Scots educator who gave students a voice
OLIVER Goldsmith's perceptive description of the village schoolmaster in his epic poem The Deserted Village sums up perfectly the traditional view of a good old-fashioned British education. Teachers were strict and imposed discipline along with the three Rs. Unless told to speak, children were expected to be seen and not heard.
Breaking from these rules of teaching was met with limited success.
So when a young idealist from Scotland, Alexander Neill, opened a school where attending classes was optional and all the rules were decided in weekly meetings with pupils and teachers having an equal say, it was written off as a short-lived libertarian experiment of the fairly eccentric 1920s. Predictably the Establishment and right-wing press had a field day, deriding Neill as a "corrupting influence" on children and labelling his establishment the "Do As You Please School".
Neill's philosophy was simple. He believed that the happiness of the child was paramount and that self-respect and respect for others would result. "There is more true education in making a snowball than in listening to an hour's lecture on grammar," he once said.
He never deviated from that underlying principle and more than 40 years later, while the world stood on the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis and race riots scarred America, he proclaimed, "No happy man ever disturbed a meeting or preached a war or lynched a Negro."
Summerhill, the school he established between the world wars, far from being a passing fancy, is still being run to this day in rural Suffolk, with a greater pupil roll than ever, a testament to its progressive founder.
Arguably, outside a few interested circles - education, libertarianism and various branches of psychology - the Summerhill project is little known.
Critics would gladly see the school shut down. Unlike many radical educators whose ideas were short-lived, Neill's achievement is that his dream of child-centred education has endured and prospered.
Alexander Sutherland Neill was born in the Angus town of Forfar in 1883 and was educated in a one-room, five-class village school where his father was the local dominie, or head teacher. He despised the strict regime, even though he worked as a pupil-teacher for his father before going on to Edinburgh University where he emerged with an MA. In 1914 he was appointed head of Gretna Green School and it was there he developed his pioneering philosophy. Following the war he grew interested in the works of Sigmund Freud and educator Homer Lane, among others, before moving to Germany.
It is there, near Dresden, where Summerhill started life in 1921. A year later Neill and his wife Frau Neustatter moved the school to a mountaintop castle in Sonntagsberg, Austria, but encountered hostility from the local Catholic population. In 1923 it opened in Lyme Regis, along the Dorset coast, with only five pupils and by 1927 moved to its current site at Leiston, Suffolk.
Neill was a prolific writer on the question of how children should be schooled. His first book, A Dominie's Log, was a best-seller but his most sensational and influential work came many years later, in 1960, when pupil numbers at the school were falling and the future looked bleak.
The Scottish educator was approached by American publisher Harold Hart to produce a book from a series of extracts of his earlier works. The resulting Summerhill - A Radical Approach to Child Learning was a huge hit and rose to No.1 on the US non-fiction list.
There was massive interest in his teaching methods once again, pupils flocked to the school and the success of the book all but guaranteed Summerhill's future. Neill gradually handed over the reins to his second wife Ena. His health declined and he died in 1973 aged 90.
Summerhill is now run by his daughter Zo Neill Readhead. None of the pupils who attend are compelled to attend classes but the vast majority do - and the weekly meetings between pupils and staff are still a feature of school life.
On the web
Neill's unhappy schooling in Forfar prompted him to write that, "The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best".
It is an ideal that has endured for more than eight decades.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:
Scotland: Where the lesson book on education was first written
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