Summerhill: Fully Engaging Youth in their Education

The Summerhill school in England was one of the world’s first, and along with the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, one of the world’s most successful and enduring “democratic-free” schools. “Free” in that the students are completely in charge of what, when, where, how and from whom they learn. “Democratic” in that the students and the staff jointly participate in school governance through use of the democratic process, with youth and adults having an equal voice and vote in most matters.

Though I feel “free” schools should be only one of many types of educational venues we offer our youth (along with our conventional academic instructional schools), I do think all varieties of educational venues could benefit greatly or even be transformed for the better by adopting a democratic governance process that includes students. In fact, I would argue that it could be one of the key missing elements from a true transformation of our education system and our society at large away from a traditional conservatism and towards a more sustained progressive outlook. I think most progressive people are missing a golden opportunity by not advocating that our schools move away from their authoritarian governance to more democratic models.

Okay, I said it. That is my (perhaps utopian) vision.

I think the experience of youth-adult “self-government” (democratic process) at Summerhill is a good object lesson on how this can work. According to Matthew Appleton (an adult staff member at Summerhill during the 1990s) in his book, A Free Range Childhood

Self-government… is a powerful current that guides our lives at Summerhill and gives the community shape and substance. The meetings are not lame affairs overseen by benevolent adults, but are dynamic, animated affairs that put the running of our everyday lives well and truly in the hands of the community.

School “laws” are made at a weekly General Meeting held every Saturday evening when the school is in session. A separate Tribunal Meeting is held ever Friday afternoon to adjudicate any infractions to those laws and hand out fines and other consequences. Attendance at these meetings is voluntary, but they generally attract the adult staff and a cross-section of both the older and younger students. The meeting is chaired by a community member (generally a student) who has been selected at the previous meeting and another designate functions as the meeting secretary.

By prior arrangement with that secretary, any community member (adult or youth) can present a proposal to address creating a new law, changing or removing an existing law, or bringing a “case” against another student or adult staff member. The item is then presented at the appropriate meeting, discussed, and proposals for resolution or adoption are considered and voted upon. Within the scope of the meetings’ authority, decisions are binding.

According to Appleton…

I have always liked a quote by Polish educationalist Janus Korczak, from his book When I am Little Again, published in 1926. He writes, “You are mistaken if you think we have to lower ourselves to communicate with children. On the contrary, we have to reach up to their feelings, stretch, stand on our tiptoes.” This insight paves the way to an understanding of the very reason that self-government functions in a fairer and more competent way than an authority exercised by adults only. Children understand the emotional dimensions of each other’s actions more readily than most adults do.

A “jury of your peers” and “one person one vote” are foundational to our democratic tradition and simple statements of fairness and respect for the worth and dignity of every individual. I can see no reason why these powerful concepts are not applicable to youth as well as adults, at least within the cloistered context of a school. Certainly in the more limited context of camps for older Unitarian-Universalist youth I know that this approach works. A venue with a majority of youth and a much smaller percentage of adults can pretty much govern itself.

At Summerhill, according to Appleton, the typical ruling against a person who is found guilty of an infraction is a fine or a removal of certain privileges for a given amount of time. I find it interesting that Appleton doesn’t see this in terms of punishment…

We fine people at Summerhill, but we do not punish them. To punish implies a moral judgment, one that is meted out by goodness above to badness below. If children are able to handle their affairs in such a fair and rational manner, day in, day out, year after year at Summerhill, then why are they not allowed to do so throughout society[?]…

Appleton is associating “punishment” and “morality” (rather than pragmatic Golden Rule thinking) with the hierarchical control of one group of people by another. In the egalitarian governance of this school…

Just as there is an absence of morality and authority, there is also an absence of resentment on the part of the person who has been brought up. The conflict is rational and is not based on a power struggle, so the response is also rational.

So Appleton sites the example of a particular student who stole money from the school’s self-run “Cafe”. The student hears from his peers who work hard to keep the Cafe going that they are angry and feel betrayed, and the decision of the group is to issue him a fine and order him to build a new book case in the shop for the Cafe, but…

His insecurities are not dragged into the arena of the meeting. After the meeting no one is hostile to him. The air has been cleared. He realizes, even if just as a glimmer, that people accept him for who he is.

Adults do still play an appropriate and critical role creating “safe space” for youth, even at Summerhill…

All laws go through the community meetings except for certain health and safety laws and other laws that are mandatory in the eyes of the law of the land. The meeting could not, for example, decide that adolescent boys and girls could sleep in the same rooms. If it did the school could be closed down.

The director, Zoe Readhead (founder A.S. Niell’s daughter) has the final authority also to hire or dismiss staff, though she does take input from the rest of the school staff and the students. And though the meeting can recommend that a student be expelled from the school, again only the director can make that call. Interestingly, at the Sudbury Valley School, the equivalent community meeting does have the authority to hire and fire staff and expel students.

What I am reminded of in reading Appleton’s book is the transformative power of democratic governance and the full engagement and empowerment of every member of a community as a circle of equals rather than people within a “pecking order” of power and control. During the past 500 years democratic process has transformed Western culture, at least for adults. Why does it not make sense to bring this powerful humanistic methodology to play in the “safe space” of a any school? If democratic governance can empower people and facilitate building a country like the United States, why can’t we employ it to transform an educational venue?

Just like adults, kids want their lives to have meaning and make a contribution to the world now, not twelve, sixteen or eighteen years from now when they finish their education. Keeping our kids from contributing to the governance of their schools tends to keep them narcissisticly hyper-focused on themselves rather than participating fully in a larger community of peers, “youngers” and elders. I don’t think that is natural or healthy.

As an older youth I left absolutely no mark on or legacy at the large public high school where I spent four years. Though I came out of it changed, it seemed unchanged by, even unaware of, my tenure. But while I was in high school, I left a significant mark on the youth-led theater group, Junior Light Opera, that I participated in in a much fuller sense than I ever was able to do at school.

My own kids seemed no more than “teachable widgets” at the large public schools that they attended, and could have contributed so much more to those institutions if given the chance. Fortuitous for them, they both had the opportunity to get involved in a Unitarian-Universalist youth community that was willing to fully leverage their insights and energies.

From my own experience as an older youth and what I witnessed as a parent of older youths, I resonate with Appleton’s words describing the older youth at Summerhill…

Although there are adults who take active and powerful roles in the community, by and large the guiding light of community life comes from the older kids. They are, so to speak, the elders of the community. Many of them will have been at Summerhill longer than most of the staff, and have a much deeper understanding of its processes. The big kids are very powerful in the school’s self-government. They have strong voices in the meetings, drawn from their years of growing up through the school and an understanding of the younger kids, who may be going through phases that they went through themselves not long before.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda?

We still have a ways to go!

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