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A. S. Neill

(1883—1973) founder of Summerhill School


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(1883–1973)

Alexander Sutherland Neill was an exponent of democratic, pupil‐centred, or ‘free’ schooling, and the founder of Summerhill School. His reaction to his own Calvinist upbringing led him to the conviction that children should not be subjected to the imposition of morals or values by adults in authority over them, and should not be disciplined externally by fear or threat. He argued that the purpose of education was not to control the child or to inculcate a set of values or beliefs, but to ‘to find out where a child's interest lies and to help him live it out’. Neill's philosophy and theories of education were not, however, systematic or definitively argued. Rather, it is the application and development of his democratic and learner‐centred approach as manifested in the Summerhill School project, rather than its articulation in a body of philosophical or theoretical writings, for which he is remembered. During his lifetime he was seen as an extremist in terms of educational theory and practice, with his emphasis on children's personal freedom and his insistence on equality of status between teachers and pupils.

One of his early influences was the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), particularly Freud's work on repression, on which Neill drew when exploring and seeking to resolve pupils' difficulties with life and with learning. Although his emphasis on using the child's interest as a starting point for the planning of learning has much in common with the work of Montessori, Neill was nevertheless an opponent of her educational methods, viewing them as unnecessarily ‘scientific’ and moralizing.

He made his first experiment with democratic, pupil‐centred schooling in 1921 in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden in Germany, but shortly relocated it to Sonntagsberg in Austria, claiming that staff at Hellerau were attempting to impose their own values and morals on the children. In Austria he encountered some local hostility to his ideas, and so moved his school again, this time to Lyme Regis in England, where it opened with five pupils. In 1927 Summerhill School moved finally to its current site, near the Suffolk coast. Considered something of an enfant terrible in the 1920s world of education, Neill and his unconventional approach to schooling had fallen into relative obscurity by the 1950s, when the number of pupils at Summerhill declined to 25. However, public interest in his work was rekindled by the publication of his book Summerhill—a Radical Approach to Childhood, which appeared in America in 1960 and in the UK in 1962. After his death in 1973 his wife, Ena, whom he had married when she was a member of staff at the school, took over as head teacher. On her mother's retirement in 1985, Neill's daughter Zoë took over the leadership of the school. Neill's reaction to his own constrained upbringing led him to place great emphasis on the importance of creating a happy childhood for the pupils in his care. Indeed, he claimed that ‘all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value’.

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Subjects: education.


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