Summerhill is a boarding school. In this series of Summerhill Basics articles I have been describing how committees work at the school and today I am going to describe what Beddies Officers do.
Beddies Officers are members of a committee. I am not going to describe how the book goes around for Beddies Officers because you can read about that in previous posts. I want to emphasise, however, that Summerhill is a thorough-going children’s democracy and that the image you might have of a traditional English boarding school is far from the lived experience of the children there. The people who are in charge of bedtime are elected to their posts.
Beddies Officers are normally the older children in the school because the older children have the latest bedtimes. Bedtimes are set by the Meeting. There are five divisions in the school, roughly equivalent to ages: San for the youngest, then Cottage, House, Shack and Carriages. Each of these divisions has a different bedtime. It is the Beddies Officers’ responsibility to make sure that people go to bed at the time that they are supposed to.
Bedtime itself is half an hour. Each area has its own “house room”, which is run by the house-parent for that group. The idea is that at bedtime all the children should be in their area for thirty minutes winding down and getting ready for bed. Their houseparent will be there with them but it is the Beddies Officers responsibility to “put them to bed”. What does this mean?
First, it means making sure that everyone is in their area at the right time. Say your bedtime is 8:30-9:00. You are busy doing something and lose track of the time. The Beddies Officers will come and track you down and make sure that you go to your bedtime, because you have to be there for the full half hour. If you consistently do not turn up you can be fined.
Second, it means making sure that everyone actually goes to bed. The Beddies Officers are in the house room throughout bedtime enjoying what is normally a relaxing social atmosphere before going to bed. Although the houseparent will be there as well to help the kids with little problems that they might have- giving out medications, chatting through problems, etc- the responsibility for making sure the kids are in bed belongs to the Beddies Officers. They are in the area until lights out.
Once the children are settled in one area the Beddies Officers move on to the next.
From the moment the lights go out it is Silence Hour in that area until the next morning. Silence Hour is taken seriously. One of the basic features of a democratic school is the way in which it works with the boundary between one person’s freedoms and another’s. Bedtime, lights out and Silence Hour give children an opportunity to reflect on the impact that their actions have on others. If they disturb someone else’s right to sleep this is taken seriously by everyone in the community and the Beddies Officers are there to ensure that what the Meeting has decided is enacted.
Beddies Officers have to deal with “sneaking out”. House kids in particular like to sneak out of their rooms at night. They have to be secretive about this because it is against the law and they can receive a fine. They will receive a bigger fine if they make noise and wake someone up who is sleeping. There are some standard fines that the Beddies Officers are authorised to give for sneaking out or breaking Silence Hour. If someone feels that they were unjustly fined they can bring a case to the Meeting to appeal against it.
Beddies Officers are a Committee. If they talk and decide that there is an epidemic of sneaking out they might decide to bring a case to the Meeting about it. They also decide together who is going to look after bedtimes on what days. There is no adult involvement in any of this, unless an adult happens to be on the committee.
I have tried to describe the work of Beddies Officers in simple words. I have to confess that when I first heard the term I found the conjunction of beddies- slightly twee and old-fashioned- with officer- suggesting some kind of police force- jarring. However, having experienced the way Beddies Officers work at Summerhill, I can only say that Summerhill is a boarding school unlike any other. I could not devise a better system for getting people to bed.
The laws about bedtimes and the institution of Beddies Officers enable children to experience the difference between freedom and licence in their everyday lives. They do not have to go to bed because an adult arbitrarily decides that it is good for them. Anything can be negotiated in the Meeting. The way that this system works gives Summerhill a large part of its special character. Some people are radically opposed to boarding schools on principle, but I would suggest that they have not really considered what a very special environment Summerhill is for children to live in: an enivronment where they are not the victims of arbitrary authority.