I wrote my recent book Barefoot in November primarily to try and offer parents an insight into the proven and successful philosophy of A.S.Neill’s Summerhill School, now one hundred years old. I wanted to look at ways in which people would be able to use some of these tried and tested methods in their own homes.
Fundamentally, it was through writing this book that I realised, more than ever, just how down-to-earth and practical a Summerhill education actually is. I found myself telling parents to back off and allow their children more freedom to be without the adults in their lives, something that probably generations of pre and post-war children will identify with.
Those days were often quite repressive regimes within the school and at home but the saving grace for almost all children was the fact that from the end of the school day and at most weekends they were out and free to roam about the local areas, playing in the streets or countryside without an adult in sight. It still shocks me to drive the mile between my home and the school and to never see a single child out on their bikes or walking along the lanes and playing in the ditches.
We can blame the internet but I know from my experience at Summerhill that this is not the real problem, the problem is a modern trend in parenting which suggests strongly to all parents that they need to be a large part of their children’s lives – helping, encouraging and generally being involved.
“We can blame the internet but I know from my experience at Summerhill that this is not the real problem.”
So, I was trying to find ways, with all my experience of living and being involved with Summerhill, to share this information and to help those families who struggle with the, often negative, results of these regimes.
I think that our approach is something that many schools could learn from as well. Not the radical side, the non-compulsory classes and etc, but the down-to-earth way that we approach life at Summerhill and the way we live as equals whilst still acknowledging that we, the adults, have a different and more responsible role.
One does not have to have a democracy, as we have, but could learn a lot by asking the advice of the children on certain issues, of giving them a voice and a feeling of much more equality. We can live as equals without the structure of responsibility by the adults really suffering.
On the occasions when we, at Summerhill, have to put our foot down because there is a real need for this, such as insurance or national rules, our children are almost overly understanding and supportive.
If more schools could think of their pupils as colleagues but with different roles, then it would, at a stroke, create more harmony and understanding.
“The problem is a modern trend in parenting which suggests strongly to all parents that they need to be a large part of their children’s lives.”
What is wrong with calling everybody, including teachers, by their names for instance? What is wrong with sometimes agreeing, “yes, it does seem ridiculous to have to read this for such-and-such a subject – but that is the rule and we, sadly have to abide by it.” We would say this in the staffroom without a second thought so why not occasionally share it with a pupil?
I hope that my book can give those in the teaching profession some food for thought and that it may help some families to be happier and more harmonious. It is based upon my many years of living and learning in Summerhill – a unique experience that I believe nobody else in the world has had. Watching children living as near to a free-range life as possible has been an absolute honour.