We are publishing Ilaina Lennard’s review of Hussein Lucas’ book about Summerhill along with one of the many reviews of the book published in the mainstream press.
AFTER SUMMERHILL – a review by Ilaina Lennard
Summerhill – many will have heard of this pioneering English boarding school, the first of its kind, which was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill. Hussein Lucas – a Subud member – has now put together a series of fascinating accounts of what it was like to actually be a pupil there.
One of its pupils was Leonard Lassalle, who later became a Subud member and an International Helper. Hussein devotes a chapter to his years at Summerhill and to his life afterwards. Leonard speaks in glowing terms of the vitality, happiness and interest of life there. In fact, he said, children enjoyed Summerhill so much that they often did not want to go home for the holidays.
Of Summerhill’s founder A.S. Neill, Leonard remembers one unforgettable incident.
“One day Neill called me to his office. The first time he’d really spoken to him alone.
“You seem like a cheerful sort of boy.”
“Oh yes, Neill, I am.”
“Are you happy here?”
“But you cry at night, don’t you?”
Leonard was astonished that anyone should have discovered his well-kept secret.
“How do you know that?”
“I‘ve seen your paintings.”
Leonard was shaken to the core. “I immediately burst into tears and a great flood of gratitude and warmth welled up inside me. It was as if Neill had entered into the deepest part of me and understood me. From that moment on I felt him as a secure presence. I loved him like the father I’d lost and never known. And I never again cried at night…He had an astonishing gift for being able to understand, enter into and love other people…There was no self-interest left in him, only love for others.”
However, Summerhill had its difficult periods. Ethan Ames describes times when instead of the weekly democratic meetings, in which all the children as well as the adults participated, the meeting’s rules and decisions broke down. He remembers an occasion when one of the pupils was elected dictator.
“On the whole I’d say the General Meetings worked very well, but, and I gather it happens in any generation, there comes a point where it falls apart and breaks down. More and more people were breaking the school’s laws. It happened a couple of times while I was there, where they just dropped all the rules, except the health and safety ones. ..you’d get these zombies walking around because they’d stayed up till two in the morning. Usually what happened was you’d have a week of that and then people would say, ‘Please bring back the bedtime laws.’
“Everybody had learnt the lesson that you needed to have rules and regulations, but this time it didn’t improve. So a dictatorship was declared and Albert Lamb was the dictator. Al was trying to prove something politically, that this is what it would mean if you weren’t self-governing – the alternative was despotism. I sided with Al, because we felt we had to do something and make people understand the consequences. I think what brought it about was there was a lot of non-participation going on… People weren’t coming to the meetings. It was a very unpleasant, horrible time.”
Be that as it may, Hussein’s in-depth interviews with former pupils clearly show that in general this very unorthodox school produced people who not only enjoyed their years at Summerhill, but went on to make a considerable success of their lives. Hussein’s clear, impartial style is admirable throughout, and the book is not only very informative but a great pleasure to read. .
The following paragraphs on the back of the book summarise it so well that there is little more to add:
“One of the big questions surrounding a radical educational establishment like Summerhill is whether parents might be limiting their children’s prospects by sending them to a school where the child is not forced to learn.
“Founded by the legendary educator A.S. Neill in 1921, Summerhill is notable for the fact that it does not require any of its pupils to attend lessons. Furthermore, the school is run by a council of pupils, teachers and houseparents where questions of discipline are decided democratically. What, one may ask, is the likely outcome of sending a child to such a school?
“In ‘After Summerhill’, Hussein Lucas investigates these and other questions in a series of extended interviews with people who were educated at Summerhill throughout its history.
“The former pupils who emerged from this radical experiment talk about how they coped after they left the idyllic environment of Summerhill and went on to face the harsh realities of the world at large, and how their experience of the school affected their lives subsequently.
“‘After Summerhill’ is also in part an oral history of the school, told by those who were there: a vivid and illuminating picture of what it was like to be a member of this remarkable educational community. It also reveals how throughout its 90 years Summerhill has undergone a number of changes, yet never lost its basic ideals.
“Most of all, this is a book that deals with the actual outcomes of an approach to learning and education that seems to fly in the face of accepted wisdom.”
From The Independent & The Independent on Sunday
At Summerhill, lessons are optional and pupils make the rules. In 90 years, it’s caused huge controversy. What sort of people do its alumni become? Sarah Cassidy finds out…
It is one of the most famous schools in the world; a place where every lesson is voluntary and where youngsters can vote to suspend all the rules. Founded by the liberal thinker AS Neill, Summerhill turns 90 years old this year.
Famous alumni of the democratic or “free” school include actress Rebecca de Mornay, children’s author John Burningham and Storm Thorgerson, the rock album cover designer. Now a new book, After Summerhill, tries to answer the question: what kind of people do Summerhill’s pupils become?
Author Hussein Lucas describes the 68-pupil Suffolk school as “a small place but a big idea”. At its heart is the thrice-weekly school meeting, at which laws are made or changed by majority vote; staff and pupils have equal votes. For such a small school, it has sparked huge controversy. In 1999 then-Education Secretary, David Blunkett, issued the school with a notice of complaint, demanding mandatory lessons. Failure to comply with such a notice within six months usually leads to closure; however, Summerhill chose to go to court. The Government’s case collapsed and a settlement was agreed. This not only annulled the notice of complaint but also made provisions for Summerhill to be inspected using unique criteria, to take account of its special philosophy.
