a sense, he’s been at Summerhill all his life, even though he didn’t set foot on the campus until a few years ago. A lively man in his late 50s with a thick head of gray hair and gentle, intelligent eyes, Turton has been devoted to Neill’s philosophy since reading Summerhill as a youth. Fresh out of college, he founded a free school based on its principles but then gave up after eight years. With a family to support (he has since divorced), he took a job at an inner city public school in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and was there for 20 years, integrating as much of Summerhill into his 6th grade classroom as possible.

Turton began each year by telling students, “Look, if you don’t get in trouble in the hallways, then I look good, which means no one’s going to look in the door, which means we can do what we want here.” He explained to me how he’d arrange his classrooms. “There was a workshop, an art space, a library, a stage—that kind of thing. There were lots of options, lots of stuff to do. But that meant we needed rules because otherwise it would go wrong. So we formed a little government. I called it Club House Democracy. Just like we do at Summerhill, the kids made the rules. They pretty much ran the place, which they loved.”

And because the children appreciated having some measure of control over their lives, they policed themselves. Turton said that Club House Democracy worked so well in his school, other teachers adopted it, and the principal was impressed enough to let Turton’s class recommend sending kids home when they got too disruptive.

Because of his experiences in Canada, Turton had an easier time adjusting to Summerhill than most new teachers. “It sounds a little hippy-dippy,” he told me, “but I felt I knew the kids here, that I recognized them.... And what I realized was, I recognized the energy coming out of them because it was the same energy I’d seen in the students at my free school 25 years earlier. And it was a qualitatively different spirit from the kids I was teaching in public school.”

That spirit manifests itself in several ways—a certain confidence, self-esteem, and ability to lose oneself in learning. Turton said: “They have a kind of meditative focus, like a kid skateboarding. Everything else is put out of their mind except what they’re doing, and there’s no friction involved. Whereas in most learning that you don’t want to do, there’s friction involved, which gets in the way.”

“How long do you think you’ll stay here?” I asked him.

“Till they tell me to go,” he said.

During my visit, I came to realize that the core of Neill’s philosophy, the center from which all else springs, is his utter faith in children. “A child is innately wise and realistic,” he writes. “If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.” This leads to the obvious thought: Are Summerhill kids successful after they leave?

The teachers, who aren’t paid much, live in trailers and dorms.
—Photograph by Sam Swope

That’s a loaded question, of course. Success by whose definition? Neill famously said he’d rather see the school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic prime minister. And Readhead echoed that. “We don’t really do success here,” she told me. “We just do: How do you feel about yourself? Is life good for you? Is it what you wanted?” This kind of success is impossible to measure, but Summerhill points to a wide range of careers its students have followed, everything from farmers to academics to scientists. They even trot out some minor celebrities, like actress Rebecca De Mornay and children’s author John Burningham.

While standing in the lunch line one day, I got to chatting with a boy of 15 or 16. He had shoulder-length hair, slouching posture, and the same friendly, open manner of all the students I’d met. He’d been at the school for many years, and I asked if he’d spent much time in classes.

“Can’t say I have.”


“No, not much.”

“But at some point you learned to read and write, right?”

“Only a bit.”

“Have you ever read a book?”


I tried to hide my shock, but he must have sensed it because as soon as he had his lunch, he hurried off.

I told Readhead about this encounter, but she expressed no concern, saying that he’d learned many other things at Summerhill—how to run a democracy and be part of a community, for instance. He’d also taken classes that don’trequire literacy, like wood shop and art. And if he didn’t learn how to read at Summerhill, he could always do so later. “There are adult literacy centers all over the country,” she told me. “All you have to do is walk in.”

Jason Praeter, the English teacher, was less absolute. “This sort of thing shouldn’t happen here, but it does,” he admitted. “In this year’s graduating class, there are three or four students for whom the lower levels of achievement in the GCSE are out of reach.” In his opinion, all children want to read and write, and those who don’t learn have been let down by their teachers. No one has a solution to the problem, but Praeter and Turton are working on it; Readhead has made them the school’s curriculum advisers.

It wouldn’t be fair to judge Summerhill by a few illiterate students. There’s no guarantee those kids would be better served by public schools. Back in 2000, when the British government tried to close Summerhill after inspectors claimed that the school’s philosophy encouraged idleness and ignorance, the decision was appealed and the matter went to court. An independent panel of experts conducted a study of Summerhill and issued a sympathetic report, citing acceptable academic achievement, unusually high student and parent satisfaction, and many graduates who’d found satisfying careers. The government report was roundly rejected, and the school stayed open.

On my final Summerhill afternoon, the sun was shining. I paid a last visit to the big beech tree. There’s a rule that visitors aren’t allowed to swing from it, so I watched in envy as the kids had fun, wondering how different my life would have been if I’d gone to this school. But I wasn’t envious of the teachers. I wasn’t willing to surrender my life so completely to students.

During my visit, I came to realize that the core of Neill’s philosophy, the center from which all else springs, is his utter faith in children.

Earlier, I’d had a chat with Will Readhead in his wood shop and asked if he planned to fill the role of principal after his mother retires. “Is she ever going to retire?” he joked. Then he added, “I fought the idea for a while, but now I’ve made my peace with it. I’m here to stay.”

Chances are good, then, that the Neill dynasty will continue, as will Summerhill. For this, we can all be grateful. Whether you love the school or hate it, Summerhill has a unique place in history that shouldn’t be ignored. For more than 80 years, it has remained true to Neill’s principles, which is remarkable when you consider how education in the United States is jerked to and fro every few years by the latest trends.

At 5 p.m., the hour when Summerhill rules say visitors must leave the campus, I tracked down Zoë to say goodbye. I found her tucking her grandson, Josh, into the back seat of a car. His bike was lying on the ground, abandoned. Josh was worn out and could barely keep his eyes open. That didn’t surprise me. A.S. Neill’s great-grandson had had a hard day preparing for his future.


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