In This School, the Kids Are Boss

LESTER MATTHEWS December 1 1948

In This School, the Kids Are Boss

LESTER MATTHEWS December 1 1948

In This School, the Kids Are Boss


When Summerhill pupils swear, steal or play hooky, their headmaster only smiles. But no sex — bad for business


A.S. NEILL is a greying 65-year-old school-teacher who can listen equably while a saucy 10-year-old tells him to shut up. He is also a concocter of educational dynamite.

At Summerhill, Neill’s now celebrated boarding school in England, lessons are strictly optional. So is discipline. There are no adult rules, none of the usual restraints and scant adult guidance. The pupils can sack the teachers—though the teachers more often sack themselves because they can’t take the Summerhill system—and the kids play hooky whenever they wish.

Pupils can roam the countryside, skip classes for months on end, smash things up and answer teacher back in the sultriest terms. They can cuss and blaspheme and, if maladjustment insists, they can lie, cheat and steal. They can smoke and they needn’t wash. In theory and fact, there’s little they can’t do.

“Not that I’m brave enough,” Neill admits, “to risk my lifework by coming out openly as an exponent of sex freedom for school children. The world isn’t ready for adolescent love. Yet I’m convinced that an early sex life would lead to a healthier attitude. My pupils are much less prone to pornography than most kids and obscenity to them doesn’t mean a snigger at something hidden.” In his own mind he juggles a fine marginal line between liberty and license. No senior boy has yet gone on a whisky binge or smoked marijuana. No girl has yet had a baby. But Summerhill is amply the most progressive of Britain’s progressive schools.

He’s for Freedom

THAT dreadful school,” as Neill likes to call it, occupies an old-fashioned house on the outskirts of a fiat Suffolk village, its 10 classrooms spilling in wooden hutments across the 12-acre grounds. Except that it broadens to music and art, the nominal curriculum—maths, English, chemistry, world history, languages, etc.—resembles any other. When the optional classes open at 9.30, however, the teacher is greeted with a casual, “Hiya, George!” He replies in kind and his lesson has to avoid dullness—or else.

Or else, in fact, his pupils tend to drift to the cycle sheds and the woods, the metal workshops or the hockey game. Education, Neill argues, is much wider than school subjects. “We must be optimists in our planning,” he cries. “We must be broad and big, striving to see the deep things in education, not limited in our vision to classrooms and textbooks.”

This is just a specimen slice of Neill, as the children call him, and it explains what is prompting him to try to transform the world’s schools. He’s i for freedom in school, freedom to do what you like so long as you do not spoil the peace of others. School planners, he says, should be less concerned with history and geography and algebra than with making forthcoming adults happier and less prejudiced, more sincere and self-confident. They should think less of turning out star scholars and winning exam honors than of the question: what can we

do to make people more balanced in character, more satisfied in emotional life?

But does his theory work?

Making a cautious preliminary reconnaissance of the school, a parent once colored a little when she heard a child swearing and murmured, “I can’t make up my mind to send Margery here or not.” “Don’t bother,” Neill snapped. “I’m not taking her. You don’t really believe in freedom!”

He knew that if Margery used obscene language at school, she would not be allowed to do so at home. In her mind would grow the conflict, which is right—home or the school? Summerhill children, in fact, need Summerhill parents. Yet where else, when a headmaster interrupts a pillow fight, would

you hear the boys say, “It’s all right, it’s only Neill”? Or where else will a housekeeper merely beam when a small boy yells, “You fat old bitch!”

“It’s a phase a lot of them go through,” she shrugs. “The little fellow’s just working off some hate he has.”

Neill’s pupils are drawn mainly from average middle-class families. They range in age from five to 15; he finds that if he catches them young they take to freedom smoothly. Thus, the kindergarten easily learn to read by a read-and-see system of illustrated words and the senior grades vote their own reading. It’s when a boy comes to Summerhill

from another school that there’s sometimes a problem.

At least, it would be a problem anywhere else. The new boy generally has what Neill calls “artificial manners, an “artificial” voice and “artificial” interests and takes time to get. used to being his sincere, uninhibited self. The few Canadian pupils at the school have proved less pruned and disciplined but they underwent t he same transformation pangs.

The first reaction to unlimited freedom is usually an upsurge of rebellion and cheek. A boy from one of England’s snooty

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“public schools” chummed up with t he coal heavers at the local railroad station and came in sooty black to his meals. Nothing was said. Cleanliness, he found, was no longer something imposed by the adult world. Presently, in self-respect, he reverted to his usual scrubbed self. His dirt complex had lived itself out.

