What the Summerhill school can teach us

Shamayel Zaidi

Alexander Sutherland Neill founded the Summerhill school in Germany in 1921. The school later moved to Leiston in England and is known for its unique approach to education. Neill wrote a book, Summerhill, which gives an overview of the school’s intent and its working.

The school continues to run today, led by Neill’s daughter Zoe. It has about 75 pupils and 16 full-time staff members.

Here are four salient features of the school’s philosophy.

Democracy is not just a form of government
Summerhill truly embodies the spirit of democracy. Children here are not treated as subordinates to adults or teachers but as intelligent beings capable of making their own decisions. They are not expected to attend classes unless they wish to, nor are there any mandatory co-curricular activities. A weekly general meeting of the school, where the headmaster as well as the youngest student have one vote each, is where all school rules are decided through a vote. It is possible, for example, to change the students’ time table or designated bed time if a majority of the attendees at the meeting feel so inclined.

Neill believes in ‘self-regulation’ which he defines as ‘the right of the baby to live freely, without outside authority in things psychic and somatic’. He is also quick to distinguish between freedom and license. Freedom does not mean that the child is allowed to walk all over the dining table. It means the same rules should apply to both adults and kids. There is nothing wrong with asking your kid – sternly if required – to keep quiet at the cinema. Conversely, if the kid wants the adult out of her room, her wishes must be respected.

Rules, if required, should be made in consultation with children. If there is no buy-in from the kids, it is likely that they will feel powerless. No kid should be brought up feeling powerless. Also, rules must apply to everyone. Special privileges for adults will only leave children feeling resentful. It’s unfair and potentially damaging, for instance, if after getting a talking-to about his long hours spent on a device, the child finds his parents hooked to their own phones.

Gardeners, not potters
As teachers and parents, we must trust our children to learn about the world in their own way. In our roles as caregivers and mentors, we must think of ourselves not as potters, but rather as gardeners. One consciously gives shape to their final creation; the other simply provides the right conditions for the seed to live up to its potential.

In other words, we need to let go. Let go of our aspirations for our children. We must question our definition of education. Is education simply filling up the child’s mind with information we deem fit? Is it skill building for a certain profession? Is it training a child to earn a livelihood later in life?

A change in our outlook is only possible if we also examine our notion of success. Most parents want their kids to be more successful – in the conventional sense of the term – than themselves. That means more money, or a higher place in the social hierarchy, a bigger house and so on. They get worried if their child has not learnt to read or write by a certain age. In their minds, her inability to read means she is moving away from their version of success. Neill’s definition of success is certainly more inclusive: ‘The ability to work joyfully and to live positively’. He claims that by this definition most Summerhill students are successful.

Summerhill, he tells us, started with one main idea: to make the school fit the child, instead of making the child fit the school. He writes, “Summerhill is a place in which people who have the innate ability and wish to be scholars will be scholars while those who are only fit to sweep the streets will sweep the streets. But we have not produced a street cleaner so far. Nor do I write this snobbishly, for I would rather see a school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.”

Photo: Tarikul Raana/pexels.com

Childhood is playhood
Neill has dedicated an entire chapter to play. He does not mean organized games like football or cricket. The younger kids at Summerhill are allowed to play the whole day – they play fantasy games that involve neither skill nor competition.

“Summerhill might be defined as a school in which play is of the greatest importance. Why children and kittens play I do not know. I believe it is a matter of energy.”

It is not uncommon for parents of even young kids to discourage or forbid playing at home. There is the fear of furniture and other objects breaking but there is also a notion that play is a waste of time; children should be studying or ‘learning’ things. School is a place where someone in authority decides what the child must do. Prayer or singing during assembly, then an hour of mathematics, followed by an hour of science and so on. Playing is restricted to perhaps a single slot a day or even worse, two or three times a week.

Neill remarks that this attitude towards play has grievous effects. “One could, with some truth, claim that the evils of civilization are due to the fact that no child has ever had enough play. To put it differently, every child has been hothoused into an adult long before he has reached adulthood.”

He adds that parents get anxious that if their children are allowed to play to their heart’s desire, their scores in tests will suffer and hence they will not reach their potential. Firstly, children should make the decision to take tests themselves, rather than being forced to take them. It is possible they want to become dress designers, writers, or take up other professions that do not require diplomas or degrees. Secondly, we assume that students who have not gone through rigorous academic training since a young age will be unable to pass their class 10 or 12 exams. Summerhill students do well in their tests with only about 2-3 years of studying.

Sex education is crucial
Neill is heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud with regard to his attitude towards sex. His remarks here might sound very radical, given our moralistic attitudes about sex: “Heterosexual sex play in childhood is the royal road, I believe, to a healthy, balanced adult sex life. When children have no moralistic training in sex, they reach a healthy adolescence.” He contends that psychological issues appear in children and young adults, simply because their healthy and natural sexual curiosity, which manifests as children touching their genitals and exploring their sexuality by masturbating, is met with reproach and condemnation, instead of love and acceptance.

It’s also possible that young adults get into toxic or even exploitative sexual relationships simply as a protest against parental authority. [The child thinks…] “My parents don’t trust me, and I don’t care. I’ll do what I like, and if they don’t like it, they can lump it”. It is imperative to build trusting relationships with children and to remove the taboo around sex as soon as possible.

In the Indian context, we must have programs from an early age for parents as well as teachers so that children don’t adopt an unhealthy attitude towards sex. Such programs can be carried out by sensitive and well-trained child psychologists.

So, where do we stand today in the Indian context? Majority of our schools follow a path very different from that of Summerhill – including when it comes to decision making or curriculum or sex education.

One can argue that these ideas are too fanciful for a place like India where a sizable proportion of the population still lives under the poverty line. Shouldn’t we be focusing on skill building and employability rather than trying to re-invent the educational wheel? While employability cannot be overlooked in a country like ours, two things should be kept in mind. First, children brought up in an environment without fear and needless competition are more likely to have the intelligence and maturity to make the right choices for themselves. Second, fear breeds fear. The way most schools are run today, it is unlikely for a child to not feel fear – fear of the future, fear of being an underachiever, fear of not pleasing the teacher or the parents and so on. We need our schools to instill a sense of confidence and self-reliance in the child. This is only possible if we believe in a more holistic and self-directed kind of education. The kind that Neill has in mind. All children, irrespective of their social, racial, or economic background deserve a life of dignity, where they are treated as intelligent beings capable of rational thought, a childhood full of play and games without the constant expectation of performance in academics. Most importantly, our children deserve the trust and love of their parents and teachers.

The book Summerhill is available from Eklavya (https://www.eklavya.in/books) in both Hindi and English.

The author has been associated with various schools over the last five years. He currently works with a small community-based school in Chandigarh. He can be reached at shamayelzaidi@gmail.com.

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