Monday 9 April 2018

Beware, children playing! Summerhill school and the liberation of the child

Last weekend I visited Summerhill School in Leiston, Suffolk. I was taking part in the 'Freedom to Learn Forum', a conference which gathered together a range of educators with a shared interest in democratic, participative, self-directed education.

The School itself was paradoxically exactly like I imagined and at the same time completely different. My ideas of Summerhill were based around the negative publicity of the late 90s - children running wild and unkempt; swearing; hanging out of trees - not things that bothered me particularly, but powerful assumptive images that had clearly stuck in my mind. The reality just needed reframing. Children were playing and experimenting; enjoying nature; not conforming to usual dress codes; taking calculated risks.   Beliefs about what it means to be a child run deep, and I was happy to reconsider my own views and prejudices over the course of the weekend.

To help with this I chatted to pupils and teachers and did my best to immerse myself in the ways of the school.  Although a massive believer in democratic practices and community, I'm also pretty introverted. Any fears that I would be forced into communal activities soon dissipated though, as I learnt that the school operates on the maxim of Law of Movement - you are free to join and leave any activity at will.  (This law famously applies to lessons too; it is up to the kids whether they attend classes or not. Children also need to give permission to be assessed, which is an interesting idea when you consider what might happen to standardised testing, if kids were able to vote with their feet).

In my teaching I will often use the phrase 'Freedom needs boundaries' - and at Summerhill the maxim is similar; 'Freedom, not licence'. As Summerhill's founder AS Neill stated, 'Freedom does not mean that the child can do everything he wants to do, nor have everything he wants to have.... Freedom, over-extended, turns into license. I define license as interfering with another's freedom. For example, in my school a child is free to go to lessons or stay away from lessons because that is his own affair, but he is not free to play a trumpet when others want to study or sleep.'

Democracy is enacted at the regular house meetings which involve all children and adults with equal voting rights. Every decision about the running of the school is taken in this forum. Kids take turns to chair the meeting and in doing so learn over the years to be efficient and fair facilitators of the process.  The skills of listening to the views of others, involving quieter participants, applying justice and achieving consensus seem vital in today's world of binary thinking and a search for easy truths.  The meetings I attended took time. Democracy, done well, takes time.

As I left Summerhill I thought about the notion, put forward by writers like Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, that as a society we are essentially 'childist'.  We 'other' children, viewing them as non-humans that must be manipulated and moulded into effective adults - and this view proliferates throughout our schooling systems.  In recent years with the increase in the compulsory school-leaving age we have seen this extended to teenagers too.  Obedience, conformity and uniformity are the watch words in a system which places adults at the top of the tree.

Zoe Readhead, AS Neill's daughter and the current principal of Summerhill shared the school's ethos with us and the challenges that it faces (funding; inclusion; curriculum; internet usage - the same issues that more or less any educational establishment comes up against). Despite the non-compulsory nature of lessons, children do attend, and learn huge amounts - often developing specialisms from a very young age that flow into their later working lives. Many choose to take GCSEs and the results are excellent. It was also interesting to hear that many children coming to Summerhill have previously been diagnosed and medicated for conditions such as ADHD.  (The condition isn't mentioned again once they arrive at the school and perhaps unsurprisingly after a few months of children being free to be children it seems to disappear).

I was left with a number of reflections and I have much more thinking to do:

- Not every school could, or should be a Summerhill, but there is no reason why democratic practices can't be embedded in mainstream provision.  This can be enacted, if you're courageous enough, through practices like community philosophy, restorative justice, Thinking Environment techniques and active citizenship projects, that start with children determining their own projects and outcomes.

- We know the impact and effectiveness of democratic educational practice but need more research evidence to back it up. I would guard against reductionist approaches to this though, that fall into the old trap of trying to measure things (belonging, that can't be measured. Post-qualitative, rich, and participative research approaches to data collection that enact and reflect the democratic approaches we advocate have to be the way forward.

- We also need to look at teaching not just in terms of schooling. Educating as social care, youth work, adult ed, foster care and so on can all use democratic approaches to learning and growing.

I am gathering together links and reading on democratic education from the weekend; do contact me to view the list and I will also add it here shortly.   We need to change the current education paradigm and consider how this can be done both inside and outside our current systems - reframing our ideas of what children actually are could be a great place to start.

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