Zoë on her horse

Zoë Readhead is the daughter of Neill and the principal of Summerhill School. Unlike Neill she does not teach classes but, before she became principal, she had a riding school next to Summerhill. In this post I want to consider how Zoë and her horses have had an effect on Summerhill.

You only have to talk to Zoë for five minutes to realise she is a horsey woman. She is robust, straight-forward and no-nonsense. She often makes comparisons between children and young horses. “Those shack kids are just like colts,” she said to me once. “Do you know what I mean?” To be honest I did not really know what she meant, at least not in the way that she understood it, because my experience of animals beyond domestic pets was limited. I could see from the look in her eyes that she was seeing the children in the light of a powerful personal experience of working with horses. It made sense to her.

The great advantage of Zoë’s experience in raising, breeding and working with what are, after all, rather large animals is that she has seen them performing all of their animal functions, dealt with their behaviours with a mixture of science and intuition and got over any sense of nervousness or reverence of the kind that townies like me tend to have. She is down to earth. She sees human beings as animals and children as young animals. There are some characteristics of young animals that are the same across species and understanding that allows you to treat them with more wisdom.

Sex is a good example of this. Zoë’s experience with horses makes her unflappable with regard to children’s sexual drives. I think she instantly makes a comparison with horses when she sees a teenager who is so randy he doesn’t know what to do with himself. You could make all kinds of cultural connections. “Oh, that is just like Romeo and Juliet,” you might say. Or you could come across as a moral tyrant. “Children are not allowed to have sexual feelings until they come of age,” you might say. The experience with animals allows you to say, “Don’t be silly. We are animals growing up. There is nothing wrong with us.”

The Horse Whisperer

The Horse Whisperer

The question of how you deal with horses also has an effect on Zoë’s views on how you should deal with children. She once had the idea that she was going to write a book called “The Child Whisperer.” There was an American horse breeder who could take troublesome horses and control their behaviour just by talking. He challenged people’s assumptions about the use of violent means to attain behavioural ends and became so famous that there was a novel called “The Horse Whisperer” that was turned into a film. Zoë thought that this was a good analogy to what Neill did, but it is a better analogy to her own practice as the principal of a difficult school.

I would often see her walking around with the teenagers. They felt secure with her. If they had a problem they would just sidle up to her and have a chat. There was no sensation that she was the main authority and I got the feeling that they would chat to her about anything, although those conversations were private. This was “child whispering”. Little kids did not really need it but once they reached their teenage years most children in the school would go for a chat with Zoë at some point. It was nothing like Neill´s PLs and she would probably laugh at my even noticing it as “a thing”, because she likes to keep things straight-forward, unpretentious and natural. However, it was a valuable help to children growing up to feel that sense of someone firm but caring looking out for them. She doesn’t like to talk in fancy terms. She likes to keep it real. Otherwise it would seem like so much hot air. The adolescents responded to that.

These qualities also come from Zoë’s work with horses. When you have spent days shovelling horsehit out of stables you have a different conception of what it means to look after animals than you do if your only experience is watching “White Horses” on the TV. The romantic sentimentality gets washed away with the shower you need after a hard day’s physical work. The fact that Zoë and Tony have a farm means that they know what it means to get up early and work hard all day long. Children at Summerhill do the same. They get up in the morning and play hard all day long. They go to bed tired at night because they have been busy. From this perspective what children do in other schools- filing into an endless succession of classrooms at the ringing of bells, going home to sit down at another desk and do homework, getting physical activity only through organised sport- just doesn’t seem like a life. It seems too cerebral. Too much in the head. Too little in the heart.

White Horses Again!

White Horses Again!

The fact that little kids at Summerhill are free to play is another reason that they do not need adults, including Zoë. They grow up by themselves through play. You don’t see a mare following its foal around the field, licking it and guiding it and helping it to grow up. The foal goes to the mare when it needs milk. It does not work the other way around. Many people ask me about the emotional learning at Summerhill and I find it hard to explain that their idea- that adults are guiding children into emotional learning by emphasising EQ (yuck) in the curriculum- is the opposite of Summerhill. You would only have to have an emotional curriculum if your school was already too much in the head. It is a sticking plaster over a festering wound. It is a sign that something is wrong already. I was asked recently about the Summerhill methodology of child-care. My response was that it did not really exist. At Summerhill adults are there to help children if they need help and there are lessons if they want to go to them. Other than that you just leave the kids alone.

Zoë’s son, Will, once said to me that his most vivid memory of his mum when he was a little kid was a pair of riding boots and jodpurs. The adults did not pay too much attention to their children. They got on with what they were doing. The kids were all right.

This is another way in which Zoë, as a horsey woman, has had a big influence on the people she has helped grow up. She has a country woman’s sense of natural processes. If you have seen a mare give birth and the foal grow up into a colt, if you have helped that colt to become a useful horse that is not nervous around traffic or people, aggressive or jumpy, if you have had to make difficult decisions about what to do with horses because of their personality, then you have a different perspective on growing up all together. She does not have much patience with people who plague their own children with attention. She has the horse-whisperer’s talent of letting the child come to her when it needs to.

There are lots of experts out there. They write books and publish academic articles on child-care, education and development. Zoë is not an academic and will never publish an article in a learned journal. You might say that this is a shame. You might say that all that is good in Summerhill is asking for some serious scientific study. I agree up to a point because it is always rather charming when university bods make their way down to Leiston to observe and share the results of their studies. The only problem is that I would prefer they spent some time down on the farm before they wrote the academic article.

What do you think?

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