Punishment is a big deal for visitors to Summerhill

On visitors’ days at the school we used to do a chat in the dining room after they had a tour of the school. One of the questions that was entirely predictable was the question about the punishments that the Meeting gives out to people for breaking the law or being aggressive: fines, work fines, bans and strong warnings.

“I don’t believe in punishment,” a woman with a colourful headscarf says. “I try to get past old-fashioned ideas of punishment with my own children and I wonder how Summerhill can justify the punishments that the Meeting hands out.”

I could get sophistical with this and say that they are not really punishments at all, but I am not sure that answers the question. The best thing to do is describe how the system works without too much interpretation and then see where that leads us. It might be possible to imagine a different system that did not have fines, but since they exist as a basic part of the functioning of the school we cannot go far without understanding the how of the mechanisms before addressing the why.





two basic categories of meeting cases / what authority means / equality

There are two basic categories of cases at the Meeting: one is to propose laws or amendments to laws; the other is to “bring someone up” for breaking a law or being aggressive.

Anyone in the community, from the oldest to the youngest, can propose a law. Anyone can be brought up: there are no exemptions; there is no one who can claim position or authority that exempts them from the eye of the Meeting. This is the basic mechanism that ensures that the Meeting- not one person, group or post- is the repository of all authority.

The word authority can cause as much difficulty for some people as the word punishment.

The important point to make about authority here is that it all derives from the Meeting. Even if you have been elected into a position of responsibility in the school on one of the many committees you are answerable for your actions to the Meeting. There are no positions that give you authority beyond the exercise of the function.

What does this mean? It means, for example, that ombudsmen are not policemen. They only have a limited authority whilst they are exercising their role. They are always under the authority of the meeting. When they are not exercising their function they are equal to all other members of the community. There are no badges or hats that give people immunity from the governing eye of the Meeting. The only exception to this would be employed staff, such as the kitchen, cleaning or office staff, who are not seen as full members of the community, however much they are respected and loved.





a meeting example

Let’s take the example of someone who sneaks out of their room at night and makes a lot of noise waking someone else up. The person who is woken up brings a case to the Meeting. She goes to the person and says, “I am bringing you up. You woke me up.” That person is then obliged to go to the Meeting to answer the case. She also goes to the Secretary of the Meeting and says she wants a case.

The Meeting does not get into long moral discussions. It might go something like this:

Chairman: “John, you are being brought up for sneaking out. Helen, what do you have to say?”
Helen: “I was asleep and John woke me up. It was midnight and I had just got to sleep and then I heard a lot of noise. He didn’t even go to bed when he was told to.”
Chairman: “John, what do you have to say? Did you do it?”
John: “Yes, I admit I was sneaking out, but I was very quiet. I was very quiet. Then when the Beddies Officers saw me I went back to bed. It was Julian. They already gave me the standard fine.”
Chairman: “Julian, is that true?”
Julian: “Yes, I caught him and gave him the standard fine and then he went to bed. He argued, but he went to bed.”
Chairman: “Are there any other witnesses?”
Sophie: “Yeah, he woke me up too. He started shouting when they caught him. I think he was enjoying it and he always sneaks out. It is annoying. He just doesn’t take any notice when we tell him to stop.”
Will: “But this is the first time he has been brought up for sneaking out. If he is always doing it, why haven’t you brought him up before?”
Sophie: “OK, but he has to know that we don’t want to be woken up. I propose he gets a small job fine on top of the standard fine.”
Chairman: “Any other proposals?”
Will: “Since it is the first time he has been brought up I think a Strong Warning is enough. I propose a Strong Warning Not to break Silence Hour.”
Clara: “I think a Strong Warning is not enough I propose 10% of POC.”
Helen: “That seems harsh to me. I will be happy if he just stops waking me up. I think the Strong Warning is enough.”
Chairman: “Any more proposals? OK, I am going to take the vote. All in favour of !0%. All in favour of Strong Warning. All in favour of Small Job Fine. All against all. It is carried that John gets a strong warning. [looking at John] John, you have a Strong Warning not to make noise at night.

As you read this as an outsider you will probably be struck by how technical all the discussion is, how focussed it is on details of procedure that Summerhillians understand very well, but outsiders at first find hard to negotiate.

Summerhillians seem to make minute distinctions between different offences depending on whether it is the first time, whether there was outright defiance of laws, whether there is actually a law governing the offence or not and the level of the nuisance being caused. There is rarely any moralistic tone to the discussion and it is accepted that the laws are there for the sake of the community, not because they are essentially “good”.

In this context the “punishments”, the fines, are ways of talking to people about the level of the offence.

POC in the discussion is pocket money and there are various fines that take a percentage of pocket money. When pocket money is handed out on Saturday there is someone from the Fines committee who collects what is owed.

There are also job fines, which can be designated as small, medium and large. They require a supervisor who will be appointed by the meeting. There are also various types of “ban”: screen ban, for example, means not being able to watch screens.

The community is imaginative with its fines. Some of the “punishments” are not conventional at all. An example of this is “share-a-cake”. If two people have been annoying each other for a long time and the Meeting is tired of hearing tit-for-tat cases, someone might propose this fine. A neutral person takes money from fines and buys a cake. The two involved then have to sit down together and share the cake.

The money in fines can be used for all different purposes around the school. There is a weekly review of how much there is in the kitty in the Meeting.





that word

When people say that they do not like the word punishment, I think they are being justifiably modern and clear-thinking. I cannot see much point in moralistic punishments that are based on the free will delusion, the idea that people have a moral soul that can choose between good and evil. If they choose to do evil they deserve to be punished, whilst if they choose to do good they deserve praise. This forms no part of the philosophy at Summerhill where talk of good and evil in the abstract would be laughable.

At Summerhill the idea is that you should freely do what you want to do; that there is nothing intrinsically good or evil in human desires. However, the school recognises that when there are people living together in a community it is inevitable that there will be conflicts. They are boundary disputes, if you like. One person’s freedom can frequently impinge on another’s so that, in the case of waking someone up at night, there is a conflict between the one who wants to make noise and the one who wants to sleep.

The Meeting has no interest in telling John in this case that he is bad or has done something bad.

The important point is that he has overstepped a boundary by waking someone up. The fine exists to let him know that the Meeting stands with the person whose freedom to sleep has been infringed. If he continues to break that law and continues to be brought up for it the fines will get increasingly severe.

Summerhill’s notion of crime and punishment is morally neutral. Perhaps the word “punishment” is not appropriate.

It is certainly the case that there is no desire for retributive vengeance of the type you tend to get in moralistic systems. The fines exist as ways to change behaviour and if they do not work then something else will be tried. This could be a model for justice in the wider world if people were only capable of moving away from their attachment to fantasies of “divine retribution” and of sins that require punishment.