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Summerhill School in Suffolk is one of Britains most famous schools. The school, and the writings of its founder A. S. Neill, are quoted world wide as exemplifying a distinctive approach to education. Because of its approach, especially in relation to its policy of non-compulsory lessons, the school has often proved controversial. Since the 1940s it has been subject to a variety of inspections by HMIs and these have varied from the critical to the complimentary. However until 1999 Ministers of Education and Secretaries of State have accepted the schools right to exist. Last year this changed. Ofsteds report on its inspection of March 1999 raised some of the usual concerns, ranging from toilet provision to the policy of non-compulsory lessons. The current Secretary of State for Education and Employment chose to issue a formal Notice of Complaint with six specific complaints identified. The threat is that, if the school does not carry out the actions required by the Secretary of State, it can be closed.
The school has accepted three of the areas of complaint and believes that it has addressed them. However the school has said that it is unable to meet the requirements of the other three complaints, as they are directly at variance with the schools educational philosophy and principles. Given the great interest in the future of the school as exemplified by press and TV coverage, questions asked in the House of Lords and a campaign conducted by former pupils of the school, it seemed that what was missing was a separate independent inquiry into the school.
This could be seen as an alternative inspection but I had in mind something that not only looked at the school but also contributed to the current debate about the future of education. Also I could see links to the widespread interest in learning in general with the Government talking about the need for lifelong learning and the importance of learning businesses. I therefore contacted what I felt was a sample of experienced able people who could form a team to carry out such an inquiry. I was gratified by the support, with most of those I contacted being only too keen to offer assistance. Some in the end could not join the team due to work pressures, but the final group constituted just the mix that I had hoped for. More information about the team is in Appendix I but here are just some facts about the eight of us.
All of us took part in this inquiry in our personal capacities. Although, for the sake of having a home, I have used the Centre for Self Managed Learning (which I chair) as a base, the team has operated as an independent entity. It has especially not been influenced by the school in conducting its work. We have been delighted that the Principal, staff and children of the school have allowed us to visit the school extensively and have responded to our lengthy and detailed questioning. However this is our report and it is offered to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Ofsted, Summerhill School and the wider educational community as a contribution to discussions about the future direction of education as well as being a specific commentary on Summerhill.
The school has decided to lodge a formal Appeal against aspects of the Notice of Complaint. We understand that this appeal will be heard in March 2000. We have therefore split our report into two parts, with the first part commenting more specifically on Summerhill and the second part engaging with wider educational issues. The draft of the first part is being made public now so that it can be used by any party involved in the Appeal. The second part will appear shortly.
Finally I would like to thank my colleagues on the inquiry team for their dedication and hard work. They have given of their own time to undertake a complex task in a very short space of time. It has been an absolute delight to work with the team who have shown great skill in carrying out the work of the inquiry. I should also add thanks to Tara Povey who assisted with secretarial duties at the start of the inquiry and Caroline Cunningham who carried out research analysis for this report.
Chairman, Centre for Self Managed Learning
Complaints accepted by the school
Complaints not accepted by the school
The allegation of drift
"The pursuit of idleness"
A formal curriculum
The world of work
Appendix I - The Inquiry Team
Appendix II - Education for Democratic Citizenship
Appendix III - International comparisons 40
Appendix IV - Recommendations for the inspection of exceptional educational institutions and learning environments
Appendix V - Summerhill as a community
Appendix VI - Legal issues
This report opens with some explanation about Summerhill, for those who do not know much about the school. The section is entirely expressed in Summerhills own words. After that section we indicate the members of the inquiry team and then give details about how we have worked. We then go on to outline a summary of the report and its main recommendations.
Given that one spur to our deliberations has been the Notice of Complaint served on the school the next sections focus on that. This constitutes the core of this report. Following these sections we have indicated some issues for the school and then gone on to discuss briefly evidence from ex Summerhillians and made some links to the world of work. The later parts of the report cover the rights of children and of parents and their views of the school.
In the appendices we have given more information about the inquiry team (Appendix I), commented on education for democratic citizenship (Appendix II) and indicated a few international comparisons with the situation in the UK (Appendix III). Finally we have offered some advice to the Secretary of State on inspection matters (Appendix IV), made some additional comments on the Summerhill community (Appendix V), commented on some legal issues (Appendix VI) and we have reproduced an exchange of letters between ourselves and Chris Woodhead (Appendix VII).
We intend to issue a Part Two to this report later in the year, as we are aware that many complex issues of the nature of education and the future direction for schooling are not dealt with in depth in these pages. We have attempted to keep this document focused on the issues of the future of Summerhill and to keep it as short as possible.
"Summerhill Schools primary aim is to allow children to develop at their own pace and discover their own interests. Summerhills definition of success differs from that of most schools which put forward academic success as their primary goal. Success at Summerhill has a much broader definition, which can include academic achievement, if a child wants to develop in that area. Children are allowed to develop free from adult authority, moralizing, ambitions and coercion. Lessons are not compulsory; children are free to attend if they wish. Summerhill places great importance on children being able to spend time at play, acknowledging that this is as important a part of growing up as any intellectual force-feeding imposed by adults. The motivation for intellectual learning comes from the child, when they are ready for it.
Summerhill is a democratic community where every person, child or adult, has an equal vote in how the community is to be run. The weekly school meetings allow children to learn and vote on the rules of the community, and gradually develop increasing social responsibility. Children learn the value of this form of community authority, and also that they can, as individuals, through this political process effect change.
These tenets of freedom and self-government, and the practical experience of them, help establish honesty, sincerity, and friendliness and create self-confident children who are self-motivated, effective decision-makers, and are at ease with adults. This approach has prospered since 1921, and has had tremendous influence on education throughout the world.
The current trend in education is the achievement of certain academic standards at different ages, and these standards, though admirable in their overall intention, should not be applied to a school that has consciously set out to create an alternative, based on different beliefs and values. This alternative has stood the test of time, and continues to attract pupils, and the interest of the educational theorists. Summerhill continues to provide a contrary and challenging approach to education worthy of study and consideration. Attempts to impose the standards of a one belief system as benchmarks of success in another, is like grading an English paper with the answers to a Maths exam."
Here we have reproduced Summerhills Policy Statement in order to add to the above description.
Summerhill general policy statement
1) To provide choices and opportunities that allow children to develop at their own pace and to follow their own interests.
Summerhill does not aim to produce specific types of young people, with specific, assessed skills or knowledge, but aims to provide an environment in which children can define who they are and what they want to be.
2) To allow children to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, allowing them to develop their own goals and sense of achievement
Children should be free from the pressure to conform to artificial standards of success based on predominant theories of child learning and academic achievement.
3) To allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like
Creative and imaginative play is an essential part of childhood and development. Spontaneous, natural play should not be undermined or redirected by adults into a "learning experience" for children. Play belongs to the child.
4) To allow children to experience the full range of feelings free from the judgement and intervention of an adult
Freedom to make decisions always involves risk and requires the possibility of negative outcomes. Apparently negative consequences such as boredom, stress, anger, disappointment and failure are a necessary part of individual development.
