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Summerhill School in Leiston: The unique school where pupils learn about personal responsibility in a 'free-range' environment

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In Leiston there is a school with a unique offer.

Pupils at Summerhill School can decide if they want to go to lessons or play outside in a 'free-range' environment, and twice a week the entire school meets for an hour to discuss issues, hear grievances and mete out sanctions as a collective.

But above all, current principal Zoë Neill Readhead says when asked about the overarching philosophy of the school, is the idea children should take responsibility for their own actions.

Summerhill School in Leiston. Picture: Summerhill
Summerhill School in Leiston. Picture: Summerhill

"Children should go in the direction they want to go," she said.

"They should grow into the people they want to be.

"And they can make choices about their own lives."

Zoë Neill Readhead, principal at Summerhill
Zoë Neill Readhead, principal at Summerhill

Alexander Neill, Mrs Neill Readhead's father, founded Summerhill in 1921 in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden, Germany.

After growing frustrated with how the school was being run, Neill moved to a house called Summerhill in Lyme Regis in 1923 where he started a school with five pupils.

In 1927, the school moved to the present site at Leiston, taking the Summerhill name with it and adopting a culture where children would learn 'free from adult authority'.

Today, Summerhill is a community of around 100 people made up of 75 pupils aged between five to 17 and teachers, house parents and other staff.

A typical Summerhill general meeting. Pictures: Summerhill School
A typical Summerhill general meeting. Pictures: Summerhill School

It is a boarding school, although there are some day pupils.

Set in 12 acres of garden and woodland, there is space for cycling, hut building, tree climbing, bonfires and camping.

There is also a swimming pool, tennis court, playing field, basketball area as well as table tennis facilities indoors.

Pupils in the art project room
Pupils in the art project room

Despite it seeming like some sort of utopian dream, Mrs Neill Readhead insists there is still structure.

“It’s a school and we have to remember that. It isn’t a utopia.

"It isn’t an adult commune, it’s a school and that’s always been very apparent and I think a lot of people perhaps would mistake that."

She adds: "We are actually a very ordered, very organised and very structured community, in spite of what the general view of what Summerhill might be."

Pupil Nelli Hartman
Pupil Nelli Hartman

Children at Summerhill have a wide choice of subjects to choose from up to GCSE level.

Classes can also involve role plays, discussions on bullying or even sometimes knitting.

A new class timetable is created each term, although pupils have no compulsion to attend lessons.

Are there children who don't engage with that philosophy, I ask Mrs Neill Readhead?

She says sometimes 'reality checks' are needed with pupils to let them know their education may suffer if they don't attend classes, but it's not done in a way which patronises them.

"We do have a very robust system of keeping a check on our children, and the staff have meetings each term to talk about literacy and numeracy.

"So we get to know who might be lagging behind. And if somebody is consistently lagging behind and not going to class at all, and their literacy and numeracy is suffering, then somebody will sit them down, and have a chat."

But ultimately, she says, the decision as to whether the child goes to lessons, is up to them.

Mrs Neill Readhead says offering that freedom of choice is about fostering a sense of responsibility in the pupils.

"It really goes back to this whole thing of taking responsibility for your actions and taking responsibility for your own life.

"And young children, they'll want to play a lot. But children have an incredible drive to learn...why should we be the ones who decide what's most important?

"Just because this world happens to think that academic learning is very important."

She adds: "It's all about who you are, whether you're a happy well-balanced person and the choices that you make in your life that you feel are important to you.

"For most of us at Summerhill, the children will go to college and they will go to university, but we also feel as proud of those who may take a different course."

In that culture, Mrs Neill Readhead says, children 'thrive'. Some have gone on to do humanitarian work abroad, some into fashion, others simply go to work in their local Tesco.

"Our criteria of success is not the same as the criteria of success in other schools.

"We would never have any interest in what our grades are, there's no interest at all.

"What's important to us is are you a compassionate and caring person who's confident in your life?

"Do you feel a real sense of self?"

She adds: "If you take the gender issue, of equality for women, that's part of the course for us.

"Summerhill's been churning out strong vibrant women since the 1920s."

I ask about children from difficult backgrounds or those with emotional needs, and whether they struggle with the Summerhill concept.

"It's very difficult, because people are all coming from different backgrounds, with their own particular emotional lives behind them," Mrs Neill Readhead says.

"And they can be sometimes quite difficult. There may be different reasons.

"If you take an average child, who hasn't got any particular hang ups about anything in particular and you put them into Summerhill, they will absolutely love it and thrive.

"And I would say, probably quite controversially, that most of the children who leave us early will do so because there's something else in their life."

However, she adds: "I think Summerhill is very very good for children who have emotional difficulties.

"The problem is that those difficulties must be controllable."

The twice weekly meetings help to address problem behaviour, which Mrs Neill Readhead says is an 'incredibly effective' way for pupils to 'learn lessons' because discussions are held between everyone.

"It is an authority, it's the meeting's authority.

"But you (the pupil) are part of that meeting. You are an equal member of that community, so that equality is the really important part of it.

"We are all equal in our Summerhill community. We all have equal status."