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Summerhill School, Suffolk, England

Summerhill School, Suffolk, England

Summerhill is one of England’s most famous boarding schools, best known for not requiring its pupils to attend lessons and giving its children a democratic role in running the school. The school is managed around a core belief that “the function of a child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.”

Summerhill provides education for up to 90 children up to GCSE with entry required on or before a child’s 11th birthday. The current Principal is the founder’s daughter.

The school occupies a partially ivy clad large Victorian country house with an eclectic mix of additions, a cottage and outbuildings including converted rail carriages. Set within 11 acres of woods and countryside, the school is two miles from the Suffolk coast. Despite its hugely controversial teaching approach, Summerhill pupils have been successful in many walks of life and many go onto study at universities worldwide. Alumni include Rebecca de Mornay, children’s author John Burningham, actor Jake Weber, Elton John and Pink Floyd producer Gus Dudgeon and Storm Thorgerson, the rock album cover designer.

A progressive school, Summerhill is run according to 5 specific aims of A S Neill who founded the school in 1921:

• to provide choices and opportunities that allow children to develop at their own pace and to follow their own interests;
• to allow children to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, allowing them to develop their own goals and sense of achievement;
• to allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like;
• to allow children to experience the full range of feelings free from judgement and intervention of an adult; and,
• to allow children to live in a community that supports them and that they are responsible for in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through the democratic process.”

Teachers are carefully chosen to fit with the school ethos and include Trace Currall, current Head of English and best known for being a published poet, former award-winning lecturer in sociology at Edge Hill, and previously a Royal Marine and Falklands Veteran.

Pupils attend lessons by choice and where no pupils attend classes, teachers work on lesson plans and other activities. 2014 examination results for GCSE reflect the limited importance of exam-based attainment within the broader whole-child focus of school life. No pupils at Summerhill achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grades A*-C or equivalents including A*-C in both English and mathematics (the national average is around 60%). In total 20% of Summerhill pupils achieved 5 or more A*-C passes or equivalents, against a national average of 65.5%.

Summerhill offers formal GCSE examinations in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, English Language and Literature, German, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese, Woodwork, Art, Drama, History, Geography, Music and Information Technology although not all students choose to pursue examinations.


This may to some degree account for low exam result attainment and are suggestive that Summerhill’s league table performance even on this basis is misleading. For parents looking exclusively for league table performance, Summerhill certainly will not provide a good fit. By every standard of what constitutes even “normal” academic attainment in the traditional state and independent education sectors, Summerhill fails – yet its Ofsted report, near outstanding across the board, hints at why Summerhill remains the only choice for parents who believe that examinations can be addressed later if necessary and what matters is the fullest development of the whole child, at their own pace, within the context of an unforced development of their own childhood.

Summerhill also emphasises that where examinations were taken, 70.3125% of GCSE/IGCSE grades were achieved at grades A*-C. That is, for those pupils for whom exams are important, Summerhill delivers.

As Summerhill focuses on education to GCSE, the school has no Oxbridge slipstream. Pupils may, however, stay at Summerhill until they are 18 should they wish to defer their examinations, or simply continue their non-academic education.

Co-curricular activities are diverse, but Summerhill is not wealthy and does not have the grand theatres, 25 metre swimming pools or new-build sports facilities characteristic of most public schools. The school has its own outside swimming pool (built in part from the proceeds of a London concert held for the purpose by Joan Baez) but otherwise the school has a reputation for being basic and self-managing.

When pupils decide democratically that they need to upgrade facilities in many cases they will build them themselves. School fees are under half of many of Summerhill’s independent sector peers and it chooses to set fees at this level to be as inclusive as possible.

Entrance to the school is between 8 and 11. 70% of pupils come from overseas. English lessons for those for whom English is a second language are provided within the fees rather than being charged for on an hourly rate as is the case with nearly all other public schools. Entrance is not academically selective and there are no tests.

