Thursday, 10 November 2011

England: light in the darkness, cracks in the wall?

Is there to be room once more for genuinely free schooling?

BERA – the British Educational Research Association – is (gleefully?) circulating the following report –

Ofsted’s opinion of Summerhill School: from pariah to paragon
Release: 27 October 2011
A. S. Neill’s famous Summerhill School, the world’s first ‘child democracy’, has received thebest HMI/OfSTED report in its 90-year history. After decades of criticism and controversy atthe hands of the Inspectors, the School has now been found ‘outstanding’ in 8 aspects of itsprovision and practice and ‘good’ in all others. Inspectors were particularly impressed by itscontinuing excellence in relation to pupils ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’(SMSCD). ‘Welfare, health and safety of pupils’ was also outstanding, as were all 5 aspectsof boarding provision, welfare and outcomes’.
The contrast with Summerhill’s 1999 Inspection is total. Then, HMI condemned its philosophy, aims and outcomes, finding its freedoms to be an ‘abdication’ of adultresponsibility. The adjective the Inspection most often directed at its pupils was ‘foul-mouthed’. The finding that it offered neither ‘suitable’ nor ‘efficient’ education meant thatthe school faced closure. The School had to raise a Tribunal case to prevent that outcome.
The Tribunal vindicated the School, and the Ministry withdrew in haste from the case afterthree days. These events were vividly portrayed in an award-winning BBC drama in 2008.The parties to the TribunalAgreement accepted that future inspections of the School wouldbe accompanied by an ‘expert’ nominated by the School. In turn the Ministry demanded asimilar ‘expert’. So now the Inspectors were to be inspected, and the inspector of the inspectors likewise. Thus the possible tragedy of closure became something of a farce ofsurveillance (hyperveillance?) – but a necessary and useful safeguard for the School.
Since then, things have looked up. The 2007 Inspection deemed the school ‘satisfactory’,while assessing SMSCD features ‘outstanding’. Why have things turned round sodramatically? Two explanations are possible. In audit logic, a ‘failing’ school has beentransformed. Or, from a research perspective, a ‘failing’ OfSTED has finally acknowledgedthe virtues of the school, including uncoerced learning, democratic governance led by thepupils, and freedom in relation to learning and assessment.
Professor Ian Stronach, Liverpool John Moores University), the school’s ‘expert’ since 1999,argues that the school A.S. Neill wrote about more than fifty years ago, and the school heresearched in 1999, 2007 and 2011, is ‘essentially the same place, though the inspectorial surfaces are much more expertly polished.’ He added, ‘OfSTED deserve credit, at last, for an‘outstanding’ Inspection process and outcome in 2011’. Let’s hope this marks the end ofInspectorial persecution, here and elsewhere.
Ian Stronach
Professor of Educational Research, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool L17 6BD

Free at last?

I personally have never held much truck with the philosophy or methods of A. S. Neil but there is a higher-order principle at work here: LIBERTY.

At most Summerhill's success is qualified freedom: freedom under bureaucratic licence. That falls rather short of liberty but should offer hope and precedent to other would-be free educationalists in England, such as Paces in Sheffield. There is still a long, long way to go to get to the open situation in which the first attempt was made to establish CE schooling in the United Kingdom in the mid-eighties.

I received BERA's note yesterday. By coincidence, the same day I received from Inteconnections update the campaign EYE-Open, against Her Majesty's Government's repressive and counterproductive 'educational' policies in the early years of life:

Again, I have little sympathy for much of these campaigners' views on child development – but. my respect for liberty overrides this.

Are there cracks here for Conductive Education to slide through, and force further open?


  1. Wanted to reflect a bit more on this but circumstances don't allow. This Free School might interest you - an explicit attempt to work within both traditional and current meanings:

  2. There is an ambiguity here, due to the word free being used in two ways.

    First, and this is the way that may come most readily to mind, it relatess to what is often called 'free discipline' (it used to be, anyway). This if 'free' applied at the level of pedagogy/upbringing.

    Seondly, there is the freedom to create and run and chose schooling according to personal philosophy. This is 'free' applied at social and political and ethical levels, and this may be exercised in favour of schooling according to the first meaning, or others.

    Free schooling in the second meaning of the word opens the door to CE, whereas an 'unfree' education system shuts it out.

    As for pedagogy/upbringing, CE sits ill with free discipline... and perhaps the whole of the first meaning...