A school's life without rules

Book goes behind scenes of Britain's Summerhill

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.

But, he says, often new arrivals at the K-12 school require time to adjust. Thrilled by their newfound freedom, they may ignore classes for a time, but Neill's philosophy predicts that within a few weeks or months of living without adult compulsion, they will voluntarily become interested in learning.

When it comes to school governance, Summerhill has always been a total democracy. Apart from a very small number of rules focused on health and safety -no drinking, smoking, or playing with matches - all regulations at the school are determined by the majority rule of the children and adults at the school. (Children and adults alike are accorded one vote each.)

Everyone at the school attends the regular meetings that determine policy and handle discipline problems. At one such meeting some years ago, mandatory bedtimes were abolished by popular vote. For a time, students skateboarded through the halls at all hours, and many kids were too exhausted to attend classes.

However, says Appleton, in a perfect example of the workings of self-governance, the children eventually came to recognize that the new way of life was making no one happy and eagerly voted to reinstate mandatory bedtimes.

Maintaining international appeal

British youngsters have always made up about one-third of the school's student body, but other nationalities have ebbed and flowed with the times.

Once popular with Americans, today the school sees few applicants from the US, perhaps in line with increased concerns about test scores and an inclination toward a more traditional form of education.

The school's popularity in Japan has soared, however, and the school's administration has had to set a limit on the number of Japanese it will accept to prevent Summerhill from being dominated by a single culture.

Appleton believes the school's appeal to Japanese parents is in reaction to the very rigid scholastic system in that country. "The US and Europe are moving more towards the Japanese system, whereas the Japanese are realizing that's not working," he says. "Japanese parents see their children really miserable."

Some educators have raised questions about whether the Summerhill method could work outside of certain ideal conditions - for example, a small student body and a boarding-school setting.

In response, Appleton points to the Albany Free School in New York, which applies the Summerhill philosophy as a day school, and Rising Hill, a 1,000-student school in a tough London neighborhood which in the 1960s achieved markedly improved student behavior by experimenting with Neill's ideas.

Some today call Neill the grandfather of the charter-school movement, insisting that the free schools inspired by Summerhill in their turn caused educators to search out means of founding smaller, more innovative, and less regulated institutions.

For Appleton, the charter-school movement is just one more proof of the enduring nature of Neill's theories. Over the course of 80 years, he points out, "educational trends have come and gone. But Summerhill is still here."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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