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Movie Review – "Imagine a School-Summerhill" – Innovative Boarding School Faces Government Closure

‘Imagine a School – Summerhill’ is a documentary about a famous co-educational alternative boarding school which was closed 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 curb a hugely successful program. Founded by lecturer AS Neill, Summerhill is the world’s oldest and most influential democratic free school. It was founded in 1927 in the village of Leiston, on the north coast of England.

The film begins by presenting AS Neill’s principles and educational philosophies, which may seem irresponsible to many at first. Yet as the film unfolds, skepticism turns to curiosity and eventually admiration. AS Neill’s methods not only work, they work better than the standard British curriculum. Summerhill’s test scores are often well above the national average.

Summerhill students, faculty and alumni explain this unconventional learning process in short conversational 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 define the rules of conduct; and the punishment received for breaking them. So there is a code of conduct that is reached by consensus rather than imposed by school administrators. At Summerhill, every child is free to choose whether to attend classes, play on the school grounds, or read a book all day, as long as their actions do not interfere with the lives of others. The school also creates an environment where the learning and cooperation abilities inherent in humans are explored and nurtured to the fullest extent possible. It releases the child’s natural learning instinct.

This explanation is achieved through interviews involving students and teachers. Celebrities such as alumni Jake Weber and Rebecca DeMornay round out this endorsement. This image of an unrestricted flow of ideas is also reinforced by images of class discussions and topics students explore among themselves. For one-size-fits-all educators, this approach would create anarchy and chaos. For these educators, structuring, discipline and standardization of methods is the accepted mantra. Summerhill, on the other hand, feels that every child is unique and when given the freedom to find the right learning paths. The school draws attention to the fact that if a child decides to study, he typically learns five years’ worth of material in two.

However, the film is more than a testimony of the educational method. It is a fight to preserve its existence. When Tony Blair’s Labor government tries to close them as part of their pledge to improve the quality of education, the battle is on to save this prestigious institution. The main grievances are the lack of supervision, non-mandatory attendance, and the lack of a standardized curriculum. However, the government underestimates the intuitive and persuasive power of students and teachers. Using powerful arguments, fearsome lawyers take the case to court, where discrepancies in the charges are exposed. In court, the testimony of the headmistress, other adults and, most effectively, the students gives sanity to the trial.

Since the use of cameras is prohibited in the courtroom, the students’ notes, crude drawings and recollections provide a cleverly ironic picture of the proceedings. I call it ironic that the government’s case was prepared and presented by supposedly well-educated people based on existing standard curricula. Yet it is the testimony of students and faculty that sets the record straight and emphasizes educational outcomes rather than arbitrary regulation. This part of the film had the greatest impact as the students documented the proceedings and commented on the deliberations. This shows that they are extremely perceptive and knowledgeable beyond their years.

He liked the articulate and rational presentation of these students. I suppose this is a result of their education at Summerhill. They are emotionally healthy, happy and intellectually developed children, and much better prepared to face the world and its enormous problems. Likewise, they have much better tools for shaping society and dealing with the harsh realities of the real world. I left this movie with envy. Why couldn’t I be among them?

The filmmaker’s valiant efforts bring to light this innovative teaching philosophy and the dangers of suppressing it. And if there’s one weak point in this movie, it’s that we don’t get to hear the inspectors speak and experience firsthand their plan to close the school. We only have their written reports, which the students refute, pointing out flaws in the inspector’s investigation. The danger of government intrusion and old-school mentality is therefore more likely to be guessed than seen.

The catch, as catch, can be the camera work shows a fly on the wall perspective. Only a few scenes seem contrived. The editing of the courtroom memories is extremely imaginative and the highlight of the film. Handwritten notes, sketches and emblems skillfully complement the sound delivery. And when resentment over the school’s lack of toilets comes up, it’s delightfully countered with a long series of toilet flushes. The film is a balanced portrayal and the parts about swearing and sneaking out after lights out felt 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 regulation. This film illuminates alternatives as well as hopes for the future. If these principles and educational philosophies were incorporated into our schools, imagine what it would be like.

CREDITS: Key interviews with Orson Bean, Tom Conti, Peter Coyote and Rebecca De Mornay. Director: William Tyler Smith; executive producers: William Tyler Smith and JD Hoxter; Producers: Morris S. Levy, Emma Broomhead & Ann Jackman; Associate Producer and Sales Agent: Jill Gambaro, Director of Photography: JD Hoxter; Editor: Ann Jackman; Composer: Justin Samaha; Producer: 418 Films, Ltd.; Playing time: 67 minutes; The recording took place in Great Britain and the United States. Not rated. Available on DVD at Amazon.

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