Research Papers

Can liberal education make a comeback? The case of ‘relational touch’ at Summerhill School.

Ian Stronach, MMU and Heather Piper, MMU

This paper draws on data from a larger project which focussed on the controversial issue of ‘touching’ behaviours between education and childcare professionals and children in a number of UK settings. We had become increasingly aware that the ‘touching’ of children, as one aspect of professional practice, was causing concern (Piper and Smith, 2003). This case study looks at a school once internationally renowned as the exemplar of ‘free’ schooling, quite recently subject to a closure attempt by the state, but which continues to prosper in terms of A.S. Neill’s philosophy and practice. We consider how the school works as a community, how it impacts on its students, and how it copes with the strictures of the audit culture, in relation to ‘risk’, ‘safety’, and various regulations regarding touching between adults and children. Our research in Summerhill led us to conclude that physical ‘touch’ was an irrelevant focus, and we developed in its stead the notion of ‘relational touch’ emanating from the mix of weak and strong boundaries in the school, and the ways in which these helped to generate individual and collective identities. It became apparent that Summerhill works in ways that approximate an inversion of the audit culture, and which are incomprehensible to current accountability regimes. We argue that progressive and critical conceptions of education continue to have much to learn from concrete examples like Summerhill and conclude that a revival of such values in education is long overdue.

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