5) To allow children to live in a community that supports them and that they are responsible for; in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through the democratic process
All individuals create their own set of values based on the community within which they live. Summerhill is a community which takes responsibility for itself. Problems are discussed and resolved through openness, democracy and social action. All members of the community, adults and children, irrespective of age, are equal in terms of this process."
Summerhill School General Policy Statement (updated 15/03/98)
Stuart Ainsworth, Co-Director, Equality and Discrimination Centre, Faculty of Education, University of Strathclyde.
Dr Ian Cunningham, Chairman of the Centre for Self Managed Learning and of Strategic Developments International Ltd. Also Visiting Professor, School of Lifelong Learning and Education, Middlesex University
Dr Harry Gray, Chairman of MES Ltd and Visiting Professor, University of Salford.
Derry Hannam, Education Consultant and Council of Europe Expert Adviser in Education for Democratic Citizenship.
Dr Peter Honey, Chartered Psychologist and publisher.
Jill Horsburgh, Head, The Godolphin School, Salisbury.
Colin Reid, Head, St Christopher School, Letchworth.
Dr Michael Rosen, writer for children and broadcaster.
This section of the report gives a brief description of the methodology and modus operandi of the inquiry team. For Part I of the report we had three one-day meetings in September and November of 1999 and January 2000.
At the first meeting of the team we agreed to divide up the work so that, for instance, we could look in depth at specific aspects of the school and its work. The team of eight all visited the school, mostly individually. Everyone stayed at least one day; some stayed two or three days. Two members of the team stayed overnight in the school in order to have a fuller experience of how the boarding aspect of the school worked and to utilise the communal facilities. The total number of days spent at the school was 17.
All of us wrote reports on our visits. Each report covered some common ground e.g. impressions of the children, and also addressed specifics that the person had agreed to look at. These reports were produced independently so that each person could say what they wanted to say. They were circulated in confidence to the rest of the team.
In our visits we carried out a number of tasks including: -
After the first round of visits (which took place between 1 November 1999 and 2 December 1999) a second round of selected visits was arranged to explore in more depth issues raised from the first set of visits. Reports were also written on these. It may be worth noting that the Ofsted inspection occurred over three days and all eight inspectors went at the same time. The school (of only 59 children) felt that this was overly intrusive. We deliberately spaced our visits, not just to avoid such intrusion, but to give a better picture of the school by inspecting it over time. By the last visit we had seen the school in operation over a period of six weeks.
We also conducted other investigations including: -
We wrote to Chris Woodhead at Ofsted with queries on items from their report (the letter is reproduced in Appendix VII) and we received a reply which is also reproduced in Appendix VII. We are grateful to Chris Woodhead for indicating Ofsteds views.
From all this evidence we are satisfied that we have a valid basis for the judgements we have made on the school. There are areas of disagreement between Ofsted and the school which, in some cases, we can only report on and leave readers to come to their own conclusions.
We are convinced that Summerhill School should not be closed. It has its shortcomings, as does any school. In the body of the report we indicate some areas in which we believe the school could and should improve. However these are all areas where improvements can be made within the existing philosophy of the school.
It cannot be disputed that the school has the total support of the parents, children and staff for its educational philosophy and practices. As a non-selective school Summerhill has better than average results in public examinations (specifically GCSE). It is not in receipt of State or LEA funding so there are no matters of accountability regarding public money at stake here. Also with 40 of the 59 children coming from outside the UK we believe that this kind of international educational community has to be treated as such by Governmental agencies in the UK.
Because of its basic principles in supporting a form of democracy and in providing lessons on a non-compulsory basis, the school has been categorised as alternative and as a free school. Unfortunate connotations may be attached to these terms if they imply that the school is anarchic, ill organised and unstructured. Any such assumptions would be wide of the mark. The school has very clear structures and rules and the breaking of these rules is dealt with. It is more informal than many schools and its culture would not be congenial to everyone. However we strongly believe that in a democratic and pluralist society such as ours the distinctive culture of Summerhill is one which deserves to be accepted and valued as part of a diversity of educational approaches.
Along with the school itself we agree with the notion that boarding schools need to be inspected. The rights of children need protecting. However, in the case of Summerhill, we are convinced that these rights are protected through the processes and structures that the school already has in place. There have been no incidents of child abuse in the school that we (or anyone else) are aware of. Certainly no HMI or Social Services reports have indicated any specific concerns in these areas. In general we are clear that Summerhill provides a safe and healthy environment that is exceptionally supportive of the children there.
We are also clear that Summerhill provides a genuinely educational environment for the children there. In the body of the report we will cover such issues as the non-compulsory lessons and the implications of Summerhills practices for former pupils later in life. The evidence from, for instance, those who have left the school is that Summerhill provided an excellent start in life. Most Summerhillians have gone on to further their education after leaving the school with many gaining first degrees and higher degrees. From the survey of leavers it is also apparent that most have entered satisfying careers and are grateful for what Summerhill did for them.
We recommend that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment withdraw the Notice of Complaint against Summerhill School. The school has accepted three of the six complaints and is, in our view, satisfactorily attending to these (or has already dealt with them). The other three complaints are, despite Ofsteds denial, a direct requirement for the school to abandon its educational philosophy. It should be noted that the schools educational philosophy is entirely respectable.
We urge the Secretary of State to consider, with the school, how it can be inspected in keeping with its educational philosophy rather than as a mainstream British school. Such inspection should acknowledge the international nature of Summerhill and should not require Summerhill to conform to practices that are at variance with the schools philosophy.
We are especially concerned that the process that has been put in place by the Secretary of State will entail adversarial legal processes which are unlikely to solve the difference of opinion between Ofsted and the school, to say nothing of the waste of resources which these processes involve when there are pressing calls on such resources. Previous Secretaries of State have been aware of the way the school operates and have had access to earlier HMI reports. We have seen no evidence to suggest that, in the three areas of dispute in the Notice of Complaint, the school is operating in any fundamental way differently from the way it has operated for the last 78 years. Indeed members of the inquiry team were particularly impressed by the integrity with which Summerhill has stood fast to the principles upon which it was founded.
We hope that, if the recommendation above is agreed, the school can be assured that future inspections will take due cognisance of the schools unique character. In these circumstances the school should be able to plan for the future with some sense of security about its continued existence. It will then be possible for the school to respond more easily to our main recommendation for action on its part.
Our most important recommendation to the school is to develop the learning resources available to children so that they have more options when they are not engaged in formal classroom-based lessons. Such changes we believe can be made without undermining the schools values. We elaborate more on this and other recommendations in the main body of the report.
We will first deal with the three complaints that the school accepts.
Complaint 1 concerns health and safety issues. It seems to us that this aspect of school inspection is important. We agree with the remedy proposed by the Secretary of State, namely that the school should conduct its own internal inspections of these aspects on a regular basis and help the children to understand health and safety issues better. On our visits we were able to see improvements here and we were told by the children of the existence now of a health and safety committee comprised of staff and children.
