Summerhill School

By Zoe Readhead

Date Posted: Sunday, 14 December 2008


Zoë was born in 1946 at Summerhill School, Leiston, in Suffolk. She is the daughter of the school’s founder, A.S.Neill. Zoë was brought up using the ‘self-regulation’ very firmly within the Summerhill philosophy and she was educated at Summerhill. She married Tony Readhead, a local farmer and they have four children Amy, Henry, and Neill who were all raised in the same way and were educated at Summerhill. Zoë’s two grandchildren Jasmine and Joshua both attend Summerhill. Zoë took over as Principal of Summerhill in 1985  when an extremely steep learning curve began for her!

Today Zoë leads a very busy life at Summerhill doing day-to-day school things. Being involved with Summerhill through all its colours, light and dark is for her a delight and she still finds time to enjoy classical dressage on her Spanish horse and to learn classical singing. Zoë feels her main accomplishments in life are being able to light a good camp-fire, to peel oranges and having her portrait on the front cover of Picture Post wrapped only in a blanket! Zoë is also ‘a pretty good dancer’.


Summerhill School


“Participating in a community democracy has given me: a sense of responsibility for others; the skills needed for peaceful resolutions in disputes; a way of taking part in the creation and use of law and justice; and space to understand who I am and what I am to the world. In this way I am able to participate as a citizen of the world .”

James Friis-Lawrence, Summerhill Student, speech during the closing ceremony of the UNESCO conference of Education Ministers, “Education for all for learning to live together” Geneva 8th September 2001.


When most teachers and pupils are having their half term break we, at Summerhill, get our days off when the community votes for some “slobbing days”.  This means that there will be no “wake up” on Friday and Monday mornings and no lessons on those days either:  a half term decided by the staff and the pupils to fit the need of this particular term.

Most of our pupils are boarders, many coming from abroad, so we do not have the kind of half term where anyone goes home.  Instead, we will have a party on Saturday night (when the day pupils can stay over) that may go on until 3 or 4 in the morning, depending on how the majority vote in the school meeting.  For the pupils what a great way to have a half-term break!

It is not unusual for this group of adults and children to make their own rules and decisions.  Three times a week the Summerhill community meets together for half-an-hour to discuss issues, hear grievances and mete out sanctions (known to us as “fines”) to those who are brought up.  From this experience children learn to be self-confident, tolerant and considerate, being accustomed to hearing the other person’s point of view.

The self-government at Summerhill is a well-oiled machine, having been in operation since the school began in the 1920s.  Each child coming into the school joins the machine and begins, from the first day, to learn the process of democracy and decision-making.  This ensures that there is no lawlessness or anarchy but a safe, structured environment governed by adults and children alike.

The community manages all of its everyday business – bedtimes, wake-up times, littering laws, safety laws, etc.   There are about 250 laws, probably more than in most other schools.  They are varied and sometimes intricate.
The Meeting is also the place where children bring one another up for teasing, stealing or what is commonly called “harassment”.  There is seldom real bullying because it is brought to the public domain before it actually gets that far.  There is no stigma attached to talking openly about it.  Everyone in the community learns that they have a voice and a right to be heard if there is something bothering them.

Fines vary and often fit the crime, such as ‘back of all queues’ for causing problems in the lunch queue or being ‘gated’ for failing to use the sign-out system.   If you use computers or TVs during lesson time you can get 2 days screen ban.

There are many committees elected by the community to do a variety of tasks in the school.  Bedtimes Officers put people to bed, get them up in the morning and maintain quiet, dishing out fines such as back-of-the-lunch-queue or a swimming session banned if people don’t toe the line.  Seven Ombudsmen are elected by ballot to act as mediators during disputes.  They can offer immediate help in solving problems or bring cases to the meeting for younger or shyer pupils, or non- English speakers.  Only those with experience of Summerhill can do this job – adults and pupils have to have been at the school for over two terms to be able to run for Ombudsman.

Summerhill is a happy and caring community, but it recognises the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings.  There is a general openness and honesty among the community members.  Cases concerning classroom control are rare and can equally be against the child or the teacher.    One young teacher, fresh from college, was brought up frequently for a variety of things, including being late for class.  He did not seem to grasp the idea that he was an equal member of the group and had to obey the laws the same as everybody else.  Children frequently told him in the meetings that he should grow up.  Another was brought up for humiliating a girl in class and had to water the grass on the lawn for half-an-hour.   He felt it was a justifiable fine.   A case where a child was banned from class for a few days for harassing a teacher was quashed in appeal on the grounds that the fine was too severe.

Summerhill was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, a Scottish writer and rebel.   He created a community in which children could be free from adult authority.  The school and his ideas became world-famous through Neill’s writings and lectures, his books are still published worldwide.  In the late 60s Neill’s success at Summerhill was finally recognised and he was awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Newcastle, Exeter and Essex.   He was also recognised amongst the top 12 men and women who have influenced British schooling during the last millennium by the Times Educational Supplement (31.12.1999).

The democratic schools movement is now blossoming internationally with many schools, state and private, far and wide being based upon the philosophy of A.S.Neill or inspired by reading his books.

Almost all of the pupils in Summerhill take GCSEs before they leave.  Some take a lot; some only enough to get into the college of their choice; and a small minority opt not to take any at all.
A new timetable offering a wide variety of subjects and activities is created each term to satisfy the choices of the children.  There are timetables lessons from 9:30 – 13:10 and 16:00 – 18:10 each weekday, excepting Thursday afternoons.  Senior students have more ‘traditional’ subjects on offer than the Primary and Junior students, whose ‘formal’ lessons can range from Maths and history to magic tricks and cooking class, but there are enough spaces and places readily available to allow people to pursue individual interests and projects whenever the wish to do so.

The most important freedom at Summerhill is the right to play.  All lessons are optional.  There is no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up, though the community itself has expectations of reasonable conduct from individuals and does not allow bullying, vandalism or other anti-social behaviour.

In 2004 the school created a charitable trust to enable it to raise funds for bursaries and to promote democratic education around the world.   Patrons of the new charity include Tim Brighouse, Geoffrey Robertson QC, and the media lawyer, Mark Stephens, both of whom successfully took Summerhill through a court case against Her Majesty’s Government.

In March 2000 the school won an historic legal battle against the Department for Education and Science when it defended the rights and voices of its children.  It is now the most legally protected school in the country with a unique inspection process that is the first to include the voices of children, preceding the newly announced OFSTED (government inspection body) plans to take account of students’ views.  Summerhill is the only school that has direct input into its inspections through legally appointed experts.  MPs from all parties have been highly critical of the fact that this protection was only won at great expense to the school.

Following the court case the school has become more widely accepted by educators throughout the world.  The moves towards more pupil participation, though embryonic, are sending more and more visitors from schools and colleges to see Summerhill in action.  These are catered for by regular ‘visiting days’ when people are shown around and able to talk and ask questions, as well as attending a school meeting.


21 Dec 2009,    Dominic McNally comments
I’ve just finished reading AS Neill’s Summerhill. It brought home the kind of pressures, fears, expectations and restraints we put on children to try to mould them into ‘productive members’ of society. 
04 Jan 2009,    Jeremy Millar writes
The work undertaken at Summerhill has inspired me since my teenage years. I was involved in setting up a pupil magazine and campaigning to keep army recruiters out of our ‘progressive comprehensive’ and this was partly down to the other possible world as presented in ‘Summerhill’ The last time I was really emotional at television drama was the Summerhill court case programme. This drama should be on the curriculum.
Continue the good fight.
Peace Jeremy