The Free Child (2021) Giclee on Hahnemuhle Pearl Paper in eds: small, medium, large, XL and XXL. Editions to be announced. To notify of interest please contact the artist.


“Once I asked a boy of fourteen to come and have a chat with me. He had just come to Summerhill from a typical Public School. I noticed that his fingers were yellow with nicotine, so I took out my cigarette packet and offered it to him. ‘Thanks’, he stammered, ‘but I don’t smoke, sir.’ ‘Take one, you damned liar’, I said with a smile, and he took one. Here was a boy to whom headmasters were stern, moral disciplinarians to be cheated every time. By offering him a cigarette, I was showing him that I approved of his smoking. By calling him a damned liar, I was meeting him on his own level.” (A.S. Neill, Summerhill, 1962)

In 1921, Alexander Sutherland Neill wanted to make a school “where children could be free to learn if they wanted to learn, and play when they wanted to play, and make their own rules about living.” Summerhill, a democratic school in Suffolk England, started as an experiment in education, with one main idea; “to make the school fit the child - instead of making the child fit the school.” Neill wanted children to co-exist with teachers as equals in the way of an orchestra, as opposed to an army barracks style of conventional education. 

At the start, the school took on a fair amount of “problem children... thieves and liars and destroyers” who had been expelled from their previous schools, and eventually became “cured by… the freedom to be themselves.” Neill wrote of a boy who, after being expelled from his last school for stealing, arrives at Summerhill and is dumbfounded when Neill offers him a cigarette in his office. Although Neill was himself not approving of children smoking (and had futilely attempted to outlaw it at the school democratic meetings), he believed in the sentiments of Homer Lane, who “held that in order to rid a child of a bad social trait one should let the child live out his desires.”

Neill goes on to write, “He had been expelled from his previous school for stealing. ‘I hear you are a bit of a crook,’ I said. ‘What’s your best way of swindling the railway company?’ - ‘I never tried to swindle it, sir.’ -  ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that won’t do. You must have a try. I know lots of ways,’ and I told him a few. He gaped. This surely was a madhouse he had come to. The principal of the school telling him how to be a better crook? Years later, he told me that that interview was the biggest shock of his life.”

 “In our school this same boy became a happy, creative, social boy. If freedom can save the far-gone problem child, what could freedom do for the millions of so-called ‘normal’ children who are perverted by coercive authorities?”

Above: Film 'The Free Child' by Natalie Lennard, a portrait of the world's most controversial headmaster, A.S. Neill


“In my time, I, too, was dignified, aloof and a disciplinarian. I taught in a system that depended on the ‘tawse’, as we called the belt in Scotland. My father used it and I followed suit, without ever thinking about the rights and wrongs of it - until the day when I myself, as a headmaster, belted a boy for insolence. A new, sudden thought came to me. What am I doing? This boy is small, and I am big. Why am I hitting someone not my own size? I put my tawse in the fire and never hit a child again.” (A.S. Neill, The New Summerhill, p. 4)

“We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this, we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had - a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. For fifty years this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered; it rather has become a final faith.” ((A.S. Neill, The New Summerhill)

“More and more, I have come to believe that the greatest reform required in our schools is the abolition of that chasm between young and old which perpetuates paternalism. Such dictatorial authority gives a child an inferiority that persists throughout life; as an adult, he merely exchanges the authority of the teacher for that of the boss.” (A.S. Neill, The New Summerhill, p. 4) 

“Once, at a time when smoking was permitted in [Summerhill] school, I got up at a meeting and proposed that no child under sixteen should be allowed to smoke. The question of children’s smoking is of course a controversial one, and I am not going to argue about it here… I argued my case: a drug, poisonous, not a real appetite in children, but mostly an attempt to appear grown up. Counter-arguments were thrown across the floor. I was beaten by a large majority. … a boy of twelve said, “We are all sitting in the bogs smoking on the sly just like kids do in a strict school, and I say it is against the whole idea of Summerhill.” (A.S. Neill, The New Summerhill, p. 16)

“Freedom is necessary for the child because only under freedom can he grow in his natural way - the good way. I see the results of constraint in new pupils coming from other schools. They are bundles of insincerity, with an unreal politeness and phoney manners… It takes at least six months for them to lose their insincerity… and deference to what they regarded as authority. Within a year they begin to flower as natural, healthy kids who say what they think without fluster or hate… The most striking thing about Summerhill is this absolute sincerity among the pupils. This business of being sincere in life and to life is a vital one... Yet we educate our children in such a way that they dare not be sincere. The pioneer school of the future must pursue this way if it is to contribute to child knowledge and, more important, to child happiness.” (A.S. Neill, The New Summerhill, p.46)


Photographer & director: Natalie Lennard / Image models: G Lennard, R Robertson, Additional in video: L'nard daughters


Summerhill, A.S. Neill

The New Summerhill, A.S. Neill

The Problem Child, A.S. Neill

The Problem Family, A.S. Neill

The Problem School, A.S. Neill

The Problem Teacher, A.S. Neill

The Free Child, A.S. Neill

That Dreadful School, A.S. Neill

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