Complaint 3 also relates to safety issues regarding flooring and window locks. We were able to see that these were being attended to and that windows, for instance, did now have locks on them.
Complaint 5 relates to problems of teaching and curriculum planning at Key Stage 2. The school is aware of this. In our visits we were conscious that this was an issue of concern. However we were able to observe that the school was taking action on this matter.
Complaints not accepted by the school
The three complaints that the school is appealing against are Complaints 2, 4 and 6. Below we will address Complaints 2 and 6. Complaint 4 raises the most complex issues and will be dealt with separately.
Complaint 2 concerns the provision of toilets. There are 30 toilets in the school. It seemed to us that this is an entirely adequate number. Indeed the most recent Social Services report found no serious issue with the number of toilets. In fact some children felt that the school had now provided an excess of toilets and none of the children we interviewed indicated that toilet provision was a problem. It may be worth noting that in other schools children quite commonly complain about toilets.
The main issue, then, seems to be that the school does not have segregated toilets. Male and female staff and children all have access to the same toilets.
There are no urinals in the school and all WCs are provided either in single occupant areas or areas containing several cubicles. All of the cubicles we saw seemed satisfactory to us. The issue seems, then, to be related to possibilities of child abuse. There has been legitimate concern about the issue of child protection in boarding schools generally. However the staff in the school are trained in child protection and appear to be aware of the needs of children in this respect. The staff and children assert that there are procedures to address any problems if they arise, especially the right of anyone to raise any issue in the school meetings and the opportunity to bring anyone (staff or child) up before a tribunal. The informal and other processes in the school are seen as entirely adequate by the children to ensure their protection.
It could be argued that an abuser might so frighten a child that they would not bring it up. This in itself points to why the toilet issue seems to us to be an inappropriate complaint. Child abusers usually operate in secret and the notion that the toilets at Summerhill would be the primary place to foster sexual abuse is therefore not realistic.
One main reason why the school does not want to compromise on what might be seen, by others, as a trivial issue, is that the desire to see Summerhill as comparable to an extended family, with open and equal interrelationships, is central to its whole philosophy. This notion of school being a kind of family community is clearly very strong and the members of the school community, as well as parents, believe that just as in a family home one would not have segregated toilets, neither should they. Indeed, in the eyes of many students and parents, it would introduce a pointless artificiality in this community to start segregating toilets.
We agree with these conclusions. Above all we recognise that this is a community which has created both a culture which is safe and supportive for the children, and processes which can deal with any concerns which might arise. We, therefore, believe that toilet arrangements should be a matter for the schools own democratic procedures and we see no reason for State interference in this matter. We appreciate that the Children Act 1989 has led to the issuing of guidance on this matter. However we see Summerhill as a distinctive type of community which does not require this guidance to be imposed on it.
The last paragraph of the December 1999 Social Services report may be worth quoting here.
".. at the time of the inspection there were no areas where it was felt that the proprietors of the school were failing in their responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of the pupils to an extent that they should be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State under section 87(4) of the Children Act 1989 and as required by LAC(95)1."
If anyone outside the school should be concerned about child abuse it is above all the parents. Yet they all seem to support the current arrangements; we certainly did not hear any counter views. Ofsted do not cite parental views on this so we must assume either that they did not ask the parents or that they chose not to make the views of parents known.
On page 4 in para.11 the Ofsted report includes, in what it calls a 'catalogue of short-comings', the statement that: 'One member of staff has not been checked against list 99 so that the school cannot guarantee that all are fit persons to teach children.'
The Principal assured us that this teacher was a peripatetic instrumental music teacher in school for perhaps two hours per week who was in fact an existing employee of the Suffolk LEA Music Service. The Principal immediately carried out the check when the Ofsted team pointed out that she had not done so. It turned out to have been already done by the LEA - as in fact one could reasonably assume to be the case. To then include the matter in the written report in a fashion that implies that the school does not take child-protection procedures seriously is unfair to say the least and would appear to suggest ill will towards the school. The report does not even mention the outcome of the check.
Complaint 6 concerns the assessment of pupils. The schools view is that the formal assessment and testing of children should only be carried out with the childs permission. The complaint alleges that this inhibits pupils progress as the staff are unable to diagnose pupils educational problems. Our interviews with staff indicated that firstly they did keep records on children. They are, however, reviewing their procedures to see if they need to improve arrangements. We believe that this review is desirable and hope that the school can develop its procedures while keeping to its educational philosophy.
The school has a Special Attention List. This is used to track all new children and any with problems. There are also records on individual children. Baseline assessments of childrens literacy, oracy and numeracy skills are made on newcomers to the school. Teachers keep a record of academic progress and write termly reports on children attending their classes. The school has recently re-instated the procedure whereby houseparents write reports on children in their care. However the school does not send reports to third parties outside the school without the childs permission.
The other factor that staff stressed is that this is a very small boarding school which is a tightly knit community. They feel that they are aware of any problems and that they can adequately deal with them. However they are clear that they are not prepared to coerce children into being formally tested against their will. They give feedback in class on childrens performance and see this as appropriate for assisting children with their learning. It appears that self-assessment by children is encouraged and this seems to be the mode valued by the children.
Set against the schools policy on testing is the evidence of GCSE results. The children are clearly able to take such examinations and get good results. The conclusion by Ofsted that pupil progress is necessarily hindered is not supported by the factual evidence of GCSE passes (even though the school stresses that its main aim is not to produce high levels of passes at GCSE). Indeed, we are convinced, by the substantial evidence we saw, that several students have succeeded in academic terms at Summerhill, whereas they were previously failing academically in the state schooling environment.
The Ofsted inspectors appeared to assume that successful education necessarily implies entry for the maximum possible number of GCSE subjects and that anything less reflects 'underachievement'. The Summerhill approach is that GCSE entry follows the pupil's own informed purpose and choice, whether it be one of intrinsic interest or instrumental necessity for entry to higher levels of study or employment. If pupils successfully achieve these self-defined goals can this be accurately or fairly described as 'under-achievement?'
Most children who choose to be entered for GCSE examinations leave Summerhill at the end of what in the state sector would be described as year 11 at the age of 16. National league tables are based upon GCSE examinations that are taken in that year (i.e. the academic school year in which pupils celebrate their sixteenth birthday) as in the state sector that is overwhelmingly when they are taken. In line with many independent schools this is not the case at Summerhill, where often examinations may be taken earlier or later to suit the needs of the individual. It is thus reasonable to compare the accumulated results attained in whatever year by Summerhill School leavers with national figures based on year 11 results.
These results are analysed in Figure 1.
FIGURE 1 GCSE RESULTS ANALYSED
Numbers are too low in any one year to have statistical significance. When aggregated over the four years prior to the Ofsted inspection (i.e.1995-98) a total of 35 pupils produced 198 entries of which 144 or 73% were at the higher grades of A*-C. The average number of subjects per pupil passed at grades A*-C was 4.2. The national benchmark of number of pupils gaining five or more grades A*-C was 46% at Summerhill over this period. This compares favourably with the average figure for all maintained secondary schools of 42.7%.
