A.S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Different View of Curriculum and What It Has to Do With Children.


I believe, as A.S. Neill does, that children should largely be left to play and learn by their own devices in a world of opportunity where their environment can be filled with land and water and fields of places for playing; their safety would be taken care of; they would be fed healthy food and housed and provided for. They would live together without their parents. And they would all have a vote to decide things at weekly meetings and don’t have to go to classes if they don’t want to. You can make pottery. You can dance all day. There would be some kind, caring and knowledgeable adults around who are not bossy. You can learn from the adults and from each other what you want when you want, as long as you’re not hurting anybody. You are given responsibility to ensure that you all live together by rules of your own making.

In this paper I will explore Summerhill through A.S. Neill’s own writings – he wrote twenty books, almost all of which are out of print, except that much of his writing has been consolidated and re-printed in Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, which is awaiting an upcoming new edition release. Many claims have been made that Neill was influenced by Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, so I will address those by drawing a distinction between these two leaders in psychoanalytic theory in terms of their views on sexuality in respect to Neill’s. More current views on psychoanalysis are also brought into this exploration of Summerhill in regards to Jacques Lacan and his three psychic registers of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic, which have a significant place in contemporary curriculum theory.


“Summerhill is possibly the happiest place in the world” – A.S. Neill.

Alexander Sutherland Neill opened the first Summerhill School in England in 1924 after growing up in Scotland, apprentice-teaching with his own stern father, earning a university degree in English literature, teaching in Scotland for twelve years, being in the British Army during World War I, working as an editor in London, and starting an experimental school in Germany. The school changed location once in 1927 from Lyme Regis to Suffolk where it remains open, being presently run by Zoe Readhead, Neill’s daughter. In 1999 the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) ran an inspection on the school, which resulted in a number of complaints formally being brought against it, most prevalently that classes were optional for the students. However, Summerhill appealed the complaints and won their case with only minor changes having to be made (i.e: additional locks on windows), with enormous support from the world’s educational community.

The evidence towards the success of Summerhill through following its students once they leave, and in interviewing parents and community members from the adjoining town, is staggering, including an independent report by the Centre for Self Managed Learning that was compiled regarding Ofsted’s complaints. Although the British government has recently had, and apparently continues to have, enormous ideological problems with the notion that children should not be forced to attend classes, it is widely believed that Summerhill would not be Summerhill without that imperative at its foundation.


“Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

It is interesting to note that Summerhill began in 1924, usually thought of as another time with its own set of issues. The “open school”, or “freedom school” concept is something that we usually associate with the 1960s in America. Both times, even more so by the 1960s, had their fair share of the impersonal consequences of a modern industrialized society. However, many of Neill’s ideas go back even further to those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed, as Neill did, that people are born good, and that society and its institutions corrupt people and make them miserable and cruel. The belief that children are “innately wise and realistic” was certainly necessary for Neill to be able to offer them so much freedom to “be themselves”; “we had one main idea: to make the school fit the child” (Neill 1960: 9). Rousseau also believed that it was through attending to nature that people are more likely to live a life of virtue and he spent his last years studying plants and taking walks, living in the countryside; the ideas of “good” and “nature” were inevitable joined, the environment being a powerful influence over the individual and their community.

Following Rousseau, Neill thought it important that the school be in a rural setting and that the children live there together: “To me this community living is infinitely more important in a child’s education than all the textbooks in the world… the ideal home for self-regulation would be out in the country” (Neill: 23, 37). One of the causes of society’s ills is the disconnection from nature, so to live closer to it, rather than amidst cement and steel, is to nurture the natural in oneself, and “since children are not young adults it seems to be desirable that they should live their lives in their own community” (Neill: 234). Years later (1989) William E. Doll calls for a post-modern curriculum based on recent scientific theories of open systems, noting the impact of the external environment on internal structuring: “A closed system, like Skinner’s teacher-proof machines, wants to protect itself ‘from the fluxes that compose nature’”, whereas in an open system, “external perturbations provide the system with the very means for internal transformations” (Doll 1989: 246). As applicable to the development of children as human organisms as it is to basic biological cells, this idea goes against the restrictions that our schools typically set up, which are based on adults’ expectations of children and the futures they see for them.


“Democracy should not wait until the age of voting” – A.S. Neill.

