Anarchy Rules… um… OK?
Democratic schools flirt with anarchism. Anywhere you have a small democratic community that turns its face away from Socialist central planning on the one side and Capitalist manipulation of the market on the other, anarchy is bound to be mentioned.
Anarchists look at Summerhill in confusion. “Why didn’t Neill come right out and say he was an anarchist?” they ask.
This question is liable to raise titters amongst the staff at the school. When a journalist wrote up her observations in a Sunday paper I remember a group openly laughing at the article that was pinned to the wall where we queued up for lunch.
“She says we’re a workers’ co-operative!”
“That’s a laugh! Where did she get that idea from. Did she do any background reading?”
It’s a laugh because Neill’s intention was never to create an anarchist commune, a workers’ co-operative or even a local democratic community. He was interested in giving kids the freedom from oppressive educational systems… not adults.
Now that the school is approaching its third generation in the same family, there can be no doubt that it is and will remain above all a family business. This means that it will stay more-or-less true to Neill because of the sentimental need in the family to respect the Grand Old Man. Since none of the family members are qualified teachers they have no interest in it being anything other than Summerhill. They would probably close up rather than be forced to become a normal school.
Perhaps this is where the anarchists are misled. They associate their own rejection of the state and state education with Summerhill’s battles with inspection and the government. They see the school’s insistence on freedom of choice as directly inspired by anarchist principles.
Teachers at Summerhill cannot have the illusion that they are equal. They are workers with a job contract, performance reviews and a job description which they are expected to fulfill. Although there is more leeway given for innovation and change at Summerhill than in other private or state schools, there is no sense in which it is a workers’ co-operative or an anarchist community. Furthermore, the parents are paying a significant amount of money to send their children to the school: they want a school with a management that is strong enough to keep to the idea they have bought into; they do not want ideological debates amongst the teaching staff or a school that changes its essential character depending on who is currently working there.
When I look at the appalling educational system the state has prepared for our children, with its absurd heirarchical structures, invasive measurement and nonsensical curriculum, and I turn around to see private businesses copying all this system’s worst features and magnifying them- more discipline, more testing, more homework- then I cannot help but have a lot of sympathy for anarchists. I don’t want to live in the system either! Being a heretic does not mean I want to join another church though.
At Summerhill Democratics we have an idea that it is possible for schools to develop outside the system with a more humane and creative view of learning, respect for the freedom of children to make their own decisions and exciting possibilities in a self-governing community. We also believe that in order to achieve this schools need strong management, a coherent set of founding principles and a financial plan that makes sense.
We can help with all of those things. But we are not anarchists.