The national trend is one of slight improvement year on year through this period. The trend at Summerhill is more sharply upward with the average number of graded entries per pupil rising for each successive year from 3.1, to 4.3, to 5.25 to 7.5 in 1998. The proportion of total entries being awarded higher A*-C grades rose from 72% in 1995 to 78% in 1998. The proportion of leavers attaining 5 or more A*-C grades moved similarly from 25% in 1995, to 33%, to 42%, reaching 67% in 1998. Although there were only 12 school leavers post GCSE in 1998, and to be fully statistically significant around 20 would be required, it is nonetheless interesting to note that the national maintained sector figure for 1998 was 44.4% compared to Summerhills 67%.
It should also be noted that 63% of the 35 pupils in the aggregated group did not have English as their first language and that a significant proportion of these could barely speak English at all on arrival at Summerhill.
Gender has been disregarded in this analysis as the four-year total would not have generated statistically significant groups and figures prior to 1994 were not available.
It can be stated with confidence that, even by what Summerhill would see as the narrow academic criteria of success emphasised by Ofsted, these GCSE results do not support the judgement made in the 1999 Ofsted report that the education of the Summerhill students has been adversely affected because the school has "... drifted into (our emphasis) confusing educational freedom with the negative right not to be taught". On the contrary, in terms of examination success, the trend over time is clearly upward.
It could possibly be argued that given the level of parental support and economic status conventional attainment at GCSE should show a bigger differential from the maintained sector average than is the case. This would involve failure to recognise the level of trauma, damage to self-esteem and even health that the parental questionnaires indicate as being the prior experience of schooling for a significant proportion of Summerhill pupils. When seen in this light the GCSE results could be said to constitute a noteworthy achievement for pupils and teachers especially as the school would not claim that they represented its highest priority as an outcome.
On the issue of assessment and testing we have to conclude that the case presented by Ofsted and by the Secretary of State is not supported by the evidence. Rather it seems that Ofsted inspectors arrived at Summerhill with a predetermined template as to how schools must operate assessment, irrespective of the philosophy, character or circumstances of a school.
This complaint contains a number of key issues which need to be analysed separately. Because this complaint is at the core of the challenge to the schools philosophy we will quote it, and the Secretary of States proposed remedy, in full.
The schools practice of voluntary attendance at lessons, together with the fact that pupils choosing not to attend lessons are not then engaged in supervised study, leads to arbitrary narrowing of the curriculum actually studied, inhibiting continuity and pupils progress, and lowering expectations of their academic achievement.
The school must ensure that all pupils engage regularly in learning, either within timetabled lessons or within prescribed self-supported study programmes, and that they study a sufficiently broad and balanced curriculum, aiming at standards of attainment in line with national expectations."
Below we outline some of the key issues contained in the above Complaint and we also make reference to the Ofsted inspection report and Chris Woodheads reply to our letter to him.
Paragraph 11 of Ofsteds report states that:-
"The school has drifted into confusing educational freedom with the negative right not to be taught. As a result many pupils have been allowed to mistake the pursuit of idleness for the exercise of personal liberty."
Ofsteds own Code of Conduct for Inspectors states, among other things, that:-
"Inspectors should evaluate the work of the school objectively" and that "Judgements will be secure in that they are rooted in a substantial evidence base and informed by specified quantitative indicators."
Given this we asked Chris Woodhead to elaborate on the evidence for this drift. He replied that the evidence "lies in the reports of HMI inspections of the school over the years, to which reference is made in paragraphs 2-4".
Paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Ofsted report summarise the HMI reports made during the 1990s and paragraph 4 states that:-
"The last report indicated that the school had changed little in character since 1990; that remains true. It makes unique provision with unusual appeal, in may respects guarding closely the philosophy of its founder AS Neill, challenging many of the values inherent in conventional education."
Paragraph 5 of the 1990 HMI report states that:-
"The freedom for which the school is famed is distinct from licence. There is a tradition of community government through a meeting and older pupils take turns to act as ombudsmen for the whole community .There is an academic structure of classes for younger pupils and older pupils "sign-up" for subject classes although the attendance at lessons remains optional. Within this framework of freedom, community self-government and classes, pupils take advantage of the scope for a considerable range of experiences. The children develop through participation in school government, in play and in conventional teaching and learning."
Our investigations lead us to agree with this statement. What the 1990 report describes is exactly how the school operates now. The problem is that it does not seem to tally with the assertion that the school has "drifted". We have already quoted the quantitative evidence from GCSE results to show that evidence for damage in this area from supposed "drift" cannot be substantiated. Nor have we been able to find any other credible evidence upon which a sound judgement could be based that Summerhill has in any way "drifted" from its original philosophy. We can only conclude that the inspectors have failed to meet Ofsteds own criteria for effective inspections.
Whilst, for the above reasons, it is not apparent to us that there has been drift the reference to the pursuit of idleness indicates that Ofsteds concern here may be linked to non-compulsory lessons. We can now turn to that matter.
Firstly, there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that the schools philosophy with respect to this has changed since the schools inception in 1921. The views of its founder are clear on this point.
In 1968 Neill himself wrote, in the preface to Summerhill:
"I have not changed anything fundamental in my philosophy of education or life. Summerhill today is in essentials what it was when it was founded in 1921. Self-government for the pupils and staff, freedom to go to lessons or stay away [etc.]"
This underlying philosophy is precisely what we found being put into action at Summerhill during our visits. Its central position with respect to the education of young people at Summerhill was confirmed by everything we read apart from the 1999 Ofsted report.
Secondly, it was apparent to us that this founding principle was understood by all of those connected with the school from whom evidence had been gathered. It was also clear, from the evidence, that it was critical as to why Summerhill was valued so highly by so many parents and children at Summerhill, and a major reason for them choosing this school.
The evidence we have on this issue comes from a number of sources. Firstly we analysed a questionnaire-based survey of ex-pupils. The sample consisted of 40 ex Summerhillians who had attended the school from the 1930s to the early 1990s. They had all experienced non-compulsory lessons and when asked whether this was an advantage or disadvantage 92.3% stated that it was an advantage (the rest having mixed views but none saw it as a definite disadvantage). (Note that we are not claiming that this sample of 40 people is necessarily fully representative of ex Summerhillians. They are just those that could be tracked down in the time available. However they do constitute the only recent evidence that is available on ex Summerhillians.)
Some comments about non-compulsory lessons include those in Figure 2.
FIGURE 2 - VIEWS OF EX-SUMMERHILLIANS
"For me non-compulsory lessons were a clear advantage. I had spent an unhappy year at (X) School prior to Summerhill, and was developing a distaste for learning that Summerhill helped me overcome." (British female with a degree in Art and Design; now working for the BBC.)
