A Visit to Summerhill – Possibly the Happiest School in the World

By: Alexander Khost

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Summerhill students along with students and staff from five countries during International Schools Week 2015.

“When people come here, they don’t say that Neill’s writing inspired them, but rather, that Neill’s writing changed their life,” I heard Zoe Readhead say in a meeting I attended last week. Zoe is the principal of Summerhill, a ninety-four year old boarding school in Leiston, England and the daughter of A. S. Neill, the school’s founder and the author of many transformative books. I am one among the self proclaimed life-changed people.

Many years before, across a huge ocean far away in the suburbs outside New York City, Summerhill seemed like an unattainable fantasy to my fifteen year old public-schooled mind, But the very thought of it, just the possibility that a school could be as such made me come alive and has had me so for the twenty-five years since.

A life’s dedication
I have dedicated my life to Neill’s simple philosophy, Freedom not License. At Summerhill, children can do as they please (freedom) so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others (license). That means, for example, students only go to the classes they are interested in attending, but cannot play their guitar at 2am while everyone else is sleeping. It is a century old self-governed school run predominantly by the young people living there.

An invitation from Summerhill
My partner, Amanda Rose Wilder, made a documentary entitled Approaching the Elephant about the first year at a school I founded in New Jersey based on Neill’s principles. The film debuted last year and was discovered online by Philipp Klaus, a Summerhill teacher and house parent. Philipp invited Amanda and I to attend the school’s annual International Schools Week and so, among thirty-six staff and students from free schools in South Korea, Italy, Spain, and Germany, we found ourselves immersed in a week long sampling of what life is like at Summerhill.

Getting there
Neill once said that “Summerhill is possibly the happiest school in the world.” If I had any doubts of that claim, I was certainly assured that it was true last week, as I joined the ranks of the happy community. Amanda and I arrived at the Saxmundham train station and took a fifteen minute cab ride to the small village of Leiston on the eastern shore of England and onto the many acres of land that houses the Summerhill community.

So many rules!
After being shown our tent among the many tents to house the international guests in the horseless horse field, we were shown around the grounds by P., a thirteen year old student and member of the committee that put together this International Schools Week. P. briefed us on the most important of the school rules.

Paradoxically from the school that has inspired so many stories of freedom, my first feeling at Summerhill was one of panic should I break any of seemingly many stringent rules. One of the most common misconceptions of Summerhill (and other free schools alike), is that it lacks structure. The massive law book and specific visitors rules I reviewed were the confirmation that quite the opposite is true. Summerhill has a great deal of structure, perhaps twice that of a typical community. To successfully allow everyone to have an equal voice there, it must be that way. Whereas in the more conventional top-down environment many of us are used to, less rules are needed, since authority presides. Just think of any decision-making environment you have been in, where you try to give equal voice to each member of the group– it is perhaps much easier in the short term to have one person make all of the decisions but is it as fair that way, is it respected and obeyed? Self-governance is indeed governance, just a form of structure many of us are not accustomed to, having been raised to do as we are told, not as we all decide together.

Bedtimes
Amanda and I learned of the complex system of bedtimes at the boarding school (which I could not accurately repeat without a rule book cheat sheet in front of me). It began with the youngest children being in their rooms at 8:30pm and lights out fifteen or so minutes later, working it’s way up to the older 11pm bedtime children and the oldest of whom have no curfew at all but need to respect the quiet time mandated by after hours.

There are Beddies Officers, community members who are over thirteen who are elected to the Beddies Officer committee, who go around and lovingly tuck in all of the children each night. In my questioning of many in the community, the bedtime rules seemed to be some of the most important to them. And not once in a school of more than seventy sleeping children and a dozen or so staff, did I ever witness the bedtime rules being broken.

…and more rules
There are laws to regulate meal schedules, class schedules, event schedules, the mandates of how the two trampolines and various skateboard ramps can and cannot be used and so on. But somehow within this blinding list of laws, time there seemed so simple, so… un-bureaucratically just and efficient.

School meetings
The school meeting proved to be the finest decision-making process I have ever been witness to. All free schools have a weekly school meeting (Summerhill has two) in which school rules are discussed and voted on (or come to a concensus on in some cases, depending on the school’s decision-making process) and at Summerhill, where members of the community can be “brought up” by other members for breaking laws or personal grievances. I have been to the school meetings of perhaps a dozen different free schools and by far Summerhill’s was the most impressive. Sixteen year old I. ran the meeting both times I was there (meeting chairs at Summerhill go through chair training and then rotate weekly upon election by the school meeting each Friday) and the meeting secretary, G.– with the kindest smile– who was about the same age, sat next to her keeping the meeting minutes.

