Zoë readhead about the summerhill school – sz magazin

»Today many children have too much power«

Zoë Readhead, as Head of Summerhill, follows in her famous father’s footsteps.

SZ-Magazin: Ms. Readhead, Summerhill has recently turned 90 and the state is still critical of your school. The inspectors had just returned. What did they want?
Zoë Readhead: This time it was just routine. The inspectors regularly check all schools in England.

A school where teaching is voluntary has long been a thorn in the side of the authorities. Please understand?
A lot has changed: This year we got the best assessment since our foundation. You obviously start to appreciate our work.

Since your father opened A. S. Neill Summerhill, there has always been massive criticism from society. Has she fallen silent??
They still exist today – because people misunderstand us! They believe that the children can do whatever they want here and that it is loud and chaotic with us. The opposite is true: Summerhill is very calm and disciplined. We could contribute some to the current education debates!

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Ironically from Summerhill, the epitome of anti-authoritarian education, people should learn to live a disciplined life together?
First of all, my father was never happy with the term "anti-authoritarian education", and he never used it himself. The truth is: many parents are very insecure today. They want their children to grow up in freedom, but no one has taught them how to deal with a free child. They think everything the child is doing is fine, but it is absolutely not! The children we deal with – even in Summerhill – don’t follow any rules.

What were your students like before??
On the one hand, children do not change: it took us humans millions of years to become who we are today. But on the surface you can see differences: In the past, many children came here very scared. Back then my father spent a lot of time showing them: I’m not doing anything to you! I am on your side!

There is this beautiful story of a student who phoned your father and pretended to be his own mother. The supposed mother asked Neill to give her son money for a train ticket that he really didn’t need. Neill gave the boy the money and later put a few more coins on it, saying, "Your mother just called again and said the ticket was more expensive." was apparently an even better actor than himself.
Many of the children had had pretty bad experiences with adults at the time. It was important to get their trust.

You don’t want those times back.
No, but today many children have too much power. My father always said that parents and children have equal rights in a good home. In a bad home, the parents have too much power – or the children.

Many parents and educators still believe that adults should strictly rule the family. Bernhard Bueb, former head of the boarding school Schloss Salem and author of the book Praise of the Discipline, for example says: "Education is only successful if it brushes human nature, which tends to be selfish, against the grain!"
The Church has persuaded us of this for centuries: Man was born in sin. In Summerhill we assume the opposite: you don’t have to teach children to be good; all we have to do is let them be good.

If such a child comes to Summerhill without rules …
… the school assembly has a lot to do. Summerhill is a self-governing community and in the school assembly, the central body, all important decisions are made by majority vote. All the rules are also decided there and violations are punished.

What was the last rule that the assembly decided?
For example, last week we voted that you shouldn’t spit on the trails. It is obvious to me that this is not possible, but obviously not for everyone. So someone brought the proposal to the assembly and the majority voted for it. Or the kitchen staff has complained that there is often so much noise when serving food that it cannot do its job. We have decided that from now on there are two responsible people who will ensure that the food queue is quiet. It is quite possible that at some point all students and teachers have internalized this rule, then we may perhaps abolish it again.

When you speak of responsible persons …
… they are children. The school assembly is also headed by a student.

The dining room with piano.

How many rules are there currently??
Between 150 and 200.

That doesn’t exactly sound like a lot of freedom.
The number is high, but there are also many safety and hygiene rules. As far as freedom is concerned, we are very clear: everyone is free to live their own life and do what they like as long as they don’t bother anyone else. But if I want to play the drums at night, my freedom stops.

The child, who previously knew no boundaries, will hardly stick to it.
Then it has to face the consequences. The school assembly awards fines for violations of the rules: This can be small amounts of money or half an hour of work. Anyone who breaks something has to repair it, or who makes noise during bed rest has to go to bed earlier.

The new student may then say: I don’t care, I don’t do that.
Then he gets a higher sentence, and our ombudsmen and women – also students – try to explain to him why this is important. If he continues to refuse, he will have to leave school for a while. We just sent a boy home for a week again.

This can be a long way under certain circumstances: Only a few children are day school students, most of them live here in boarding school and come from other parts of England and around the world, whether Korea, the USA or Germany.
We are very strict there. The child should be aware at home whether they really want to be here. And if it wants to, it has to accept the rules of our community.

