Summerhill School is a family business. This is not the way one normally thinks about schools, but Summerhill is far from being a normal school. In this post I want to talk about the family and explain why, in its own unusual way, it works for Summerhill to be in the family.
The current Principal of Summerhill School is Zoë Readhead. She is the daughter of A.S. Neill and grew up at the school. Her father was already mature when she was born and the school was well established even though it was never going to be free from controversy and criticism. Neill married Zoë’s mother, Ena, just after the war. She had been a houseparent at the school and everyone who has direct memories of her says she was a formidable personality: bossy, assertive and intimidating. These are not words one would like on one’s memorial stone but her toughness was essential to the survival of Summerhill through difficult times.
When Neill died, Ena took over the school. She maintained things pretty much the way they were. Many people thought that Summerhill would disappear without its genial founder, but they were wrong. Through hard work, perseverance and the almost voluntary work of the teachers at the school, Summerhill kept itself afloat. Zoë ran a horse-riding business and trained Arabian horses. She had married a local farmer, Tony Readhead, who was intelligent, sharp and hardworking and they had every prospect of having a stable, prosperous and happy life in the Suffolk country set. However, when it looked like Ena could no longer keep up the work of running the school they both stepped in.
Neither Zoë nor Ena had any formal qualifications to teach or run a school, aside from Zoë’s experience with the riding school. Summerhill is a unique school, however, and it soon became apparent that Zoë’s upbringing in the school gave her a special perception of what was necessary to move the school along. With Tony’s support she has been able to take the school in a wholly new direction towards financial sustainability. Tony’s ability to sort out the problems of buildings and staffing would be invaluable in adding another level of quality to the school ensuring its survival past the threat of closure when the Labour government attempted to close Summerhill.
Zoë is quite different to Neill. Neill was a playful experimenter and a psychologist. Zoë is a down-to-earth straight-talking Summerhillian. Neill writes about signing up to join the gangs of rebels in his own school; Zoë would not do that. She would not propose frivolous cases in the Meeting expecting to be voted down because the school and what it represents is more important than that for her. She stands somewhere between the formidable Ena and the genial Neill. The strength of Ena has enabled her to endure tough times at the school when it has come under threat whilst the warmth of Neill has allowed her to create an unparalleled network of friends and supporters who rushed to her aid when the inspectors came calling.
She has made some significant changes to the school. She has always been keen on the idea of giving respect and prestige to real Summerhill experience. The world at large recognises paper qualifications- GCSEs, A levels, university degrees- but within Summerhill those bits of paper do not outweigh a few years experience at the school. Zoë has always supported children who are not interested in pursuing the academic route and has stayed true to the idea that a Summerhill education is good for what it is, not by the standards of the outside world. This means that you can leave Summerhill with no qualifications and be a success story. Zoë has consistently pushed the older kids, the Carriage kids, to step forward and lead the school, using all the accumulated wisdom and experience of their years at Summerhill.
Tony has supported Zoë in the changes she has wanted to make. Due to his canny management of money they were not only able to survive an expensive court case against the government but continue with a plan of investment that included raising teachers’ salaries dramatically, improving the quality of the physical plant and complying with all of the relevant Health and Safety and Child Protection legislation. It is hard to under-estimate the importance of this work for the long-term future of the Summerhill project. Neill and Ena’s project sometimes seemed close to falling apart, not because of any weakness in the educational philosophy, but because it was financially and practically precarious. Zoë and Tony’s Summerhill has found a solid footing in careful management and planning and a consistent vision for the development of the school.
The next stage in the Summerhill School story will be fascinating. Zoë and Tony have four children: Amy, Will, Henry and Neill. Amy is married to another local farmer, David, who works with Tony. Neill also works in the farming business. Will and Henry, however, both work in the school. When I was at the school Will managed the Woodwork shop which was the spiritual heart of the school: every kid passed through there to make a name tag, a weapon or a piece of furniture for their room. Henry is the exhuberant manager of the Studio and director of the many strands of music that go on in the school. The number of Summerhillians who go on to study music after Summerhill is testimony to the influence he has had on their lives.
Both Will and Henry have qualities as Summerhillians that are immediately apparent. Will, for example, has the ability to gain almost instant rapport with children of all ages. He stands in as Principal when Zoe is not able to be at the school and has grown up learning about all aspects of running a school from staff management, to cleaning the drains. Henry is a brilliant spokesperson for the emotional learning that goes on in the school, representing in his person what the results of a good Summerhill education can be. At the moment it looks like Will and Henry will take the baton when Zoe eventually retires as Principal.
However, it would be wrong to focus exclusively on Will and Henry just because they are currently working in the school. Amy has had a deep involvement in the organisation of the office. Neill lives close to the school and, although he takes no part in the day-to-day running of it, is married to a Summerhillian and takes part in decisions about the direction of the family business. This reminds me that Zoë was outside the school when she eventually decided to take over. There may come a time when Amy and Neill step forward to be more actively involved in the
Implications for the Future
Summerhill has moved on in the past two decades. It has become more secure in itself. Right now Zoë is working with Leonard on a series of interviews that will cast new light on the development of the school. I hope this makes it to the press as a book because it is beyond time that people moved away from the characterisation of Summerhill as a strange experimental school and came to see it as a successful model that can be applied in other contexts.
It is hard to do this for exactly the same reasons that made Zoe push for more recognition for Carriage kids in her first few years directing the school: reading the books is not enough; real experience is vital. This is why the school makes sense as a family business. This is why Henry in particular is pushing for more global recognition and travelling round the world to promote the school. This is why Summerhill Democratics is working with ex-Summerhill students developing projects which will extend Neill’s great project to another generation.
The challenge for the near future is to extend the project that Zoë started when she took over the running of the school for, if it is important within the school to give value to Summerhill experience, how much more important is it outside of the school? The challenge is to promote the values of a Summerhill education in the wider world so that people can see that a happy childhood is better than a stressed, neurotic nightmare of a childhood, that learning how to live in a community is as valuable in the long-run as getting a top grade on your term paper, that freedom and tolerance are better than constraint and oppression.
We think this is the way to go. What do you think?