‘The Forgotten Majority and the Invisible Minority: Strategies from Alternative Education’

11th July 2018

In July this year, Releasing Potential will welcome as keynote speaker Henry Readhead, Assistant Principle at Summerhill Democratic School (Suffolk), to our annual conference. I first heard about Summerhill as part of an inspection of our own school by OFSTED in 2017. Our inspector described a registration visit to Summerhill by the Independent Schools Inspectorate in 2016, and spoke about the challenge of inspecting a school in which the formal curriculum was varied, and progress was difficult to track in a traditional sense. He stressed the importance of an open mind when it came to Summerhill, and he expressed regret about the complications inherent in fully understanding alternative models of education that diverge from the National Curriculum. Summerhill, of course, has a long and rich history as a provider of Alternative Education.

Founded in 1921 by the current Head Teacher’s father A.S.Neill, the school gained notoriety during the 1960s as a utopian project run by “dreamers and idealists”, and a place where children were encouraged to “do as they pleased”. In the early 2000s, following a damning OFSTED report and the threat of closure, Summerhill entered the spotlight once more. The school took on the government and won in a battle against the (then) Department for Education and Employment. Summerhill argued that the government’s inspection had failed to take into account the school’s philosophy: their holistic approach to learning that saw children’ voices as integral to the process of governing the school and delivering a person-centred education. Mid-way through Summerhill’s appeals hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, the DFEE sought an agreement with the school. As Summerhill’s website describes:

This was duly drawn up and voted for in a unique Meeting held, by permission of the judges, in the Royal Court itself. This was a historical moment – probably the first time a democratic meeting had been held in a Royal court of law and certainly the first time a children’s meeting had done so.

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. MPs from all parties have been highly critical of the fact that this protection was won at such great expense to the school.

Given the history, I was curious about the Summerhill story – could the school’s journey be of help in our own quest to deliver bespoke programmes of alternative education? How might their democratic approach be of value to those working in both mainstream and non-mainstream settings? Could we, with hugely different pupils to those educated at Summerhill, learn anything from their experiences that might help us develop our own systems to track progress in children for whom success has been historically difficult to define or record? Talking to Henry, I was struck by the unexpected similarities in our approaches to educating children and young people despite huge differences in the demographics of our individual settings.

Summerhill is a private, fee-paying, residential school; Releasing Potential offers placements to children for whom mainstream school has not worked, and our students are often from difficult home environments, are in residential care, or struggle with social interactions because of autism or other conditions. Summerhill students may have a range of differing needs, but very few of them are in receipt of extra help for Special Educational Needs, nor does the school deal with the sorts of challenging behaviour or extreme emotional vulnerability that makes mainstream school an impossibility for most of our own students. Despite the differences in our two school environments, it was fascinating to hear Henry talk excitedly about the benefits of democratic education across a range of settings, and in particular the principles of freedom and responsibility that underpin Summerhill’s ethos. For children for whom education has been a deeply negative experience—during which they have not felt heard or their views have not seemed valued—a democratic approach offers an important alternative to seemingly inevitable cycles of disengagement, truancy and poor attainment.

At Releasing Potential, our own needs-based model, deeply rooted in William Glasser’s Choice Theory, privileges freedom and choice as central to a child’s learning needs: as important as, and given equal emphasis alongside, needs such as survival, love and belonging, power and self-worth, and fun. It is with a huge sense of excitement and pleasure that our delegates this year will have the opportunity to listen to Henry’s keynote address. Summerhill’s journey has been anything but smooth, but they have succeeded in creating a highly unorthodox curriculum requiring its own bespoke inspection process, and I think we can all learn something valuable from both their setbacks and triumphs.

‘The Forgotten Majority and the Invisible Minority: Strategies from Alternative Education’ takes place on Wednesday 11th July 2018 at New Place Hotel, Shirrell Heath, Hampshire.

Tickets cost £65 and are inclusive of breakfast on arrival, a hot sit-down lunch in the Manor House, and all talks and workshops. A small number of student tickets are available.