The Reduced Curriculum Part III

This is the third of three blog posts about the Reduced Curriculum responding to the anxieties of many people we have talked to regarding this important subject.  There will be an accompanying PDF, which is free to our subscribers.

The Reduced Curriculum and the Timetable

They are looking at the timetable!

“You have a timetable?” Jean asked in disbelief.  “I thought it was a free school.”

“The timetable is important,” I replied.  “This isn’t Sudbury.  The teachers decide what classes they are going to offer and the kids sign up at the beginning of each term.  If I didn’t have a timetable I wouldn’t know if I was coming or going.”

“It just seems so… so conventional.  I don’t know.  I guess I thought Summerhill would be different.”

“In what way?”

“Well, negotiated projects, short-term stuff sparking off interests.  More dynamic.  Less… sorry… boring,” she said.  “Less predictable!”

Jean had sat through her secondary school life in unspeakable boredom.  Summerhill seemed to offer her another vision of what education could be and that was why she was visiting.  She loved the Meeting, the open social spaces, the lively interaction between adults and students.  She got a kick out of the equality.  But she was deeply reluctant to approve the lessons and the timetable.

“You’ve even got a bell!” she exclaimed.  “And they trog along out of their lessons and go to the next one, just like in any other school.  It could be so different.”

Many schools over the years have experimented with breaking educational paradigms.  When I was a student teacher I wrote a paper on Supported Self Study, which at the time seemed a possible answer to my own anxieties about excessive structure in the delivery of the school curriculum.  “How happy I would have been,” I told myself, “to have been able to use a well-resourced library to do projects instead of sitting through those endless dull classes!”  Supported Self Study was a buzzword in the early eighties.  The promise was clear thinking about objectives, careful choice of materials and a strong emphasis on student responsibility.  One teacher could supervise students taking multiple pathways through the syllabus.  It seemed to promise greater dynamism.

I have to confess that when I went to Summerhill I thought I might be able to resurrect some of these ideas by slipping project work into my English classes.  I worked with kids lower down the school, but the bulk of my work was with kids from 13 upwards.  I really thought I could have a natty little academic core with a buzzing hum of project work going on around it.  Here I want to talk about my experiences because they are relevant to the way you might think about the reduced curriculum.  I was disappointed to find that my plan was not going to work.  It was a self-reflective education to discover why.

Lessons are Optional

The basic feature of Summerhill is that lessons are optional.  Students sign up for the lessons they want.  They want those lessons.  They know what they want from them.  They do not want to go on a journey of discovery.  They want to learn the vital stuff that the school, their parents and the world in general tells them is important for them to get on in life.  And they want to learn it in their lessons.  They want to be taught.

This means that lessons need to have a defined purpose.  The students have to see what is in it for them or they will not come to the next one.  Each lesson has to fit somehow to the next so that they get the sensation what they were learning is heading somewhere and this is distinctly challenging when some of them attend only erratically.  Some teachers respond to this by running stand-alone lessons that have a defined product at the end of the session, particularly in art.  The aim is always to have them leave the room thinking that they “have had a lesson”.  What they do not want is some vague waffle that does not justify giving up whatever else they were engaged in before they came.

In the secondary school I went to, it would have been a blessed relief to have been told, “You do not have to sit through these lessons.  Negotiate a reading plan, write up your conclusions and for half of the lesson quotient of the week you can just do it by yourself.”  At Summerhill none of the attempts to introduce this kind of Self Learning has worked because the kids are possessive about their lessons.  For example, when I arrived at the school they were experimenting with a computer programme called Successmaker that promised all kinds of results: the computer would be an infinitely patient teacher that set small tasks and gave instant feedback, it could help struggling readers to break the back of their problem.  Maybe it would have if the kids had used it, but they didn’t.  They wanted their lessons with a teacher.

In a regular school kids will do almost anything to get out of the classroom.  Ask if someone wants to take a message to Mr Jones at the other end of the school and a waving sea of hands will confront you.  Ask if they want to go and spend time on the computer and the same thing happens.  At Summerhill it is quite the reverse.  You see, not only do the kids have the free choice to sign up for the lessons that they want, but they are not under any strict obligation to turn up to the lessons they have chosen either.  When they go they have a purpose.

It was rather pointless to engage in elaborate fantasies that these kids would take the lessons away with them into their own time because at Summerhill community life is rich and potent in itself.  The kids are not hanging around looking for something to do.  On the contrary, they are often interrupting the meaningful activities they are engaged in around the school in order to show up to the lesson in the first place.  In their minds, you go to lessons to do lesson stuff and the rest of the time you get on with your life.

This puts pressure on the teacher to get down to the nitty gritty.

The Nitty Gritty

The nitty gritty is, in other words, the reduced curriculum.  I taught in the upper school.  My experience as an English teacher at Summerhill told me that I would have to seriously reduce the content burden if I was going to prepare the kids for examinations.  In the UK these exams are externally set by examination boards- we used Cambridge International- and it was vital for the kids to be up to speed by the time the examinations came around.   The second language kids took FCE and then moved into first language classes adding another dimension to the mix: they got good grades in FCE because their Speaking and Listening was excellent, but writing was always a struggle.

