I’d been looking forward to this visit for months, I knew it would be an emotional experience going back to the place where I spent some of the happiest moments of my childhood. But I was also a little anxious, would it be as I remembered and how would my children react to the space? The trip felt like we were in our own episode of Cbeebies’ My Story. The nostalgia started as soon as we entered Suffolk, The Toys’R’Us roundabout, the big bridge, the BT tower, the gorse bushes and finally the famous Summerhill sign.
First up was a tour of the grounds and a go on the big beech swing. I was amazed to see that the imaginary plan of the site I had in my head rang true, everything was where I remembered it was, although a few new buildings had sprung up. Summerhill was one of 5 schools I attended whilst growing up and the one I was at for the briefest period, yet I can’t recall the others with anywhere near as much detail and it probably left the strongest imprint on my life which I think is testament to what a special place and experience it was.
After a look around the girls and I headed to Class 1 the learning space for younger students where I remember writing stories, dressing up and making mud pies, trying to convince our teacher they were genuine chocolate cakes. The students were incredibly friendly, one little girl came straight up to 4 year old Elsie, who is usually a little shy of making new friends, put out her hand and said “we can be friends if you like” and that was it the two were almost inseparable for the next two days. Alanna took a little longer to warm up but once she’d found a girl with a matching jumper had also disappeared into the trees. I find children are very intuitive about the atmosphere of a place, they know instantly whether they are trusted and respected and react accordingly.
Of course we weren’t there just to revel in nostalgia but to get some first hand experience of how the school operates and how values like equality between children and adults manifest themselves in day to day interactions between staff and students. It was great to see the very relaxed manner everyone had with each other, no one afraid to say what was on their minds and staff and students sat next to each other at lunch happily chatting away. So different to the very cliquey almost tribal social segregation that so often happens in schools.
On our second day at the school the kids joined Class 1 for a science lesson where they made slime and inflated a balloon with a mixture of baking powder and vinegar. It was great to see an older student assisting with the lesson. When chatting afterwards she explained to me that after a period of recovery from her prior school experience, where she didn’t attend much in the way of classes, it was science that first caught her attention. She then made use of the open sessions to learn as much as she could about the subject and now regularly helps out with other classes. All of the students we spoke to were incredibly warm, open, articulate and passionate about the school and their right to determine what’s best for their lives.
There are three key messages that I took away from Summerhill as a child and that have stuck with me throughout my life: 1. You can’t make someone learn something, they have to want to learn it. 2. We are all responsible for ourselves, our choices and our lives. 3. We all have a shared responsibility to look after our communities.
The school meeting, currently held 3 times a week and well attended by most of the school community each time, is really where the responsibility towards the community is most exemplified. I remembered the feeling of being brought up in the meeting, how I wasn’t so much afraid of ‘getting in trouble’ as disappointed at having let the community down. But what I’d forgotten was how powerful it is when week after week members of your community, the people you look up to and respect, your friends talk about the core values of your community. Values like fairness, respect, giving people another chance and accountability.
One particular case at the meeting stood out for us. A young boy who was fairly new to the school and still figuring out things like personal boundaries and due process had been brought up for annoying others. This seemed straightforward he was given a warning and a short ban from the space where the incident had taken place. But then another student raised the issue that some people were acting unkindly to him in response to his challenging behaviour. He spoke of how revenge and retaliation were not acceptable at Summerhill, if someone irritates you – get an ombudsman or bring the case to the meeting. But moreover he advocated responding with empathy and understanding, here was a child still figuring things out – just like we all have at some point, he just needed time and kindness. I don’t know the age of the student that spoke up, maybe 14 or 16, but his words were wise and compassionate. All of our visiting group were struck with the power of his message and the effect this must have had on the smallest community members who sat quietly listening.
Driving home with our muddy coats and pockets of slime Elsie said “you know I could sleep there, I’d learn to write and send you letters”. I’m not sure I’m ready for that, but it’s clear it left a mark on them as it did on me. We’re now more ready than ever for our own school adventure to start.