Book Review: After Summerhill

After Summerhill

By Hussein Lucas (Herbert Adler Publications)

Reviewed by Chris Shute

This book might well qualify for the title ‘Educational Book of the Year’. It is warm-hearted, full of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a tribute to the life and work of one of the greatest educators of our, or any age, A.S. Neill. If you detect a note of admiration for Neill, you perceive aright.

The vast majority of people, and of schools measure educational success by tangible elements such as exams passed, degrees obtained, and Colleges attended. If an alumnus of the same school goes mad, turns to crime, spends months and years unemployed, or lacks confidence, the school they have attended will assume that other influences were responsible for all the negative characteristics displayed by the former pupils. It cannot be anything to do with the way the school they attended treated them.

Summerhill, on the other hand, based its entire educational method on the detailed consideration of how it wanted its pupils to tackle the rest of their lives. Neil set out to eliminate from their lives, not ignorance – he believed the healthy minds would avoid that naturally – but depression born of a sense of inferiority and powerlessness, a lack of self-reliance and confidence in one’s own powers which comes from being constantly told what to do, when to do it and what would happen if one didn’t.

This book consists of a series of interviews with a range of Summerhill pupils in which they describe their time at the school and the course of their lives after they had left.  The interviews reveal a striking diversity of characters, not only from England but also from France and Japan (and several other countries are mentioned), but they all have one common feeling, of self-confidence which comes from the uniquely integrated and free atmosphere which pervades this special place where children are allowed to be what they are, without more or less idealistic adults trying to adjust their lives to fit some external pattern created by them. The proof of the ‘Summerhill effect’ is in the enormous diversity of the careers pursued by the pupils. Warabe Tatekoji, the son of a taxi-driver in Hokkaido, learned to speak and write English, went to London University and read Astronomy, had a successful career in IT, and raised two boys. He was happy at Summerhill, and made friends outside the handful of Japanese kids who were there with him. Hylda Sims, an earlier pupil, was the daughter of a crocus, an itinerant pedlar of patent remedies. Her father had also been a founder member of the British Communist Party. She followed an academic career, becoming a teacher and for a time working in a unit for pupils who couldn’t manage in normal classes. She was successful and managed to work in a lot of Neill’s approach. Freer Spreckley, with whom she worked after Summerhill, managed to leave the School without learning to read or write, though he learned both later on, and became a worker with NGOs. Later he set up a therapeutic community called ‘Lifespan’, with Hylda Sims. 

These are a few of the people who have as a key feature of their lives a time spent in a unique community where the real needs of children were met as far as humanity could understand them. They are examples of real education, which is the opposite of what the ordinary schools dispense. The interviewees all testify to the independence of mind and thought which were fostered by the absence of coercion and by participation in the Schulgemeinde, which became the General Meeting.  All who met Neill are unanimous in describing him as retiring but approachable, with none of the conscious striving after recognition of his authority which so often characterises the conventional ‘good’ head. He enabled by having it understood that, so long as no one else’s interests were imperilled, he didn’t care what a pupil did or said he or she was going to do. He recognised that children sometimes say that they are going to do such and such a thing simply in order to feel how it sounds, to use the freedom which fantasy unlocks to examine a project from the point of view of, say, a twelve-year-old.

The book sets out a collection of success stories, surprising in its scope and vividness. I suppose even a triumphantly successful school like Summerhill must have its ‘failures’, but from the general tenor of these interviews I suspect they are few and far between. Summerhill produced consistently happy, well-balanced young people who could think big and accomplish good things for the wider community. This is a work which should be read by more influential people than will probably buy it. We are gripped, as a nation, by a conviction, belied by all experience, that unless we make our children’s lives hard, rigorous and coercive they will never realise their full potential. This book gives proof positive that this idea is simply the opposite of the truth.

After Summerhill can be ordered online direct from the publisher at  for sales worldwide, or from any good bookshgop in the UK

Christopher Shute is Copy Editor of the journal and trustee of PEN. After 25 years secondary teaching Chris has researched and written widely on education. He was a regular contributor to Education Now News and Review and is author of Compulsory Schooling Disease, in addition to books on Alice Miller, Edmond Holmes and Bertrand Russell. His latest work is Joy Baker: trailblazer for home-based education and personalised learning. (Heretics Press for details of all these titles ).

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