“The English have boarding schools because they do not love their children,” says José. “That just won’t work here.”
I can’t really argue with him because there is a profound cultural chasm between us. I don’t find the closeness of his Mediterranean family heart-warming; I find it suffocating. Summerhill is a boarding school of another kind, but it is still a boarding school. This makes it strange and incomprehensible to many people growing up in other cultures. I live in Spain. Here people think that children should be with their parents and that it would be a strange lack of loving to send them away to suffer homesickness and hardship away from family bonds.
Summerhill parents love their children right enough: they love them enough to accept that they can be free… even of parental ties… for the time they are at school. In this little article I want to think about why boarding is such an essential part of Summerhill and whether there is any possibility of compromise
My experience at Summerhill tells me that children do suffer from homesickness. They get over it quickly and come to enjoy an environment in which their voice acquires a power and potency it would never have at home. It comes from having a direct voice in deciding the laws by which they live. They come to love their school passionately and cry at the end of term when they have to leave to go home. Homesickness at both ends of the scale!
Parents cannot be involved in the day-to-day lives of their children at Summerhiill. The school is insistent about this. Parent-teacher contracts, which are so common in other schools, are anathema to Summerhill; they do not send reports home to parents at the end of term. You have to be a special kind of parent to send your child to Summerhill. You need to have the fortitude to recognise that your children are not “yours” to design and coach and intimidate according to your own desires.
There are day-kids at Summerhill. Their parents make extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to rearrange their whole lives so that they can live near enough to the school for this. Those children are caught in an unenviable position: they are aware that they are missing much of the life of the school; they come into the school in the morning as if they were going to an ordinary day school and drag their feet when it comes time to leave in the evening. Since children go to lessons during normal school hours, the day-kids can have the disappointing feeling that they are going to a special place and missing all that is special about it.
Sometimes people visiting Summerhill ask about boarding. They have a pious look on their face as though the one certainty in life is that children are better off with their parents. Consequently they are rather shocked when they hear that Summerhill thinks that children are generally even better off at Summerhill than they are with their parents, that separation from parents is a good thing for children so long as their parents are not neurotic and that parents also can enjoy the experience by living fuller lives without all that suffocating family obligation.
Is it possible to imagine a Summerhill day-school?
The short answer is “No”. Summerhill is a boarding school and separation from parents is a major part of the experience. Democratic day-schools do not have the wealth of opportunity for democratic living that exists at Summerhill. If they give over the daytime to the rich life that Summerhill has in the evenings they have to sacrifice their ordinary classes and suffer a decline in academic potential. There is nothing to stop the parents of day kids pressurising kids at home when they get nervous about the situation.
In some ways you could say a democratic summer camp has more promise as an idea. There need be no academic red herrings to distract from the experience.
Having said this, it is clear that there are formidable obstacles to overcome in setting up any kind of boarding school: you need a bigger building, you need more staff, you need to satisfy more inspectors. For practical reasons it seems that day schools are going to be more common over the next few years than new boarding schools. This means that some deeper and extended thought needs to be undertaken into how it would be possible to make a school work in something approaching a Summerhillian manner without the boarding.
We can help school starters think about some of these issues, design their key policy statements and have them feed into the daily practice of their schools. We can work with teachers and parent groups in the sometimes painful process of realising that our improving adult ideas are often better left aside. We can help schools uncover the hidden authoritarian impulses that can capsize a democratic school.
It is not easy and it is even more complicated when parents are directly involved in the work of the school. It is worth it to try, however. There is so much to gain for our children and for ourselves in allowing them to make their own decisions and grow at their own pace, without measurement, prizes or censure.
The goal is happy children.