AS Neill himself described his vision, saying: “I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic Prime Minister.” His belief was that conventional schooling and anxious parents caused immense emotional damage to youngsters.
After Summerhill follows the fortunes of 15 former Summerhillians, recording their memories and charting their progress. Mike Bernal, who joined in 1932 aged six, is the son of J D Bernal, an eminent Cambridge physicist well known at the time for his Marxist views. Mike spent much of his eight years at the school doing arts and crafts and playing sports. After leaving school he got some academic coaching and went on to get a first class degree from Imperial College, London. Now emeritus reader in mathematics at Imperial College, London, he recalls: “I was incredibly lucky to have gone to Summerhill and I don’t seem to have suffered academically because of the fact that it wasn’t a traditional school. Quite the reverse, I would hope. It may be that anybody who’s not been put off subjects wants to go on finding out about the world. It’s forcing people that puts them off. Neill was always seen to be very keen that we shouldn’t do Shakespeare, for example, because he was afraid – I think quite rightly – that if you did it would put you off.”
Hylda Sims, now aged 79, attended Summerhill between 1942 and 1947, and was always drawn to academic subjects. She believes that the school liberated her from a “tendency towards priggishness” which she believes a traditional girls’ grammar would have developed in her. After leaving school she went to ballet school, worked in a bookshop, trained as a teacher and became a folk singer. Aged 35, she read Russian Studies at university followed by three years as a postgraduate at the LSE. She then founded a therapeutic community with a fellow Summerhillian, taught English as a foreign language and has written three novels, poetry and songs.
She told Lucas: “I feel saved. I might well have become insufferable and even more opinionated had I gone to a traditional girls’ school. I can envisage myself as having become a priggish headmistress. But Summerhill encouraged a sense of fun and spontaneity. Above all, Summerhill has given me a fundamental sense of well-being.”
Freer Speckley was a self-confessed problem child when he attended between 1955 and 1963 from the age of six. He left school unable to read or write but went on to become consultant manager to an international charity and run an art gallery in Herefordshire. He said: “Summerhill is a therapeutic community more than a school. It’s principally a response to bad parenting, which is actually getting worse. It’s needed more than ever today.”
But not all former pupils believe that their alma mater prepared them adequately for the challenges of the outside world. Lucien Croft struggled with learning difficulties and attended few formal lessons during his time at Summerhill between 1970 and 1977, preferring pottery and reading. Since leaving school he has held a variety of jobs, working in music technology, as a thatcher and as a pub landlord. He said: “Summerhill prepares you well in certain things, but it actually de-prepares you for a lot of it. There are certain areas in which you mature more genuinely through Summerhill… Equally, in other areas it makes you incredibly naïve.”
But he added: “What it did was put me off conventional schooling, but it sure as hell left me with a childlike thirst for knowledge.”
Clare Harvie left Summerhill early to attend another more conventional and academic boarding school after being bullied, and later became a teacher herself. She believes Summerhill makes it difficult for some former students to integrate into society because they cannot stomach the “hierarchical and petty” nature of many work environments. “It’s all very well to be independent, but you do need to be able to play at the game if you’re in a company or a particular set-up,” she said. Zoe Readhead, Neill’s daughter and Summerhill’s principal since 1985, says: “In society as a whole you would be considered ‘more successful’ if you studied maths and sciences than if you took art, woodwork and drama. Who can define success? The only person who knows if they are successful is the person themselves. We produce people who feel in control of their lives and have the courage to follow their interests.”
Hussein Lucas concludes: “The key feature that sums up the distinctive nature of the Summerhill experience is the virtual absence of fear: fear of failure; fear of authority; fear of social ostracism; fear of life and the consequent failure to engage with it with a feeling of optimism and a positive outlook.”
AS Neill would have been pleased.
After Summerhill by Hussein Lucas (Pomegranate Books, £9.95)
Modern methods: Summerhill today
This term, there are 68 pupils and 15 staff at Summerhill, which occupies a large Victorian house set in 11 acres of woods and fields, two miles from the Suffolk coast.
Bankers and bus drivers send their children to Summerhill, says principal Zoe Readhead. It is primarily a boarding school where fees range from £8,568 and £14,889 a year depending on the age of the pupil, although there are some day pupils,.
Yes, the school produces lots of creative people, says Ms Readhead. But past pupils also go on to become doctors, biomedical scientists and electronics experts, she says.
“I think the school gives people with an artistic bent, the space to follow their inclinations. Perhaps in conventional life these things would perhaps be discouraged. But we also produce people who go into lots of other fields.”
The school was jubilant in 2007 when it received a positive Ofsted inspection following the controversy surrounding the 1999 inspection which almost saw the school shut down. But since then the difficult global economic situation has affected recruitment. Pupil numbers have dropped over the last two years. In 2000 more than 90 pupils attended, last term there were 64 students.”I think there is a tendency at the moment to depict Summerhill as a rather quaint hippie place that was big sometime back in the Sixties,” says Ms Redhead. “But Summerhill is more relevant today than it has ever been.”