The Meeting at Summerhill serves two functions. It decides on the Laws that govern the community and it resolves problems between people. Anyone can bring a law for approval to the meeting or suggest an alteration to an existing one; anyone can bring up another member of the community in a Tribunal case. There is no distinction of age or seniority. Adults are equal to children. Everyone’s vote has the same weight.
There are over two hundred laws in the school. Most of them are simple: you can’t drop litter; you have a bedtime; you are not allowed to go downtown at certain times. If you break a law then you can be brought up in the Meeting. The Meeting is fairly business-like. It goes something like this.
Chairman: John, your case.
John: I want to bring up Sally for breaking silence hour. She woke me up at six o’clock in the morning. I want to propose the standard fine.
Chairman: Sally, do you have anything to say?
Sally: I didn’t think I was being that loud. I just dropped something by mistake.
Chariman: I’m taking comments and proposals. Chris?
Chris: Is it the first time she has done this?
John: It’s the first time she has woken me up, yes.
Chris: I want to propose a strong warning.
Chariman: Any more proposals? No. All in favour the standard fine. All in favour a strong warning. All against. It’s carried. Sally, you have a Strong Warning not to break Silence Hour.
One of the commonest mistakes newcomers to Summerhill make is to think that the Meeting is an arena for discussion. There are cases that last longer because people have more to say and there are certainly times when a persistent offender- someone, for example, who is always late getting up in the morning- will be berated by the community, but the Meeting in general likes to get business done.
You will notice that all comments are made through the Chairman. It takes skill and perception to be the Chairman. The Chairman is not allowed to comment on cases without stepping temporarily out of role. She (or he) often has to make the difficult decision to ask people to be brief, give spot fines for cross-talking and maintain the flow of cases. It takes maturity and experience to be a good Chairman.
All the cases are written down in the Meeting Book by the Secretary with a brief record of the discussion and an accurate record of the voting. This is particularly important where fines are concerned because the Fines Committee has to keep a record of fines to ensure that deductions from pocket money are accurately made. There are also job fines that need supervisors and bans, such as wheel ban (meaning you can’t ride bikes or skateboards) or screen bans (meaning you can’t go on the computers or watch TV).
Some critics have said that this is a punitive system. My experience is that the children do not see it that way. The fines are a way the community has of regulating what goes on in the school. There is no guilt attached to breaking a law. It is quite common to be brought up by a friend for breaking a law and would be seen as “unSummerhillian” either not to bring up a friend or to hold a grudge against a friend who brings you up. Some people break laws knowingly and accept the fine, but the community gets impatient with people who persistently defy the Meeting’s authority.
People often think that democratic schools have a democratic pedagogy. This might be the case in some schools where children decide what they are going to do with their time at a Meeting. At Summerhill, however, this is not the case. There are as many pedagogies as there are teachers there. What goes on in the classroom is largely irrelevant to the community as a whole. Your learning is seen to be your business and whether you do well or not in the classroom is similarly down to you: no one is going to praise you or otherwise on the basis of grades. How you behave in the community, however, is of vital importance.
It is the Meeting that makes Summerhill.