Creativity is a buzz word in education these days. Just plug the word into Google and see what comes up. You might have to scroll down past Sir Ken Robinson, but you will find that there is great interest in stimulating creativity in children. It is not just education. There are experts in creative business, creative cookery and creative home design. Creativity is hip. Hipsters are creative. Is Summerhill a hipster school? Do Summerhill graduates go out into the world with check jackets, tight trousers and beards to make their way in the creative economy? In this post I will talk about the creative aspects of Summerhill School and discuss whether they fit in with the fashionable excitement about creativity.
I thought I might start with a definition of what creativity might mean but quickly came to the conclusion that the concept is so nebulous that it refuses to be pinned down. However, there is no question that a significant proportion of Summerhill students go on to study art, film, drama, music, cookery and carpentry. No one would have much problem with calling these subjects creative, since they are all involved in creating something. They arrive at these career paths by following choices that are available to them at the school.
At Summerhill there are specialist teachers who offer dedicated classes. This gives the outline of the curriculum:
There are always additional classes in other subjects but I want to focus on what the school provides for children as a core curriculum to investigate whether it should hold its hand up and say, “Yes, I am creative.”
I put Woodwork and Music at the top of the list because these are run by Will and Henry Readhead. Since they are both sons of Zoe Readhead and members of the management team, their areas have a significant bonus in prestige and resources. They are both excellent teachers as well, so the results of the children they work with are high quality and many students discover a passion that will last them for life in the Studio or the Woodwork Room. This means that two creative areas are at the heart of the school and promoted by the Readhead family.
Music has always played an important part in the life of the school. In the fifties there was a lively tradition of jazz piano playing and generations of children handed down the tradition. It was interrupted by the collapse of the piano and when it was eventually restored the tradition had faded away. There have also been traditions of guitar-playing at the school, similarly handed down through the generations. Since ex-Summerhill students often return and Henry has the outgoing nature that enables him to bring different people together, there can often be jam sessions involving current and former students all together.
The Art room is the only classroom in the main building. It is a lovely room with high Victorian windows and, since it is on the main corridor to the Lounge, where the Meeting is held, it is easy to drop into. Harry Herring, who was the art teacher at Summerhill for many years, was a major influence on many young people, including the famous illustrator of children’s books, John Burningham. My children grew up with John Burningham’s books because I loved the pictures and I was delighted to find out that he went to Summerhill. Art continues to play an important part in the life of the school, not only because of the classes that are offered in the Art Room, but because of the range of artisitc activities that take place throughout the school year, particularly the decoration of the Lounge for the End of Term parties.
English, Maths and Science are the academic core of the school. English includes both second language English classes for overseas students and first language classes for natives. There is a strong emphasis on helping children onto a reading track. This means that there is relatively little time in the teacher’s timetable for the kind of creative teaching you get in state schools: zippy projects to get kids into Shakespeare, for example. There are writing opportunities outside of the classroom with the various school newspapers that have run over the years. There are also plays at erratic intervals depending on the interest and enthusiasm of the current staff. In Neill’s time there was much more activity in the theatre than there is these days. He did a weekly improvised drama session that was very popular with the kids. He and Ena also showed the children how to do ballroom dancing in the lounge.
Maths and Science classes have a different level of importance. Childen realise that these subjects are important for their understanding of the world and, when they reach sign up, it is unusual for a student to entirely avoid them. Most children want to follow the curriculum of the examination board in order to get the passes that will enable them to go on to the next level in the education system. This means that they are generally pretty focussed and are not that interested in creative teaching, although there is plenty of scope for eccentric teachers to engage in unusual projects. One teacher made cider in the science lab, for example, another got the kids interested in astronomy and stood out at night on the hockey field with a telescope mounted on a tripod to observe the planets and stars.
IT and Foreign Languages at Summerhill do not match what you could find in other schools. Kids tend to lump IT into a broader category of “computers”. They can be very good at working with computers because they have time and freedom to investigate how their own computers work. This is not the result of teaching or courses: the level of teaching in your local school is probably better than what is on offer at Summerhill. Nonetheless I know several ex-Summerhilians who have gone on to make careers in IT. Foreign Languages are another matter. It takes consistent work to master a foreign language and the episodic learning that happens at Summerhill does not give itself to the kind of consistent application that results in language-learning.
There is something intrinsically creative about the way that Summerhill children learn. If you take the example of computers, the children do not wait for permission from adults to start learning: they just go ahead and do it. They take things apart and put them back together again. They rapidly acquire the techniques they need to get results. The same could be said for the way they learn how to make things in the Woodwork Room, create the imaginative decorations for the Lounge for the parties, write and perform their own plays or devise their own imaginative games. I think you should also consider the work of the Meeting itself as a creative business: defining the laws that govern the community, making judgements about what should be done in particular circumstances and proposing changes when necessary.
Democratic communities promote creativity. There is more than a casual connection. I am thinking about Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which attracted some of the brightest and best artists, musicians, dancers and writers of the twentieth century. The creation of a community that allowed individuals to follow their own path led towards an extraordinary flowering of creative energy. You need not scoff at this if you are a scientist: Buckminster Fuller taught there and has an element named after him- Buckminster Fullerine. Black Mountain College grew out of the same fertile intellectual ground that produced Neill and Summerhill. It suggests to me that there is a cause/effect relationship between freedom and creativity.
This is not exactly the same as calling Summerhill a Creative School, however. If you read what I wrote about Boredom you will know that I am quite happy to be a boring teacher. Would a Hipster School dare to be boring? Would a Creative School dare to stimulate creativity by leaving children alone? It seems to me that Summerhill does not sit altogether comfortably in the fashionable trend for creative teaching simply because it does not value that teaching particularly highly. It is a paradox wrapped up in a conundrum. The school does promote and invest in the arts. Two of its most prominent teachers and life-time Summerhillians are creative teachers. Yet it consistently advocates leaving children alone rather than attempting to better their lives.
Does that mean it cannot be a creative school after all?