I look at the old photos of Neill’s school and see the kids running around with a smear of grime across their cheeks.  Some of them don’t wear shoes.  They all wear ratty clothes that have seen a few battles with twigs and leaf litter.  A step back from the school reveals a once posh building past its best.  Is that the way it is?  Is that the way it has to be?  Do democratic schools have to be dirty?

Please get me right.  I do not want to offend anyone.   I am aware that the word “dirty” when it drops with a sneer from a painted bourgeois mouth has an entirely different meaning to what the average Joe in the street would take to be acceptable dirt.  This is what gives the subject of dirt its interest: it seems that being dirty represents something else.  If you want to be superior it represents being of lower class and culture, “running around like a little savage” perhaps, one of “the great unwashed”, a “dirty little heathen” a “filthy tike”.

There are some perfumed journalists who like to have us shudder with horror that the dirty underclass might swarm out of their council estates and dismantle the achievements of culture.  These people look at the dirty faces of Summerhill children as a sign that it does not work.

“Children do not like to be dirty,” they say.  “This is simply evidence of neglect.”

“Why on earth,” that same voice might query, “would respectable parents send their children to a school lacking all the proper standards of hygiene and cleanliness?  It doesn’t make sense.”

Dirt took on a new dimension in the sixties and seventies when the hippies appeared to announce that the new millennium would be seen in without soap.  That revolution is still going on, with families trying to make a way outside of the Persil, Dove and Fairy TV culture by making their own soap at home, for example, or reading up on natural replacements for the chemical cocktails the rest of the world squirts and pumps on their hair, skin and mouth to smell all peachy.  Hippies continue to challenge the world.

“You can smell my sweat- that’s Natural!”

“Yes, I’ve got hairy legs.  It’s the way it is.”

“My children are playing in the dirt.  And that is the way it should be.”

I want some of what she is having...!

I want some of what she is having…!

This is all rather unfortunate for democratic education.  Leonard, who was a young man at the time, always cusses under his breath at the mention of Haight Ashbury.  He reckons that the hippies set democratic education back twenty years.  He thinks it was a useless historical burp.  There were people doing serious, coherent things before then that were hijacked by a radical anti-society agenda.  Democratic education has found it difficult ever since then to extricate itself from the association.

He thinks that democratic education should move on.  He created Clubhouse Democracy, where upper junior kids from age 9-12 are given freedom to choose and can govern themselves and their classrooms through meetings.  In this model cleanliness and order are important components of the programme.  You cannot effectively govern a classroom in a state school with thirty children confined in a small place, as Leonard did in St Katherine’s Ontario, without generally accepted norms about cleaning up after yourself and putting things in their place.

Leonard’s experience creating this kind of “habitat” had a dramatic effect on Class 2 at Summerhill.  The fact that there was cleanliness and order meant that he was able to build on the resources over the years.  Since he was at the school for twelve years he was able to equip and resource an impressive array of tools, materials, games, books, computers and furnishings.  He helped the children to develop a culture of respect in Class 2 so that, for example, I was scolded when I went in there:  “You have to take your shoes off to go past that door!”  In my first year at Summerhill, before Leonard arrived, the kids were climbing in and out of the windows- with their shoes on, of course.

It was some achievement to change this situation especially because there were some believers who thought the changes were  “unSummerhillian”.  They would sigh and point to the holy texts and suggest that, since Neill equipped his workshop many times with tools that the children then took to the woods and left rusting in the leaf litter, benign neglect was the way it should be.

“Children have no respect for your fine German chisels,” the argument went, “and will use them to jimmy a stone out of a crack in the pavement given half a chance.  Sure, have some for yourself, but keep them hidden.  Don’t have rules and regulations.  Once you start imposing rules on the uses of tools you are creating an authoritarian structure.”

They would point to the old photos and say, “It was better when the school was dirty and chaotic.”  They said a structure of rules favoured certain kinds of kids- particularly the ones from Asian countries with a culture of neatness-  and left the others on the outside.

I think the fact that the Readhead family, and Zoe in particular, put their faith and confidence in Leonard’s vision indicates that the believers’ argument does not hold water.  Who would have more idea of what is truly Summerhillian than Zoe, after all?  The traumatic court case, where the Labour government tried to close the school, resulted in a process of self-examination and reflection that in turn led to a set of policies, procedures, and material and financial investment.  The net result of this has been that the school is tidier and cleaner than it ever has been.  Kids can still run around the woods and get dirty.  They can still go the whole term without having a bath if they want to.  The management team, however, recognises that the future of the school depends on keeping a clean face, in many senses of the term.

A Tree House in the Woods

A Tree House in the Woods

When I first went to Summerhill the instant charm of the place was that it was not governed by adults.  The dens and camps the kids had made in the woods reminded me of my own childhood and when I saw the children in line for lunch all scruffy and dirty from their active play it was like glimpsing a vision of myself aged eight.  When we made dens we did not wait for adult permission, we stole the tools and materials we needed and did it ourselves.  They were not very good, but in our imaginations they were fortresses.  We never really wanted to talk to adults because they would start telling us the right way to do things.  “Dirty and chaotic?”  Well, yes, and Summerhill was that as well, in the easy-going, accepting way of a camp: the adults lived in old caravans you got to by squelching through mud; the classrooms were charmingly tatty with an old armchair here, a coffee-pot there and bookshelves of old books that looked like they were left over from 1945; everyone wore what they chose to so that at tea-time grubby little kids pushed past dolled up adolescents.

Leonard and I are not the same.  Leonard’s vision of habitat is one that has potential to change the world.  After all, democratic education DOES need to separate itself from that old association with the hippies if it wants to make inroads into state education.  Politicians and parents are not going to vote for hippy camps.  If we want democratic education on a wider scale it has to be organised, coherent, orderly and clean.  No state official is going to approve a system where children can start taking apart the investment of taxpayers’ money in the buildings and tools.  I can’t imagine many parents being happy about their children coming home from school with dirt in their hair and smelling of bonfire smoke every day.

However, a substantial number of parents who reject state schools reject more than the stultifying and regimented nature of their children’s education.  They are inheritors of the hippy project.  I am far to square to be a hippy but the counter cultural project makes sense to me.  I live in a village and grow organic vegetables in the garden.  I sit under trees in the wood and paint.  I try to share my life here openly with people who come as volunteers.  I wear dirty trousers about the house and have Anarchist friends whom I admire.

This is the Summerhill Democratics team.  The fact that Leonard and I can get on- me scruffy and him neat- suggests that the question of whether democratic schools have to be dirty can also be resolved.  Perhaps the real question is where the dirt is allowed to be?  Perhaps we can have a combination of order and creative chaos?  Perhaps we can go out and get dirty in the woods and then brush up for dinner?

What do you think?

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