100 years of Summerhill, the English school that teaches democracy

The Summerhill Festival of Childhood is held in England from 5 to 10 August. 100 years ago the revolutionary school teaching democracy was born, founded by AS Neill.

What is the state of democracy in our dark phase of history? With the failure of neoliberal policies, to which is added the climate crisis, the pandemic and wars, democracy is in serious danger. To complicate the situation, social networks lead people to stop talking, to polarize themselves into sclerotic positions, to no longer use constructive debate as a tool for growth and the search for a synthesis.

The political class of self-proclaimed democratic countries perform daily in grotesque theaters reminiscent of trashy TV programs where you argue, shout, talk over the interlocutor. Political programs are unjustifiably absent and only appear pale during the election campaign circus.

International academics, political scientists, sociologists cry out that democracy must be learned and practiced from an early age, in school. Not everyone knows that fortunately there is someone who had this idea 100 years ago and who bequeathed a school and a school method that is more unique than rare.

It’s about Alexander Sutherland Neillan English gentleman who lived in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and who he was a true pioneer of libertarian pedagogy.

AS Neill’s Summerhill method

Neill founded the school in 1921 in Dresden, Germany, as part of the international Neue Schule. It was the first democratic school in Europe, probably in the world. After moving to Lyme Regis in southern England in 1923, he gave the school the name of its new home: Summerhill. Name he kept when in 1927 he moved again and permanently to the present headquarters in Leiston, Suffolk.

During his lifetime, Neill published several books on the work, including “Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood (1960)”, which became a true bestseller and a classic training text for an entire generation. His method and his school have survived two world wars, the Cold War and neoliberal globalization. All in the name of girls and boys.

What exactly is it about? He explained it to us Matías KnutsThe Foundation’s Director CIPREP and among the authoritative personalities who will intervene as a panelist at the Summerhill Festival of Childhood:

Girls and boys are the protagonists of their studies and learning. They are the ones who decide what they want to learn, whether they want to go to class or prefer to play. Everything is related to their well-being. When you think about it, going to school in compulsory ways doesn’t make much sense. We should learn about life because we like it, because we want to improve and enrich ourselves.

It’s a form of “free but not libertine education,” to quote Neill. An education with precise boundaries, but with very loving and empathetic visions with girls and boys. It is essential that humanity receives a humanistic education and not impose from above information and expectations that are the same for everyone, when instead each person has different attitudes. How can we talk about a democratic society if the school system that forms individuals is not democratic? Children learn to live in a system that is not as democratic as the traditional school. To put true democracy into practice, it is important to learn it as a child.

The method is very practical: we meet daily to form a circle to discuss what we want to learn, investigate, explore. Therefore, democracy applies every day. The circle is very important, it is the democratic symbol par excellence, the event where everyone can speak on the same level and look each other in the eye. Folkeskolen is very different, but fortunately, if we look at the Scandinavian countries, the new trend is in this direction, a much more democratic and participatory work is being implemented.“.

Finally, Matías Knuts explained how at Summerhill, special attention is paid to respect for nature:

A strong awareness of having to take care of the environment is created in boys and girls. Everyone must realize that they are an actor who makes a significant contribution to change. This can only happen through democracy, where all individuals are important and considered“.

Summerhill Festival of Childhood

The 100th anniversary of the first democratic school will be celebrated during Summerhill Festival of Childhood from 5 to 10 August 2022, a Suffolk in England. Childhood will naturally be at the center of the activities and debates.

This is a family event in the heart of the English countryside, just steps from the school. Conferences, shows, concerts, workshops will involve professionals, parents, girls and boys for five dense days. The hope is that this event will be an opportunity to make Neill’s method known even more and that several other schools teaching democracy will be born.

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