Summerhill is a boarding school. There are two different types of age division in the school: one is academic; the other is related to the boarding accommodation. In this post I want to describe these divisions and discuss whether they have any validity outside Summerhill.
There are four academic divisions: Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 and Sign Up. Class 1 is the lower primary class up to about age 9. Class 2 is the upper primary class from 9 to about 12. Both these classes have their own rooms consisting of teaching spaces, activity rooms for doing and making, and libraries.
Class 3 does not have a class as such. It is a notional category that some teachers struggle to respect. The notion is that children are neither able nor prepared to start examination courses when they move up from Class 2. However, there is a powerful myth, backed up by semi-legendary stories, that free children can take examinations early and achieve good results.
Sign up is the age when children really start examination courses. This ought to be at age 14, giving them two years to follow through the course and sit the examinations aged 16.
Summerhill uses Cambridge International examinations, which are accepted around the world. The children can choose which subjects they want to sit examinations in. Their teachers help them to think about the qualifications they need for their next steps in life after Summerhill.
The boarding divisions follow a different logic. Each boarding area has a house parent with a house room. The divisions are San (6-9), Cottage (9-11), House (11-13), Shack (13-15), and Carriages (15-17). The ages in parenthesis here are only a rough guide because the movement up through the school is based on maturity. Moving up is decided in the end of term staff meetings.
Staff at Summerhill talk about San, House, Cottage, Shack and Carriages as though the words indicated a universally applicable developmental stage. I have come across the same phenomenon in almost every school I have worked in: “a typical Year 8 class”; “just like you would expect from the top of the school”. At Summerhill the culture of democratic engagement encourages this: the progression from House kid to Carriage kid seems natural; a way of growing up through a phase of acting out that Neill called the “gangster stage” to a more mature sense of social responsibility.
Is it natural or cultural? The structures of the school enable these progressions to take place. They therefore take place within a culture. It is not inevitable that a school would have the same structures and even in Summerhill School itself there have been other ways of designing the transitions. I understand that when Neill first got hold of some old railway carriages for the older students it was only the boys who lived in them, whilst the older girls lived in the House. One could easily imagine a boarding school where houses were created including children of all ages together. Then there would be no age-related progression from one group to another and there would not be an adolescent community at the top end of the school.
If you are starting a boarding school these are important issues to think about: does the Summerhill progression through the ages make sense to you? If you do not have the full range of ages that exists at Summerhill how will that impact the progression of the children towards maturity? What indeed are you measures of maturity and are they reliable?
I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions, but I shall try to give some of my own opinions on them on Thursday.