Have you ever been in a situation that you cannot resolve and wished there was an impartial onlooker with the authority to help you resolve it? Ombudsmen at Summerhill are these impartial witnesses. The way ombudsmen work is perhaps more impressive than the Meeting itself, even though all their authority comes from the Meeting.
Ombudsmen are elected every term. You have to have been at the school for two years to serve as an ombudsman. Most ombudsmen are Carriage kids- the oldest in the school- or adults. It takes a level of maturity to perform well as an ombudsman and not everyone is suited to it: some adults are not cut out to be ombudsmen.
There are some problems that you don’t want to bring to the Meeting but you want to resolve. Someone borrowed your bike without asking permission, for example. Instead of waiting for the Meeting you can find an ombudsman and ask for an ombudsman case. There can be ten or more ombudsmen at a time so it is usually not difficult to find one. Once you have said that you are calling an ombudsman case the other person has some obligation to wait for the ombudsman to come: it would not go well in the Meeting for him if he tried to avoid the ombudsman case.
The ombudsman stands between the two people and tries to get at what has happened: did Ben really ride your bike? What is his story? Did he think he had permission? Is there a law that covers this? If it is clear that he has broken a law the ombudsman might bring him to the Meeting and he will be fined. If he admits he did it and the situation seems to be resolved the case might be dropped. If there is an outstanding issue to be resolved then it might come to the Meeting.
Why bother with Ombudsmen? The Summerhill way of life is a practical way of giving everyone within the community the maximum freedom possible. It is not possible for everyone in a community of seventy to have complete freedom: you are bound to step on someone’s toes at some point. There are not Meetings every day of the week and there are many problems that you do not want to have hanging around festering until the next Meeting comes around. Having ombudsmen helps straighten out the kinks in the quickest time possible
Ombudsmen represent the whole community because they are voted into their posts and all of their authority comes from the Meeting, where their decisions can be overturned. Some people are unhappy with the word authority, especially if they have grown up in authoritarian states. They might think of the ombudsmen as a kind of elected police force. This is far from the reality.
For one thing an ombudsman is only an ombudsman when she is doing the ombudsman case. She does not wear a badge or cap and does not have any special privileges because of the post. She does not have the power to issue fines and can only issue temporary bans if there is a situation that looks violent: banning someone from a room where they are causing trouble, for example. Ombudsmen are respected not only for their personal qualities as human beings- although experience and good judgement certainly make better ombudsmen- but because they represent the whole community.
The little kids take frequent advantage of ombudsmen to resolve minor disputes without bringing them to the Meeting. I also used ombudsmen to resolve situations that I was not able to sort out for myself as an adult. It is inspiring when you see ombudsmen at work. These young people are doing something that to them seems the most natural way of resolving disputes in the world.
They hardly seem to realise that it puts to shame most of the institutions of adult society- let alone other authoritarian schools.