Schools have cleaners. That is not controversial, is it? The fact that Summerhill School employs cleaners, however, has laid it open to the strangest of criticisms: that the freedom of the children is built on the back of good ole-fashioned hardworking folk. Some people think the children should clean up after themselves and the school would only be a genuine community if they were fully involved in caring for themselves.
When people make this argument they have half an eye on Kilquhanity School in Scotland, which was in some respects similar to Summerhill. There was a community of children with an unconventional curriculum outside the system and a maverick headteacher in the shape of John Aitkenhead. At Kilquhanity the children had duties and obligations as well as rights. The school had its own small farmyard and the children were expected to look after the animals and clean up after themselves.
I have never known animals at Summerhill. Zoe told me there were some in the past, but the kids were not that interested in looking after them. The vegetable gardens have gone through periods of cultivation when a member of staff or a group of older kids becomes interested in gardening. The children have no kind of cleaning rota although at times they have acted as “kitchen helper”. In 2001 there were no kitchen staff at the weekends and volunteer Carriage kids prepared the Sunday meals with staff help. Staff also prepared breakfast. This changed because of tightening legislation. It seemed a loss to me. I remember when I was a teenager looking for a job of any kind, not so much for the money but because it gave me a different sense of who I was or what I could be. It was a shame that this little opportunity was lost for teenagers who were a bit like me: enjoyed doing something “real” occasionally; wanted some work; the chance to be an apprentice adult.
The idea at Summerhill has never been to get kids working, however. There is a team of cleaners under a housekeeper who are responsible for cleaning. They work by areas cleaning the bathrooms and toilets, the bedrooms, the classrooms and the common areas. The housekeeper has a broader responsibility to ensure that all of the mattresses and bedding are in good condition, keeping an eye on the upkeep of the school in general, except the outside areas and the swimming pool, which are looked after by others. Laundry is the responsibility of houseparents. They wash the bedding and the children’s clothes. The only children who do not have a houseparent to do their laundry are the Carriage kids, the older children of 14-17. They are responsible for doing their own washing. The washing machines and drier are in an airy room called the Beeston at the back of the main school building. Houseparents have a wash day once a week on a cycle: San, Cottage, House, Shack and Carriages fitting themselves in where they can. The staff have to clean for themselves and do their own laundry, of course.
There is probably not a school in the UK that does not employ cleaners and very few would have a systematic way of getting children to do chores. The very word “chores” brings to mind young Billy Bob on the homestead out chopping wood and bringing in the water. It is a strangely Puritanical concept from the American libertarian tradition to want to mix in with a Summerhill education. I had a conversation along these lines with an American visitor to the school.
“You are just turning out useless kids. They don’t have anything to do,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Aw c´mon, they go to- what?- three classes a day and then hang around chatting until midnight on the Carriage bench. What is that? It’s the life of Riley. They need something to do. They need some duties to set against all the freedoms.”
“But the Carriage kids are the oldest kids in the community. They run the school through the Meeting.”
“Yeah, but what exactly are they running? Anything that is of any importance is taken out of their hands. They don’t prepare food, they don’t cook or clean, they just stand around waiting to be fed and cleaned up after. That is like a recipe for creating a privileged class of wasters for me.”
“Is that their job? They are preparing for examinations, getting ready for the next step in their lives. Are they paying money to go to school so they can then help clean it? That doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I don’t see so much studying going on. And seeing kids hanging around while adults cook and clean for them just seems wrong to me. And it doesn’t matter that they have paid for it. What kind of an education is that?”
This indicates the real motivation behind the gripe: “If those kids are not going to study, they could at least do some work, goddamit!” It is replacing the obligation to study with an obligation to work. You would not propose the same idea in a school where the lessons are compulsory because it is accepted there that the role of the children is to go to classes and the role of adults, teachers, cleaning staff, ground staff, office staff etc, is to help them along that academic track. The fact that Summerhill rejects the notion of the compulsory classroom seems to leave a vacuum into which some people would like to insert chores. The notion of children living in idleness, turning up at mealtimes with their plate held out for food and not having any obligations rubs them up the wrong way.
In my last post I mentioned that in Class 2 the children under Leonard’s care took an active role in cleaning the space. Quite the contrary of Neill, who liked to label this age group “the gangster age”, Leonard likes to use the term “veteran kids”. He says that children just before they reach adolescence are fiercely competent: they can organise, clean, set agendas, hold meetings, make decisions and perform a whole range of functions without the necessary interference or control of adults so long as they have the right habitat. When they hit adolescence, he thinks, they start to fall apart as their hormones kick in and they start to get more interested in girlfriends and possible futures, but as kids the twelve year olds reign supreme. The “gangsters” were not invited into the “habitat” being organised by the “veteran kids”. Would you invite a gangster to your house party? Anyway, when Class 2 was working well the children assigned themselves many different responsibilities to maintain their space. Cleaning and maintenance gave them a sense of ownership and control: the key building blocks of Clubhouse Democracy. So, at this age at least, there was some acceptance of cleaning and tidying responsibility.
As the children move out of Class 2 into the upper school the scenario changes. They move into the Shack and Carriages. They start to become more involved in the key positions on committees within the school, they act as chair, work as ombudsmen, organise parties (with all the many tasks and committees that this implies) and they serve as Beddies Officers. The rest of the school starts to look up to these people as leaders. At the same time they take responsibility for their own laundry and most of them become house proud as they move into individual rooms in the Carriages: they make items of furniture in Woodwork, organise their space as they would like to have it and start to consider their next steps after school, either taking classes that will lead to examinations or sorting out other avenues towards work experience.
The children seem mature. Yet they are still children. Earlier I used the term “apprentice adult” but I am not sure I like the idea that children should spend their childhood preparing for their adult lives. I’d rather they were freely playing as much as they can while they can; I’d rather they were happy and ebullient; I’d rather they did not grow up too soon; I’d rather they did not act as adults whilst they were children. So, as usual with these posts, I am left with questions rather than answers. I cannot resolve the issue of how much responsibility to give to children. I know I was always happy when my own children wanted to share the washing up, for example, but did not want them to “do chores”. They seem to be competent young adults to me now and I continue to value their ability to play as much as their ability to work.
What do you think? Do you think young people should be involved in cooking and cleaning? Do you think they should be included in all of the activities in a household or a school? Is Summerhill different from other schools just because it is a democratic school and does that imply that children should be more involved with the day-to-day maintenance of the place? How do you prepare young people for adulthood? And, finally, is there really a crisis of entitlement as some people say? Is it an urgent problem to give young people something real to do so that they do not waste their time with computer games and virtual navel-gazing?
Should children be cleaners?