“I am writing of children, not as we adults think they should be, but as they really are” (Neill: 40). Freedom is the cornerstone of Summerhill: the freedom to be a child, the freedom to make choices for oneself, the freedom to express one’s emotions, the freedom to follow one’s instincts and desires, and the freedom to figure things out on one’s own. “Freedom means doing what you like, so long as you don’t interfere with the freedom of others. The result is self-discipline” (Neill: 44). The decisions that are made by the adults at Summerhill concern children’s safety and health, such as what’s going to be cooked, and the hiring of new staff. Otherwise there is a General Meeting each week, with a voted-on Chairperson for that week, attended by staff and children alike. By vote the community make rules, and disputes are brought up and discipline decided upon out in the open, with the kids deciding for themselves, along with the staff, to figure out a punishment that fits the crime. Appeals are possible at the end of the meeting. Because of this system of justice, “no culprit at Summerhill ever shows any signs of defiance or hatred of the authority of his community” (Neill: 21) since she has an instrumental part in creating and sustaining it.

When an external source denies a child freedom, the child learns to suppress her desires and anger and resentment ensues, especially when there is a system of punitive punishment set up to counter future desire. “Childhood is not adulthood; childhood is playhood and no child ever gets enough play” (Neill: 32). Our standard school setting relegates play to specific times and spaces, certainly not during the time meant for learning or in the space –the classroom– meant to learn in. This doesn’t rid children of their inner compulsions (“he is all dynamic urge”), but transforms them into anger-energy which is then used as fuel for distrust of teachers and adults: “a large part of a student's energy is dissipated in anxiety and anticipation stemming from his distrust of the teacher…. the conventional relationship between teacher and child is essentially one of adversaries in a constant struggle” (Barthes 1972: 89).

Citing Stanley Greenspan, Mark Bracher writes that “ affect and integration are the foundation of all learning” (Bracher 1999: 182), yet school is a place where one’s emotions are not usually considered in the context of intellectual development; if a student expresses anger, there is typically severe repercussions no matter what the cause, for the system of authority must be maintained and it is based on reason rather than emotions, as if the two could be separated precisely. Whereas Freud believed that cruelty is a natural characteristic of a child, Neill believed, like Rousseau, that all children start off as being inherently good and, if there is cruelty, it is a symptom with an underlying cause. Freud wrote in Infantile Sexuality that “cruelty is intimately related to the childish character, since the inhibition which restrains the mastery impulse before it causes pain to others –that is, the capacity for sympathy– develops comparatively late” (Freud 1905 : 593).


“Most children are reared on a tissue of lies and ignorant prohibitions” – A.S. Neill.

At Summerhill there were always some students who came from public schools that would not tolerate their behavior anymore. The experience that Neill gained from living with these students led him to believe that when a child is cruel it is because of the lack of love. Here he was highly influenced by the work of Homer Lane at the Commonwealth School (1913) for delinquent youth. This school was self-governed and abolished “all fear, punishment, and external discipline; it meant trusting children to grow in their own way without any pressure from outside” (Neill: 208). As a boy who did not do well in school, Neill was often punished by his own father by being whipped with a strap for not being a good enough student: “often he was cruel to me and I acquired a definite fear of him” (Neill: 160).


Homer Lane showed me for all time that freedom can cure a problem child…. He always looked for the hidden motive in any delinquent act, convinced that behind every crime was a wish that originally had been a good one. He found that talking to children was useless and that only action counted. He held that in order to rid a child of a bad social trait one should let the child live out his desires. I call Lane’s way the love way

(Neill: 49).


To love a child is to allow the child to be a child, rather than trying to make them into an image of what you think they should be. Because of this, play is all-important at Summerhill, no matter what the adult may have to sacrifice in terms of noise level or other forms of control. Neill believed that childhood is the time for fantasy-based play, that adulthood would inevitably bring about enough restrictions: “like you and me, he will have many things to do later in life that he will hate doing; but if he is left free to live through his play period now, he will be able, later on, to face any difficulty” (Neill: 41). And Neill believed that, if a child is given the freedom to play and not attend school, she will eventually attend a class because wanting to know, to learn, is a natural desire; when the child cannot figure something out on their own, they will come around and ask for assistance. In this way, it is an internal force that is compelling the child to learn, not an external one. Barthes writes:

In schools where subject matter is the organizing principle which governs the relationship between teacher and student, the teacher can be assured of its conveyance to the children only by setting similar goals and expectations for the entire class, by lecturing, and by requiring the same activities of each child. Learning experiences are group experiences, tied to group norms. Teachers relate to students, and students relate to other students as members of a large group--but seldom as individuals. Respect for children as individuals exists only with difficulty under these conditions…. For a teacher to relate individually to many children each day, even for brief periods of time, demands an extraordinary amount of sensitivity, mobility, and energy

(Barthes: 70).