Discussion included voting the international guests into the meeting (so I was told, as I stood outside hoping to get in!), a discussion on one student who was brought up for saying mean things to another student (who was given a “strong warning,” which was recorded and could result in, for example, a work fine if there were subsequent offenses), a request to use £15 to buy a cake to celebrate the 70th anniversary of UNESCO (the organization that wrote the Convention on the Rights of the Child), announcements of the pool opening, and many other topics. Each meeting I was at lasted about forty-five minutes and was run so smoothly, I can only hope the United Nations takes note.

Getting to know students and staff
I spent my mornings sitting at a picnic table front and center on the school grounds, painting a picture for a friend’s children we were to visit in London once we left Summerhill. I secretly sat there hoping children would approach me, ask to paint alongside me (with the many extra canvas boards I consciously brought along with me on the trip for just that purpose) and strike up conversation. On day one M. approached, a ten year old or so boy, and at the moment, the only student from the United States. He had just started attending the school half a year prior. He unfalteringly painted his vision on his canvas (a city skyline that cleverly reversed itself when held upside down), asked if he could keep it, cheered when I nodded yes, and ran up to his room to assumingly hang it. Our conversation consisted mainly of how he got here, how he felt about the school (he loved it but missed his family), and many bad jokes by both of us that continued throughout the week (and somehow lost me fifty pence in a fixed game of rock, paper, scissor, where M. pulled out “bazooka”).

On the soccer field (football pitch), I secretly laughed to myself as I struggled to figure out who was staff and who was student. The game was intense and serious but aside from keeping score, I heard not one competitive remark amongst the players (even despite the fact that my team was crushingly defeated 11-1). In capture the flag the next day, I found myself most seriously stomping through stinging nettles on the enemy grounds, only to be discovered by Michael, one of the staff, who assured me he was not playing. It was at that moment that I, the forty year old adult I am, looked into the eyes of another adult who laughed at me in the bushes that I realized that I was finally fulfilling my twenty-five year dream. I had made it to Summerhill, warmly and kindly invited to share in a moment here.

 

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At the picnic tables with some of the Italian visitors.

The next day I had great success at the picnic tables, where a group of Italian girls joined me and painted sun filled skies and flowers while others stood around and braided colored wire into bracelets. At lunch Amanda and I met F., who spent the rest of the meals that week giggling as she stole Amanda’s seat when she got up for a drink and would poke me in the arm and say “dead.” That evening, Philipp invited us to his house’s bedtime, which was the warmest, most nice moment of the trip. Bedtime simply consisted of having perhaps a cup of tea and toast while sitting around and sharing stories before the brushing of teeth and the Beddies Officers coming for the lights out tuck-in.

The highlight of the week, however, came most unexpectedly at dusk on Thursday evening, two nights before we were set to leave. Sitting with Amanda in my usual spot on the picnic bench but now listless, since I had finished the painting for my friend’s children, we were approached by F. and E., a friend of F.’s, who inquired if we had been up Big Beech. We followed their lead after they saw our blank faces, anticipating not much more than perhaps a silly joke. We were led behind Class 2, the building housing the classrooms for the second youngest group of students at the school, where we looked up, and then up further to see the most giant beech tree I have ever laid eyes on.

Like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland, the two girls led Amanda and I up a ladder and sat with us out on an enormous branch twenty some odd feet in the air (I did not dare climb to one of the higher branches that our young counterparts more confidently walked along like trained tightrope walkers). They told us how the tree had been here since the school had begun and about the boys in the past who had presumably climbed to the highest branches, I want to say, a good fifty or sixty feet in the air. They told us of their time at Summerhill and of their families at home and made up stories for us. And as we walked away to attend an adult get together in the staff lounge we were invited to (again discovered by Michael, smiling, looking up at us in the tree, “I heard your voices…”) we overheard one girl say to the other, “I like them.” And my heart warmed as I felt, for a moment, as an accepted part of something bigger, something wonderful.

 

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F. on a branch up Big Beech


Goodbye Summerhill!
We postponed our plans to leave for London Friday afternoon to attend the last night party in honor of the international guests. A campfire and marshmallows and dancing and limbo and goodbyes followed. Early Saturday morning Amanda and I zipped our tent for the last time and jumped in a taxi we had reserved the day before (we learned!) right after one last look at the school grounds and one last cup of tea. We sped off to meet old friends in London and to take a marvellous charge at a rope swing at Glamis Adventure Playground, a junk playground in London that supports free-play for children, but that’s a story of children’s freedom for another day.