A pre-requisite for entry is that parents read, and discuss with their children, “Summerhill and A S Neill,” edited by Mark Vaughan OBE (ISBN 0-335-21913-6) to be certain that Summerhill will fit. Questionnaire, application form and Guided Tour follow and at this point and, assuming the pupil is successful, an unconditional offer follows. Bursaries are available but only to children studying at the school.

The school is a non-denominational and religions plays no significant role in school life.


An Interview with ZOЁ READHEAD, Principal, Summerhill School

What do you think are the four most important differences between a progressive education at Summerhill and a standard English boarding school education at somewhere like Eton?
Freedom for the individual, equality, democracy and the right to play as much as a child wants to play.

Can you give me a quote from a child who has come from overseas describing Summerhill?
“It is wonderful to have time to be bored, to spend time on my own doing nothing…”

Is there a …. type of child that would benefit most from a Summerhill education?
All children thrive on freedom!

Do you think as a rule it would be better if children took exams later to enable them to gain a broader non-academic education during their formative years?

Can you describe something in your professional life at the school that has particularly inspired you?
Every day at Summerhill is inspiring – just watching children develop into the people that they want to be is inspiring.

What are Summerhill’s most special features?
Freedom, democracy, individuality, equality, companionship, warmth, humour.

What do you think parents might look for outside league tables in trying to make the best choice of school for their children?
Any school that gives the children the REAL right to be an individual and to follow a path that the adults do not necessarily think is the correct one for them

How do you see the school developing over the next decade?
It will continue to thrive


Exam results
A Level grades secured at A*/A/B n/a
A’ Level grades A*/A n/a
GCSE Grades A*A Not published
GCSE Grades A*B Not published


Our view
For many children Summerhill offers a fabulous education, but education in its broadest sense. In some cases this means an extended childhood in which pupils will play and experience the world in a myriad of ways outside exams and formal lessons.

At Summerhill, exams happen when children are ready, whenever that may be. To decide whether it will be a good fit for a particular child requires visiting the school. Once a decision falls outside normal standards of academic attainment, it is inevitably the case that recommendations become subjective.

Our view, with this caveat in place, is that Summerhill will in most cases provide for an extraordinarily successful, life affirming, unforgettable and happy education. Prospective parents though should not expect examination success, although that is not to say a child will not leave with straight A*s. Instead parents can expect their children to have a whole child education focused around their children, driven by their individual needs and potential. Exam success can, and usually for Summerhill students does, come later with an educational experience behind them that cannot be reduced to percentages.


• Outstanding personal development – probably the best available
• Arguably the best value school fees in the independent sector
• Strong focus on international pupils

• Not for parents seeking an all-academic education
• Lack of bursary provision at entrance
• Children can only exceptionally attend Summerhill post 11

Best for
• Children who do not respond well to pressure
• International parents seeking a “whole child education”
• The most prestigious of the progressive schools

Not for
• Day children
• Parents who are not committed to progressive ideals
• Those seeking a traditional English boarding school education


Fast Facts
Age Range: 5-18
Boarding number: 61 pupils
Day number: 7
Average class size: 3 – 15
Number of full time teaching staff: 13
Curriculum: GCSE
Fees: £4,500 – £10,230; Boarding £10,119 – £17,091 pa
Address: Summerhill School, Westward Ho, Leiston, Suffolk, IP16 4HY
Tel and Web Address: +44 (0) 1728 830540 / www.summerhillschool.co.uk
Admissions: zoe@summerhillschool.co.uk / +44 (0) 1728 830540
Principal: Zoë Neill Readhead
Ofsted Rating Boarding (2011): Outstanding
Ofsted Rating Academic (2011): Good with some Outstanding features
Ofsted Rating Personal Development (2011): Outstanding
Ofsted Welfare, Health and Safety: Outstanding
Ofsted Rating Leadership (2011): Outstanding
Year Founded: 1921


Review by: Jonathan Westley, International Editor, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com

Update on July 21, 2015 | Reviewed by WhichSchoolAdvisor.com on July 21, 2015

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