Parents have to accept a lot before sending their kids to Summerhill. It is a boarding school. It is also a democratic community where the children make the laws that govern their own lives. This makes it different from other schools: there is no complicity between parents and teachers; there are no reports that go home at the end of term; parents have to accept that the lives of their children at the school are sacrosanct and keep their meddling paws off. And they have to pay for the privilege.
This was probably less shocking when Neill opened the school than it seems now. There was a distance between parents and their own children, especially amongst the professional classes, that is less common these days. We read of parents who dropped their children off at the school and didn’t even come back to pick them up at the end of term. Neill seems to have acted as a kind of “super parent” for lots of children whose own parents were strangely indifferent and emotionally detached.
Today parents seem to go the other way. They play with their children, take them out on excursions, get involved with their school projects and are “there for them” in ways that parents were not in the past. Sending your child to Summerhill today means something different to what it meant in the forties or fifties when the idea of childhood was told out in the stories of the Famous Five or The Destructors. In a culture where the tacit assumption of “good” parenting is that you get involved, Summerhill says that a certain level of disinterest is healthier.
Summerhill is aware of the problems. It produces a handbook for parents that explains how the school works and what that implies: the extent of the children’s freedoms; the school’s defence of the children’s right to make their own choices; the absolute right to go to lessons or not; swearing and nudity. However, to read these things and to live them are quite different.
Ted was from California. He read Neill in the sixties. He did not have the money to send his kids to Summerhill but tried to put into practice the ideas of Neill at home.
“It didn’t work too well,” he told me.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we thought we had the answers. We thought that this was a new way to bring up children and that it would save us from the problems we had with our own parents. You know, the old authoritarian certainties. We wanted to be closer to our children. More loving, more equal.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
“They grew up. They went to school and did their own thing. And they rebelled against us anyway. It was like we became our own parents in spite of everything. Almost like we didn’t have any choice. I had to go away to work.” He looked across at his wife. “Joan was always closer to them than I was, I guess, just because I wasn’t there as much. And then they became teenagers and wanted to go to college. Got married. Had their own kids.”
“Do they treat their kids like you treated them?”
“Hell no! Well, maybe. I don’t know. I guess it just seems to me now that we were, well, naive somehow. And now I look at my kids and they are reading different books and they seem naive to me as well. But I am not as certain about anything as I used to be.”
Ted made me reflect on the changing influence of Summerhill over the generations. In the sixties and seventies there was a broad-based swell of enthusiasm for a different way of living, an idea that the world could be different and better. It was not today’s panicked reaction of parents looking at oppressive state education systems crushing the creative life out of their children. It was an idealistic, optimistic sense that the world might really be on the brink of a great change for the better. John Lennon could write “Imagine” without a trace of irony.
Parents who are looking for something different for their children today are as likely to turn their backs on the whole notion of school. They reject the educational system because it is so stultifying. Here is an example:
“I gave up my job as a teacher,” said Luis. “I had already handed my notice in once and was persuaded to stay, but this time it is final.”
“What brought that on?” I asked.
“Well, if you want one example of many, they wouldn’t let me take the kids out of the classroom. They wanted me to teach everything from a textbook. I refused. We live in a beautiful village surrounded by woodland and we were studying the changing seasons in a textbook. It was absurd. Why didn’t we go out into the woods and watch it happening. I think textbooks are for bad teachers but the school does not agree.”
Now Luis is setting up his own “school” but it is not really a school at all. It is a community of parents who want something different for their children. They do not have much in common with Summerhill because they prioritise the relationship of the parents with their children. They want to save them from an educational system that has all the grace and emotional appeal of factory farming.
Leonard sees the dominant powers that control this educatioal system as centralised machines. He says that people are rushing away like monks to Ireland in the Middle Ages, like a version of nationalism on a tiny scale. There is a yawning gulf opening up between parents who want to do something more humane for their own children and professionally-run institutions, like Summerhill, where adults create a habitat that allows children freedom from all that state measuring AND their parents.
Democratic schools have a lot of work to do to persuade parents. Why would parents choose a democratic school above an ordinary school? Once you have decided to withdraw your children from mainstream education, asserting your right as a parent to decide what is best for them, it could seem like an absurdity to put them into a school that then tells you to back away and not be involved.
A school that attempts to set itself between parents and their children can seem cultish. Cults like to separate their followers from other influences in their lives- family and friends- and give them the feeling that they are reaching a higher truth because of their new, privileged community.
The school generally puts common sense above right belief, but I have certainly known people there who had cultish beliefs about the “truth” of Summerhill. I remember joking with another member of staff that we should set up a stand selling bottles of Summerhill air or genuine twigs from the Big Beech with labels saying “The Scent of Freedom” or “A Tree for Life”. You could always tell the believers because they would get a superstitious glow about them when they used the word Summerhillian as though they had seen the light.
The irony of this in the bricks-and-mortar Summerhill is that the great majority of the staff at the school are neither married nor have children. It is the home of a disproportionate number of bachelors and spinsters. It is hard to work at the school if you have a family. This means that the glassy-eyed enthusiasts handing out platitudes about parenting and the freedom of the child have no real-life experience of being parents. In the six years I was there only two of the dozen or so houseparents I knew were parents.
This should not matter in a professional environment and only really made a difference when parents felt their concerns were not being taken into account. The fact that Zoe, the Principal, had four children who all went through Summerhill helped although a parent once said to me, “Yes, but she didn’t send her children away, did she? Does she know what that is like?”
The message, however, is fairly stark: Summerhill school is not about the parents; it is about the children. That is ashes to many parents.
Ted put his faith in Summerhill as a young parent and found the strands of his life leading in a direction that he had not predicted. He lost his sense of certainty as he went through the phases of his life and saw his children growing up and moving away from him, just as he grew up and moved away from his parents. He lost his faith in a seismic change in the world. Now he and Joan are grandparents they look on these things with a detachment that comes with age. I think he would say that age does not make you wiser, but it gives you different perspectives.
Luis is a young parent and is trying to make that world for his children now. Who knows whether he will lose his faith as Ted did. He does not see a future in any kind of school. Just as our guest blogger Robert wrote about his decision to unschool himself after reading Holt and Neill, Luis is proposing a radical experiment for his own children. Schools- any kind of school- are wrong for him and his group of parents as they turn away from the system and make their own way.
Will they be able to save themselves from the turning of generations? Will they be able to create a little world where the rebellion of children against the world view of their parents does not happen? Are they creating a tribe that offers a different kind of hope for the next generation in their families? It would take someone much smarter than me to make that prediction.
And what of Summerhill parents? There are now families that have seen four generations go through the school, but not all ex-Summerhillians send their children there. Why? One obvious reason for this is that it is expensive and, although Summerhillians go on to live busy and productive lives, not all of them make enough money soon enough to be able to send their own children there. Do they try to put a bit of Summerhill into their lives anyway? How far can your conscious decisions affect the deeper patterns in your life: your own parents, your upbringing, your early experiences.
I cannot finish this post because it cannot be finished. It is a subject that needs to be returned to again and again. Democratic schools have to work for children. They also have to work for the parents of those children or they will die away. It is a delicate balance.