"The absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child." So said A S Neill, the founder of Summerhill. Neill the great educator had not reckoned with new Labour, SATs and performance-related pay for teachers. Neill had not reckoned with Ofsted, which wants to close the school now run by his daughter, Zoe Redhead. Most of all, Neill had not reckoned with the narrowing of education in this country.
While Summerhill goes to the High Court to defend its right to let children choose if they attend lessons or not, we can read numerous articles to help parents cope with the stress of SATs. Although SATs were designed as spot checks on schools, now overworked teachers prepare their anxious little charges for these tests. Summerhill appears a crazy dream, a hippy-dippy idea that cannot work in the real world.
Its philosophy runs so counter to the prevailing orthodoxy on education that I am only surprised the government has not tried to shut it down before now. Its founding principles are that a child's emotional well-being is more important than its academic development and that the school be truly self-governing. Nowadays, no one cares if children are miserable - and survey after mental health survey shows that they are - only that they do well in exams.
When Ofsted inspectors went to Summerhill, they found that, because the kids do not have to attend lessons, many did not. The inspectors found that pupils were allowed to "mistake idleness for the exercise of personal liberty". They did not bother to look at what the kids did at weekends or in the evenings, they were not interested in the kids who read by themselves or played music or sports. Why should they be? They are Ofsted inspectors, for God's sake. They are programmed to treat children as beings who must simply hit the required benchmarks rather than as individuals who might choose how best to educate themselves.
There have been complaints about Summerhill before. In 1992, they centred on two boys playing with a dagger in the woods. An inspector found four children camping outside, and two "unselfconscious" pupils were found swimming naked in a mixed pool. This time, one of David Blunkett's complaints, which he has since withdrawn, was that a lavatory was unisex and used by staff and pupils alike. He had wanted it labelled.
The image of naked, feral children who never attend lessons and have no idea to cope with the real world is one guaranteed to wind up the likes of Chris Woodhead, Ofsted's chief inspector. But Summerhill is a private school, where parents have to pay more than £6,000 a year for the privilege of sending their kids to a school where lessons are not compulsory. Surely the existence of Summerhill must be the logical conclusion of allowing parental choice. Intriguingly, one of the things that so upsets the uptight school inspectorate and Blunkett about Summerhill is its sexual openness. If this is intrinsically harmful to children, it is not borne out by any evidence. In its 78 years of existence, there has never been a single pregnancy at Summerhill. Show me another independent school that could claim the same. Likewise, there is no drink and drugs problems there. On a more mundane level, 67 per cent of its pupils got five or more GCSEs with grades A to C - which is higher than the national average.
Why worry about Summerhill, then, when so many other schools are desperately failing? Blunkett has claimed this is not an attack on its ideology. Then what is it? To try to make Summerhill adhere to outside rules is to destroy it. In any event, contrary to popular opinion about there being no rules, like many self-governed communities, Summerhill does have many laws - 230, in fact.
The attack on Summerhill is entirely ideological because child-centred education is being undermined wherever it is found. Neill's vision was simple - that education is tied to the emotional well-being of a child and that, in this state, children can find out things for themselves, that creativity can come from play, that learning can come from what might look like lazing.
Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget came to much the same conclusions. But forget all that these days. No, what we have is six year olds being coached for SATs in the name of improvement. We have parents haranguing teachers for not giving their children enough homework. We have teenagers who just stop going to school. What is the answer to all this? Yep, that we need more and more tests.
It is hardly any wonder that Summerhill is perceived as a threat. Summerhill works on the basis that children can be trusted. This government works on the basis that teachers certainly cannot be trusted, so obviously nor can children. Hence the row about the guidelines that are supposed to replace Section 28. If teachers are not allowed to work such things out for themselves, how can we possibly expect our children to do so?
We need the likes of A S Neill now more than ever. I wonder if there is anyone in the Department for Education who has ever been a child or even likes children. Is there anyone who thinks that education might mean more than doing well in exams?
It's not just Summerhill that is threatened with closure. What is being closed down in front of our eyes is a vision of learning that encourages children to think for themselves. Neill wanted to make children unafraid. The powers that be would prefer that they be taught fear.
After all, the maintenance of "proper standards" depends on it.