‘She had magic’: my grandmother’s forgotten role at Summerhill, the English school without rules | Education

SUmmerhill School made the news this month while celebrating 100 years as an idiosyncratic and self-sustaining school. He started his life in 1921 with the idea that children thrive when they have the maximum freedom to do what they want and be who they want.

No one thought he would survive the death of his leader and founder AS Neill in 1973, but they were without his daughter, the charismatic Zoe Redhead, who took the lead and continues to make her father’s dreams come true with dedication. fierce. No one could be happier than me that Summerhill lives, but there is a big gap in the history of the school, and that is my grandmother. Neill did not start the school alone.

The writer’s grandmother, Lillian Ada Neustatter, known to Summerhill students as “Mrs Lins”. Photography: Georg Brokesch, Leipzig

Lillian Ada Neustatter met Scotsman Neill in the early 1900s when her son, my father, Walter, was a student at King Alfred School in London. One day my father brought Neill, his teacher at KAS, home for tea. Neill stayed for four hours, then continued with other visits, telling my grandmother about her dream of running a school where children could be free and happy, where emotions were not neglected in order to develop the intellect – a contrast to the students of the Scottish School where he had been a teacher and had been ordered to be the boss and use the tawse.

Lillian had recently been released from Holloway, where she was sent as a suffragist, punished for smashing a post office window after becoming a staunch supporter of women’s emancipation. It was a time that had radically changed her from the frustrated wife of a doctor (Otto Neustatter) with no way to use her education and musical skills, living in Dresden among women who, she said scathingly, would rather discuss the perfect recipe for apfelstrudel. as opera and theater. She was also interested in human rights and education. The gangly pedagogue, with his huge square-toed shoes and vibrant excitement, enchanted him.

He, in turn, was very drawn to this woman, described by writer Ethel Mannin as “one of those rare women who can suggest reproduction even while wearing an old sweater, a tweed skirt, brogue shoes.” She always manages to look like a “lady”.

AS Neill
AS Neill, Director and Co-Founder of Summerhill. Photograph: Keystone / Getty Images

My grandmother left Otto to join Neill, determined to combine her unwavering faith in the rights of women and children. She and Neill rented space in a hilltop apartment building in Hellerau, Germany – they couldn’t afford premises in England – where they set up a classroom and living quarters, and have welcomed their first children from different countries. Some had the kind of behavioral difficulties that Neill believed – with justification in many cases – that approval and education without punitive authority would help. My grandmother became known to children as Mrs. Lins, a derivative of our middle name, Lindesay.

It was in Germany in 1921 that the poet Edwin Muir and his wife, Willa, lived in the experimental school, and she taught in exchange for board and lodging. Willa and my grandmother became close friends, while Edwin observed Neill’s persistent problem finding a balanced mix of good teachers:

They say my grandmother was not as enthusiastic as Neill about leaving children unhindered. One day when Mrs Lins was cleaning the windows vigorously – the school was running out of funds to pay for the aid – a pupil, Wolfgang, looked at her and lectured her on the necessity of work as a source of joy. She gave him an old-fashioned reply.

His old school upbringing was also helpful. Along with running the school, she taught a range of subjects, including German and music, which she studied at the Leipzig Conservatory.

Time and time again, in my research into my grandmother’s memoirs, I have heard from ex-students who had been there in her time what a vital balance Ms. Lins’ practical, efficient and restless personality had been for her. Neill’s ability to build Summerhill’s dream and inspire others. Gustav Mattson, who spent a few weeks studying Summerhill, in Hellerau, his first home, said of my grandmother: “She was a remarkable woman. Great support from Neill and his tireless co-worker – I don’t think he could have completed his enormous task without her.

A class at Summerhill in 1986
A class at Summerhill in 1986. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives / Fairfax Media / Getty Images

Michael Boulton was a student during my grandmother’s time and then joined the Royal Ballet. He said to me, “She was a wonderful person. She had a magic all her own.

In 1924 Summerhill moved to an apartment building in Lyme Regis in the south of England, then to Leiston in Suffolk, where he is now. This did not derogate from the basic tenets of holding a weekly school meeting where matters of concern, children proving troublesome or breaking the rules, and staff ditto, could be raised by anyone, and all. had equal voices in decision-making. For Neill, it was the heart of a democratic community.

Children can choose to go to class or just play if they prefer, the idea being that children are naturally curious and most will want to learn when they are ready. (It’s worth saying that many Summerhillians go to college.)

I was a student at Summerhill from 1954 to 1959 and remember how the place always attracted remarkable animosity from disapproving people, who seem to fear that this outlier of education would pervert and corrupt the education more generally.

There seems to be a personal aversion to school in the words of Maurice Punch, one of the academics who views school ethics as damaging. In 1976 he called Neill’s call that of a figure of the Messiah leading a sect, saying: “It is remarkable how little criticism has arisen on the Summerhill sect. I would like to raise the question of the extent of Neill’s influence on children and the extent to which they react to being a deviant minority.

Similar figures visited Summerhill in the 1960s, when child-centered ideas were emerging in public education, and observing that it was all very utopian but that no student educated in this way would be able to cope with it. ‘adapt to life in the outside world.

Obviously, they hadn’t met – as I did – academics, scientists, artists, social and humanitarian workers, founders of charities, skilled artisans and underachieving alumni. but satisfied. They also didn’t see the value of Summerhill to students like book illustrator John Burningham, who was sent to 11 schools before Summerhill, where he was ultimately happy.

But the biggest threat has always been the education inspectorate. There have been some very critical reports and some changes had to be made. Tabloid reporters writing about staff having sex on the lawn – there weren’t any – didn’t help. Then, in 1999, Tony Blair’s government decided it could not tolerate this small private school. It was given six months to force apprenticeship or be closed. A notice of complaint was issued which, if upheld, would have resulted in the closure.

Not if the Summerhill students could help him. They went to an independent school tribunal and took over tribunal 40, where they argued their school’s case and won.

It was long after my grandmother’s time, but I have no doubt that she would have been there with the students, encouraging them to say that they were the lucky products of a school that works well with it. students who even managed to pass the GCSE.

My grandmother died in 1944 in Wales where the school was evacuated during World War II. She had a mild stroke and withdrew from school. Neill wrote to his friend Wilhelm Reich: “My wife is exhausted now. It is very sad to see someone who has been so active become like a child again.

Her tribute to remembrance recognized how precious the woman he had had tea with decades earlier had been: “Her memorial will be lived in the lives of many… who were helped by her… encouraged by her… loved by she.

About Ethel Nester

Ethel Nester

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