Summerhill


We took off up the A12 at 5am on a busman's day off to visit Summerhill.

Picnic and raincoats at the ready. Summerhill is a co-educational boarding school in rural Suffolk.   I saw a documentary about this school when I was a kid and I've been intrigued ever since. A school where students could choose which lessons they go to or none at all. I thought it looked and sounded very cool. It was ahead of its time then and I think it still is today.

"Founded in 1921, it continues to be an influential model for progressive, democratic education around the world"

          Summerhill School

          Summerhill School

           A big tree

           A big tree

And what a wonderful place it is. Idyllic, rural, relaxed, happy and charmingly eccentric. The students we met were all articulate, confident, mature and proud. We had the pleasure of a school tour where I was able to take these images. What beautiful and lush grounds for a child to wander and explore, alone or with friends or teachers. No school gates, everything open and gloriously free.

This art room was very ready to get stuck in, all kinds of equipment and enthusiastic teacher ready to teach. Check out the cool sewing thread reel storage board. A lovely student explained to me how to make it. Bang nails in a board basically.

          Art Room

          Art Room

The windows open onto the school grounds. Children poke their heads in to see what's happening. Zooming around on skateboards and bikes. The rule that has evolved (the students make the rules democratically) is that if you are out of the school building you move your tag to the Out board for health and safety reasons. Simple and Perfect.

            Attendance system

            Attendance system

If you leave your wheels out in the rain, I guess it is your loss if they go rusty.

          "It's where you left it"

          "It's where you left it"

But you can always nip over to the woodwork studio to fix things up.

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Or you could sit and dream and design your next project.

I fell in love with the place, the charm and sophistication of the system appealed to every part of my childhood self. This is the school you imagine when you dream of the perfect school. The quirky cross pollination of Enid Blyton adventures and a free festival.

Summerhill is a school that is like a family, home and beloved friend all rolled into one. A school that lets you become your very best self and if the best self is a coder or a politician or a nurse that self will be happy and fulfilled. I think Summerhill is doing an amazing job in the face of adversity and constant criticism. I long for it to continue, for it to grow more beautiful people in it's quiet understated way. 

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     Skateboard ramp built by previous students

     Skateboard ramp built by previous students

summerhill 16.jpg
           Every child should have access to  a tree  house

           Every child should have access to a tree house

Everywhere we went, students zoomed past us running, skipping, cycling, skateboarding, stopping to bounce on the trampoline or to collect their break biscuits. The whole place was full of vital, collective energy

Wheels are strewn and abandoned, ready to be taken up again

One of the few rules the students have made for visitors: not to touch abandoned wheels as the owner might be coming back for them

          Plants and flowers in abundance

          Plants and flowers in abundance

     I loved all the little notices and signs I came across

     I loved all the little notices and signs I came across

     Upon graduation, all students sign the brick wall

     Upon graduation, all students sign the brick wall

After our school tour, we were lucky enough to attend one of the famous school meetings.

The students and teachers all have an equal voice, issues are raised, suggestions are gathered and then a democratic vote is led. The maturity and wisdom of the students was inspiring and delightful.

A huge thunderstorm broke out while we were listening and the rain teemed down outside the old wood-panelled room. I felt transported and aligned to a historic democratic practice.

Summerhill is so ahead of its time, the world just hasn't caught up yet. Remember when only a handful of people had Apple computers? It was considered slightly dippy, slightly hippy. I think Summerhill will come of age and become what it should have become 50 years ago.  

The last full OFSTED inspection on 5 October 2011 concludes that the school is outstanding in all areas except teaching, which was seen as good, and not outstanding due to issues of assessment.