Alexander Southerland Neill

His life

Alexander-Sutherland-NeillAlexander Sutherland Neill was the founder of the famous ‘free school’ Summerhill, a school for pupils between 5 and 16, adopting the rule of “self regulation”. He was born in Forfar, Scotland, in 1883. The parents were elementary schools teachers. His early family life, quite frustrating, is the origin of his whole work (from his autobiography):

  • his childhood is marked by suggestions, prohibitions, fears and coercions;
  • the family life is conformist and inflexible;
  • the father was violent and uncommunicative; Alexander felt unloved by his father;
  • the relation with the brothers (model students) and the mother was difficult.

The brothers frequented the lyceum, he did not. He suffered of learning difficulties. After few working experiences the family decided his destiny: being a teacher of elementary school. Afterwards he studied at the faculty of agriculture and ended with a degree in English literature.

After the second world war and several tries, he met the Little Commonwealth of Homer Lane, where he discovered the “pedagogy of freedom”.

In 1921 he founded with some friends an international school in Hellerau, near Dresda. Three years later because of the revolution in Saxony he moved to Australia and in 1924 came back to England.

Here is where his project, called Summerhill, begins, first in Lyme Regis and later Leiston, few kilometers far from London, until his death (1973).


The theory: from the psychoanalysis to the pedagogy

The pedagogy if Neill is considered as “non directive”, a free education, able to give creativity and spontaneity back to the children. This is part of the early 20th century neoliberalism, enhancing individualism and personality.

Neill simplified the Freudian interpretation of the emotional life (Ego, id, super ego), the individual psychology of Alfred Adler, dissident disciple of Freud, and the lessons of Homer Lane (with his Little Commonwealth) in one principle: the faith into the original goodness of the human nature.

Ego, id, super ego

Id, ego and super-ego are the three parts of the psychic apparatus defined in Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche; they are the three theoretical constructs in terms of whose activity and interaction mental life is described. According to this model of the psyche, the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the ego is the organized, realistic part; and the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role. The super-ego can stop you from doing certain things that your id may want you to do.

Even though the model is structural and makes reference to an apparatus, the id, ego and super-ego are functions of the mind rather than parts of the brain and do not correspond one-to-one with actual somatic structures of the kind dealt with by neuroscience.

The concepts themselves arose at a late stage in the development of Freud’s thought: the “structural model” (which succeeded his “economic model” and “topographical model”) was first discussed in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and was formalised and elaborated upon three years later in his “The Ego and the Id”. Freud’s proposal was influenced by the ambiguity of the term “unconscious” and its many conflicting uses.

Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler

Adler shifted the grounds of psychological determinance from sex and libido, the Freudian standpoint, to environmental factors. He gave special prominence to societal factors. According to him a person has to combat or confront three forces: societal, love-related, and vocational forces. These confrontations determine the final nature of a personality. Adler based his theories on the pre-adulthood development of a person. He laid stress on such areas as hated children, physical deformities at birth, birth order, etc.

From idea of libido, as leading power of the Freudian system, through principle of power of Adler, as original need of any human being, Alexander finds in Homer Lane a practical solution of his pedagogical idea.
The Little Commonwealth was a rehabilitation centre for young robbers where Lane adopted the method of freedom and self-government.

The Little Commonwealth is a co-educational community inhabited by children ranging in age from a few months to nineteen years, those more than thirteen years of age having been committed for a term of years for crime, as to a reformatory – in fact, the Little Commonwealth has recently been certified as a reformatory. The younger children are those who would in any case be subject to institutional care in asylums or orphanages. At the present moment the population of the Commonwealth is five adults, four of whom are women, forty-two boys and girls of fourteen to nineteen years of age, and nine younger children.

This population is distributed among three ‘families,’ grouped by congeniality; each person is free to choose his own place of residence. Boys and girls live in the same families, sharing equally the responsibility for family maintenance and government, as well as the responsibility for the welfare of the younger children. The chief point of difference between the Commonwealth and other reformatories and schools is that in the Commonwealth there are no rules and regulations except those made by the boys and girls themselves. All those who are fourteen years of age and over are citizens, having joint responsibility for the regulation of their lives by the laws and judicial machinery organized and developed by themselves.

The adult element studiously avoid any assumption of authority in the community, except in connection with their respective departmental duties as teachers or as supervisors of labour within the economic scheme. The citizens are paid wages in Commonwealth currency for their work in the various departments, and provide their own food, clothing, and recreations to whatever degree of comfort and elegance their earning capacity will permit. The wage paid corresponds to that of the outside world in similar employments The citizens are occupied chiefly with earning a living, to a regrettable exclusion of any considerable time for formal school-work. This, of course, does not apply to the children under fourteen, who have no work to do other than that chosen by themselves after the school-work is finished.


Freud and Adler showed to Alexander how to interpret the neurotic behaviors of the pupils of Summerhill and restore their original psychic equilibrium. Afterwards Lane revealed a treatment that is both cure and education: the “system of freedom” is not only a cure for neurosis but it also prevents the onset and leads to a balanced personality.


Spontaneity and self-development

The vision of Neill has 2 premises:

  1. faith on the natural goodness of the mankind. The educational method of Summerhill was based on the respect of spontaneity and development as natural attitude.
    The child is spontaneously positive: any negative aspect is produced by our wrong adult mentality. Egoism is natural and energetic aspect of any child: whenever the adults teaches that sharing is better, they bribe the nature of their pupils who has no reason to feel guilty.
  2. Fear and hate come from the conflict with adults. Any repression originates fear and hate on the child and, as a consequence , guilt trip. Here is when the child starts to hate his mother and father but as they are internal and important elements of anybody life, he develops a second personality in order to masks his hate.

Neill has no doubts: the right way, the solution of this problem is freedom, spontaneity and self-regulation. Nature has already everything for a balance and happy childhood.


Summerhill: non-directive methodology

800px-SummerhillSchool-300x211The conflict, for Alexander, is between nature and culture: culture is an imposed morality and what the child needs is freedom. A directive methodology is meant to educate the mind, but with an emotive freedom, the mind would be autonomously healthy.

The most important concept of Sumerhill is: the child has to live according to its natural and legitimate interests.

Up to 1970 Alexander used to do psychoanalytic therapy into the schools. Afterward he definitely decided to unify freedom and love under the same practice of self-discipline:

  • At Summerhill everyone has the same rights: I cannot take the toy of a child without its permission and during the general assembly the vote of a child is important as any other.
  • Only the teachers has a time-schedule, not the children, who were free to frequent or skip the lessons.



The youngest children were naturally self motivated and curious, as the children naturally are, but the older ended on hanging around, repeating the same activities with small efforts. Summerhill was the reaction of Alexader to a personal painful childhood. The idea of letting the children to be free, the absolute respect for their interest was the key to a new free humanity.

Of course any single child has personal interests but the pleasure for any activity comes from the relation with the teacher and sometime a slight effort makes the child more patient and motivated by an unexpected curiosity. Alexander based all his activity on the idea of a sharp opposition between the traditional culture and the spontaneity of children and this black and white vision is not always convincing.

Besides this, his commitment has been great and what he did was a good try for a new experimental education.


Following some testimony of the ex-pupils:

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