A personal need to know why Summerhill was founded in 1921
This whole project, for me, started from my working at Summerhill School and setting-up and supporting the first school’s committee for External Affairs. I started it as the school’s campaign committee fighting the government’s attempt to close the school down in 1999 after years of Ofsted harassment. After the school won its court case in the Royal Courts of Justice, as portrayed in the Children’s BBC drama, ‘Summerhill’, the committee continued to be elected to do presentations, run workshops, lobby the government for rights for all school children, and take part in various children’s NGOs.
When talking about Summerhill, or researching its history, and later working with East London state schools on active global citizenship and children’s rights projects, discovering people like Janus Korczak and Homer Lane… I had no answer as to why in the early 1900s did Neill create Summerhill School apart from his personal experiences as a child, teacher and friend of Lane, or why did the others create similar children’s rights based communities. Each of the examples seemed to have their own present day researchers, promoters and had the common portrayal of innovation and success due to a charismatic and idealist founder.
The paper for UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, on A.S.Neill (1994) by Prof Jean-Francois Saffange, is a superb example of the projection of the image of the romantic educationalist creating a ground breaking innovation that only succeeded because of his character. Despite having been written in 1994, twenty one years after Neill’s death, and with no references after this point, there is the presentation as fact that Summerhill could not survive without Neill.
“The death of A.S. Neill on 23 September 1973 went almost unrecorded in the newspapers, yet it marked the end of the saga of Summerhill, his little school in Suffolk, England, and set the seal on the disregard or even rejection of a man who had come to symbolize a decade of nonconformist fervour.” Alexander Sutherland Neill (1883-1973) by Prof Jean-Francois Saffange, Prospectus, Vol XXIV, no 1/2, 1994, p 217-229. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/sites/default/files/neille.PDF).
This destructive and ignorant article, posing as research, and presented by UNESCO as authoritative, and ironically as part of their 100 documents celebrating the important educationalists of the age, is a slur against Neill and Summerhill. But it does reinforce the dismissal of Neill’s influence and that he was part of an influential community in England, Europe and around the world. Ironically a community that helped to create IBE and UNESCO.
Why apparently only one Summerhill?
Ironically the movement of Alternative Education appeared to accept the idea of intense, comparatively lonely innovators, too busy with their own projects to be part of a wider community of influence within the culture of state schooling, except for their own writings and presentations, and followers. This history, of the educationalists as romantics, seemed to predominate the school history discourse and fitted neatly with the idea of a market place of alternative schools and provision, choices for the parent or family.
What Were the Inspirations?
As a trained science teacher I am always ashamed at the simplistic and self-serving image that our schools are fossils of the type of school created due to the needs of the industrial revolution. This creates a heroic and necessary frame for all our present innovators of schooling, who can be portrayed as not having antecedents. It denies the history of the politics of schooling and the past heroes, their motives and their successes. For those who believe in apparently apolitical and amoral outcomes this is not important, what we simply need is efficient and effective schools. It portrays all those teachers, of the past, as if they were passive implementors of a state system based on the output of unquestioning, obedient students.
The inspirations for the New Ideals in Education were primarily practice, teachers like Clara Grant, John Arrowsmith, A.S. Neill and Harriet Finlay Johnson experimenting with their teaching methods, and trying to develop happy free children. These, like Tolstoy, Robert Owen, Tagore, Mary Wolstonecraft were inspired by the politics to develop our humanity. The ongoing struggle for human rights that pushed forward the issues of increasing franchise, worker’s and women’s rights and the growth of justice systems based on equality, could not but affect the question that we have now forgotten, ‘how do our schools reflect the values we are struggling towards?’
The involvement of suffragists and suffragettes, of women struggling to define their identities and those of their daughters, was a major contributor to the New Ideals community, their organising committee being over half women, and their active members being over 70% of the community.
Maria Montessori’s work brought together the power of women, their contribution to the world of professionals, alongside the methods of observation and science, with the natural learning of the child, only visible if the child is free. She worked with children who were poor and many with special needs, groups that were seen to be in need of support and justice. She also engaged with teachers, training them, writing handbooks, opening her Children’s House to observation, and promoting learning apparatus. These aspects took hold of the English community, with talks, presentations, articles, reports and new schools, with great enthusiasm and influence from 1912 to 1914. Behind this were the organisers and members of New Ideals, that had been created through the first Montessori Conference organised by England’s Montessori Society. The community would never lose sight of this inspiration, and when we discuss the modern primary school as one based on learning through play, doing, creating, self-expression, co-operation, self-directed research, then we should always remember this is the legacy of her influence. Like so many other historic figures of our schooling system we must not imprison her in a named method and a patented school system and learning toys.
