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Better Ways Change Needed

Self-directed learning at Summerhill

Self-directed learning institution protected under law after challenging government attempts to close them down

Summerhill is the oldest democratic or ‘free’ school, set up in 1921 by AS Neill. The approach to the students’ education is very similar to many home educated children, particularly those who follow a so called ‘unschooling’ or self-directed approach.

“The freedom to attend formal lessons or not at the school is a central feature of the school’s philosophy. Children have the opportunity for unlimited play, which we believe is good for both their physical and mental health. Children are allowed to fill their time with freely chosen actions. This allows them to develop at their own pace, enjoy what they do and achieve the results they want to achieve. Individual responsibility in learning means that children can continue to work and use spaces whether or not an adult is present. Classes with structured learning are available for all children and organised in timetable format with flexible content and attention to individual learning needs and levels. There are also classes arranged so that children can go in and access materials and resources to pursue individual activities and projects. There are no limits on the achievements in independent learning: children can do something they want as much as they want.”

Summerhill, just like home educators, came under attack from the government. An OFSTED report in 2000 attacked the entire philosophy of the school and demanded fundamental changes, threatening it with closure. The school fought its case robustly, with all the resources and contacts at their disposal, the story being covered in both home and international press. Summerhill challenged the government in court, at an approximate cost of £130, 000 (£90,000 of which were raised by public donations) and were defended by world-renowned human rights defender Geoffrey Robertson QC. The Department of Education, capitulated and sought agreement with the school. “Summerhill 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 plans to take account of students’ views. Summerhill is the only school that has direct input into its inspections through legally appointed experts.”

Home educators unfortunately do not have any such protection nor guarantee or expert knowledge. Instead we face a ‘postcode lottery’ with some councils being informed in the law and in alternate education. Others do not understand the law and have no understanding that home education does not need to look like conventional school for it to be an effective education.


Summerhill (2008) (A fun CBBC dramatization of the legal battle)

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