"Non-compulsory lessons were an advantage, though hard to adjust to at first. I learned more at Summerhill in my one year of being able to attend what subjects I wanted and as many classes as interested me than I did in four years of US high school." (American male with a BA in English Literature; now completing a degree in Mass Communication and working for AT and T.)
"Until I was almost ten years old I went to a C of E private school which, of course, had compulsory lessons. The years I spent there were the most miserable years of my life; I hated school and was constantly anxious it did nothing at all to aid my education. Non-compulsory lessons give a child the confidence to make his/her own decisions and to be trusted to do so." (British female working for Channel 4 TV and completing an Open University degree.)
"I believe that my love of learning was preserved by Summerhills non-compulsory lesson policy." (American female currently completing a BA in Arts and Sciences.)
"Non-compulsory lessons were an advantage because they were (and are) fundamental to the philosophy that says children and young people learn best when they are personally motivated. Children are born learners. Neill understood this and it is probably impossible for Ofsted to comprehend the subtlety of letting children go towards sources of information in order to learn, rather than forcing them, under compulsion to absorb a given number of facts." (British male, former journalist and ex deputy news editor of the Times Educational Supplement; now working with disabled children.)
"Making a student attend classes does not ensure an education. But to instil excitement about learning creates a vehicle that will last a student a lifetime. Summerhill creates the latter! Not making lessons mandatory instils in the student a sense of responsibility and dedication. I was able to carry this same dedication throughout my schooling. Summerhill instilled in me that I could achieve anything I wanted to. And I have!" (American female with a BA in Music and a Masters degree in Nursing; now a Family Nurse Practitioner.)
"The most valuable thing about Summerhill was non-compulsory lessons. I think with compulsory lessons my interest in subjects I studied would have been significantly reduced. This would have made learning more difficult. This would be particularly important with physics, the subject I'm currently studying at university." (British male in the final year of a physics degree.)
A second piece of research we conducted was to analyse a survey of the 19 most recent leavers from Summerhill. The response to non-compulsory lessons was comparable to those who had left Summerhill some time ago. 15 respondents saw non-compulsory lessons as a clear advantage and four had mixed views. None saw this policy as a clear disadvantage.
The third area of evidence was from current students at the school. All the children we interviewed, either informally or formally, were very positive about non-compulsory lessons. As some of these had been at the school throughout the 1990s we were able to gather from them that they did not see the school as "drifting" on this matter. One male pupil, who had been at the school for ten years said of the freedom to attend or not attend lessons, "The freedom is something the staff have to work with. Its non-negotiable. Thats how Summerhill works."
Another senior male student, who had recently arrived, expressed his satisfaction that, "You are not forced to do anything that doesnt concern anyone else. It is much more relaxed. I cant do academic work when I am made nervous." He added, "Personally I love this school. Everyone here is very satisfied. What is the point of trying to change it?" Yet another senior male student complained that he had found state education "... so oppressive" and added "Some people like being led along, others dont". And a senior female pupil, who had been bullied in primary school but had subsequently spent most of her education at Summerhill stated, "The freedom works - definitely. There are very few who come here who say it hasnt". Lastly, one female student from Japan, told members of the team that she disliked the Japanese education system so much that she had stopped going to school. For quite a long time she had not gone to lessons at Summerhill, but had started to go to lessons about a year ago because she wanted to. Whilst not attending lessons she said, "I learnt a lot of things. How to communicate, how people feel. Everything was interesting." And about now attending lessons, where she appeared to be very successful: - "I can learn if I am interested: but if I am not it just doesnt go into my head."
A fourth area of evidence was from teachers at the school. All are committed to the schools policy though we detected that one teacher found variable attendance at classes a problem. This was very much a minority view, though.
The fifth area of evidence was from parents, both within the UK and abroad. As far as we can gather they all support the schools policy on this and are opposed to compulsory classes. This policy also constituted, for many of them, a major reason why they, often in conjunction with their children, had chosen the school in the first place. From the substantial evidence which we saw, any notion that parents might have any misconceptions about Summerhills policy on non-compulsory classes would be the very opposite of the truth. A Korean parent explained why they had chosen Summerhill as follows: "Because I know the power of freedom is important in human life."
The notice of complaint demands as a remedy that all pupils must be regularly engaged in learning. Our evidence suggests that pupils are learning at the school. However the remedy goes on to indicate that the only acceptable learning is that within timetabled lessons or within prescribed self-supported study programmes. The assumption here is that what children do outside these two modes does not constitute learning. This assumption is disproved by the overwhelming balance of research evidence on how children learn. It is difficult to know how, therefore, to respond to the Secretary of States assumptions about learning given that they have no basis in empirical fact.
The Ofsted report refers to this issue of idleness. We were unable to find any objective evidence on this from the report and Chris Woodhead did not comment on it in his letter to us. We understand from the school that a key piece of evidence for the inspectors was when one of them followed around two young girls (aged 11) for a day. The inspector concluded that they had been idle during the day.
One of the two girls commented to us that she had avoided going to classes that day as she had felt intimidated by the last group of inspectors to visit the school. She had attended a class where the inspector had questioned her in what she felt was an aggressive and uncaring manner. She had, therefore, wished to avoid a repeat of this experience. We heard from her parents that they fully supported their daughter in the action she took and that they were extremely unhappy about the way the Ofsted inspection team had behaved.
In fact, the incident appears to have been even more unnerving. The two girls, interviewed on tape, said that when they went into the woods to talk they heard a 'swish, swish' behind them which appeared to be coming from the bushes. They could not see anyone and carried on talking. At lunch they were told of an inspector who had been following two young girls and that it was them. They were very annoyed about this and said that if a Summerhillian had eavesdropped on their conversation like that they would have brought them up at the meeting. It was not the only case raised in interview of an inspector violating the normal courtesies of Summerhill.
We have not been cited any other concrete evidence from the inspection though we might reasonably assume that the inspectors were expressing a general antipathy to the notion of voluntary lessons. Interestingly the inspection team did recognise that certain learning opportunities outside the classroom were provided for the children, and well used by them, (for example the computer facilities). The inspectors seemed, though, to have dismissed other learning outside the classroom.
Physical activity is well supported at the school and, for its size, it is fairly well equipped. The Government has made great play of its support for sport and games in schools and we observed that Summerhill children had plenty of opportunity for sports and games activity. What might be missed in a snapshot Ofsted inspection is the fact that most of this activity is organised by the children themselves. There are no formal games lessons. This problem seems to be manifest throughout the inspection process. It is as if something that is not organised and controlled by the teachers does not count as a learning opportunity.
There are a plethora of other opportunities available at Summerhill which include: -
and so on.
We noted that teachers took an active role, at times, in encouraging children to use other learning modes such as outside visits (see also Figure 3).
FIGURE 3 - THE USE OF ACTIVITIES OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL
We have evidence of the value of these activities including material from outside bodies. For instance we have a copy of a letter, dated November 2 1999, from H. Cracknell, Eastern Area Commander for the Suffolk Constabulary, praising Summerhill students for their support for police community initiatives. For one event he commented as follows about Summerhill children: -
"It is without doubt their commitment, energy and enthusiasm that made the event a resounding success. Their role playing and communication skills were outstanding."