Confronted with freedom, one of t he girls loafed for three years. “Exceptional!” says Neill. The majority vent their play instincts in a term or two. They play gangsters, cycle, read, loaf around in a puzzled way and then perhaps discover the attractions of the pottery or woodwork shop. Meanwhile, of course, classes are held in t in; morning for those who .vant tí) attend and Johnny Newcomer gradually finds himself drawn by the pulling power of the community.

The junior children, for instance, asked for classes in French. Neill thought that a passion for speaking French as a code among the older group might be responsible, but the juniors got their language lessons and stuck to them. “There’s no tendency to stay away from lessons that are hard and require concentration,” says Neill. “So many people cannot believe that free children will study.” At this point Jacky Newcomer has to watch his step. If he joins and then skips class, the other pupils object that he is holding the work up and throw him out. Then, if he makes a nuisance of himself, he is liable to find the others hauling him up for trial.

Children at Court

For one of the queerer aspects of this school without rules is that the children have made their own. From early chaos an elder group evolved a forum. When Neill pointed out that rule by seniors wasn’t fair, the seniors

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¡rave a vote to everyone. The younger :hildren used their majority vote to Jissolve the forum. Then gradually he need for rules reasserted itself and ;his time even the juniors changed their minds.

Today, if Summerhill graduates feel they’ve had an edge over other youngsters, it’s because they’ve enjoyed a children’s democracy. Summerhill may still be Babylon-by-midnight to some of the surrounding villagers, but to its 75 pupils it’s exciting self-government.

Every Friday evening the school meets in general assembly presided over by a junior chairman. Absentees are remarkably few and a five-yearold’s vote counts for as much as Neill’s vote or that of someone on the kitchen staff. Rules are devised, opinions expressed, offenders tried. Often by general vote the children essay bold experiments, such as appointing a notorious destroyer of books as chief librarian. Jim took Jack’s cycle because some long-awaited pocket money hadn’t arrived in time to buy one of his own. The children promptly opened a subscription to put him in funds.

Not long ago raids on the larder grew more frequent and the children discovered that their laws and fines made no difference. In retaliation the kitchen staff went on strike and pupils and teachers went without breakfast.

‘'They’ve no right to strike,” claimed a hungry 12-year-old.

“Why not? Miners go on strike!” “Only when they’ve called a meeting and had it voted on!”

Nevertheless, this demonstration of kitchen rights made the culprits so unpopular with their schoolfellows that the raiding ceased. A similar crisis occurred when Neill proposed automatic fines for swearing. “Why should 1 suffer if some fathead swears in front of the parent of a prospective pupil?” he asked the assembly. “It’s not a moral question: it’s financial. You

swear and I lose a pupil.”

Argued a 14-year-old, “Neill is talking rot. A parent who is shocked doesn’t believe in Summerhill, anyway.” Neill was outvoted and swearing remained legal.

Then there was a big political campaign one term about smoking. The older boys wanted to cut it out. Because they regarded the cigarette as a symbol of “big-boy” status, the juniors defied them. “But it’s kid’s stuff,” ran the argument, “most of us give up smoking when we’re seven.” Summerhill, incidentally, is one of the few schools where the teachers smoke in class.

For Stealing, a Reward

In general, the faithfulness of the children to their own rules is remarkable. Justice by juvenile vote proves to be fair and impartial. Wally is docked half his pocket money for throwing food in the dining room. George is found guilty of climbing on the school roof and bound over not to attend the village movies for two weeks. Yet when a boy was banished from lessons for a week for persistently ignoring the voted school law about making his own bed, there was an outcry. Protesting the punishment was too severe, the children demanded a retrial.

Neill likes to tell visitors of young Dick who was sentenced to be in bed at eight o’clock for stealing a shilling, while the others went to the movies.

“Why don’t you get up?” he asked the boy.

“Don’t be a chump!” said Dick. Stealing is probably less frequent in Summerhill than in other schools. When it occurs Neill’s system is one

of rewards and approval. When a new girl began stealing small sums from her mates, Neill promised her threepence reward every time she stole. “What a fool you are!” she said. “I’ll steal every day just to get the threepence.”

For three days she reported her thefts. On the third occasion Neill increased the reward to fourpence because the theft was bigger than usual. As he expected, the child eventually lost interest in adult-encouraged theft and was cured of stealing.