An example of this influence is Clara Grant, the east end teacher, headteacher and settlement organiser. She wrote books on her methods, for other teachers, on how children can make toys as part of their learning and play, and of how active hand based activities can be created by the teacher and children to be used for learning literacy, numeracy, geography… She references Montessori throughout her book, though she is critical of the cost of Montessori materials, she believes in developing her methods of learning through doing further, and to empower the teacher through materials that can be made by them. She, like the rest of the New Ideals community, want every teacher to be able to develop their own methods and processes for teaching the child. Methods that are based on the fundamental ideology of ‘liberating the child’.
The inspirations can be seen to come from several assumptions about the development of human beings, William Godwin’s and later Robert Owen’s, that we learn to be citizens, either free because we are liberated, or imprisoned because we are trained in authority structures that reflect the authoritarian state and its class, racist and sexist systems; like Homer Lane, that we recapitulate the evolution of our species within the development of the individual from the fertilised egg, scientifically Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny, when the child is at the chimp stage they should be outside climbing trees, building tree huts, and when they are at the stone age, making bows and arrows, and reading about Tarzan and Stig – the issues with this are is it all predetermined? How does free will fit? And in terms of society and politics, when does the individual stop developing? Dr Down saw young people with Down’s syndrome as stopping their development at the stage of the race then called ‘Mongol’. Woman were seen as stopping their development at the stage of the black person, or chimp, or child; Apart from science and the politics of human rights, there was also the influence of religious ideas that come from the spiritual influence of the East and India, their focus on the individual’s relationship with the world and universe, and the need for spiritual development and freedom, researched, explored and written about by Edmond Holmes, lead to theosophists, like Beatrice Ensor, and anthroposophists, like Steiner, looking for methods of schooling that liberate the soul; finally there is the influence of therapy and psychology, like Reich, Lane, Piaget, though these subjects, like the methods of teaching and learning were still very young. New enough for A.S.Neill, among others, to say that no adult knows enough to be able to mould the mind of a child, and therefore the child should be free to create their own minds.
The role of traditional Christianity, as in the Church of England or the Catholic Church, is problematic, as the role of the family, the authority of the father figure, the need of obedience and to come to terms with inherited sin, to control it through the discipline of the father, the church, the school, all acted against the ‘liberation of the child’. As did the church reinforcing the power structures of the day, and children growing up to know and respect their position. Those who were members of the New Ideals community, if Christian, held to the views of dissenters, the non-orthodox, or the liberal wing of the Church, that love, as expressed by Christ, overcame the Bible’s injunctions to hit the disobedient child, or to expect the child to obey the father.
Inherited sin condemns the human to the needs for restraints, for the use of imposed authority to try to control that sin. This is paralleled by the reduction of human ‘sins’ to that of instincts and the need to suppress them. Both may lead to schools of authority, of authority in terms of knowledge and skills, and authority in terms of the control of the children’s behaviour and values.
The issue of determinism, which is reflected in the concept of instincts, is problematic and has been confused in its use by thinkers on schooling and education. To show this confusion, which has lead to common misunderstandings of their authors, we can look at Robert Owen, the 18-19th century cotton industrialist.
He saw current society in terms of environmental determinism, that criminals were conforming to the dehumanisation and degradation of their environments, and needed to be treated with therapy and not punishment. That religious people were simply conforming to the views around them.
He wanted a society and culture based on co-operation, but not through conformity. If he simply accepted determinism as the basis of our behaviour then he would apply the methods of conformity to his view of making a better society. When applying methods in the society he lived, he would use such methods, in his factory and village, New Lanark. But he saw human’s in the same light as Mary Wolstonecraft and her husband William Godwin, that they could develop independent, critical, free thinking minds.
At his time the mention of Wolstonecraft would make people shudder with an image of a damned woman, due to the posthumous biography written by Godwin, that portrayed her adultery, having a child outside marriage, attempting to commit suicide for love, falling in love with a married man. Even the early feminists avoided referencing her, but Owen was known for mentioning her whenever he could. Owen’s school was based on the idea of liberating the human mind, so they could escape, through critical, rational thinking the imprisonment of conformity, so the child could make decisions about their beliefs, their identity, their culture. He believed they would choose co-operation, participative democracy, and create a society of equality. This would be a society free of environmental determinism because of this liberation of the human mind.