Within the school a number of the team were able to observe how many children had become fluently bi-lingual while at the school. This had largely not occurred through formal teaching but rather through learning by immersion. The seemingly idle conversations around the school have been the main mode of learning here. (That this phenomenon is well known from research on language learning appears not to have been recognised by Ofsted in their 1999 report.)
These are all valuable aspects of Summerhill, which do not feature as significantly as they ought in the inspectors evaluation of the school. More fundamental, however, is the apparent failure of the inspectors to understand that the freedom to do nothing, if that is what the children chose, is integral to them taking responsibility for their own choices at Summerhill. What one member of the team saw as an almost "existentialist" necessity to take responsibility for their own choices, may be in conflict with common sense notions that comparatively young children cannot exercise responsibility. However it is essential to the Summerhill philosophy. Asked whether this might not on occasion lead to boredom and a waste of time, a senior male student simply replied: "So most people dont do it. If not it is your own fault." Other students were very clear about the benefits of the "space" which this freedom provides. "You learn to be responsible for yourself", "It gives you a chance to look into yourself" and "It makes you be independent" were some of the comments in semi-structured interviews.
Having been at the school just over a year, one of the 11 year old students followed by the Ofsted inspector said that previously she "... used to be really shy" but was no longer. Of the freedom to take their own decisions she said, "Im much more responsible than I used to be. Well, my mum and dad say that I am." And of the view that youngsters cant take responsibility for themselves she said: "I think thats a lie."
Whether the freedom at Summerhill "works" and produces qualitatively different learning may be doubted by some, but members of our team were struck by the remarkable self-assuredness, maturity and openness of comparatively young people, allied to what seemed to be a sense of integrity and responsibility. Certainly interviews with senior students revealed a considerable degree of thoughtfulness when they were questioned about their future plans and how they were taking steps to achieve them, including through their choice of timetabled classes.
Many parents and children choose Summerhill very much for this reason. What matters in this context is whether the state has a right to deny pupils and parents access to an education which, if it achieves what it claims, has much to commend it. The most recent draft Social Services report echoes this; "... the pupils believe they have developed strengths such as tolerance, assertiveness, patience and understanding. If so, the establishment will have done the pupils and society a service." What does seem clear is that, apparently being unable fully to understand the philosophy of Summerhill, the inspectors were not in a position to give this aspect of it anything like due consideration. - We will later give additional reasons why such developments, which Summerhill appears clearly to aim at and achieve, can be seen as an important part of an eminently suitable education for later life, including the world of work.
In order to try to understand Ofsteds position, we asked Chris Woodhead to indicate what evidence Ofsted inspectors had gathered about informal learning outside the classroom and especially the views of the children on this. He replied:
"Paragraph 76 summarises the inspection evidence. The team talked with many of the children in the school and inspected a sample of the activities taking place during the time of the inspection."
The staff and children specifically dispute Chris Woodheads interpretation of events. The paragraph 76 that Chris Woodhead mentions concentrates on lesson inspection. It says that all aspects of the school were inspected but the staff and children do not agree with this. The children had organised some out-of-class learning activities which the inspectors chose not to attend and apparently in an oral exchange with the teachers the Reporting Inspector apologised for not having had the time to see these activities.
Also the children have been unanimous, in the interviews we have conducted with them, in rejecting the notion that they had a chance to have their say. They clearly state that they felt that inspectors only wished to question them about lessons and that they had no interest in other aspects of Summerhills learning environment.
Notwithstanding our comments above we do feel that the school could improve other learning resources. We agree with the Principal that investing in self-paced learning resources is a priority. We understand that the school is likely to buy the SuccessMaker package and this seems eminently sensible. Furthermore we agree with Ofsted that the library facilities are inadequate and we would also like to see the school invest in more print material in order to enrich the learning environment outside the classroom. None of this should be taken to support the notion of imposing on the children but rather giving them more choices.
A formal curriculum
At the heart of many of Ofsteds concerns is the notion of an appropriate curriculum. In Summerhill the children, in a sense, create their own, though there is a timetable and a formal arrangement of lessons. The notion of what the curriculum should be like clearly concerns Ofsted yet, of course, an independent school does not have to conform to the National Curriculum.
One problem is that Ofsted and the DfEE seem to consider that the curriculum is merely an agglomeration of subjects tied together in a timetable. We take a broader view of the curriculum and see it more as the process by which learning takes place. The existence of a syllabus and a timetable is not a sufficient way of thinking about a curriculum. Allowing for this proviso we will look at the syllabus aspect of the curriculum.
Any idea that there is an objectively right curriculum for all children (and for all time) seems manifestly mistaken. Recently and forthcoming changes to the National Curriculum indicate that there is no objectively right balance of subjects that all children must always study for all time. Commentators on the school curriculum have challenged the centrality of even supposedly hallowed subjects such as mathematics (see Figure 4). Given that there is one thing we know about the future and that is we do not know what it is going to be like - no-one can say now what an 11 yearold will need to know in ten years time when they may be entering the world of work from their university studies.
FIGURE 4. COMMENTS ON THE CURRICULUM
Professor John MacBeath, Director of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde, has questioned why maths should be in the core curriculum of secondary schools, commenting: -
Another factor to consider in evaluating Summerhills approach to the curriculum is that the majority of children will not be staying in the UK. This is not a school where there are children from different ethnic backgrounds in the UK; it is an international school where most children will be returning to their own countries to continue their education. We asked Chris Woodhead to let us know if Ofsted had particular criteria that it applies to international schools that are based in the UK. He replied by referring us to the Ofsted guide for inspecting independent schools. He also stated:-
"You will appreciate that HMI have long had experience of inspecting schools which have pupils from different countries."
We did not feel that this quite answered our question and we were still left with a concern that Ofsted were applying criteria that were inappropriate to an international school. That the Notice of Complaint refers to national expectations seems to indicate the ethnocentrism of Ofsteds inspection. We cannot accept that Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, German or American children should be subject to the requirements of the British Government as regards what it is appropriate for them to study to prepare them for life in their own countries.
The notice of complaint makes reference to the need for the childrens learning to be in line with national expectations. The Secretary of State does not give a full definition of what these might be. Below we draw on some clues as to what he might be referring to. Before doing that we want to make it clear that the notion that the Secretary of State should define and impose so-called national expectations on each and every school is unacceptable in a pluralistic, democratic society. We will return later to the matter of European legislation on this subject but suffice it to say here that our reading of such legislation does not give the Secretary of State this right. The Secretary of State appears to want to take away rights from parents and children regarding the education of the latter.
We can indicate here some notions as to national expectations (or more correctly the Secretary of States expectations, which is what we shall refer to here). The Ofsted report focuses on attainment at Key Stages as its criterion for national expectations. As is its right Summerhill does not work to Key Stages as a structure and therefore is immediately at odds with the Ofsted inspectors position. The school has, however, recognised a need to do better at the Governments Key Stage 2 level.
