Parent Voice 9

Kata – Parent at Democratic School, Summerhill

Kata is from Hungary and her three children (aged 5, 10 and 13) go to Summerhill School, which is the oldest and probably the most famous democratic school in the world. It is based in Suffolk, England and was founded by education pioneer, AS Neil in 1921. 

 “the future of Summerhill itself may be of little import. But the Summerhill idea is of the greatest importance to humanity. New generations must be given the chance to grow in freedom. The bestowal of freedom is the bestowal of love. And only love can save the world.”

Summerhill founder, AS Neill, 1963

Summerhill School, Suffolk, England

Kata and her family moved to the UK specifically so that her children could attend Summerhill School, following a disappointing start to mainstream schooling in Hungary. Her eldest child did two years of nursery (which is compulsory in Hungary) but struggled to settle in. They then did just three weeks of school (which starts at age 6 in Hungary) but experienced similar struggles there. 

Kata tells us that, sadly, her eldest developed behavioural problems due to bullying by both students and teachers for being different (they have ADHD and an extremely high IQ). The last straw for Kata was when the teacher complained that her child sang too loudly in music lessons. This was when Kata and her family opted for home education instead as an interim solution. 

Why did you choose Summerhill School?

Because my children can decide what and when to learn, and can play freely as long as they want to. Bullying is not tolerated and is well managed. They learn at an early age to take responsibility for their actions and they learn democracy in the best possible way, by practising it.

I think that at the moment mainstream education is stuck, outdated, harmful and damaging for children’s mental health, not preparing them for life at all. I’d love to see in my lifetime that it changes at least a bit towards something nurturing, inclusive and caring about EQ [Emotional Intelligence] not only IQ.

What are the main principles of Summerhill’s democratic approach? 

Self-government and non-compulsory learning. This means that lessons are optional, no child has to go to any lesson ever. Self-government works through the weekly meetings where each member of the community has one vote. The community decides about the laws and the meeting is there for dealing with law-breaking. You can read more about this here: http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/about.php

What difference has being at Summerhill made to your elder child? 

Well this is what they said:

“State school sucks, Summerhill epic!”

Quote from Kata’s eldest child

From my perspective, the behavioral problems disappeared completely. My eldest had an ADHD diagnosis when starting but nobody “cared” about it, they weren’t the child with special needs, just a child. They had to keep the laws like everybody else. The school community didn’t tolerate aggression (that was my child’s response after a while towards the bullying) but the community didn’t let other kids bully them either. They could regain trust, they’re being LOVED. They can be different, it’s absolutely alright as long as they’re not interfering with other people’s freedom. 

In your opinion what are the main challenges of our current school system? 

Let the old conditionings go… Many people are just scared to let their kids decide what and when to learn because they are afraid their children will fall behind. They expect the school to discipline their children for them. To make them all the same.

Parents are absolutely responsible for the current situation, it’s not only politicians who are making schools unbearable for children. Each time I read on Facebook groups how kids are suffering when they are going back to school after a holiday and having panic attacks, and parents are just shrugging or saying how sad they are about it, but do nothing, complain nowhere etc. I feel like yelling at them, “then why are you forcing them back?”

What are state schools doing well? 

Nothing? OK, I’m exaggerating a bit. There are isolated cases, great teachers, who try their best, but mainly it’s only about tests, and results. It’s a rat-race.

If you could make changes to the state education system, what would be your top priorities? 

Introduction of self-government, eradicate tests, cancel 10 compulsory GCSEs, introduction of more free play and more self-directed education, smaller classes and so on.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Don’t be afraid, you made the first step towards a happier future if you’re reading this. 


Further Reading About Summerhill School

Zoë Neill Readhead, the daughter of educational pioneer and Summerhill founder, A S Neill (1883-1973) submitted an article to our website reflecting on the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown on the state education system:

Education: Time For a Change? By Zoë Neill Readhead

Several books have also been written about Summerhill School which you can find listed at the bottom of our page on Democratic and Self-Directed Education.

School website: www.summerhillschool.co.uk

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/summerhill_school/


The Summerhill Centenary 

To celebrate their 100th birthday, Summerhill School has launched a centenary website at www.100yearsofsummerhill.co.uk where you can gain insights into the Summerhill story and find out about upcoming events, including the Summerhill Festival of Childhood 2022 and the opening of the new AS Neill Archive and Research Centre

You are also invited to join their Facebook Group which celebrates 100 Years of Summerhill School.


Festival of Childhood 2022

To mark their centenary, Summerhill School is holding a festival on 5th – 10th August 2022. It will offer five days of education inspiration, DJs, comedy, collaborative art projects, bands and fun activities for the young and young at heart!

You can keep up to date with the festival plans as they unfold by visiting the Festival website and by following the festival on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Summerhill School announces the Festival of Childhood 2021