The Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group held its first monthly meeting at Knodishall Village Hall, where a 100-strong audience was enthralled by an afternoon talk given by Zoë Redhead, Principal of Summerhill School, Leiston.
Now approaching its centenary, the independent school was founded by Zoë’s father, A.S. Neill, in 1921. A native of Forfar, Scotland, ‘Neill’, as he is known affectionately, was a ‘pupil teacher’ before moving on to Edinburgh University, having been told that 'there was nothing he was good at, so he might just as well go into teaching'. After graduating, he taught at Gretna Green, questioning why his pupils, the majority of whom were destined to work on the land, needed to be taught things of no relevance. These initial reflections led him to write his first book, entitled ‘A Dominie’s Log’ – the word Dominie deriving from the Latin ‘Dominus’ meaning ‘Master’. Increasingly disillusioned with his profession, Neill left Scotland to work as a journalist in London. However, the call of teaching still proved strong and he took up an opportunity to work at the Neue Schule in Dresden, Germany, where he set up a teaching annexe that effectively marked the birth of Summerhill.
As tensions mounted in Europe, arising from the political and economic fallout that followed the end of World War One, Neill returned to England, buying a home called ‘Summerhill’ in Lyme Regis. He spent four years in Dorset before determining to set off round the coast of England until he could find alternative affordable accommodation. Hence, he arrived in Leiston and bought a property originally built by the famous Garrett family, that had since become a children’s home called ‘Newhaven’. To this day, Summerhill is still sometimes referred to as the ‘Home School’.
Summerhill school was well established by the mid-1930s, but was subsequently evacuated during WW2 and taken over by the military. After the conflict, Neill returned to find the building in a state of near ruin.
The core philosophy on which Summerhill was founded stressed that the child’s interests should be put before school, so that the school fitted the child rather than vice versa. In order to create an environment where pupils could fully enjoy childhood and learn to be independent, Neill shunned traditional disciplines and established a non-status community responsible for making democratic group decisions. In this ‘brave new world’, children were even allowed to choose whether they attended lessons or not, which led to Summerhill being labelled by some as the ‘Do as you like school’. However, while there were those who opposed the school, there were many who were supportive of Neill’s innovative thinking and methodologies.
Today, Summerhill provides education to some 80 pupils; the majority are residential and about two thirds are foreign nationals. Teaching is delivered by some 18 staff, a number of whom are peripatetic. Education spans the whole of the national curriculum and the pupils are prepared for GCSEs, although the school is ultimately relaxed about whether the children sit the exams or not. As can be imagined, the operating model at Summerhill has raised a lot of eyebrows over the years and led to the occasional clash with Government and the school inspectorate. Following more recent differences of opinion with Ofsted, the school is now assessed by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, who judge the school’s performance against its stated aims.
In terms of what a successful pupil educated at Summerhill looks like, the picture is breathtakingly simple and has obvious appeal in a world where the focus of education is on a need to attain specific standards at rigidly-set stages in a child’s life. Whereas the majority of children are judged in terms of academic qualifications, Summerhill’s core objective is to produce an adult ‘who is happy, well-balanced and doing good in the world.’
It is significant that while the educational world has been subject to constant change and restructuring over the years, Summerhill has remained faithful to the core principles espoused by its founder. As a result, it has spawned a number of similar establishments around the world, and attracts a regular stream of visitors keen to learn more about the school’s revolutionary approach. Although not well known in the UK, the school is globally renowned and, in this respect, has arguably put Leiston on the global map more than the illustrious local family who, by chance, provided the school’s home.
Plans are currently underway to mark the school’s centenary in style, and it is hoped that the celebrations will include open days for local residents. So, look out for further news and take the opportunity to raise a glass to this wonderful institution and it’s inspired founder, A.S. Neill.
As usual, there is no meeting in December, so we look forward to welcoming you to our next meeting on 21st January. In the meantime, we wish you and your families a very happy and relaxing Christmas.