‘Summerhill’ by A.S. Neill

A. S. Neill (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz (originally published 1960 Summerhill: a radical approach to child rearing New York: Hart)

Born between August Aichhorn and Anton Makarenko and beginning his experiment in education at around the same time, A.S. Neill (1883-1973) was the only one of the three to survive into the second half of the 20th century and to be associated with the same establishment for over 50 years. A teacher, he grew frustrated with conventional approaches to teaching and, falling under the influence of Homer Lane, he began his experimental work in Germany and Austria in the early 1920s before moving first to Summerhill House, Lyme Regis and then to Leiston, Suffolk where he retained the name Summerhill for the school. He initially offered children analysis but later decided that it was superfluous because those who didn’t receive analysis got better anyway.

Key Ideas

– Fit the school to the child, not the other way round.

– Children will learn when they are ready to learn.

– Using a meeting of staff and children to manage the running of the establishment.

– In order to show approval to children, adults must approve of themselves.

– In order to help a child, adults have to be on the side of the child.

– Children do not have sexual difficulties if adults talk naturally to them about sexual matters.

– Moral instruction causes more problems than it solves.

– “Love and hate are not opposites. The opposite of love is indifference”.


Summerhill is a collection of extracts from That dreadful school (Neill, 1937) and other papers produced by Neill (as he was always known).

In the Preface he briefly outlines the beginnings of Summerhill and his own experiments with psychoanalysis before he realised that the children who didn’t come for analysis were also cured. He argues that education should produce people who are both individual and community persons and wonders why mankind does so much evil and why people thwart love.

In A word of introduction he argues that all crime can be reduced to unhappiness and that at Summerhill children are reared to happiness.

In Chapter 1 Summerhill School he describes how the school, founded in 1921 in Austria, eventually moved to Leiston, Suffolk (where it retained the name Summerhill from the hotel in Lyme Regis where it had briefly been based). It has around 25 boys 20 girls of all ages up to 16 divided into three groups, the youngest, the intermediates and the oldest. Each group has a housemother and the children are mostly in rooms of three to four.

The idea is to make the school fit the child, so there is a timetable for the teachers but children decide whether they attend. Children, other than the kindergartens, avoid lessons for on average three months, the longest being three years. When he suggested a punishment of being banned from lessons, the children argued he was being too harsh. Children who want to can be taught to university standard.

The normal routine is breakfast at 8.15 – 9.00, lessons at 9.30, lunch for the kindergartens and younger ones at 12.30 and lunch for the seniors and the staff at 1.30, lessons having ended at 1.00. The afternoon is free; tea is at 4.00 and activities begin at 5.00; on Saturday that is the General School Meeting.

The girls tend to be less creative and participate less in General School Meeting but they are often sent to Summerhill by their parents after problems elsewhere and removed after their ‘problems’ have been solved. There has always been the problem of parents who don’t believe in the ethos of the school.

He outlines how conflicts are handled, noting that there is little aggression, because only young people full of hate need to fight. They take the normal precautions to keep pupils safe. There are no favourites and the staff room is happy. But Summerhill is an island; if it wasn’t, they would have to compromise and fulfil various legal requirements.

Evil continues because young people are taught to ‘know’ rather than to ‘feel.’ Though the school has been successful and free children spend more time on creative activities, the approach is not successful with all children.

He gives a number of examples of his ‘private lessons’, the emotional problems he was and was not able to deal with, his relationship as the father-figure and his wife’s as the mother-figure and of school general meeting decisions. Bullying occurs when children take out on others what they cannot take out on staff. The children accept Summerhill justice, which normally involves reparation for thefts and fines for anti-social behaviour. Though younger children will participate in the General School Meetings, they are not old enough to run it.

Occasionally there have been children that Summerhill could not help or had to get rid of because of their effect on other children and the only problem they had with co-education was when two similar-aged teenagers arrived together; he spoke to them about the situation and there were no problems.

At one time everyone over 12 had to do two hours a week work on the grounds or pay a fine; the younger children identified work with being grown up whereas the older ones needed a reason for themselves.

At theatre night on Sunday, plays written by the children, or teachers’ plays if there are none by the children, are produced. They have dancing and music, sports and games and give prizes for sports though there are none for lessons.

He concludes this chapter with the Report of Her Majesty’s Inspectors on their visit on 20-21 June 1949, commenting that it is “fair … sincere … generous”.

In Chapter 2 Child rearing, he argues that the unfree child is hypocritical, ignorant and repressed and that there are no problem children, only problem parents or problem humanity. He argues for self-regulation, by which he means the freedom to live freely which does not mean doing anything. The key is sincerity, the aim is happiness and the enemy of freedom is fear.

Children need to be allowed to be selfish; imposing anything by authority is wrong but don’t expect quick results. The key to love and approval is that the parent must approve of themselves and be on the child’s side; adult disapproval is often interpreted as hate by a child. Criminals have lost the desire for approval from society and seek it instead from their peers.