Another girl announced to Neill that she had just stolen £5 ($20) from his desk. “Better run off and spend it before the store closes,” said Neill. He cites this as a method of loving approval. “Children need approval,” he declares. “One must show it not merely in words but in deeds. Words cut no ice and never cured anyone of anything.”

Besides, he knew something of the motive behind the theft. The girl had been spanked by her father for stealing at home. “Will Neill be like ray parent? Can I make him angry? Will he tell Daddy—or can I trust him? Anyway, everyone hates me and I’ll pay them back”—so ran her reactions. When she found Neill was unpert urbed, her attitude subtly changed. Says Neill, “She hated me between stages of loving me. In the end she became a sincere, social person.”

The Rebel Schoolmaster

To analyze Neill’s own reactions, too, is not without interest. Neill’s father was a strict Scottish teacher who ruled with the birch and rod, and young Neill developed a father fear that haunted him to early manhood. As a clerk in a dry-goods store he passionately fought and studied to become a teacher like his father . . . and it all added up to disillusion.

He realized that the servant girls lie taught to read would only read serials in the weeklies. The boys he taught to count would never count more than their weekly wage. Revolting against orthodoxy, young Neill scrapped the schoolbooks and began staging classroom discussions on such topics as prisons and poverty, crime and environment. The school board fired him and with this revolt came Alexander Sutherland Neill’s growing dream of launching a free school.

The snag was that he had no money. In 1921 he went to Dresden as a teacher and with the postwar exchange and the fantastic inflation of the mark he found himself almost a rich man. With three other enthusiasts he opened a school —but then revolution began in Saxony, the school had to move to Austria, a Vienna bank crash suddenly swept away Neill’s money . . . and he was poor again.

Back in England, he made a fresh start in a little rented house in Dorset. With only five pupils, mostly taken at reduced fees, money was so tight that Neill and his teacher wife found themselves wondering whether they could afford to buy a spade to tidy the garden. To make ends meet they turned the school into a boardinghouse for guests during vacations. Within three years they turned the tide.

Nowadays, combined tuition and boarding fees range from $480 a year for juniors to $720 for seniors. This is cheap as schools go, but Neill sends out little buff’ cards announcing that Summerhill is nearly always full and parents are asked not to put their children on the waiting list unless they have read Neill’s books- “Hearts Not Heads in the School” is one of the latest—and studied the freedom they advocate. A branch school which has been opened in Essex is crammed to

capacity. And with Britain’s building delays and material shortages, Summerhill itself is so cramped that some of the older boys sleep in a spare hutment in the grounds.

Another hut has been converted into a billiards room. If this brings you up with a jerk—for billiards have donned strange associations and taboos as an adult game—you are faced with Neill’s bland, “Why not?” It confronts you again when, visiting »Summerhill, you find very few bathroom doors have locks. In most co-educational schools, Neill scoffs, boys and girls are separated even in play and merely sit in the same classroom. At Summerhill it’s nothing to see a girl of 15 having a bath while carrying on a discussion with three senior boys.

“But I can’t permit you a shared sex life,” Neill tells the teen-agers. “As you know, I don’t consider sex wicked in any way, but my school is the most important thing in my life and I can’t have it closed by a scandal. Besides,

I can’t enter into a conspiracy against your parents, some of whom think a sex life should wait till later. My view may be cowardly but it’s realistic and frankly one of self-preservation.”

Conveniently, the cream-blue dormitories are not shared after the age of

II or so, chiefly because boys reach the gangster stage and begin protesting at sleeping in the same room with feeble girls. Until that age, three or four to a room, the sexes mingle amicably. Nor is there specific sex instruction, though a child is given direct answers to all questions.

; Neill admits to the strain implicit I in allowing children to work out their J freedom. He finds it hard to be i patient and unmartyred when his books or tools are left out in the rain. It was difficult to be approving when a girl sold his $50 raincoat to a passer-by for two shillings.

“Children have no sense of property,” lie philosophizes. “They rarely associate electricity with bills. They’ll mend fires with black rock. It’s a lesson we adults have to learn.”

A new teacher nearly forgot he was in Summerhill as soon as a five-year-old asked for cake without a “Please.” Neill, of course, admits to difficulties in finding teachers who won’t turn out to be problem children themselves. Beyond an escorted day or two there is no special training and a newcomer often finds it hard to drop his “musts” and “mustn’ts.”

“Keep Out, Neill!”