What is the effect?
The behavior of children often changes massively if they make a conscious decision themselves: I want to go to this school! But there are also some that we have to finally expel from school.

How do you deal with bullying?
Fortunately, this is not a big issue for us, because such incidents always come to light quickly. The older students are particularly vigilant. But anyone who actually bullies someone else is on the bullying list: they are excluded from all community events and have to be the last in line to eat.

There are always quarrels in many families because parents and children have different ideas about how much time a child should spend in front of the computer. Summerhill has rules for that?
We tried different variants until the school assembly decided some time ago to fully allow the use of computers. It’s always exciting when something like this happens. Usually after a while someone comes and says: That doesn’t work! It was the same this time: Some of the children who played a lot wanted regulation because it was too difficult for them to attend classes. It was also clearly noticeable that school life almost came to a standstill.

How did the assembly decide?
We have decided that it is only allowed to play on the computer from 3.30 p.m., i.e. after the end of the lesson.

How should parents regulate the topic at home??
It’s difficult … My children used to be able to watch TV or play on the computer as much as they wanted. They found all four of them to deal with it fairly quickly. But of course that was something completely different back then. Today, it’s an unfair struggle: On the one hand, there are large companies that invest billions of dollars to tie users to a computer game. On the other hand, there is a child, perhaps eight years old – how could he resist this power??

That means: there is no limit?
You have to decide that individually. Many children have no problem switching off. But if I saw that my child was doing nothing more than sitting at the computer, I would say: That doesn’t work – we have to talk.

The child will not be thrilled.
I have found that when children are treated at eye level and in a calm, calm manner, they are absolutely willing to compromise. Then there is no reason for them to go into opposition. But to a certain extent, I also think it’s important to let the children play until they have the experience themselves: Okay, that’s enough!

Let’s come back to the new students in Summerhill: If they hear that attending class is voluntary, they will do the devil and go there voluntarily.
All children cheer when they hear that they don’t have to go to class. Some say they will just laze around.

If someone wants to laze around, there will be something to recover from. Otherwise he will not behave that way – life is far too exciting.

Summerhill is in the town of Leiston, 170 kilometers northeast of London. In front of the school building, a half pipe is waiting for the skateboarders among the roughly seventy students.

Summerhill is in the town of Leiston, 170 kilometers northeast of London. In front of the school building, a half pipe is waiting for the skateboarders among the roughly seventy students.

But the most exciting thing is not always the lessons.
We have a lot of students who actually spend a long time playing. But at some point most of them decide to do certain degrees and start learning for it.

Like Nadia Hartmann, one of her former students, who said in an interview that she hadn’t attended classes for years until she knew at some point that she wanted to become a dentist. That was the time for them to work towards their exams.
And she actually became a dentist. Your two children are also with us today.

Not every child knows at an early stage which profession they want to take up.
Still, most of them take their exams. Summerhill is not an isolated island, and the children know very well that they will need qualifications later for certain careers. It is important that you make the decision yourself. If someone really wants to learn, it’s a lot easier.

Brain researchers keep emphasizing this, such as Gerald Hüther, who says that the prerequisite for learning is your own enthusiasm.
Then you don’t need spectacular teaching methods. Every now and then new teachers come to us with modern approaches. Most of the time, the children themselves say: Please leave all the frills, just teach us!

What will happen to your students when they leave Summerhill?
Above all, our graduates are good at putting their ideas into practice. You are the maker! There are successful entrepreneurs, writers, scientists, doctors. Many graduates opt for creative professions.

Pedagogue Yaakov Hecht, who founded the democratic school in Hadera, Israel 25 years ago, says: »No one is mediocre, everyone has something special within them. This gem has to be discovered and matured. «
Right. It is also not important to us whether someone takes an academic path, not all of our students do that.

Her father emphasized that the primary aim of the school was to enable the children to lead happy lives.
Of course there are exceptions, but most graduates are happy people! Above all, they are aware that they are responsible for their lives.

Are you happy yourself?
There were some difficult times in my life: when I was 26 my father, whom I loved above all, died, then my brother died. But when I look back, I have to say: I’ve had and have a wonderful life!

