Summerhill School is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is still run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle "Freedom, not Licence." This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend.
Historically, the school has been at best tolerated by the British Government, although a recent positive inspection report may indicate that the relationship is now improving.
Although the school's founding could arguably be dated to other years, the school itself marks 1921 as the year of its establishment.
Summerhill is noted for its philosophy that children learn best with freedom from coercion. All lessons are optional, and pupils are free to choose what to do with their time. Neill founded Summerhill with the belief that "the function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best."
In addition to taking control of their own time, pupils can participate in the self-governing community of the school. School meetings are held three times a week, where pupils and staff alike have an equal voice in the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives, discussing issues and creating or changing school laws. The rules agreed at these meetings are wide ranging - from agreeing on acceptable bed times to making nudity allowed at the poolside. Meetings are also an opportunity for the community to vote on a course of action for unresolved conflicts, such as a fine for a theft (usually the fine consists of having to pay back the amount stolen).
In creating its laws and dealing out sanctions, the school meeting generally applies A.S. Neill's maxim "Freedom not Licence" (he wrote a book of the same name); the principle that you can do as you please, so long as it doesn't cause harm to others. Hence, you are free to swear as much as you like, within the school grounds, but calling someone else an offensive name is license.
In special cases, the meeting sometimes assigns an individual their own "special ombudsman", an ombudsman who only takes cases from one person. This usually happens if a particular child is being consistently bullied, or has problems with the language (in which case someone who is bi-lingual, in English and the language of the child in question, is chosen as the ombudsman.)
A "tribunal case" consists of one person "bringing up" another, or a group of people. The person bringing the case states the problem, the chairperson asks those accused if they did it, and if they have anything to say, then calls for any witnesses. If the accused admits to the offence, or there are reliable witness statements, the chair will call for proposals. Otherwise, the floor is opened to discussion.
If there is no clear evidence as to who is guilty (for instance, in the case of an unobserved theft), an "investigation committee" is often appointed. The investigation committee has the power to search people's rooms or lockers, and to question people. They will bring the case back to the next meeting if they are able to obtain any new evidence. In a community as small as Summerhill, few events go totally unnoticed, and matters are usually resolved quickly.
Once it has been established that a person has broken the rules, the meeting must propose, and then vote on, a fine. For most school rules, there is a "standard fine" mandated for breaking them, somewhat equivalent to a judges sentencing guidelines, but a different fine can still be proposed. Fines can include a "strong warning" administered by the chair, a monetary fine, loss of privileges (for instance, not being allowed out of school, or being the last to be served lunch) or a "work fine"; picking up litter for a set time or similar job of benefit to the community. In the case of theft, it is usually considered sufficient for the thief to return what was stolen.
Although Neill was more concerned with the social development of children than their academic development, Summerhill nevertheless has some important differences in its approach to teaching. There is no concept of a "year" or "form" at Summerhill. Instead, children are placed according to their ability in a given subject. It is not uncommon for a single class to have pupils of widely varying ages, or for pupils as young as 13 or 14 to take GCSE examinations. This structure reflects a belief that children should progress at their own pace, rather than having to meet a set standard by a certain age.
There are also two classrooms which operate on a "drop-in" basis for all or part of the day, the workshop and the art room. Anyone can come to these classrooms and, with supervision, make just about anything. Children commonly play with wooden toys (usually swords or guns) they have made themselves, and much of the furniture and décor in the school has been likewise constructed by students.
Children at Summerhill are placed in one of five groups which correspond to the buildings in which they are accommodated. Placement is generally decided at the beginning of term by the Principal, in theory according to age. In practice, a younger child may take priority if they have been waiting a long time for a place, if they have many friends in the upper group or if they show a maturity characteristic of a member of the upper group.
Certain school rules pertain specifically to certain age groups, for instance, no one else may ride a San kid's bicycle, and only Shack and Carriage kids are allowed to build camp fires. The rules concerning when children must go to bed are also made according to age group.
Bedrooms generally accommodate four or five children.
The San building is an outbuilding, near the primary classrooms, originally built as (and named for) a sanitarium. When there proved to be insufficient demand, it was given over to accommodation for the youngest children and their houseparent. At one time, San kids were housed in the main school building, and the San building used as the library. They have since moved back, and the rooms they previously occupied now house the Cottage Kids (see below.)
The laws of the school generally protect San kids, both by disallowing them from engaging in certain dangerous activities and preventing older kids from bullying, swindling or otherwise abusing their juniors. San kids have the right to bring up their cases at the beginning of the school meeting (or have another bring them up on their behalf.)
San children can sleep in mixed sex rooms, older children have single sex rooms.
Cottage kids were originally housed in Neill's old cottage, at the edge of the school grounds. For some time, the San wholly replaced the Cottage, but Cottage kids are now housed in the main school building.
Children at Summerhill around this age (what Neill termed "the gangster age") often begin to "act out", possibly becoming more aggressive or stealing. For this reason, it is advantageous to separate them from the more vulnerable younger children.
House kids are accommodated in the main school building, "the House". They are generally the most unruly and disruptive of Summerhill children (continuing Neill's gangster age), and often practice late-night "sneak outs", leaving their rooms without permission after lights out.
The Shack buildings (there are two, the Boy's Shack and the Girl's Shack) are small outbuildings, so called because of the somewhat ramshackle nature of their original construction. The buildings have since been renovated.
Children of Shack age and above are expected to take a more active role in running the school, standing for committees, chairing the meetings, acting as Ombudsmen to resolve disputes and speaking in the school meetings. Of course, younger children can take on most of these roles if they so wish, and none of them are compulsory even for the older children.
The carriage buildings are similar to those of the Shack, only larger. However, they were originally converted rail carriages. Since the last renovation, the Boy's Carriage building incorporates a kitchenette and the Girl's Carriages a common room and shower block (other bathrooms in the school have only baths.) Either facility may be used by both sexes.
The Carriage kids each have individual rooms, and are not looked after by a houseparent. Instead they are expected to do their own laundry and generally look after themselves, although there is a rota for staff members to take care of any Carriage kids who become ill, and they are free to consult the Shack houseparent if they feel in need of adult advice or medical assistance.
In March 1999, following a major inspection from OFSTED, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett, issued the school with a notice of complaint, which took issue with the school's policy of non-compulsory lessons. Failure to comply with such a notice within six months usually leads to closure; however, Summerhill chose to contest the notice in court.
The case went before a special educational tribunal in March 2000, at which the school was represented by noted human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC. Four days into the hearing, the government's case collapsed, and a settlement was agreed. The pupils who were attending the hearing that day took over the courtroom and held a school meeting to debate whether to accept the settlement, eventually voting unanimously to do so.
The settlement was notable for giving the school far more than a decision by the judges could have. The tribunal only had the power to annul the notice of complaint, but the settlement made provisions for Summerhill to be inspected differently in future, to take account of its special educational philosophy.
The first full inspection report since the disputed 1999 report was published in 2007. The 2007 inspection was conducted within the framework set out by the court settlement, and was generally positive, even in areas previously criticized by the 1999 report. The school maintains that it has not changed its approach since then.
In the film Rosemary's Baby the titular character is seen reading a copy of Neill's book Summerhill.
A BBC drama written by Alison Hume, produced by Stephen Smallwood and directed by Jon East, set in Summerhill and loosely based on the recent court case was screened on the Children's BBC channel, starting in late January 2008. Much of the show was recorded on location at Summerhill, and used pupils as extras.