The Freedom To Learn

Should children be given the freedom to decide what to do, when, and how to do it?

This is the philosophy of Summerhill School founded by Scottish writer and rebel, Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921.

The freedom of Summerhill can be very beguiling and sometimes children struggle with the concept of ‘freedom with responsibility’, which is one of the founding principles of the school. Each child at the school needs to be able to learn, through the process of the self-government and school meetings, how to live harmoniously with the personal freedom they are given.

Summerhill is a co-educational boarding school situated in Suffolk on the east coast of England that houses around 70 children aged between 5 and 17 with around 12 staff.

Set in 12 acres, Summerhill is a small, self-governing community and enjoys the diversity of pupils from throughout the world where teaching is described as a 2″5 hour a day job in many ways but incredibly rewarding.”

Described as “England’s most controversial private school” with “do-as-yer-like kids“, the aims of Summerhill are:

  • to provide choices and opportunities that allow children to develop at their own pace and to follow their own interests
  • to allow children to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, allowing them to develop their own goals and sense of achievement
  • to allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like
  • to allow children to experience the full range of feelings free from judgement and intervention of an adult
  • to allow children to live in a community that supports them and that they are responsible for in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through the democratic process.

All lessons are optional and students decide each day how they will use their time. The school recognises the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings and “the school’s ability to allow children to experience natural emotional, social and intellectual growth often has an extraordinary effect on self-esteem and positive personal development.”

If a lesson has no meaning or relevance to a pupil, should they be allowed to opt out of it? At Summerhill, yes.

It is probably the most famous ‘free’ school around the world based on a progressive, democratic education. It’s alternative and it’s not for everyone but it has stood the test of time, fought closure and stands proud in the ‘testing’ times of mainstream education.

Summerhill school says that the qualities it sees in its pupils include: Self-esteem, tolerance, integrity, fairness, understanding, sensitivity, compassion, assertiveness, management skills, creativity, individuality, humour, personal interaction skills, motivation and common-sense.

None of these qualities are unique to Summerhill as you will find them in every school. But what makes Summerhill different is that this is a school of personal choice and happiness is fostered by giving children a sense of personal freedom through guidance and support rather than control.

they can play, they can involve themselves in a variety of constructive social situations, they can be by themselves to read or daydream, they can engage in self directed group projects and activities, and they can choose to attend formal lessons… each day the children define themselves by choice and action… this is a profound experience that leads to a strong sense of personal and responsibility and self knowledge.

Neill’s philosophy underpins life at Summerhill and these principles can be summarised as follows:

  • people learn better when they are not forced to attend lessons
  • people should be given the opportunity to contribute to determining ground rules
  • people should have an equal say in developing learning routines
  • externally imposed discipline should be avoided
  • internal self-discipline should be encouraged
  • extrinsic motivation should be avoided
  • intrinsic self-motivation should be developed

Summerhill is a small place with a big idea that some people still struggle to get their heads around and it still has to fight for its way of being.

It can be seen as some sort of ‘hippie’ place but as  Principal at Summerhill, Zoe Redhead, said several years ago,

But Summerhill is more relevant today than it has ever been.

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