“I must always be on the side of the individual” (Neill: 17). However, one of the advantages of Summerhill is that they have never had to deal with a very large group of students at any one time, their enrollment in 2002 being 94, in the 1950s averaging 65. In looking for Summerhill’s weaknesses, the conflict between the individual and the group arises. In Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, Neill laments the times when he had to accept children who were expelled from other schools because they could not afford to turn anyone away- they needed the funds to keep the school running. Sometimes this has caused problems when an older child whose identity as a troublemaker was already set firmly had difficulties adjusting to newfound freedom. In these situations other children have been adversely effected. The damage done to the child who spent years in an authoritarian school setting made them malicious and was too much for Summerhill to undo at times: “we have kept children in the school who should have been sent to another type of school years before they left us. The worst example is bullying… it was a mistake to take too many pupils who were too old for freedom” (Neill 61).

Neill believed that there was a difference in children from pre-puberty to those who have already entered puberty, which he viewed as the “social age”. He saw the older children as being necessary for self-government to work, since they have passed out of the “selfish phase” of younger children, who “are only mildly interested in government” (Neill: 25). Freud termed the period after infancy and before puberty “the latency period”, the time in a child’s sexual development when, most likely, they have turned away from their pre-genital organic sexual urges and begun the process of repression that is demanded, according to Freud, for civilization to occur: “the influx of this sexuality… its energy is deflected either wholly or partially from sexual utilization and conducted to other aims”, including the inhibitions of loathing and shame that he saw education as being partially responsible for, maintaining that “education remains properly within its assigned domain if it strictly follows the path laid out by the organic, and only imprints it somewhat cleaner and deeper” (Freud: 591). Yet Freud recognized the connection between sexual desire and inquisitiveness: “About the same time as the sexual life of the child reaches its first rich development, from the age of three to the age of five, there appear the beginnings of that activity which ascribed to the impulse for knowledge and investigation” (Freud: 594). However, he called the next phase of a child’s sexual development “the latency period” because he believed that if the child continued to explore sex, either with himself or with others, that it was a “problem”, that the necessary repression should subvert, or sublimate, the sexual urges until the more “altruistic” sexuality of procreation begins to emerge with the onset of puberty.

Neill viewed “the latency period” of his students as the time in their lives when they should have the most freedom from external forces since to allow this “self-centered fantasy stage” to flourish is to allow self-regulation to begin and, thus, independence to be established: “We must allow the child to be selfish –ungiving– free to follow his own childish interests through his childhood… the whole idea of Summerhill is release: allowing a child to live out his natural instincts” (Neill: 44). This “release” may be read only as masturbation, but that would be too narrow. Instead, “release” can be seen as a release of all life-energies. According to the theories of Wilhelm Reich, this release of life-energy has to come because of the building-up of it that naturally occurs- this is the flux of life. Reich’s concept of “self-regulation” that Neill often invokes is tied to one’s emotional life as well as one’s instinctual, biological compulsions. “Self-regulation means behavior coming from the self” and “implies a belief in human nature, a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin” (Neill: 36). The repression of sexuality in this crucial stage of a child’s development can potentially stunt a child’s capacity to learn: “if sexual curiosity is severely repressed, it’s possible that curiosity in general will become inhibited” (Bracher: 178).

When Neill met Reich in 1937 he found that for the twenty-six years of Summerhill School he had been intuitively putting into practice many of Reich’s ideas and, in Reich, he had finally found someone who was synthesizing “the soma and the psyche” (Neill: 217). In other words, Reich was exploring sexuality –instincts and repressions– through biological forces as well as through unconscious ones. Self-regulation involves the balancing of full life-energy, a view of energy that is not relegated to a Cartesian mind-body split, or an intellect--emotion split that emphasizes language as a basis of knowledge (“I think, therefore I am”). Reich’s complaint about psychoanalysis being too concerned with words, when the damage done to a child preeminently occurs before he relies on speech, presages the importance of Jacques Lacan’s three psychic registers of the Real (feelings), the Imaginary (images), and the Symbolic (words) in understanding the psychodynamic operations of a child’s development and thus education. Mark Bracher writes:

The various functions that we refer to as intelligence depend on the development of comprehensive codes in each register –the Lacanian Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic, or feelings, images, and words– and of relatively adequate and complete translations between the codes of the different registers

(Bracher: 181).

