Don’t ask me about education

Written by Peter Honey on 27 August 2013

Whenever I read about Michael Gove's proposals to place more emphasis on learning facts and to return to traditional exams with less project work, I feel ambivalent.  It is comfortingly familiar to the old fashioned me, with memories of my own schooldays with much rote learning of multiplication tables and long tracks of poetry, but on the other hand, it seems a step backwards. I didn't know it at the time (because it hadn't been invented when I was at school) but I am dyslexic. Traditional teaching and formal exams didn't suit me. I survived rather than thrived. Projects where I could pace myself would have suited my needs better - but in my day it wasn't an option.

About 12 years ago I was invited to join a campaign to save Summerhill School, founded by A S Neil in the 1920's, from the threat of closure following swinging   criticisms from Ofsted.  Summerhill is famous for its unconventional approach to education. There are two things in particular that are controversial (and were clearly beyond the pale for the Ofsted inspectors!).  Firstly, attending classes is entirely voluntary and, secondly, the school is run as a democracy with the children having an equal say in deciding school rules and punishments.  The only exceptions to democratic decision making are staff appointments and financial management (Summerhill is a private school still run by A S Neil's daughter).  

I felt well disposed towards Summerhill, having read the writings of A S Neil, but when I visited the school and saw his theories in action, I was surprised to find myself struggling. My authoritarian schooling, with so much emphasis on compulsion, made it difficult for me to condone the sight of children opting to muck about, apparently doing nothing, instead of attending lessons. Obviously, the Ofsted inspectors had the same problem (I've clearly missed my true vocation!). I observed one of the famous weekly school meetings, where the children have the same voting rights as the staff and, again, found my own education in a totally hierarchical system, clouded my judgement in a way that I hadn't expected.  

Despite being surprised at the extent to which I was a prisoner of my own educational experiences, on balance I supported Summerhill's approach and contributed to a report which helped the school to win a court case against Ofsted. My encounter with Summerhill caused me to think harder than I had before about the legacy of my own education and to realise how many things I have had to unlearn post-school. For example, at school I learnt that teachers always knew best and that it wasn't wise to disagree with them; that the only way to maintain order was to have a hierarchical organisation, with lots of rules and regulations; that it wasn't a good idea to admit to making a mistake - much more sensible to cover it up or blame someone else.  My tendency to defer to anyone in authority (largely cast aside after a 60-year struggle) is, I believe, entirely attributable to my schooling.

So perhaps you can see why Michael Gove's proposals to raise standards by returning to more formal teaching etc, throw me into a state of dissonance. Frankly, I'm sitting astride an uncomfortable fence, with the rebellious me yearning to embrace A S Neil's liberating philosophy, but held back by the deep seated scars and prejudices left by my own authoritarian schooling.  

It's a very good thing that no one in authority consults me about educational policies. I'd be a hopeless ditherer, pulled in different directions, consumed with doubt. 

About the author
Peter Honey FRSA, FCIPD, FIMC is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He can be contacted at or via

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