He offers some advice for fathers and then discusses the impact of fear, in particular fear of punishment, inferiority and fantasy. Destructiveness is often unconscious, as illustrated through his experiences with the tools in his workshop which is now locked, as are the lab, pottery, theatre, etc. as a result of General School Meeting decisions.

He discusses lying and the impact of adults lying, which he once did to protect a girl, and warns about the dangers of family secrets. He discusses responsibility, obedience and discipline arguing that a loving environment will take care of most of the troubles of childhood.

He discusses rewards and punishments and the importance of consequences rather than punishments.

He criticises the fashion for timetabled breast-feeding and argues that children will choose all the right things to eat if the are given freedom of choice. He discusses health and sleep, cleanliness and clothing, toys, noise, manners, money and humour.

In Chapter 3 Sex, he talks about his own experience as a child and the impact of attitudes to sex on children, arguing that the taboos and fears that prevent open discussion of sexual matters lead to sex assaults and men’s difficulties with sex.

He argues that adults should answer the questions a child asks, neither more nor less, and that “masturbation, Don Juanism, homosexuality are all unproductive because they are asocial”. However, he argues that prohibiting masturbation causes problems for children and that, if children are allowed to discuss sexual matters openly, pornography, homosexuality and promiscuity do not arise; he condemns hypocritical attitudes to illegitimacy and abortion.

In Chapter 4 Religion and morals, he looks forward to a religion without a mind/body split, arguing that moral instruction makes children bad because a child will learn right and wrong in due course without moral instruction.

He argues that attitudes to swearing are based on prejudice against old English words and in favour of Latin and condemns censorship.

In Chapter 5 Children’s problems, he looks at a variety of children’s problems – cruelty and sadism, criminality, stealing and delinquency – which he variously links to hate and to misunderstanding children. He argues that the cure is love or being on the side of the other person, which is the key at Summerhill,

In Chapter 6 Parents’ problems, he argues that love and hate are not opposites; rather the opposite of love is indifference. He then looks at issues such as spoiling the child, power and authority and jealousy before exploring the impact divorce and parental anxiety can have on parent-child relationships. The key to all these problems, he says, is parental awareness.

In Chapter 7 Questions and answers, he reprints a range of answers that he has given at various times under the headings: in general, about Summerhill, about child-rearing, about sex, about religion, about psychology and about learning which largely repeat points he has made, sometimes less directly, earlier in the book.


Neill perhaps best illustrates Wolins’s argument that successful group care requires an ideology (Wolins, 1969). His ideology is fairly simple – treat children with respect and let them make their own decisions and they will respond positively – and he demonstrates over more than 50 years that such an ideology can be a satisfactory basis for caring for many children.

Accordingly, there is little discussion of theory or method, and Neill ostensibly rejects most of the philosophies and theories which animate other writers; yet he is more in tune with their ideas than he appears to accept. For example, like Mary Carpenter (1853), he believes that children’s problems are largely caused by their parents and by society, that constructive activities should be voluntary – (in her day it was labour, play and sport; in his day it is education, play and sport) – and that children learn better from the consequences of events than from punishments. Though he argues against moral instruction which may appear to put him at odds with Mary Carpenter’s argument that children need moral education, it is difficult to see how the weekly General School Meeting could not have contributed to children’s moral education.

His argument that adults have to be on the side of children articulates a theme that is implicit rather than explicit in the work of several other authors in this series and which is more likely to be expressed today in the nostrum “Start where the person is”.

Neill’s chief weakness lies in acknowledging that Summerhill does not meet the needs of every child and yet offering it almost as a “one size fits all approach”. Whereas Aichhorn (1951) explicitly argues that every child needs a different approach and both Makarenko (1936) and Mr Lyward (Burn, 1956) acknowledge they have been unable to meet some young people’s needs, Neill really only acknowledges that he made some wrong decisions in particular cases. He also appears to relish the fact that he never obtained official approval, which he maintains has avoided interference with this methods. Yet Mr Lyward (Burn, 1956) was able to take state-funded pupils without having to compromise on his principles or methods of work. Finally, he does not appear to have been able to encourage the sort of development in girls which Homer Lane was able to (Bazeley, 1928) and which Mary Carpenter (1853) believed was possible.

Though Neill is perhaps the first to articulate the need for staff to have a degree of self-esteem, something which Makarenko (1936) had to learn the hard way, and to recognise the link between love and hate in people’s relationships, more than with most authors in this series, several of the issues he addresses, such as time-tabled breast feeding, illegitimacy, abortion and censorship, have moved on considerably and his attitude to homosexuality now puts him alongside the fundamental Christians whom he criticised so heavily in his day.


Aichhorn, A (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago First published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag

Bazeley, E T (1928) Home Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin See also Children Webmag February 2009

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton See also Children Webmag May 2009

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poèma See also Children Webmag February 2009

Neill, A S (1937) That dreadful school London: Herbert Jenkins

Wolins, M (1969) Group care: friend or foe? Social work 14(1), 35-53 Reprinted in Martin Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chicago, Aldine

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