Summerhill – educating through freedom

Do you think that children need to be forced to learn? Are you assuming that children are too inadequate to find their learning style, pace and their own interests? Are you using the phrase “I know what is the best for my child” often? Then welcome to Summerhill, the first democratic school in the world, which might significantly disturb your perception of education and childhood.

Summerhill is a boarding school in England of approximately 70 students. These pupils don’t have to attend classes and from early age have the ability to decide what to learn and how to spend their time. According to A.C. Neill, founder of the school, the role of children is to live their own lives – not lives which have been forced upon them by their anxious parents or teachers. His philosophy is based on the fact that children know what is best for them and are able to self-govern. They need to be let free as long as their freedom doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others. The result is self-discipline and happiness.

One of the main claims about Summerhill is that it makes the school “fit the child.” Therefore, it is the children in Summerhill who decide which classes to attend or whether at all, whether to play outside all day or make ceramics and which methods they want to use. They also learn at their own pace. Everyone is treated individually according to their specific needs and abilities.

This is the opposite of our current school system, which treats pupils as if they were standardized machines for each of whom it takes the same time to learn how to read, write, or acquire knowledge about a specific field. I am sure many of us have experienced a moment of not being able to keep up with others, or being bored because the pace was too slow. This not only causes students feelings of anxiety, feelings of not being good enough, or boredom, but is also makes them hate any formal learning environment.

Many people assume that if class attendance became voluntary, no one would attend and children would just play forever. Children in Summerhill prove the opposite. Most of the children that haven’t attended any other school and started at Summerhill are excited to learn and attend classes regularly. For transfer students, there is usually a “recovery time” when children refuse to attend classes. Such period can last from a few months to years, depending on how much hate towards classes they built up  in their previous institutions. However, once they become self-driven, some are able to learn in two years that which students in regular schools learn in eight.

Not only are children in charge of their own lives, they also take part in forming the whole community. They hold Grand Meetings thrice a week, which is a time for the whole community of teachers, students, and staff members to gather and discuss current issues. This involves proposing new rules or or adjusting the old, talking about problems and deciding on punishments. Many might think that Summerhill is a complete anarchy. However, it is the opposite: children often come up with all sorts of rules, some of which are more strict than in regular schools.

For instance, students get to decide whether classes should be called off on Thursday or on Friday preceding a holiday, or what is the extent of a punishment for using someone else’s bicycle without asking for permission. Doesn’t it sound like a very practical and effective way of encouraging people to become active citizens who deeply care about the issues around them?

Neill hated authority since it made children behave in a certain way only because of the generated fear and external pressure. At Summerhill, children are approached as equals. For instance, during decision making, each member of the community has one vote – regardless of whether it is a 7-year-old child or a headmaster.

Many of the children who attend Summerhill have been kicked out of their previous education since they couldn’t  get used to the conventional system. There is no such term as “problematic children” at Summerhill. It was Neill’s belief that every child is good and it is parents and teachers who cause problems by trying to mould him into their image and restricting his freedom. Children just need to be left to be children. If they are untidy, noisy or destroy some toys – it is integral part of healthy childhood. We should be worried by the ability to sit at the desk for hours at the age of seven.

Children’s emotions are suppressed and released at other times. After giving therapy to many children, Neill found out that even children who didn’t attend his therapy were being cured. The freedom of self-government and unconditional love from their surroundings made them emotionally healthy. Once there are no external orders, children can be fearless and grow into happiness. According to Summerhill, happiness of children needs to be the first priority and learning will automatically follow. An alumn, Freer Speckley, described Summerhill as “therapeutic community rather than a school”.

Speaking of alumni, who do they become? The variety of their occupations is enormous, ranging from doctors, electronic experts, entrepreneurs, artists and filmmakers. In his books, Neill claims that he doesn’t know of any alumni that truly struggled to find a job. He is also challenging societal measure of success by saying that: “I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Prime Minister.” Neill’s definition of success is one’s ability to work joyfully and to live positively, yet he leaves freedom to anyone to decide what success means to them.

The best thing about Summerhill is that it is not an experiment, or theory anymore. The school has been here for almost a century, starting in 1921, and brought up several generations of happy individuals. It proves that freedom works. Moreover, it started a movement of free schools all around the world. At the end of his book, Neill asks: “Why isn’t such progressive approach applied on a larger scale, when all it takes is few committed people who don’t want to tell others how to live?” Well, maybe that is the reason why. I think most adults are used to operating in the mode of, “I know what’s the best for my child.” No wonder. They haven’t experienced anything different themselves. It must be terrifying to live in uncertainty of what one’s child will grow into without interference. But such uncertainty is called freedom.

If you are interested in knowing more about it, watch this movie:


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