The most important part is building and maintaining an environment where members of the community can co-exist in harmony and in personal freedom.
Summerhill School is a progressive, co-educational, residential school, founded by A. S. Neill in 1921; in his own words, it is a 'free school' though this does not mean, alas, that it is state funded. The freedom Neill was referring to was the personal freedom of the children in his charge.
Summerhill is first and foremost a place where children can discover who they are and where their interests lie in the safety of a self-governing, democratic community.
There are two features of the school which people usually single out as being particularly unusual. The first is that all lessons are optional. Teachers and classes are available at timetabled times, but the children can decide whether to attend or not. This gives them the freedom to make choices about their own lives and means that those children attending lessons are motivated to learn.
Many people suppose that no children would ever go to lessons if they were not forced to. At Summerhill, it is rare for a child to attend no lessons at all – at least, after the initial shock of freedom has worn off.
The second particularly unusual feature of the school is the school meeting, at which the school Laws are made or changed. These laws are the rules of the school, made by majority vote in the community meetings; pupils and staff alike having equal votes.
These two features are central to the school, but they fail in themselves to capture its essential nature. Needless to say, epithets like 'the school where kids do what they like' similarly miss their mark. What they omit to say is that Summerhill is a community. It is a community where most of the 100-odd members are children, so teaching is a part of it; but it is not the most important part. The most important part is building and maintaining an environment where members of the community can co-exist in harmony and in personal freedom
The community atmosphere at the school is very strong. To an extent it must be, wherever 100 people live in close proximity for over half the year, if there is not to be unbearable strain in their relationships. But it is fostered at Summerhill by the fact that all the inhabitants are considered equal members of the community. All are equally entitled to citizenship of the school – teachers, big kids, and little kids alike – and this is reflected in their interactions with each other. There is an ease of manner between equals that cannot exist in a hierarchy, however friendly and informal.
What makes the equality real rather than mere rhetoric is the meeting. Everyone knows, for instance, that a member of staff has no sanctions against a pupil that the pupil does not have against the member of staff – and that a teacher bringing a case against a pupil is neither more nor less likely to succeed just because of the relative status of the people involved. Here, everyone has the same status.
The result is a strong feeling of solidarity with Summerhill in all its diverse members. And they are diverse: besides the age differences, Summerhill is an international community. Many nations are represented including France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Switzerland, US, Korea and Taiwan; the UK accounts less than half of the pupils. Of course, everything in the garden is not always rosy. Sometimes a pupil with an urge for rebellion – usually a newcomer – will behave in as destructive a way as possible, deliberately breaking as many of the community's written and unwritten laws as he or she is able, and generally wreaking havoc.
It is interesting that these rebellious children are generally those who have recently arrived at Summerhill from a more 'conventional' school. They seem to be rebelling against the unfair and authoritarian structure they are coming from; when they were there, rebellion was not possible. Obviously, they can be disruptive, but they usually settle down and begin to enjoy the freedom of Summerhill in a more constructive way.
A visitor who recently stayed at the school has written:
"There may be bullying at Summerhill, but I have not seen it. It may be that the older kids set themselves up as kings over their juniors, but I do not perceive a hint of it. What I do see is children of eight jumping unexpectedly on the back of fifteen-year-old boys, and being carried round with perfect good humour; younger kids upset by some sudden reverse being comforted by an arm round their shoulder from an older kid; kids sitting in odd corners talking eagerly about the matter of the moment, with entire disregard for whether their interlocutors are their own age, or younger or older by a year, three years, or six years ... It would be stupid to suggest that they do not all have their own special friends, but I do not think any of them have any special enemies.