Writing Summerhill

on 18 March 2009. Posted in TV

Alison Hume explains how she came to write a drama about a unique school

summerhillTo write the drama I had to experience the real thing. I knew that but it didn’t necessarily follow that I wanted to do it. It meant staying at boarding school for a start. In short, I confess to dragging my feet as I left my comfort zone.

Dramatising the story of how a tiny progressive school took on David Blunkett’s disapproving education department in 1999 had been a separately but equally long held dream for both CBBC’s Jon East and Tiger Aspect’s Greg Bremnan. In 2006 the planets came into alignment and Summerhill was commissioned as a 4 x 30 minute drama for CBBC. I was presented with a court transcript as thick as a brick and quickly felt the dead-ish hand of responsibility settling on my shoulder. 

I put the research aside, packed my swimming costume and caught the train down to the Suffolk coast from my home in York. Most of a day later I arrived at Summerhill School. The very first thing I saw were kids playing up in the trees. Up in the trees! I felt challenged and I wasn’t even through the front door. 

Summerhill was founded in 1921 as a children’s democracy in response to what the great educational thinker A.S. Neill felt was an education system in which the child had no voice and no rights. At his school each child has a vote, as does each adult. All are equal. There is only one hard and fast rule: there are no rules. Well, almost. There are in fact, hundreds of rules, but the rule book is an ever-changing touchstone, responding daily to the needs of the community. The jewel in the rule book crown is that children choose what lessons they go to, and are free to go to absolutely none at all. 

For nearly a week I hung out with the Summerhillians – kids, teachers, houseparents, Zoë the Principal and anyone else who would talk to me. I desperately wanted to understand this strange and exotic place but quite honestly it was doing my head in. The unreconstructed happiness of children playing freely and away from the organisation of adults is extremely challenging if you haven’t experienced it before. 

Leonard Turton, a very experienced teacher in ‘free education’, tried to help me. Neill, Leonard explained, trusted children to live their own lives, not the life that their anxious parents thought they should live, or the one their teachers thought they ought to. That was it. Simplicity itself. But what about boredom I asked? Let them be bored, came the reply. In time children will fill the space, the time, the gaps. But don’t children need to be encouraged, stretched, dare-I-say-it nagged to achieve their best? Len just looked at me. I clearly had some way to travel. 

The next morning I woke early. Little rabbits were jumping around on the lawn as I walked into the woods. I hauled myself up into a treehouse and felt the raw childhood thrill of making dens in the ‘jungle’ at the bottom of the garden. I spent hours at the bottom of our garden as a kid, imagining whole worlds as well as reading all the books I could lay my hands on. 

Then I remembered sitting in the headmistress’s office as a gifted ten-year-old, doing extra lessons whilst watching my classmates leering at me and limbering up to make me pay for being a swot when I emerged from the hothouse. How much I would have loved to have come to Summerhill. To have been freed from pressure, expectations and judgement. Something unlocked in the memory banks and I bawled my eyes out. 

After my mini-crucible moment the ideas started to come; tiny inroads into the huge mass of material, but ideas all the same. There would be a character, a girl, who reclaims her childhood. A girl with whom our over-pressurised kids could identify. But what about the disenfranchised child who doesn’t fit in to conventional education? Rough diamond Ryan was born. Later, my script editor Roanna Benn pushed me to create a character who would find his caring side in the nurturing environment of Summerhill. 

As I worked on my ideas, I attended the Meetings at which all the business of the school is conducted. Meetings are run by the older children and are orderly and considered affairs. Kids show affection to each other as well as to the adults. Emotions are openly expressed, misdemeanours dealt with, punishments and fines meted out. It is moving to hear how wise and fair children are when left to their own devices. 

The 15- and 16-year-olds I watched clearly relished their positions as the senior members of the community. There was something about them which was indefinable, something I didn’t recognise. It was Jon who put his finger on it. The older children were Summerhillians, the end results of a free range childhood. Articulate, approachable, confident and at ease with themselves. Forget exam results, these kids were living proof there is more than one way to educate a child. In the end, we cast three Summerhillians to run these Meetings in the drama and gave smaller parts to many more. Their participation, and the fact the drama was filmed at the real school, imbued the production with authenticity, although I know it gave the producer Stephen Smallword sleepless nights trying to make the budget stretch. 

When it came for me to leave Summerhill and go home I felt sad. And scared. I now felt I could tackle the school bit of the drama but the court case was quite another thing. The school had refused to abandon its ethos when Ofsted served it with a Notice of Complaint and suggested non-attendance at lessons was the root cause of the problems. There were many other complex arguments as well, and it was groaning with legalese. 

I stared at my computer screen. My courtroom scenes were cardboard and concrete. Clunking, leaden things. I needed lightness, brightness and gossamer fairy wings. I needed fun! The face of A.S. Neill stared at me from a postcard on my pinboard. Serious – yet I knew he wasn’t like that at all in real life. I took up my pen and graffitied on comedy eyebrows and Groucho Marx-like cigar. With that, I punctured the responsibility balloon and was free to take the next step. 

I recalled Neill’s desire to create minds which “question and destroy and rebuild”. I knew I had to dramatise the child’s imagination. A dusty courtroom was transposed into a forest, a government QC became Captain Hook, and Summerhill’s silk Geoffrey Robertson was a modern day Peter Pan. We even broke the fourth wall, pantomime-style, when Robertson/Pan turns to the audience and asks, “who’s making what up?” Even after the script was crawled over by lawyers anxious to avoid a rerun of the original 1999 fight, I think we managed to make the complex court case accessible without patronising our very smart audience. 

The resulting two hours of telly were pretty good, I reckon. A gifted team created a drama I’m proud to have been a part of. The response from children watching it was overwhelmingly positive and very humbling. Everyone wanted to go to Summerhill! The drama received a lot of press. My favourite review was the shortest: “A great idea, boldly done.” After all the quaking in my boots it felt good to be associated with anything remotely bold.

I now have something on my CV which outshines all former achievements, even winning Best Turned Out Pony at Pony Camp circa 1977. I am an Honorary Summerhillian. This privilege gives me the right to attend Meetings at the school and even speak in them. When I did return to the school however, I found I much preferred to listen – something I’m trying to do more of with my own children! 

Summerhill was a passion project for Greg and Jon, and it became the same for me too. It was that rarest of writing commissions, an experience that, after endless drafts are shoved in box files, emails are archived and script notes burnt on a ceremonial funeral pyre, lives on and continues to touch everyday life in the subtlest of ways. That A.S. Neill, he knew a thing or two. 

Alison Hume won the 2008 Children’s BAFTA award for best writer for Summerhill

Photo: Alison Hume (right) with Chae Eun Park, a Summerhillian who had a part in the drama