A former Summerhill student, Freer Spreckley, told The Guardian that he suffered from dyslexia at school and that school might have been able to do more for him.
I do not think so! I was also a student when Freer was here. Back then he was dealing with many personal problems; solving them was more important than going to class. Apart from that, there was no mention of dyslexia at the time.

Freer Spreckley later taught himself to read and write, stressing that his time at Summerhill enabled him to do so. He now works as a consultant for an international charity.
If Freer were with us today, we would watch him closely and see if he needs help. But ultimately the decision would still be up to him.

Whether the students do math in Summerhill or paint walls, whether they work in the classrooms or outside is up to them. And yet there are those who learn seriously.

Would you say Summerhill is suitable for every child?
Yes, but only if the parents really stand behind it. Otherwise the child will come into major conflicts.

What about students who have ADHD?
We don’t categorize the students. We have children with this diagnosis every now and then, but we ignore it.

Most recently, the Association of American Pediatricians recommended that Ritalin be given to four-year-old children in critical cases to help combat ADHD.
Dreadful. When hyperactive students come to us, they have the opportunity to live out their energy, but of course they must also abide by the rules. For example, if they interfere in the school assembly, the lead student will make it clear to them: be calm or leave my assembly! Then they learn – everyone can!

You yourself only completed one official qualification: as a riding instructor. That is why you sometimes feel vulnerable?
Not at all!

It says on your homepage that your students have strong self-confidence, but sometimes feel vulnerable to their intellectual abilities.
This particularly affects the younger students. At home they compare themselves with their friends, who may be taking this or that exam, receiving grades and certificates. But when they get older, that changes. For me, it doesn’t matter what degree a person has, I don’t mean that everyone has to be able to do everything. For example, I myself am a hopeless math case. When I have a problem to solve, I email it to our math teacher and she emails the answer back to me. Where is the problem?

In 1999 school inspectors even saw a massive problem. They believed that freedom should be confused with laziness and called for Summerhill to offer compulsory classes, otherwise the school would be closed. A spectacular lawsuit occurred.
The time was terrible! We had no idea if we would survive the whole thing. We received donations from all over the world, so we could afford a very good lawyer. Finally the judges decided in our favor! We held a school meeting in the courtroom and the meeting accepted the verdict. There had never been anything like it!

The event was even processed into a feature film. There are two children in it who have a difficult start in Summerhill: a specially adapted girl who is constantly called by her mother and who packs up her schedule, and a boy who beats and steals. Both turn into happy students. That seems almost magical!
These are typical cases. We have a new student from Korea, whose mother stayed here for a long time and had a hard time letting her daughter go. The girl was homesick until the mother drove away. We also know the case of the aggressive student well, but the school assembly would intervene much faster – and the transformation usually takes longer.

When your father founded Summerhill, the school was the only one of its kind in the world. There are now around 200 so-called democratic schools. And the movement is growing.
A great sign!

Like Summerhill, many of the school founders initially met with skepticism. For example, a group in Munich is currently trying to open a democratic school based on the Sudbury model, which works similarly to Summerhill. How should the school founders convince the government??
The best way is to argue with the graduates of similar schools that have existed for a long time: so that people can see that the students become something! I also find it important to look at the topics that are currently relevant: democracy competence, for example. Our students gain a lot of experience there. You practice the democratic principles day after day.

Again and again there are attempts to open state schools to the ideas of democratic education. In Germany, the pedagogue Falko Peschel, based on the Summerhill philosophy, developed open teaching that has already been successfully tested in state schools and is based on greater participation and free learning.
It is important that participation is taken seriously and that the pupils can actually decide on relevant topics. They should also be allowed to bring their own interests to school. But honestly: I doubt that our ideas are ready for the mainstream.

People don’t trust the kids! You are scared. Over so many generations, the goal has always been to achieve more and more. Democratic schools are about who you are, what you want, and how to live with others.

Her father once said that if a Summerhill student became prime minister, he would have to wonder what he did wrong.
Yes, it is hard to imagine that one of our students would plunge into the world of politics with all the corruption and constant competition. On the other hand: a Prime Minister from Summerhill would be wonderful for the whole country!

had to wait outside while the students voted to attend the school meeting. She was allowed. And understood why the assembly in Summerhill is considered a wild card: under the direction of a student, children and teachers discussed objectively and in a focused manner, and none of the others interrupted.

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