Re: DSM: Sudbury Valley/Summerhill

Albert Lamb (
Tue, 20 Oct 1998 13:29:10 -0400

As an old-Summerhillian, ex-Summerhill staff and parent of kids who went to
Summerhill, as well as Neill's most recent editor I thought I'd wade in
here. Here is my response to what Sharon said.......

Neill was indirectly influenced by Freud through Homer Lane and through the
strong currents of psychological opinion in the early part of the century.
He repudiated most of it by the mid-30s and then subscribed more to the
theories of Wilhelm Reich (he was annoyed that his American publisher in
1960 put back in Freudian opinions he had long abandoned). His real
influence was the actual community that Homer Lane set up in England which
he had seen in operation.

Kids at Summerhill have always been sent into the care of other children
with a fairly strong Head in the background and a weak staff. But as a kid
you are not that aware of the adult influences. It is the kids who are the
real power figures and the community that has the real power.

There is actually complete equality before the law between the staff and
the kids, as far as it goes. They are all subject to the same community
laws, except bedtime and drinking alcohol. But for pretty much everything
else, smoking for instance, the staff are covered by the same laws. The
Head has always had the final say about hiring and firing and has set the
parameters of the job that each staff member does. But even the head is not
above the law and can be fined for breaking a law (or a window).

I wouldn't exactly say that rule of law is unimportant at Summerhill. There
are always hundreds of laws on the books and the whole life of the
community is administered through them. The pride of the school is that the
laws the kids make are so closely managed and administered by the kids.
Attendance at meetings is high and the administrative structure is very
strong and very highly evolved. New problems can be met with new laws
within days or even hours of the problems arising.

Neill and his wives kept some areas of the school life under their own
wing. Mostly areas that cost money. They always set up the whole system for
organizing food in a way which would provide cheap and healthy food but the
kids would often have liked to have some kind of control.

I don't believe there is any UK law preventing schools from running without
a headmaster. Sands School is fully democratic and they haven't had a
headmaster, though they now have what they call an administrator.
Summerhill is that way because Neill set it up like that in the 1920s and
he believed that without his presence protecting the democratic structures
for the kids they would not survive. At the time he was right.

Summerhill is now owned by his daughter Zoe and she continues to run it in
the old manner even though it has now been proved around the world that
school communities can run their affairs democratically without a
Principal. This does make for a different sort of community life but the
primary difference is probably that Summerhill is a boarding school. The
kids suffer difficulties from being away from their parents and their home
communities and gain strengths from being able to live their whole life
within a community of kids. For kids like I was who came from a difficult
and fractured home life it is great. Even for my wife who went there at
four it was great. But I would never have sent any of my four-year-olds
away to school and kids do pay a high price for being brought up away from
their families.

The classes at Summerhill are laid on by the teachers and held at set
times. A timetable is organized at the beginning of each term. The younger
kids have a sort of home room and the older ones sign up to take individual
subjects working towards national exams.

Before Summerhill I went to Shady Hill, near SVS, where the classes were
very creative. When you studied the Greeks by the end of the year when you
put on your chiton, wooden sword in one hand, your painted shield in the
other, you felt like you actually were Greek. At Summerhill the teacher had
a battered old paperback and the kids had books of ruled paper to take
notes in. He'd stop after reading a name of some king you were required to
remember so you could write it down and that was about it. Neill didn't
want the classes to assume too much importance so he was completely
uninterested in them. Anyway he thought that if the kids wanted to learn
enough they would fight their way through. Now, with more sophisticated
teacher training and tighter government inspection, the lessons are as good
as in most small schools in England. If I was a kid today I'd prefer the
structure at SVS.

Sorry for going on for so long. Long live Sudbury Valley.



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