Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the Summerhill basics?

It is your school your way, but you should be comfortable with these Summerhill basics:
•    Children can play as much as they like and do as they choose as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others.
•    Freedom does not mean licence
•    Social and emotional growth takes priority over the academic.
•    Children do not have to go to lessons unless they want to.
•    Children can take part in democratic meetings to make laws and decisions concerning the daily life of the school and to resolve other issues that
are important to them.
•    There are excellent teachers, preferably with Summerhill experience or training.
•    A well-organised curriculum of essentials is offered to those who choose to attend lessons.
•    Children are not measured, assessed or examined unless they decide they want that.
•    There is a carefully chosen range of age appropriate activity areas and resources.
•    Adults stay in the background. They do not rush in to save bored children, but allow them to discover what’s next on their own.
•    A compulsory state curriculum is unnecessary, unless a child finds it personally interesting to do. (It is there for adults to force children to learn, mostly on whim, whatever they choose, for whatever reasons they come up with. Really.)
•    Students will be perfectly capable of attending college if they play and follow their own interests until around the age of fourteen.

These ideas are supported by time-tested structures and practices that make democratic schools successful.

Summerhill School is not a magic kingdom that happens by sprinkling fairy dust. It is not a random environment. It is a school and a business that offers ‘free choice of action in a democratic community’ . That is its curriculum.

2. What makes Summerhill different?

As in other democratic schools, Summerhill children have free choice of action in a democratic community. They can always choose independent learning paths and all lessons are, of course, optional; however, teachers have job descriptions and obligations to all children. Summerhill is a school with classrooms, learning and activity areas, specialised staff and age appropriate environments. The school defines the curriculum within the classroom. At Summerhill adults do not have to entertain the students or provide non-stop activities; children are allowed free time to be bored.

All of the above is translatable to any day-school, but Summerhill is an international boarding school where community life plays an essential part in the experience of children as well as adults. There are many different buildings clustered and scattered over eleven acres. This gives Summerhill a ‘village’ atmosphere and relationships are almost those of an extended family. It is not like going to a single ‘school building’ for a few hours a day Monday to Friday. Classrooms in this village are only ever one of the opportunities during a Summerhill day; the sense of freedom and ‘non school’ is profound. Adults can simply ‘disappear’ out of a child’s mind for extended periods of time.

Summerhill School is set up in ‘stages’; its development arc ideally begins around 7 years of age and ends at about 17. Students’ post-Summerhill lives have always been taken seriously; the relationship is almost parental and all future possibilities can be explored with students, from the traditional to the unique. For formal qualifications, the school is a Centre for Cambridge International Examinations and students have the option to sit state GCSEs that lead to college.

3. If I want your assistance do I have to set up a boarding school?

No, we assume that the majority of people starting up will be thinking of day schools and that’s fine. Leonard’s school in Canada was a day school.

If you do want to begin a boarding school that’s fantastic … let us know.

4. What’s your connection to Summerhill School?

Leonard and Jason both worked at Summerhill School as teachers and Education Managers and were involved in preparing the school for two successful OFSTED inspections. They keep close links with Zoe and her children who now work at the school.

5. Why do you suggest that new schools should start with nine to fourteen year olds?

Summerhill does not enrol children over the age of 11 because it is important for students to have the full experience of growing up in a democratic community. A democratic school needs an experienced older group to lead the way so that the adults do not casually assume too strong a position.

We have found the Veteran Child (8-13) age is a great start-up group. They can understand the democratic school philosophy, generally like to organise and administrate, and can easily run democratic meetings. They can share significant authority with adults and run a great deal of the school on their own. Before long,
staff can step away, make themselves small.

Once you have this mid age range established we suggest you gradually grow down and let the little ones use the juniors as role models as the older juniors grow into early adolescence.

A lot of start-ups begin with only small children, and they can be successful. However, young children without older ones to look up to can depend on adults longer than necessary in a democratic environment … especially with teachers over-eager to teach. Freedom for small children needs to take into account their developmental arc, which is moving towards the 8 to 13 age of the eminently competent Veteran Child. A democratic school with little ones should be set up to foster independence from adults as quickly as possible. Having older child-mentors is the best way.

Beginning a school with older students, 14 to 17, is possible. They can understand the philosophy but may not have time to properly immerse themselves in freedom, the opting out of lessons or the pursuit of independent paths before they are visited by a need to refocus on the return to the young adult world of work or college.

Historically, schools have started in many different ways. Ultimately, it’s up to you.

6. What is a democratic educator?

A democratic educator is someone who wants to start and run a long-term democratic school, like Summerhill, Sands or Leipzig. It is not someone, or a group of people, simply looking for a school for their own children. A democratic school is hard, long-term work. It is making a profound promise to children and parents over time. It is a professional occupation.

7. Why can’t I just start a school and see what happens? Isn’t a good try the best thing?

A good try might be the best thing for the adults but it can cause serious problems for children. Starting a democratic school is a serious responsibility with respect to children and parents. If a school only lasts for a short time and children must abruptly return to mainstream education it can be traumatic. Nothing is guaranteed, but a good plan beats hopeful whimsy.

8. Shouldn’t you be helping well-meaning people for free?

If you are really serious about starting a democratic school you have to have money. We are just helping you to spend that money wisely. In the same way that you pay an accountant, an architect or a fire safety professional, you should budget to pay for the services of people who have the time and experience to help you ensure the success of your school start-up.

9. You do not appear to promote horizontal management. Why?

Once a school is up and running with a good management and a well-organised staff, we have no difficulty thinking that a horizontal structure might be introduced. However, we believe that there always has to be a strong centre to a school to maintain a vision for the long-term. This means that a school with experienced staff might thrive with horizontal structure but an inexperienced staff may function better with stronger guidance. Summerhill’s central management ebbs and flows depending on the era and the adults involved, but Zoe Readhead always decides to what degree. It’s hard to argue with nearly a century of longevity, although the family business model is just one example of good structure.

We are democratic education professionals, but we must admit that democratic schools without a defined start up structure have had an alarming history of fragmentation, ideological splits and quick demise… none of which are emotionally healthy for children.

10. Instead of using your services, why shouldn’t we use the money to visit a lot of schools and talk to a lot of experienced democratic educators?

We suggest that you visit a number of schools and talk to a lot of different people. There is nothing like seeing the real deal. However, it is unlikely that the professionals you talk to will have the time to help you with the practical aspects of starting your own school. Although we represent the Summerhill model, we do say “Your School, Your Way”. Within the broad terms of the Summerhill philosophy we are flexible and can be of service to a variety of school start-ups, regardless of what schools you have visited and what you feel is most comfortable for you.

11. Get real! We have no money. How are we going to pay for consulting?

You need money to start a school. If you have no money, you need to find a school not start one.

12. I have a project idea that does not fit any of your categories. Can you help me with it?

Write us an email and we will be glad to talk about it. We know our competences and will not work outside them, but we are prepared to help with a broad range of projects.

13. In an established democratic school, what do you think is the best age range and how many students should there be?

Most democratic schools are quite small. In Europe the largest ones probably have around 180 students, Summerhill usually has between 70 and 90. If a school goes beyond that it is pretty hard to have direct democracy: a Meeting that encompasses the whole community. But there are a variety of ways around this, of decentralisation, and so larger size does not mean that you cannot have democracy in bigger schools. In fact, for lots of children around the world to experience democratic education, this will probably have to happen.

Remember, a democratic school must have a successful business model or the school will fail. The number of children and tuition fees per child cannot be left out of the financial equation that equals long-term stability.

13. You guys know so much: why don’t you just start the school for me?

Sure. Write us an e-mail.