A year in the life of Summerhill

Our academic year consists of three terms: the autumn term from the end of September to mid-December, the spring term from January to March, and the summer term, starting in April and ending in late July. We have lovely long holidays of about four weeks in winter and spring, and almost eight weeks over the summer months. Since we are an international community, we tend to have very intense, busy terms without any breaks (i.e. no half-term break), keeping everybody together at the school and so facilitating longer holidays in between terms. This way, people coming from the other side of the world do not need to return as soon as they have managed to get over their jetlag in their home countries but have another few weeks to enjoy spending time with their families. It also means that international students fly only 6 times per year since they do not have to fly home for half-term breaks.

During term time everybody is allowed three weekends off. So, it does not matter whether you are a staff member or a student, you get to leave the school completely three times a term, going away from 3:30pm on a Friday and coming back two days later, Sunday afternoon or evening. This may sound harsh to some people, but we all know how long our holidays are, so it makes a lot of sense to spend term time together. And since many students come from different countries, they are most likely to stay at school for the entire term, not having any local relatives to visit. The occasional invitation to spend the weekend at a friend’s house, is always very welcome.

The most exciting start of term (SOT) is the beginning of the autumn term. By then, we haven’t seen one another for almost two months, and we are ready for a new start. Before the long summer holiday, a number of students take their leave of Summerhill to move onto the next phase of their life-long adventure. These ‘leavers’ tend to be older Summerhillians who used to be Carriage kids i.e. the oldest students who basically run the school. Their leaving allows the younger generation (the Shack kids) to take their place by becoming Carriage kids and continuing to run the school. Some students are so excited to start the new academic year that they pack everything two weeks before SOT to be ready when the time comes to leave for school. Some, however, struggle to get their heads around it still being warm and summer-like by the end of September as they plan and pack for the cold autumn and winter months that they will spend in Britain.

From the school’s perspective, every SOT is fairly stressful, as our ever-patient secretary tries to create a logical and easily understandable document that will guide our teachers at Heathrow airport, telling them who is waiting to be picked up in which terminal and at what time. It is a very complex procedure which requires all international parents to help our secretary and answer all her inquiries in good time and immediately if possible, which is, of course, difficult when they are in a different time zone, eight hours apart. But by the time staff members are about to begin their staff meeting the day before start of term, the document is ready ready for those who will do ‘pick-up’ the very next day.

Term basically begins with “arrival day”, which is always a Thursday. Apart from new students, who come in on Friday (except if they were on an international flight), everybody is asked to arrive after noon on the SOT Thursday. Students from the UK or from neighbouring countries usually arrive with their parents by car, whereas international students are picked up by four staff members from Heathrow airport. There are usually two buses heading to the airport, one in the morning to pick people up in the early afternoon and one in the afternoon to pick students up who land in the early evening hours. It takes three hours for the bus to make its way back to rural Suffolk, to Summerhill School, once the whole group is together and ready to leave the airport. It requires great synchronisation between our secretary and the parents for it to be a smooth pick-up for the teachers. For most students this trip involves a lot of waiting around and it is really impressive to see how patient they are.

On Friday at 11am, all new students as well as local day students, arrive to join the community. We have lunch and then hold our very first general meeting of the term from 2 pm. As usual, people bring up all sorts of cases, but at the end of this very first meeting, staff members get the chance to introduce themselves. We do this every term regardless of having any new students at school or not. Every staff member introduces himself or herself, and if they offer to teach something that will be a lesson on our timetable, they talk about that for a little bit and tell people where they can sign up for that lesson. After the meeting, teachers go to their classrooms and wait for students who are in Class 3 or in ‘Sign-up’ to come around and tell them if they want to sign up for lessons with them; this is also the time to discuss any specific interests which could be accommodated during lessons. Class 1 and Class 2 students talk to their teachers and sign up with them for other classes in their classrooms.

It is interesting that when people from other schools visit Summerhill, they often ask us about lessons and timetables, thinking we don’t have any, but in fact we always end up creating a wonderfully complex timetable by noon of the first Sunday of term. The timetable is based on the information teachers gather from students during the sign-up session on Friday. All together we have 35 slots to work with; teachers are advised not to have more than about 30 lessons per week, students are advised not to have more than 25. There are, of course, always some people who end up taking more, but we are usually able to make the timetable work if it is only some people who exceed the “limit”. So, all information gathered is then typed up in a table and using that as well as very clever software and the brains of three staff members, our complex timetable is ready for the term and we can start our lessons on Monday.

Annual events that shape and define the schedule of our academic year:

Halloween (31st October)
Half Term (HT) ‘Slobbing days’: Friday-Monday, Party – Gram: Saturday
Guy Fawkes (5th November)
Poky day / Single’s Day / Remembrance Day (11th November)
Summerhill Christmas: Christmas lunch, carols, Christmas tea, Christmas supper (Friday before EOT)
End of Term (EOT) celebration: Thursday-Sunday, Party – Gram: Saturday night
Sunday, all leave by noon

Chinese New Year
Valentine’s Day and Game
HT ‘Slobbing days’: Friday-Monday, Party – Gram: Saturday
EOT celebration: Thursday-Sunday, Party – Gram: Saturday night
Sunday, all leave by noon

Pool opens
International Schools’ Week
Summer HT ‘Slobbing days’:  Friday-Tuesday
Leavers’ Meal
Music event
EOT celebration: Thursday-Sunday, Party – Gram with Auld Lang Syne: Saturday night
Sunday, all leave by noon