It started in the pre-examination classes.  There was no point in fannying around with all the exercises in the lamentable text books I ordered: I had to pick and choose; we were never going to get through the whole thing.  I chose that textbook.  It seemed the best of a bad bunch to me: the texts were reasonably interesting, the exercises were not unbearably dull, and there was just enough grammar to be palatable without boring the pants off the class.  Having started with the virtuous intention of plodding through the book, I ended up picking and choosing based on the following criteria:

  1. What skills are absolutely essential to move into the examination class?
  2. What texts are the most engaging to read?
  3. What written work will the class actually do?

The answer to the last question was variable.  Some kids had a phobia of writing and I had to develop strategies to get them past it: scripting for non-readers; transforming texts by substituting words; gapfill texts where I wrote a piece and eliminated all the verbs or adjectives, for example; using frames to scaffold writing in different genres; opening up to creative writing.  I realised that the lesson was the time to do the work.  Some enthusiastic writers worked on their own, but that writing was not necessarily a part of what I was offering in class.  I felt privileged when I was allowed to read it and I did not expect everyone to perform at that same level.

Examination classes were more serious about the work and could be relied on to turn up more regularly and do some homework.  I shared the syllabus in a large poster I made for the wall.  Along the bottom it said:

The more you read the better you will be at reading


The more you write the better you will be at writing.

English Class

I had a wall of books at the back of the room that I stocked with anything that was in fashion in youth fiction.  If someone was reading I knew they would have less difficulty with all aspects of the curriculum and I was always touting novels to non-readers.  “Try this.  If you don’t like it, give up: there’s plenty more.”  When someone finished their first complete book and appeared red-eyed the next morning asking for something else similar, I breathed a sigh of relief.  It did not have to be a book on the syllabus.

In the year leading up to the GCSE examination I shared the syllabus with the students and eventually shared the marking criteria as well.  I suggested that they mark their own work as we got closer to the exams so that they could see where they were failing and rectify it.  Learning to proofread was essential.  In the year that we did the OCR joint syllabus I had a term outline that showed what I was going to be doing on each day.  If they didn’t come they missed it: short and simple.

More than Examinations

Not all the lesson spots were examination classes.  I had play-reading groups, novel-reading groups, a popular discussion group, and an Art History class.  These had nothing to do with examinations or tests.  They were open to all and people were not possessive about them in the same way as they were about “their” lessons.  Frequent theatre and cinema trips punctuated the autumn and spring terms.  In another school this would be seen as a part of the curriculum and, under the definition of the curriculum that the English National Curriculum uses, indeed it is, but there was always a distinction in the minds of Summerhill students between the learning that was part of a lesson and the enjoyment of life.  It seemed to me that an initiation into cultural life by going to the theatre or talking seriously about films was a part of life and I did not feel any need to attach it to the formal curriculum.

After all, at Summerhill, the life of the community is rich in opportunities for living a full and rounded life.  There is no need for a teacher to go clod-hopping into the pleasurable activities and events that are constantly going on- ad hoc theatre, music events, talks by visiting speakers, the round of parties throughout the year, the elaborate summer half-term events, the role of committees and the Meeting itself, walks and hikes- pegging educational objectives onto life itself.  There were also spaces open during the day where children could do more art, more woodwork, hang out, read, dance or make music on their own without a teacher.  They could do all of these things because there was less content in the lessons provided and even if they went to all of the lessons available to them, they would still have time on their hands.   The joy of Summerhill when it is working well is that children grow up into vibrant young people with the burden of school work well contained in lessons that do not dominate their lives.

This is the real challenge for a democratic school: to create a community that works.  The challenge for teachers is to recognise that if they live and work in a functioning community the lessons they provide have a limited resonance.  Teachers in a democratic school cannot aspire to create, define and measure all the conditions that make learning possible and enjoyable.  Accepting this is not easy.


A reduced curriculum in a democratic school like Summerhill responds to necessity.  It can pique the vanity of teachers to realize that what they are offering students is only a small part of their overall experience in the school.  You might, like Jean, feel that the structure of lessons and a timetable is rigid and old-fashioned, that there are more imaginative ways of developing curriculum that will engage more interest and result in a more vibrant learning culture.  The paradox at Summerhill is that the more the teachers are involved in directing the experiences of the children the further the school gets from its best practice.

Best practice at Summerhill is a reduced curriculum delivered by experienced teachers in concise and meaningful lessons.  This frees the children to develop the multi-faceted and vibrant community life that makes the school so surprising and joyful a place to live and work.  The school can work very well with indifferent teachers- the kids are thrown back on their own resources.  It cannot work well when there is an attempt by the teachers to dominate the whole life of the school: when they talk too much, direct too much and give too much importance to their lessons.  When that happens something precious has been lost.

If you are planning a school with Summerhill in mind, you should spend at least as much time thinking about how you are going to create that community as you do thinking about the curriculum.  You should hire teachers that you know can give good classes to all students and free them from the burden of attempting to rule the community.  The timetable that Jean found so incongruous is a mighty device for keeping them in their place!

A.S. Neill, wearing his hat as leg-pulling humourist, liked to define teaching as a neurosis.  I don’t agree with this.  At its best teaching is an honest and self-sacrificing profession in which teachers can offer the full resources of their personality to help young people they have nothing but a professional obligation to serve.  They do this willingly and selflessly.  At Summerhill it is humbling to recognise just how little children who are free to choose will opt for the more extravagant of your teaching fantasies.

It is best to keep your taught curriculum to the basics.

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