- Alexander Khost

Comments

  1. Alex, thank you for this lovely and personal article! It makes me feel so proud of the free/democratic school movement when I hear that young people make so many rules you practically need a cheat sheet to remember them all. It gives me hope for society. We also visited Summerhill, for a day, and I was struck immediately by the absolute sense of authority – most of it democratic, but also the sense of safety that gave everyone to be themselves and do as they pleased. Thanks for your clear explanation of freedom and license.

  2. Great article! I had been lucky to visit Summerhill for the international school week last year and I loved it very much. Your article says it all, it’s a great place with wonderful people living there keeping Neill’s idea of education alive. :-)

  3. As a Sudbury parent (Alpine Valley School) I’ve often wondered, other than being a boarding school, if there are other difference between Sudbury and Summerhill.

    • Alexander Khost says:

      Since Summerhill is one school and Sudbury is a model of education used by a wide array of communities worldwide, it’s hard to directly compare the two. Having said that, in my personal observation and experience with the two, I see Sudbury in general as more of an independent, libertarian freedom focusing on the freewill of the individual whereas Summerhill is more of a socialist freedom focusing on the common good of the community environment. You can see these differences in the governance of the schools: for the most part Sudbury schools state that activities must be proposed by the young people in the school and adults are resources available when then sought out, Summerhill has distinct jobs for each adult that were decided by the adults, with strict schedules of when classes are offered and the students simply decide if they want to go or not (of course, it’s a bit more complicated than this, e.g. at Summerhill students certainly can ask for classes on subjects not offered, etc etc). And at Sudbury schools, the school meeting hires and fires the staff for instance, whereas at Summerhill, the staff hire new staff and the principal (Zoe) has ultimate say over firing, although in both instances the adults take much weight in their decision-making from the school meeting. While these nuances are extremely important distinctions, in the end however, both very much support children’s rights and self-directed child rearing and are much more alike than they are different. I hope that helps a bit, Stacey?!

      • Thank you, it is interesting to hear about the differences. Although I think differentiating a model compared to a school is only somewhat of a difference as all the Sudbury model schools were inspired by one school rather than being a model that was created by educators as a concept (not worded very well). There are somethings that you mention that sound appealing, like the classes being already available and the focus on a socialist community (I’m the daughter of a Marxist professor). Thanks again for taking the time to answer my question.

  4. Catherine Sardella says:

    Thanks Alex for bringing back images of the lovely week we had! The only thing I can add is that I WAS REALLY HAPPY in Summerhill :) Thanks to everyone for having us over and a special thanks to Philipp who made it possible.

  5. Does anyone know how the ex students from this school fare in life?
    Do they have high IQ?
    Do they succeed in university and have good careers?
    Is there any famous artist or entrepreneur who has attended this school?
    Are they happy in life as they become adults?
    Is there any research with students from the past 50 years? would really be interested to know.

    • Anonymous says:

      There is a recent book by Hussein Lucas called
      After Summerhill: What Happened to the Pupils of Britain’s Most Radical School? You can get it on amazon and all good book shops. :-)

      • There are also a couple of books, I think they’re called Legacy of Trust and The Pursuit of Happiness, that talk about what happened to free school students in the decades after they left. They’re about Sudbury students.

  6. I should say, I didn’t get to meet you PROPERLY, but we did have a good game of football :)

  7. I didn’t get to meet you but I’m so glad you enjoyed your time at Summerhill, I wanted you to know that another Summerhill kid, we can call him S, gave the picture he painted with you to the music room and it now sits above the mixing desk in the studio!

    • Alexander Khost says:

      Thanks so much for letting me know, Owen– that’s truly so nice to hear. And yes, I’m sorry our paths did not cross more while I was there– next time!

  8. Thanks for giving us this lovely picture of Summerhill, the treasured heart of democratic education.

  9. Fiona Julian Gramlich says:

    Enjoyed your article! It gave a really wonderful picture of the school and my family and I are even more excited to visit! We are US-based currently, heading to Leiston area to care for my parents. My son has attended a Sudbury School here in the US, so Summerhill would be a dream come true for us! Thanks again for your lovely imagery and sharing your experience!

  10. Zoe Readhead says:

    Lovely glimpse of our lives from the outside view. I was touched and a bit tearful reading it. It was so nice meeting with you and I am glad the the old place lived up to your expectations. Hopefully you will visit us again. Xx Zoe

  11. Hank Khost says:

    Very nice article, Alex. It delivered the feeling of the place as well as the “facts”. Next best thing to being there. Thanks!