If we move beyond the school context there are other areas where the Secretary of States views are indicated. The Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) has said that it supports the idea of Key Skills which define those generic skills which individuals need in order to be effective members of a flexible, adaptable and competitive work force and for lifelong learning. (This quote and information cited below comes from the DfEE web site.) There are a number of debatable assumptions in this notion and despite the DfEEs assertion that there is now a fair consensus on what constitutes Key Skills we would doubt that assertion.
Notwithstanding these reservations, it is interesting to look at what the DfEE sees as Key Skills. These are: -
Application of Number
Working with Others
Improving Own Learning and Performance
From evidence we have gathered from current and past Summerhillians it would appear that the school pays great attention to 1, 4, 5, and 6 and probably does no worse than many other schools on 2 and 3. We are, though, back to the dilemma that children at Summerhill do learn, for instance, how to Work with Others (and Ofsted seems to accept this) but they are not taught to do this. It is not part of an imposed curriculum.
Another document from the DfEE that gives clues as to the Secretary of States expectations is Learning to Succeed (June 1999). This White Paper concentrates more on processes and structures for post 16 provision but it does contain some helpful comments such as: -
" Many learners do not want to be tied to learning in a classroom. Many adults, in particular, are looking to learn in informal self-directed and flexible ways in the evenings, in their places of work, at weekends and in their holidays. This flexibility will be essential if we are to attract into learning those for whom traditional learning methods have formed a barrier including women returners and those turned off learning in a classroom by poor experiences at school." (Para 2.2, page 17.)
It seems to us odd, then, that the Secretary of State recognises this issue and yet wishes to stop Summerhill from providing an environment for those turned off learning in a classroom.
A new initiative from the Government is learndirect (formerly the University for Industry or UfI). In their development plan A new way of learning (1999) they assert that they wish to promote a learning society and lifelong learning. They say that they will do this by (amongst other things): -
"Encouraging people to own their learning by making it relevant to their working lives and personal aspirations.
Building learners confidence in their ability to manage their own learning through access to specialist support and interaction with other learners." (Page 3.)
It seems to us that Summerhill is already doing this for its children and the Government should be more worried about schools that are not doing this. We might then not even need an organisation like learndirect which appears to be designed to undertake remedial action given that schools are not being encouraged by Ofsted to help learners in this way.
Another area of remedial action is indicated by the need identified by the Government to send Civil Servants to the Civil Service College to learn emotional intelligence. The concept of emotional intelligence is associated with such qualities as self-awareness, sensitivity to others, the ability to deal with emotional issues and integrity. These are all qualities which Summerhillians say they develop at the school. Indeed some HMIs over the years seem to have accepted as a strength of Summerhill. It is somewhat ironic that the Secretary of States Civil Servants are now having to learn, as adults, what children at Summerhill learn at an earlier age.
It is also interesting to note how prescient A S Neill was in emphasising the importance and centrality of what is nowadays called emotional intelligence. The ability, for instance, to be an effective senior manager is correlated more with this quality than with cognitive ability, IQ or subject based knowledge. This is supported by a growing body of research evidence.
While we are clear that the school should not be closed this does not mean that we reject all the issues raised by Ofsted. The school needs to invest in developing the accommodation and aspects of the infrastructure.
Summerhill is handicapped in its development from a lack of capital resources. The problem is aggravated by the uncertainty created by over-frequent inspection and now the costs of mounting the legal defence of the school. To help address this problem a number of steps are needed.
The school (and its potential parents and other backers) need an assurance about the future inspection regime.
The school should pursue its plans to establish for itself a charitable framework which would enable it to receive grants from educational trusts and covenants from private donors.
The schools plans for the replacement of the dilapidated temporary buildings accommodating older pupils and for further developing computerised programme learning would be suitable projects where funding might be forthcoming from outside the parent body. (It is encouraging in this regard that a private donor has recently enabled the school to purchase the well-regarded SuccessMaker programmed learning package.)
In the longer term the School could also usefully consider ways of improving the pay of its staff. There are currently some very able teachers at Summerhill but the school relies greatly on their commitment and goodwill.
The planned-for small increase in pupil numbers to the Principals ideal of 75 in all would provide a useful increase in fee income.
The Ofsted report alleges that the curriculum at Summerhill is likely adversely to affect their [i.e. the childrens] future options. (Paragraph 10.) We therefore gathered evidence on this. The most compelling evidence is from the sample survey of 40 ex-pupils. They are unanimous in their rejection of Ofsteds views. The quantitative evidence from this sample is that 97.6% went on to take significant examinations and gain recognised qualifications such as A levels and degrees. It is also clear that people have largely gone into satisfying careers. When asked about the value of Summerhill the most frequent responses could be grouped under the following headings: -
Figure 5 includes some quotes from those who responded to the survey.
FIGURE 5 - AFTER SUMMERHILL
"We were treated like individuals, like intelligent and responsible human beings. We were respected and encouraged to be ethical and responsible. We learned how to live in a group in a sane way." (Swedish female now an artist.)
"The most valuable thing for me about going to Summerhill has been the community environment and the system of working together but at your own pace. I think this has made me a patient and understanding person and also gave me confidence to trust my own judgements but not be judgmental of others." (British female now working in broadcasting)
"Summerhillians have, I think, a love of life, respect for their fellows, an anti-authoritarian attitude, a recognition that problems should be solved in a democratic way. I hope I've got these qualities!" (British male - Reader, London University)
"Summerhill made me a good person. I really care about things like people, animals and the environment. I was very happy and secure there and it gave me everything I needed. Summerhill was a wonderful place. I've really tried to live Neill's philosophy with my children and my life. It does work." (American female working in local government.)
"Prior to Summerhill I had no self confidence or self worth. I believe that I would not have even lived to write this letter today if it had not been for the talented team at Summerhill who showed me integrity and self worth. They provided me with the building blocks for a successful life." (American female, nurse.)
"I guess most notably, my time at Summerhill has given me invaluable social skills and self-confidence. It has also helped install, what I consider to be, good moral values." (British male, university researcher.)
When we wrote to Chris Woodhead to ask for evidence for Ofsteds assertions on this issue of the adverse affects on future options he replied: "The evidence is in the report." We have been unable to find it (which is why we asked the question).
One link to the Ofsted report is an assumption about what the world of work requires of people. The Government has made specific reference to such needs and we have quoted above some of the factors raised by the Government. However we felt that an explicit comment here might clarify some issues.
There are a number of compelling pressures on organisations - such as increasing global competition, ever-rising customer/employee expectations, revolutionary advances in information technology, the need to do more with less and be more agile/innovative. The effect of these, and other similar pressures, has been to force organisations to be less hierarchical, less segmented and less dependent on command and control. Instead, the accent is on more interrelated processes that combine to add value, more relationship building within and between teams and more sharing of expertise, knowledge and wisdom.
