A.S. Neill, Lil Neustatter and Summerhill

Faye O’Carroll

To those readers of this newsletter, who were involved in education in the 70s, the pairing of A.S. Neill with Summerhill will be familiar.

But who, before reading the last HHR newsletter, or before reading Brenda Niall’s biography “Friends and Rivals” had heard of Lil Neustatter, Henry Handel Richardson’s sister, and of the central role she played in establishing Summerhill? Very few, I believe.

The 1960s and 1970s were years of intellectual ferment. They were years when long-accepted traditional values and traditional ways of doing things were constantly debated. Education was in the thick of these debates. In a book group with other young mothers I had my first encounter with Neill and Summerhill. A growing number had begun to worry that many young people emerged from our education system ill-prepared for adult life – whether judged by emotional or intellectual standards. Too many people were living on drugs, in anxiety, in discord, alienated, negative and living unhappy lives. Even in the ‘better’ schools with more facilities or more dedicated teachers, often the deep-seated problems of schooling were not being addressed. Children spend 13 of their formative years in school. What was the chance of breaking the longestablished, traditional pattern of schooling? Would anyone dare to leave the safety-net of the tried, even if not true? Summerhill became the seminal text on alternative education. It inspired people to look hard at our education system; it passionately put forward an alternative way.

My husband Philip O’Carroll and I were among those who believed that a more enlightened education model was possible – and indeed essential for a healthy society. At this point we had three children coming up to school age. Summerhill gave us courage. If Neill could do it, why couldn’t we? So we did.

Fitzroy Community School was born in 1976. Such was the credit we gave to Neill for his inspiration, that when we wrote our own book a year or so back, we copied him, and simply called our book the name of the school – Fitzroy Community School. Although we believe we have important things to say, sadly we have not had the same success as Neill with Summerhill. (Anyone who is interested can buy a copy online from either the Fitzroy Community School website, or the Fitzroy Readers website.)

Philip and I are in no doubt that starting a school on one’s own, without the emotional and intellectual companionship of another, would be almost impossible. We now discover that this is what Neill had. He had Lil Neustatter, HHR’s sister, an Australian, educated at PLC in Melbourne, as was Henry. Not only did he have Lil’s emotional and intellectual support right from the beginning – and for twenty years – but she provided the necessary financial support to buy the property. If all this is so, it seems a terrible omission that Lil is barely mentioned. Why would Neill blot her out? What was his issue? Do his descendants who are running Summerhill, know this history?

My son Tim, who is the current principal of Fitzroy Community School, has contact with Summerhill and has visited. He plans to go to the festivities next year celebrating Summerhill‘s 100th birthday. And, of course, they know that he is Australian. He has never heard of Lil’s involvement. It would be wonderful if the record could be put straight by next year. Perhaps PLC can do something. Perhaps the HHR Society can do something. Perhaps Angela Neustatter (Lil’s granddaughter and HHR Society member) can do something.

Many of us have had a shock about Neill, but I would like to remind that words of truth are words of truth whoever says them. Neill equates happiness and goodness. I agree. This is Aristotelian. Further Neill says: a parent’s anxiety is a poor prognosis for the emotional health of a child. I agree. Neill believes that it is important for children to feel that they are contributors to the school they attend, not just receivers. I agree. Although there are some of Summerhill’s ways that I do not agree with, it is important to recognize that Neill’s book is scattered with gems. In our rude awakening about Neill’s personal choices, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Summerhill” was, and is, inspirational.

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