A private school, founded by A. S. Neill, an early proponent of pupil‐centred democratic schooling in which children are acknowledged to have the right to make decisions about what and when they will learn. Founded in 1921 near Dresden, Germany, and now currently occupying a large Victorian house and grounds near the east coast in Suffolk, the school is run as a democratic community consisting of about 95 children aged between 5 and 18, with about one member of staff to every 20 children. All—staff and pupils alike—have equal status as members of that community. Although run mainly as a co‐educational boarding school, drawing children from a diverse range of racial and cultural backgrounds, it also takes day pupils and provides a curriculum which includes General Certificate of Secondary Education subjects. One of the ways in which it differs from a conventional school is that children are under no compulsion to attend lessons, and are provided with free access to communal areas where they can play, socialize, or engage in creative activities. The school timetable is created in response to the subject choices made by older pupils, and makes their preferred subjects available, although not mandatory. This democratic approach is based on A. S. Neill's philosophy that children learn self‐confidence, tolerance, and consideration not from any externally imposed discipline, but from being given the freedom to think and choose for themselves. For the child, the most important right is considered to be the right to play. According to this approach, the decision to engage in formal learning should be a choice made freely, and therefore attendance at lessons should be optional.
The professional role and practice of the teachers within this community are also different in some respects from those required of teachers in conventional schooling environments. For example, they will offer one‐to‐one teaching for pupils who prefer this to a classroom approach; and they meet every day in order to discuss individual pupil progress and to plan the best response and provision for each child. As the philosophy on which the school is based rejects any imposition of hierarchy, teachers cannot use their authority as adults in order to impose values, nor their adult power to intervene in problem‐solving. Instead of teacher‐imposed sanctions, issues of discipline, bullying, and negative or disruptive behaviour are solved by community meetings or by ‘ombudsmen’ elected from within the community. The rejection of hierarchy also applies between pupils themselves, the older children having no more rights or authority than the very youngest.
The original Summerhill provision was part of an international school in Hellerau, outside Dresden, but was relocated by Neill in the first instance to Sonntagsberg in Austria, and then, in the early 1920s, to Lyme Regis in England, where it opened with five pupils. In 1927 it moved to its current site, still retaining the original name. During the Second World War the school was evacuated to Wales, while the premises in Suffolk were used by the army. Pupil figures fell in the 1950s; but interest in the school and in the philosophy of democratic, pupil‐centred schooling was kindled by the UK publication in 1962 of Neill's book Summerhill—a Radical Approach to Childhood. The school continues to attract controversy, often depicted in the press as being excessively liberal in its attitude to learning and behaviour management. Its emphasis on individual fulfilment and goal‐setting sets it at odds with two dominant current trends in state education: the instrumentalist emphasis on education for employment or the good of the economy, and the growth of statutory testing and assessment. In 2006–7 the school was engaged in a much‐publicized conflict of ideas with Ofsted, which was finally resolved in the courts in Summerhill's favour.