In providing the child with the environment, time, and freedom to play out their instinctual desires, their bodily drives, and their affective complexities, Neill is allowing the register of the Real and the Imaginary to more smoothly translate into the inevitable realm of the Symbolic. A more restrictive and structured adult-run school setting would demand that language (the Symbolic) take precedence as (forced) expression over bodily (the Imaginary) and affective (the Real) expression while the child is still in their fantasy-play stage. In giving authority over to the child, and not demanding learning based on language of subjects outside the child’s interest, he is aiding this integration. The children use language when they have to cooperate with each other during their General Meetings. This language use comes out of direct experience and their experience is problematized from the struggles between the individual and the community. By being problematized, their experience becomes their learning and their learning, in coming out of their experience, is truly their own. “Whether it works or not is a subsidiary matter; the valuable part is that children keep trying different ways and means to keep the community together” (Neill: 17).


The function of the child is to live his own life, not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots

(Neill: 15).


“The most fundamental desire is the desire for a secure identity” (Bracher2002: 94). The interpsychical conflicts that typically arise in students because of the challenges to one’s identity can perhaps be avoided by a school such as Summerhill because the desire for recognition that is demanded in all three of the psychic registers (one’s feelings, one’s physicality and body image, one’s symbolic identifications) is more sufficiently met. One’s identity is largely open to self-construction; it is interesting to note that the majority of children at Summerhill are from outside the U.K. and their diversity is quite extensive. Not living with the authority of adults or parents must have a significant impact on the formation of identity. The children are not completely secluded from the outside world, yet their independence and freedom is, apparently, something that they cherish and are very defensive about when threatened by outside critics, so I argue that the influence of the media that your typical school has to fight with in a losing battle doesn’t hold the same weight for Summerhillians. Their identities are internally generated more than externally.

The emphasis on internal motivation that is behind so much of what Summerhill is about pertains to identity formation and Lacan’s notion of the master signifier, in that the Symbolic Order operates as an external force that is then incorporated internally. If the Symbolic Order is not given dominance in these early years and both affect (the Real) and fantasy (the Imaginary) are extended further then they would be in a typical school, the adults who result from a childhood spent at Summerhill would, theoretically, have a more integrated and secure identity that is less open to outside threats and neuroses: “free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child” (Neill: 14). Because the law of an external authority, which can be seen as Lacan’s “the name of the father” is evaded in favour of the authority and self-made laws of a democratic community, “the natural rebellion against the father” that codifies the Symbolic Order is partially evaded as well- there is no “father” at Summerhill to answer to. The ultimate code of language in the symbolic cannot be entirely shunned, but the translation from the other two registers is perhaps more fluid.

In jettisoning a mandated curriculum completely, the Summerhill School both challenges old ideas of curriculum theory and seems to welcome newer ones. In viewing curriculum as a development (Doll), or as a becoming (Daignault), or as currere/a pathway (Pinar), or as, perhaps, a milieu (Deleuze), these more open and ethical views of curriculum can find sustenance and support in the actual lived experience of Summerhill and in the living proof of its former students’ adult lives. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the being that Summerhill was and is and continues to be criss-crosses the theories of various camps in psychoanalytic theory, with a pervasive aim of both the school and the theories being that of freedom from repression for both the individual and society. Obviously, a school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad school. It is a good school only for those uncreative citizens who want docile, uncreative children who will fit into a civilization whose standard of success is money (Neill: 8).


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Barthes, Roland S. (1972). Open Education and the American School. New York: Agathon Press.

Bracher, Mark (2002). Identity and Desire in the Classroom. In Pedagogical Desire: Authority, Seduction, Transference, and the Question of Ethics, Jan Jogodzinski, pp. 93 – 121. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey.

Bracher, Mark (1999). Psychoanalysis and Education. Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, Vol. 4, No. 2.

Doll, William E. (1989). Foundations for a Post-Modern Curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3.

Freud, Sigmund (1938). Infantile Sexuality (1905). In The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. A.A. Brill, pp. 580 – 603. New York: Modern Library.

Neill, A.S. (1960). Summerhill School: A New View of Childhhod. New York: St.Martin’s Press.