First, I must point out that, although I have criticised some aspects of
Summerhill, in fact I am a strong supporter of Neill's ideas and of the whole
movement for democracy and freedom in education. I was personally very happy
and Summerhill and I am very glad I went there. It was a wonderful
experience. One of the things that delighted me about Summerhill was the
freedom we had to express our opinions, even when they were directly against
those of Neill himself. There was never the faintest feeling of worry in
going against adult opinion. In other words, at Summerhill, then, there was
genuine freedom of speech, without which other freedoms can hardly exist.
But this very freedom to criticise, which got into my blood at Summerhill,
has since got me into trouble with the "Movement", if I may call it that. On
the Summerhill Discussion Group I have been taken to task for raising issues
that might get into the Press and harm the school, such as illiteracy. One
former pupil and staff member wrote in to say that we should talk on the
Internet as though we were on a railway platform with people all around
listening to us. Others also got all uptight about criticising the school,
saying things like, if you can't say something good, it's better to say
nothing. Talk about timid! The school was portayed as being in a state of
siege with enemies all around, plugging into the Internet and thirsting for
some bit of scandal that could be used against us. So when I talk about a
cult atmosphere developing I don't think I am so wrong. Jesus said "He who
is not with us is agaisnt us", or something like that. I was also told that
I didn't know what I was talking about and that I would need to spend many
months at the school to understand it. Of course, this ignored the fact that
I spent six years of my life at the school and should have some idea of the
place. Here is another aspect of cult - the initiation of believers into the
Sacred Mysteries, and the exclusion of "outsiders" which was another term
used in this discussion. Incidentally, there are also the Sacred Writings,
and we have been exhorted to read those on this List, and we have been told
that we really cannot comment without reading the Scriptures. I must say,
that I tried very hard to read the Sacred Writings of Neill, but I found that
they were so far removed from what actually went on at the school that I
could not be bothered with them. In general I find that the discussions on
the Sudbury List are too theoretical, and, for all I know, equally removed
Now, I have not, by the way, criticised the Sudbury model. In fact, by
implication, I praised it, when I said that at Summerhill the pupils do not
choose the staff whereas at Sudbury they do, and I made it clear that I
thought the pupils should choose the staff.
I really think that hostility to criticism, which is based on the idea that
anyone who criticises is an enemy, is very harmful. Progress is often made
as a result of criticism, whether fair or unfair (both are useful).
Conversely, a lack of criticism leads to stagnation and decline.
Finally, my remarks about underpaid staff were made from the point of view of
a pupil, whereas most of the replies to this point have been made from the
point of view of staff, or at least supporters, and often from what seems to
me to be a very doctrinaire, theoretical point of view. I was pointing out
the practical results of some of the more extreme practices, such as standing
aside when kids are not becoming literate, and letting them go out into the
world, in effect, crippled. This in my opinion is irresponsible, and
criminally so. The idea that they will in some magical way, "catch up"
later, is, to my knowledge, simply not true, except in a very few cases. I
agree with the principle of non-compulsion in education, but I do not agree
with a hands-off attitude, which amounts to indifference and neglect.
It is vital that the "Movement" should willingly and enthusiastically accept
criticism, both from enemies and supporters.