Ombudsman or Prefect.
“An ombudsman? So that’s a bit like a prefect then, isn’t it?” says John who has been to a posh public school. “Sure, they are elected at Summerhill but it’s basically the same idea. You take the older and more responsible kids and give them some authority so that they can do basic crowd control.”
“Not really,” I say. “Ombudsmen do not wear a tie or a badge.”
Sometimes it is difficult to explain Summerhill because people like to reinterpret what you say according to their own experience. It can be particularly difficult for people starting their own schools to see how they can take something so archetypically Summerhill as the Meeting or Ombudsmen and apply the system to their own schools.
“Ooh, I don’t know where I would start,” they say. “You see, Summerhill is Summerhill and it has all that history and tradition behind it. I just can’t imagine setting up something like that here. I just don’t think it would be accepted.”
I can understand the dilemma. You are reading this blog and you think what I write is brilliant. You go back to your staff meeting and say you have read something fantastic about ombudsmen and it would be just the thing to sort out the petty problems that are a daily annoyance in the school.
“It will be great,” you say. “The older kids would be up for it. And it would take a huge weight offf our shoulders.”
“Hmm,” comes Art’s reply. “I’m not so sure about that. What are we going to do? Hold an election? How is that going to work?”
“That’s no good,” Barbara says. “I know exactly what will happen. The popular kids will get elected and they will go throwing their weight around. No, no, no. That would be awful.”
“Yes,” comes Cristina’s sweet voice, “and that is really not what we stand for here, don’t you see? We believe in the essential equality of all children. The idea of raising some children above others is just not what we are about. No, the idea is OK for Summerhill, but Summerhill is an English boarding school after all and the English are strange.”
“We could choose the children,” says the sports teacher, “Like I do choosing teams. That would work better because at least we would know they were able to do it. I don’t like the idea of foisting that kind of responsibility on kids. If they can’t deal with the situation then they are just going to feel bad. I guess some of them would be OK at it if we limit the role and choose who to put in it though.”
This all ends up with a hopelessly bastardised version of an ombudsman; something much closer to a prefect, in fact.
The way it works at Summerhill is that “the book goes around”. This means that someone volunteers in the Meeting to do the election. First they go around with a complete list of names of everyone in the community (adults included). They ask those who are eligible if they want to stand to be ombudsmen. Then they write all the candidates names on a sheet of paper with columns beside them and go around everyone in the school taking votes. Everyone has as many votes as ombudsmen are needed.
If you think Jenny will make a good ombudsman and will help sort out your problems, you give her a vote.
Once the book has gone around the whole community, the votes are counted and the results posted on the noticeboard. This is directly opposite the kitchen: a good place because everyone passes there three times a day and there are usually people hanging around to read for the little children if they need it. There is no adult intervention in the whole process. The only thing those teachers in that staffroom have to do is explain the system then step back and watch it work its way out.
It is quite possible that it will not work seamlessly to begin with. One of the most obvious ways of making sure it does not work is by sabotage. The sweet voice who believes in the equality of all children is the one most likely to do the sabotaging because what she means when she says the children are “equal” is “equal under her” not “equal to her”. She will not want to lose that little bit of power. Teachers really are pathetic sometimes.