Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present Day

By Joy A. Palmer | Go to book overview

A.S.NEILL 1883-1973

I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion-his own opinion-that it should be done. 1

Alexander Sutherland Neill was born in the small Scottish town of Forfar, fifteen miles north of Dundee in 1883. His father, George Neill, was a schoolmaster who taught in the neighbouring village of Kingsmuir, where Neill received his own schooling. After leaving school at the age of fourteen and taking various jobs for two years, Neill became an apprentice schoolmaster in 1899. He remained an uncertified teacher for four years and was then successful in gaining matriculation to Edinburgh University. He studied Arts and although exhibiting little enthusiasm for university work graduated in 1905 with a major in English literature. He then taught for twelve years in Scottish government schools.

Neill enlisted in the British Army in 1917 and after the war his life began to take on a more positive direction. He first taught in a new experimental school (King Alfred School) and then in 1921 became assistant editor to Mrs Ensor, the founder of the New Education Fellowship. Although this association did not last long, Neill was by now confirmed in his commitment to a new type of education, very different from the traditional form in which he had been raised.

The chance to put his ideas into practice came in 1921 when he was invited to join the staff of a progressive school in Dresden, Germany. He remained there until 1923 when the school moved to an abandoned monastery near Vienna. However, difficulties arose with the local population, prompting Neill to return to England in 1924. He then opened his own school in Lyme Regis in conjunction with Frau Neustatter with whom he had worked in Germany and Austria, and whom he married in 1927. The school was named Summerhill after the name of the property.

There Neill began to implement systematically his revolutionary ideas of pupil freedom and lack of teacher authority. The school became well known and relatively successful although the enrolment in this period averaged only about forty. In 1927 it was moved to Leiston in Suffolk about 100 miles north of London, where it remains to this day as probably the best-known progressive school in the English-speaking world. On Neill's death in 1973 it was run by his second wife, Ena, until her retirement in 1985 and since then by their daughter, Zoe.

The widespread influence of Neill's Summerhill is attributable in no small measure to the twenty books Neill wrote between 1915 and 1972 in which he expounds clearly and forthrightly his educational ideas. The most influential of these (with sales of over two million), was Summerhill, a compilation of his writings, which was originally published in America in 1960 and then in England in 1962 with a Penguin paperback edition in 1968. In the very first chapter he states clearly his commitment to the freedom of the child: 'we set out to make a school in which we should allow children to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction.' 2 The child should never be forced to learn, indeed a cardinal principle of Summerhill is that

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