IT WAS SNOWING the day I visited Summerhill, the unique and renowned British private progressive school. Every available snowflake had been scraped off the parked cars in the school grounds by the boisterous pink-checked children who had abandoned their classrooms.
Across the drive, through the fairyland frosted trees, Ena Neill, the principal and widow of A. S. Neill who started Summerhill back in 1924, watched their romping in the snow with evident satisfaction. After the recent bout of flu in the school, it was a relief to see the children working up an appetite and getting some healthy fresh air and color in their checks. The lessons would wait.
(It was a far cry from my old schooldays at a strict English all-girls grammar school where we were scolded for merely looking out of the window at the first snowfall of winter -- and that was during a poetry appreciation class, ironically.)
It's almost 10 years since A. S. Neill died at the age of 89, leaving his younger wife to cope with the school and its future. Many people wondered what would happen to the place that enshrined his philosophy of the spirit of the child as paramount, that had so inspired the progressive school movement in America during the 1960s. The school that blatantly put learning lower in the scale of priorities than the development of the personality and enjoyment of life aroused passionate emotions around the world. Even now, the school is better known worldwide than it is in Britain, and certainly in the Suffolk countryside on the east coast where it is quietly hidden. It's more than 100 miles from London down twisted country lanes. Yet sill it attracts visitors from America, both North and South, from Europe and even the Far East, especially Japan and Indonesia.
Indeed, some of the present population comes from these faraway places. Three Indonesian girls were giggling and chattering in their own language on the staircase which leads to the bedrooms of the younger pupils.
There are currently some spare places with 57 out of a possible 65 pupils in residnce. Mrs. Neill blames the recession. Perhaps that was why she agreed to be interviewed. Visitors are positively not welcomed. They are seen as a boring and disruptive influence, and the children themselves voted against them at one of their regular Saturday evening meetings at which all school business is discussed. The smallest child, who is only 7 years old, is treated with the same respect as any of the 10 members of staff.
Remarkably, in trade-union dominated Britain, the staff work for a fraction of the normal salary for teachers.They are paid £2,000 a year, which is roughly the same as a basic government annual grant to undergraduates on degree courses. Admittedly, their accommodation is free, but that is only when school is in session, and most of them have little privacy, as part of Summerhill's tradition is to encourage pupils to drop by and have a cup of tea with the teachers, who are, of course, called by their first names.
It is all a far cry from the conventional private-school system in England where hierarchy, discipline and even archaic customs like fagging -- younger children running errands for older students -- still prevail. In places like Eton, Harrow and Westminster, the annual fees for borders now leave little change out of £5,000 a year but at such places, parents expect their offspring to get into Oxbridge if they want to, and for the ambitious, that they may one day become a captains of British industry, or at least cabinet ministers.
The fees at Summerhill are modest by comparison at £600-700 a term but even this is expensive in a country where the state education is free and more than 90 percent of the country's 10 million children make use of it.
Summerhill offers a standard British curriculum in mathematics, English, French and German (begun by 11-year-olds), science. But subjects like wood and metalworking, pottery, art and hand sewing also receive attention.
Although all the childlren take the first series of British secondary school examinations, called O-levels, the next set of examinations, A-levels, required for university admittance, is not available at Summerhill. Staffing an A-level curriculum, similar to American college course work, is a very expensive operation, explained Mrs. Neill, one which little Summerhill cannot afford. However, she said, virtually all the students go on to take A-levels elsewhere. About half go on to university, while the others pursue a variety of careers, many in the arts.
None of Summerhill's alumni have gone off to become prime ministers, although many of them have done well in the professions, especially medicine. Some have become successful writers and artists. "None," wrote one commentator rather oddly back in the '60s when there was so much controversy over the school, "has gone to prison."
One former pupil, who still goes back to school regularly for holidays, says the best aspect about Summerhill is the happiness that she and other children found there. She also remembers the days when the tabloid newspaper photographers travelled from London and offered the children money to line up outside the school smoking cigarettes and hitching up their miniskirts.
When I went there, I was struck with the informality of the place. While the younger children made the most of the snow, some of the older ones sauntered in and out of their private rooms a short distance from the main buildings and rock music wafted from open windows. There was a feeling that nobody was in charge; there was no office and any number of closed doors could have concealed empty rooms or lessons in progress. The facilities were adequate but spartan, with no hot water in the taps in the downstairs bathrooms with their huge old-fashioned white enamel basins. A school council notice tacked inside the front door warned people to lock up their valuables and pointed out that there were no refreshment services for visitors.
Occasionally after the school council meeting where important issues are discussed, including individual gripes, Mrs. Neill, or Ena as she is known, allows some of the students to watch television. To the average American child or parent, this might be the most astonishing fact of all -- there is no communal television, and the children rarely watch. "They don't have time," says Ena dismissively.
One of the few school rules is to ban television sets and they are apparently not missed. Pupils can certainly make up for it during the vacations when they are dispatched home. One of the biggest headaches is organizing the air tickets and transport arrangements to get everyone away together. "I feel they must get away for the break, not just the pupils but also the staff," said Mrs. Neill. "It may not seem like it but there are a lot of pressures here."
With all that freedom, lack of supervision and coeducational setting, I could not help asking delicately about sex. After all, when A. S. Neill wrote about the school, it was widely supposed that the possibility of unbridled sexual activity would have some fairly inevitable results. One of the school rules prohibits children from sleeping together, although no one appears to prowl about enforcing it. The fact is, that for whatever reason, there has not to this day been one single pregnancy in the school. If there had been, Mrs. Neill feels there would have been calls to close the place down. "In the local town girls of 13 and 14 frequently get pregnant, and nobody takes much notice," she said, admitting that this put an unspoken pressure on the children at the school who were aware of the consequences of such an incident.
So what of the future? Mrs. Neill is now 70 and in good health and she hopes to carry on until she is 85 before retiring. Her daughter Zoe lives nearby, and she and her husband Tony Readhead deputize and will one day take over. In the meantime, they send their three small children to the school and manage three farms and a sizeable chunk of English farmland.
One cannot pretend that the Summerhill principles have been widely copied in Britain; there are few other progressive schools at all. There is Dartington Hall, a co-education boarding school and the White Lion Free School in Islington, central London. The latter has just been awarded state funding which can be seen as either a success or failure depending on which way you look at it.
Progressive methods however, as distinct from institutions, have filtered through to classrooms elsewhere. However, the overwhelming majority of British school children do not enjoy the Summerhill privilege of being able to choose for themselves whether to attend lessons. With the recession and high unemployment few Summerhill pupils are unaware of the pressures to collect paper qualifications along the way.
Once it was daring, permissive and shocking. Now Summerhill just seems happy, relaxed, and slightly eccentric -- a bit of Old Mother England stepping slightly out of line with the marchers -- but still marching.