Typically, a handicraft teacher suggested to the boys that they should build a school sanatorium. They ignored him yet enthusiastically built themselves another cycle shed. A volunteer from conventional education has always to prove himself better than the conventional pedagogue. More often, interested pro-Neill teachers come to see and stay to teach. Thus the kindergarten is run by a Swedish girl student of psychology. Two other teachers are fugitives from the college chain gangs of Europe. Others have been at Summerhill from the outset, but even the failures who can’t take to freedom are impressed by Summerhill methods.

Conventional educationists tilt mainly at the lack of religious teaching (“But we teach love!” says Neill) and the hooliganism (which they repress and Neill works out). “Come and see!” Neill tells his opponents.

On a tour of the school I looked for destruction and not iced t hat youthful fingers had riddled the beaverboard wall of the table-tennis room with holes. Neill merely shrugged. “Queer thing is,” he said, “we’ve had only

three panes of glass smashed in the greenhouse in about three years.” In the theatre, a converted rackets court with a movable stage built of boxes, some of the girls were rehearsing a jive ballet. “Keep out, Neill!” they cried. “It’s a surprise!”

Upstairs, their rooms were littered, but it was creative litter, scraps of material sewn together for a forthcoming play, paints brought in from the art room, frames of canvas scenery. 1 admired the murals and pictures which the children had painted and hung themselves. Some of the small boys were asserting big-boy status with pin-ups.

In the workshops two boys were tinkering with a motor-bike engine while the rest were immersed in a game of atomic supermen. “They’ll work all the better for it,” Neill explained. “You see what we’re getting at? Living out their fantasy, their self-centred phase, in Summerhill, they’ll confront the realities of adult life without any unconscious longings for childhood play . . .”

At Summerhill only the staff keep a timetable. While the morning classes are held for children who want to attend—games being equally optional —the afternoons are completely free. The children scatter—to the radio, to painting or pottery, to the country lanes. After tea, the juniors like to be read to and groups are liable to drift back to the workshops. Wednesday night is usually dance night, Tuesday is devoted to reading groups.

No Teachers, Clerks, Parsons

But perhaps the success of the system can only be judged by lasting results. When Summerhill pupils have to sit for outside exams such as the matric they pass as readily as scholars from ordinary schools. The only exams Neill ever sets are set for fun. They raise such questions as: Where are the following—Madrid, Thursday Island, yesterday, God, love, my pocket screw driver?

Neill likes to tell of the continental visitor who cried, “Mr. Neill, let me congratulate you. I have visited 45 schools in Britain and yours is the only one that reaches an academic standard.” It turned out that in every school the visitor had asked searching questions on Shakespeare and history. Questioning the Summerhill Sixth, he

got a brilliant answer from the clax] history enthusiast. Says Neill, “Thi exam is a measure, but there’s no measure for character and originality.]

Instead of the howling bedlam you might expect, the youngsters of Sure merhill measure up —to the visitor a| least—as more original, sincere, re sourceful and even more readily polito than disciplined children. What hap. pens to them in later life? Neill find« it easier to say what doesn’t. Out o! his hatcheries come doctors and danc ers, engineers, chemists, mechanics o; scientists—but never teachers or clerk; or parsons.

Checking up on the ex-Summerhills one is struck by the number of individ ualistic but balanced people like Dians Fishwick, the golfing champion, o: young Michael Bernals, a brilliant physicist. These people recall theii school days with contentment and pad their adult lives with accomplishment One Summerhill girl produced a first novel at 17. Talking to Bernals, indeed, one notices how Summerhill trumps the staple product in range of interests, tolerance, the absence of grudges, friendliness and intelligence.

Two other Summerhill boys are coffee-farming in Kenya, a third is sugar-planting in British Guiana. One wonders whether they quite fit in amid the chitchat of colonial society. In a repressed and chitchatty world the Summerhills have only one grumble. It’s sometimes hard to find friends of their own sort.

Contrariwise, novelist Leonora Eyles says that Summerhill made her daughter Merle almost too charitable—she put up with all sorts of undesirable traits in people without being furious. Usually, of course, Summerhill children are from pro-Summerhill homes. One widow sent her son to Summerhill for 10 years and then expressed her approval in the strongest possible way. When Neill was widowed, she married him.

The strangest Mr. Chips yet, Neill untidily allows tobacco ash to fall on his flannel bags as he thinks of the bygone stream of pupils and his new white hope, a two-year-old daughter. “Good schooling,” he says, “should produce people who are at once individualistic and social, pleased by their own successes and never envious of the successes of others . . . The standard of success is not riches but happiness.” ★