“Imagine a School – Summerhill” is a documentary about a famous classmate alternative boarding school that faced closure by Tony Blair’s Labor government. Directed by William Tyler Smith, this extraordinary story is about how big government and its cookie cutter mentality try to rein in a remarkably successful program. Founded by educator AS Neill, Summerhill is the oldest and most influential democratic open school in the world. It was founded in 1927 in the village of Leeston on the north coast of England.
The film begins by presenting the principles and educational philosophy of AS Neill, which to many may seem irresponsible at first. Yet as the film progresses, skepticism turns to curiosity and finally to admiration. AS Neill’s methods not only work, they work better than the standardized British curriculum. Summerhill’s test scores are often well above the national average.
Summerhill students, teachers and alumni explain this unconventional learning process using short interactive clips. There are many aspects and I will try to make it as clear as possible. As I see it, Summerhill is a democracy where students and teachers together determine the rules of conduct; and punishment for breaking them. Thus, there is a code of behaviour, which is reached by consensus rather than imposed by school administrators. At Summerhill, each child is free to make their own decisions: whether to attend lessons, play on the school grounds, or read a book all day, as long as their actions don’t interfere with someone else’s life. The school also creates an environment where the human potential for learning and collaboration hidden within each individual is explored and nurtured to the fullest. It unleashes the natural tendency of the child to learn.
This clarification is achieved through interviews with engaging students and teachers. Celebrities like alumni Jake Weber and Rebecca DeMorne are included in this testimonial. This image of an uncontrolled flow of ideas is likewise reinforced with images of class discussions and students exploring topics among themselves. This one-size-fits-all method for teachers will create chaos and chaos. Structure, discipline and standardization methods are accepted mantras for these teachers. Summerhill, on the other hand, feels that every child is unique and that if given the freedom, he or she will find appropriate learning paths. The school states that once a child decides to learn, he or she will typically learn two to five years of material.
Yet the film is more than a testimonial to its educational method. It is a struggle to maintain its existence. When Tony Blair’s Labor government attempts to shut them down as part of its promise to improve education levels, the fight to save this iconic institution continues. Lack of supervision, non-compulsory attendance, and no standardized curriculum are the main complaints. However, the government estimates the innate and persuasive powers of the students and teachers. Using effective arguments, formidable barristers take the case to court where discrepancies in the prosecution are openly exposed. In court, the testimony of the headmaster, other adults, and, most effectively, students bring discretion to trial.
Since no cameras are allowed in the courtroom, student notes, raw drawings, and voice-over recollections skillfully give an ironic picture of the proceedings. I say ironically that the government’s case was prepared and presented by the supposedly educated under the existing standardized curriculum. Yet it is the testimony of students and teachers that sets the record straight and focuses on educational outcomes rather than arbitrary rules. This section of the film had the most impact as the students documented the proceedings and commented on the deliberations. It shows that they are extremely perceptive and knowledgeable beyond their years.
These students won me over with the clear and rational way of presenting themselves. It seems to me that a product of his Summerhill education. They are emotionally healthy, happy and intellectually developed children and are far better prepared to face the world and its vast problems. Likewise, they have better tools to shape society and deal with harsh realities in the real world. I left this film with a feeling of jealousy. Why couldn’t I be one of them?
The valiant efforts of the filmmaker bring this innovative teaching philosophy to light and it must be put to an end. And if there’s a weakness in this movie, it’s that we don’t get to hear the inspectors listen and get a first-hand experience of their plan to shut down this school. We only have their written report which the students reject pointing out flaws in the inspector’s investigation. The threat of government infiltration and their old school mentality lies rather than viewed as such.
The camerawork as a catch can present a fly on the wall perspective. Some scenes appear to be fictional. The editing of Courtroom Memories is highly inventive and is the highlight of the film. Handwritten notes, sketches and doodles skillfully enhance voiceover. And when it comes to complaints about the lack of toilets in the school, it is happily countered with a long series of flushing toilets. The film is a hand-drawn illustration and the swearing and sneaking-out segments after the lightsaber seem to be as much a part of the story as the classroom activities.
“Imagine a School – Summerhill” is a film that challenges those who think about education and the role of government in regulating it. The film throws light on the choices as well as the expectations of the future. Imagine what it would be like if these principles and educational philosophies were incorporated into our schools.
Credits: Keynote interview with Orson Bean, Tom Conti, Peter Coyote and Rebecca De Morne. Director: Willam Tyler Smith; Executive Producers: William Tyler Smith and JD Hoxter; Producers: Morris S. Levy, Emma Broomhead and Ann Jackman; Associate Producer and Sales Agent: Jill Gambaro, Director of Photography: JD Hoxter; Editor: Ann Jackman; Music Composer: Justin Samaha; Produced by 418 Films Ltd.; Running time: 67 minutes; Filmed in Great Britain and the United States. not evaluated. Available on DVD on Amazon.