What brought you to Spain?
I came to Spain with Carmen whose two children were at Summerhill. Ester was there for a year and Nicolás for two years. I was a teacher at the school then.
Is that when you learnt Spanish?
No, I knew Spanish before. I had studied Spanish at secondary school. I went to a private school on a scholarship. We had to study French and Latin as well. When I left school I was more interested in the arts, so I stopped studying languages.
It sounds like you studied a lot at school? Was it very different to Summerhill?
Well, in some ways it was similar, I suppose. The motto of the school was Non scholae sed vitae discimus, which means “we do not learn for school but for life.” (With thanks to Edward for correcting my bad Latin!) That was clearly untrue when I was there and I suppose I would have liked it even less when it was true. You see, it was a Methodist School. We all had to go to chapel in the morning and sing hymns. When they devised that motto in the nineteenth-century I think the idea was that children were born brutes and needed discipline to whip them into decent adult shape. Nothing like Neill in that respect.
Like most private schools, Queens was an examination factory where parents sent their children to get as many qualifications as they possibly could. There was not much of life they taught except to do what you were told and have anxiety about the future. All the same, even having that motto was not such a bad thing. The worst part of the school was the science teaching, and I was happy to give up Chemistry and take up Spanish at age 14. The fact that I had the choice is perhaps where the school came closest to Summerhill. And, of course, it was a private school, just as Summerhill is. There is something similar in that.
What did you do after you left school?
I was completely clueless! I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m not saying I would have been any better coming out of Summerhill, mind. I have seen kids leave Summerhill and flap around looking for a way to find their feet. It is something that goes with adolescence. I also think it is silly to blame your parents, your teachers or your social background for who and what you are.
Anyway, I left school and went looking for the real world. I worked in a restaurant, then went to Paris thinking I would discover the life of George Orwell or Henry Miller. I have always lived with a book in my pocket, and I was a bookish, provincial kid wandering around in Paris. Then I worked in Spain as a courier for a holiday firm. When I got back to England I decided to go and study art, first in Taunton and then in Edinburgh.
I was always interested in education in a classical humanist sense. And I was always coming up against the fact that my contemporaries and even my teachers were interested in something else altogether. Even studying the arts, people had a rather dull, functional view of what they were doing. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was about marks and grades. Edinburgh College of Art was ridiculous in this sense. I was probably a provocative pain in the neck, and still am, but I remember being aghast when one of the pompous teachers there justified himself to me by saying, “Do you know how many committees I sit on?” It was a terrible mismatch. These were people with careers. And I was running away from that. I was running away from the sensation you had at secondary school that if you studied hard and did what you were told you could have a nice white-collar job and not have to work too hard. No, that did not even seem like a life to me.
How did you end up teaching at Summerhill School? How would you recommend people to go about that?
That is a hard question to answer. I ended up teaching at Summerhill after another few convolutions in my life. I went into teaching in the nineties then went on to do research in Bristol. Then I got divorced and my life came apart. I moved to Spain but was a long way from my children so came back to England. Summerhill was perfect. The community was a great help for me in getting over the loneliness of being divorced. It also meant that I did not have to live in a house by myself and my kids could come and stay and get a feeling of Summerhill. It was a happy accident. So, that is my advice: have a happy accident!
I had read Neill, of course, before I even went into teaching. I liked him because he had a bigger view of the world. When I studied to be a teacher at the Institute of Education I could never understand the obsession with standards and bureaucracy. A lot of what you do as a teacher makes no sense whatsoever. The “best” teachers are the ones who swallow the whole thing and care about kids getting the grades and can talk about percentages getting across the grade boundary without even a trace of irony. I could never do that.
I am not a good model of how to go about becoming a teacher. And I am not a good model of how to go about becoming a Summerhill teacher either. I think, for me, the important thing is to have a life- to have some hinterland. I am deeply suspicious of people who have an interest in education. If you think about it, it is a bit creepy, isn’t it? I am not interested in “education” as a thing. I am interested in reading, books, art, life. When you say you are interested in education it means that you want to “influence young minds” or some such crap. Or maybe you are interested in teaching as a career: I can’t understand that either.
But didn’t you say you were interested in Classical Humanist Education before?
You’re right! But what does Classical Humanist Education stand for really? It means that you read books and talk about them with the human being as the centre of your interest. Since I have always been a reader, I can get with that plan. I am not saying it is the only way of teaching and learning, but it is definitely what I am about. You can learn all kinds of things in all kinds of ways. I don’t have anything against other ways of learning.
It often seems to me that education “experts” get into circular arguments about methods that are little more than tastes and preferences. Those conversations are deeply boring: three new and exciting ways to teach curriculum unit 3:1. Your eyes glaze over, don’t they?
The same goes for alternative education. For god’s sake, go and do something and then teach about that thing. But, don’t become an expert in alternative education! I can explain to kids what I get out of reading a poem. I can explain some painting or printing techniques. I can enjoy reading and writing with them. But if I have to listen to a teacher talking about how the system is all wrong and they are all right, I get bored quickly.
Summerhill Democratics is going to offer teacher training. Isn’t what you are saying contradictory?
Perhaps. The reason we are offering training courses is that we have some perceptions based on our years of experience, both in Summerhill and in the world, that we think are useful for teachers who want to either work in democratic education or set up schools.
We are not aspiring to create a course with learning units of the kind you get in conventional courses of study. That would be contradictory.
When you have a strong foundational model, like Summerhill, its great strength is that it can take teachers with widely different experiences and personalities. They can teach using the full resources of their personality and experience and the school can take it. It won’t bend out of shape or be put in peril. Teachers can be eccentric. They can be strict. They can be permissive. It does not really matter so long as the key building blocks are in place.
You can’t make a pedagogical method out of Summerhill because it won’t take it. I think we will be doing a big service to Summerhill School and other schools like Summerhill if we help teachers to see that. The idea is to take them a little beyond the ego-trip, the hero-project and the self-aggrandizement. The idea is to talk about what teachers as people can offer their students as people.
At least, that is my idea. Leonard has some other ideas and I’m sure he will share them in time.
But are you telling me that you have different ideas?
Yes, of course we do. Leonard’s life experience is entirely different to mine. He has a different personality as well. I think that, if you don’t understand and accept differences, you are going to create a kind of tyranny. Summerhill or any other democratic school could easily become a tyranny if the believers took the reins. Fortunately, Neill did not create a religion with holy books. He set up a school with a unique way of working.
Differences are life.
You do many other things with your life. Are you going to dedicate more of your time to Summerhill Democratics as it grows?
Probably not. Summerhill Democratics is a non-profit association. As it grows I want Summerhillians to come into the organization of its activities to promote Summerhill values in education. I don’t think I need to do that work. And I don’t even think I have the best ideas about what to do. Creating the association has been good fun and is something I believe in, but it has to grow or it will die.
I like my life walking in the mountains and working on a variety of different projects side-by-side. I am really not looking for that white-collar job!
Here is a project I am working on right now: https://shakespeareinthemountains.wordpress.com/