Summerhill School – Update

The inquiry team established by the Centre has produced its first report on Summerhill School.

The team of eight, chaired by Ian Cunningham included the following; Stuart Ainsworth, Co-Director, Equality and Discrimination Centre, Faculty of Education, University of Strathclyde; 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; and Dr Michael Rosen, writer for children and broadcaster.

The following is a report that BBC Online carried, as an example of the publicity the report received:-

Backing for threatened school

Summerhill School is fighting to retain its progressive principles. An independent team of inspectors is challenging a closure threat to a school where pupils can choose whether to attend lessons. Summerhill School in Leiston, Suffolk, has been threatened with closure after a highly critical report last summer by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) – which included an objection to the school’s policy of non-compulsory attendance. Following the report, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, filed a formal notice of complaint against the school, demanding that it make changes to remedy six specific issues. The school has made some changes in response to three of them, but is appealing against the others – including the demand that it make compulsory attendance a requirement.

A report published on Wednesday by a separate, independent team of inspectors supports the school’s stand, which will see it challenge the Department for Education at an independent tribunal in March. And the chair of the team, Professor Ian Cunningham, has written to Mr Blunkett, urging him to reconsider his approach and withdraw the notice of complaint. The independent boarding school is founded on progressive principles in which pupils make many decisions about the running of the school.

Head teacher Zoë Readhead, whose father AS Neill founded the school in 1921, says the principle of allowing pupils a free choice over attendance or non-attendance is central to the schools’ philosophy. Although Summerhill is a fee-paying independent school, it is required by law to register with the Department for Education. Ministers have the power to strike a school off this list, making it illegal for it to continue providing lessons for children.

But Professor Cunningham, chair of the Centre for Self-Managed Learning, says the school, which has 59 pupils aged between five and 17, should be allowed to stay open. “We’re not saying the school is perfect – for example, we agree with Ofsted that the library provision should be improved, ” he said. “But in a pluralistic democracy, there ought to be a place for a school like Summerhill. It’s not as if the children are running riot – there are over 200 rules. It’s just that it’s a more relaxed, informal atmosphere than many adults feel comfortable with. I’d like to see some way for the school to be recognised as a unique educational establishment, and inspected accordingly.”

Professor Cunningham, whose team of inspectors included school heads, educational consultants, psychologists and university academics, said the GCSE grades achieved by pupils at the school were higher than the national average attained by pupils at state schools.

The school’s approach equipped pupils with the skills needed for the world of work, and it had the “best parental satisfaction” of any school he was aware of. “We’re not trying to criticise other schools or Ofsted. It’s a different kind of school which caters for different kinds of kids and parents. We don’t believe the state should be allowed to dictate to these parents in this kind of way. We hope that the research that we have conducted as part of our inquiry will convince the Secretary of State to allow the school to stay open. Summerhill has educated generations of young people over the last 78 years. We need to foster innovative schools like Summerhill, not threaten them with closure”.

An Ofsted spokeswoman said: “We stand by our report and are awaiting the outcome of the tribunal.”

The report has attracted other favourable publicity including extensive coverage in ‘The Independent’, the ‘Express and the ‘Times Educational Supplement’.

Ian Cunningham was interviewed on Anglia TV and on the BBC’s East Anglian news programme as well as on the local radio in Suffolk. Also a GMTV slot was devoted to the school with the report being favourably mentioned.

The report is on our website and hard copies can be obtained from Ian Cunningham. The price for non-members of the Centre is £10 plus £2 for postage and packing. Centre members can get copies for £5 per copy – and no charge for postage and packing.

If you would like to keep in touch with developments, please contact Ian Cunningham.