A School's Life without Rules ; Book Goes Behind Scenes of Britain's Summerhill

By Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 2001 | Go to article overview

A School's Life without Rules ; Book Goes Behind Scenes of Britain's Summerhill


Marjorie Coeyman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Students regulate themselves. If a child would rather read than go to class, that's fine. The idea that adults need to steer children at every turn is frowned upon.

Such notions - gospel at the famed Summerhill School in Leiston, England - could hardly be more out of step with today's concerns about accountability and standardized test scores.

That's one reason Matthew Appleton, for nine years a houseparent at the so-called "school without rules," wrote "A Free Range Childhood: Self Regulation at Summerhill School" about his experiences there. The flood of current sentiment against free- spirited schools prompted him to remind educators and parents that Summerhill and the ideas that shaped it have been standing for 80 years and still have much to offer.

Despite its extremely liberal approach, the school produces students who tend to thrive and generally emerge well prepared for adult life.

It's an experiment that has been regarded as a marvel by some and a fluke by others.

Founded in 1921 by Scottish schoolmaster A.S. Neill, the British boarding school gained international fame in 1960 when an American publisher produced a compilation of Mr. Neill's writing called "Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing."

Educators around the world were enthralled by the philosophy behind what was also known as "the do-as-you-like school." In the United States, the book became required reading in education courses throughout the 1960s and '70s, and inspired the creation of hundreds of "free schools," a handful of which still operate today.

But in recent years, the pendulum has swung far from the ideas championed by Neill. "People today are much more fear-based with respect to their children," Mr. Appleton says. "Especially in the United States, there is much more focus on the diagnosis of learning problems and dealing with them through medication. What is needed is more confidence."

Surviving without strictures

Academics are not at the center of Appleton's book, because they are not at the center of life at Summerhill. There is no particular pedagogical theory in practice at Summerhill. In keeping with an overall desire to allow children and adults alike as much freedom as possible, teachers are allowed to use whatever methods they prefer, including the traditional stand-up-and-lecture format.

But no student - even the youngest - is ever required to attend a class. The theory is that, left to their own devices, children will eventually take a natural interest in learning and guide themselves to whatever is good and useful.

It's a notion that horrifies many people. Last year, the British government took the school to court in an attempt to either change the noncompulsory stance toward classes or shut the school. The British courts, however, upheld the right of the school to continue with its unconventional methods. It remains open, with Neill's daughter Zoe at its helm.

Government inspectors who visit the school tend to concede, Appleton says, that many students appear to be willingly and successfully engaged in academics. Others, they note, seem completely adrift and uninvolved in classroom work. …

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