Perhaps Summerhills greatest strength is the emphasis it places on children learning precisely the capabilities outlined above. They learn how to take responsibility for themselves and their colleagues in the community and these qualities clearly transfer into peoples working life beyond Summerhill. More traditional educational establishments tend, intentionally or unintentionally, to breed dependency on authority figures and to value deference and acquiescence. The need to take responsibility, and the skills to do so, have to be learned. Summerhills philosophy and practices create an environment where taking responsibility is likely to be learned early and to remain as an essential life skill.
It is clear to us, and not disputed by Ofsted or the Secretary of State, that the children at Summerhill wish the school to stay open and to continue to operate under its current policies and principles. The Secretary of State appears to have indicated that the views of the children are not to be considered. There is, for instance, no indication of what the Secretary of State imagines will happen to the 59 children currently attending Summerhill if the school is closed down.
This situation is contrary to Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This Article states that children should have the right to express their views on all matters of concern to them and to have those views taken seriously in accordance with their age and maturity. The children are absolutely adamant that the three disputed areas of complaint should be withdrawn and they specifically dispute Ofsteds views about the inadequacy of their education.
It is clear from interviews and questionnaires that if the children at Summerhill were to be educated at home - which for many is a distinct possibility given their own and their parents strong antipathy to other forms of schooling - what they see as critical aspects of their education, which come through the Summerhill community, would be denied to them.
The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms has a bearing on parental rights.
Article 2 of protocol No 1 provides:
No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
There are complex legal issues surrounding interpretations of this and other relevant
Articles of the Convention. However from a lay perspective, and having consulted legal opinion, it seems clear that the parents of Summerhill children are wishing to have their children educated in line with their philosophical convictions. There is no doubt in our minds that parents fully understand the school's philosophy and have like many students there, for instance, often read A S Neill's writings. Given previous decisions of the Court we see no reason to doubt that the parents convictions would be regarded as "philosophical convictions" by the European Court.
Questions might be raised as to whether this Article might be used to legitimise the views of dangerous cranks. We would argue, given the democracy within the school and its sustained concern for the rights of the children there - as well as the world reputation and recognition of A.S. Neill and the school - that Summerhill would meet the twin tests, laid down in previous judgements. These are that the 'philosophical convictions' of the parents are 'worthy of respect in a democratic society' and are not 'incompatible with human dignity'. We would also argue that any attempt to undermine Summerhills philosophy would be incompatible with that safeguarding of pluralism in education which has been held by the Court to be the raison dêtre of Article 2 of Protocol No 1.
In the UK, Section 9 of the Education Act 1996 (which builds on the 1944 Act) is relevant in that the Secretary of State must have regard to the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents, so far as that is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training. From all that we have seen and read we have no doubt that Summerhill not only provides this but that the education there is eminently suitable for those who attend this school.
Chris Woodhead very helpfully gave us a copy of research carried out on parental views of schools. The research report is entitled Schools: What do parents think? and was written by K Narayanan in September 1998. It analyses responses to the Parental Questionnaire which is Ofsteds standard questionnaire sent to parents as part of Ofsted inspections. Summerhill parents completed the same questionnaire though Ofsted acknowledged that the Summerhill parents felt that some questions were inappropriate to the school. (The questionnaire asks 11 questions and requires responses on a 5 point scale as follows: - strongly agree; agree; neither; disagree; strongly disagree.)
Despite the above criticisms 70.9% of Summerhill parents returned the questionnaire. From the Ofsted research covering 224,396 parents and 2,659 schools the average response rate from primary schools was 38.8% and 26.6% from secondary schools. Narayanan states that higher response rates correlate with higher standards of achievement. Interestingly a low response rate typically occurs in schools where many parents have English as a second language. This points to the exceptional response rate for Summerhill. Interestingly the Ofsted inspectors state that Parents [at Summerhill] are unlikely to be aware of the true standards of attainment (Paragraph 56). Our evidence and Ofsteds own recognition of the high degree of interest in the school does not support Ofsteds perception.
As regards parental satisfaction the Ofsted research shows that out of a sample of 1,158 primary schools the average scoring strongly agree i.e. the most positive rating, was 39.93%. In secondary schools a sample of 230 schools produced an average of 28.95%. For Summerhill the average strongly agrees across the eleven questions was 62.74%. This includes questions that the parents objected to.
The lowest Summerhill score was on the question I feel the school encourages parents to play an active part in the life of the school. In fact the only negative score on the whole Summerhill survey is 13.3% disagrees on this question. Given that this is a boarding school with the majority of parents in other countries and that in any case the school makes plain to parents that it wants the children to be free of parental involvement in term time, the lower score here is entirely predictable.
For Summerhill the two questions for which there was a 100% score of strongly agree were: -
"The school encourages children to get involved in more than just their daily lessons."
The schools values and attitudes have a positive effect on my child(ren).
Interestingly the Ofsted research shows that, for this latter question about 10% of primary schools had significant levels of dissatisfaction and almost 30% of secondary schools. (Significant, for Narayanan, is 10% or more scoring disagree or strongly disagree.)
As regards assessment of children, Narayanan expresses the following view: Out of 176 secondary schools from which data was obtained for this question, 47.69% of those schools registered a significant level of dissatisfaction with the schools assessment of their childs progress. (Page 11.) In Summerhill dissatisfaction on this issue is 0%.
For dissatisfaction figures overall Narayanan quotes an average level of dissatisfaction, over all categories, of 5.64% in primary schools and 7.635% in secondary schools. However the research points to variations across questions. For instance on enjoyment of the school the percentage of secondary schools registering a significant level of dissatisfaction is 12.88%. The score at Summerhill was 100% satisfied.
When questioned about behaviour in school 47.32% of secondary schools showed significant levels of dissatisfaction. Summerhill scored 0% on dissatisfaction. Overall one experienced school inspector, on seeing the Summerhill figures, said that these were the most positive responses he had ever seen.
The other evidence we have of parental views is from a survey of parents and from direct questioning of a sample of them. The survey evidence was extremely rich with many parents expressing the strongest possible support for the school. Many wrote moving accounts of how their child had become depressed, aggressive, alienated or ill at their previous school, only to flourish after a short time at Summerhill. Many parents were clear that Summerhill had generated an interest in learning in children who had previously been turned off education. Some of their comments (drawn directly from the parental survey) expressed feelings such as the following: -
"Thank you Summerhill for giving me back the child I love."
"I think that for my child and some others the education provided by Summerhill is vital and irreplaceable."
Others expressed genuine anger that Summerhill might be changed or closed thus depriving their children of the right to a suitable education. One wrote:
"If Summerhills educational approach and line will be changed, I will get him out of there."
And another spoke about the choice being:
"Summerhill or a large impersonal, not terribly caring, comprehensive or pushy pretentious grammar schools."
Lastly, of the Ofsted criticism of Summerhill, one parent wrote:
"It is I who should be complaining that the state doesnt provide an appropriate education for my child."
Even if we had no other evidence to draw on, the views of the parents alone justify the continued existence of the school. Given that the levels of satisfaction with the school far exceed the national averages it seems odd that the Secretary of State has chosen to ignore these.