by Erik Sean McGiven on Oct 01, 2008
"Imagine a School-Summerhill" is a documentary
about a famous coed 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 attempts to rein in a remarkably successful
program. Founded by educator A.S. Neill,
Summerhill is the world's oldest and most influential democratic free
school. It was established in 1927 in
the village of Leiston on the northern coast of England.
The film begins by presenting A. S. Neill's principles and
educational philosophies, which to many may at first appear irresponsible. Yet
as the film unfolds, skepticism turns toward curiosity and finally to
admiration. A. S. Neill's methods not
only work, they work much 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 in short conversational clips. There are
numerous facets and I'll try to clarify it as best I can. As I see it,
Summerhill is a democracy where students and teachers together determine the
rules of conduct and also the punishment for breaking them. Thus there is a code of behavior, 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 anyone
else's life. The school also creates an
environment where the human capacity for learning and cooperation hidden within
each individual is explored and nurtured to the fullest. It frees up the child's natural instinct to
This explanation is reached via interviews with engaging
students and teachers. Celebrities such
as alumni Jake Weber and Rebecca DeMornay add to this testimonial. This image
of unrestraint flow of ideas is likewise reinforced with images of class
discussions and students exploring topics among themselves. To the one-size-fits-all educators this
method would create anarchy and chaos.
To these people structure, discipline, and standardize methods are the
accepted mantra. Summerhill, on the
other hand, feels that every child is unique and if given freedom, will find
the proper learning pathways. The school
points out that once a child decides to learn, he or she will typically learn
five years worth of material in two.
But the film is more than a testimonial to its educational
method. It's the struggle to maintain
its very existence. When Tony Blair's
Labor Government attempts to shut them down as part of their promise to improve
standards of education, the fight is on to save this prestigious
institution. Lack of supervision,
non-compulsory attendance, and no standardized curriculum are the main
grievances. However, the government
under estimates the intuitive and persuasive powers of students and
faculty. Using their formidable
arguments a few formidable barristers take the case to court where
discrepancies in the indictment are openly exposed. In court, the testimony of the headmistress,
other adults, and, most effectively, the students bring sanity to the lawsuit.
As no cameras are allowed in the courtroom student's notes,
crude drawings, and voice over recollections skillfully give an ironic picture
of the proceedings. I say ironic in that
the government's case was prepared and presented by supposedly well-educated
people schooled under existing standardized curriculums. Yet it is the testimony by the students and
faculty that sets the record straight and returns the focus to educational
results rather than arbitrary regulations.
This section of the film had the most impact as the students documented
the proceedings and comment on deliberations.
It shows that they are extremely perceptive and knowledgeable beyond
I was won over by the articulate and rational manner in which
these students present themselves. This
I assume is a product of their Summerhill education. They are emotionally
healthy, happy and intellectually developed children and far better prepared to
face the world and its enormous problems.
Likewise, they have far better tools to shape society and deal with
harsh realities in the real world. I
left this film with a feeling of envy.
Why couldn't I have been one of them?
The filmmaker's valiant efforts bring to light this
innovative teaching philosophy and the perils should it be snuffed out. And if there is a weakness in this film, it's
that we don't get to hear the inspectors talk and experience firsthand their
plan to shutdown this school. We have
only their written report which students debunk pointing out the flaws in the
inspector's investigation. The menace of
government intrusion and their old school mentality is thus implied rather than
The catch as catch can camerawork presents a fly on the wall
perspective and in only a few scenes does the action seem contrived. The editing of the courtroom recollections is
highly inventive and the highlight of the film.
Handwritten notes, sketches, and doodles skillfully augment the
voiceovers. And when the grievance about
the lack of toilets at school comes up, it is countered delightfully with a
long series of toilets flushing. The
film is an evenhanded portrayal and the sections on swearing and sneaking out
after lights out seemed as much a part of the story as does the classroom
"Imagine a School-Summerhill" is a film that
challenges one's thinking on education and government's role in regulating
it. This film illuminates alternatives
as well as hope for the future.
CREDITS: Director: Willam Tyler Smith; Executive Producers:
William Tyler Smith & J. D. Hoxter; Producers: Morris S. Levy, Emma
Broomhead & Ann Jackman; Associate Producer & Sales Agent: Jill
Gambaro, Director of Photography: J. D. Hoxter; Editor: Ann Jackman; Music
Composer: Justin Samaha; Produced by 418 Films, Ltd.; Intended Running Time: 67
minutes; Filmed in Great Britain & United States.
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