Review of “Progressive School” Movement – Summerhill, Malting House & Beacon Hill

One of my first projects here at the University of Missouri is reviewing historical documents of the ‘Progressive School’ movement, particularly the ‘famous’ schools of the 1920s advocated by celebrities (or people who went on to become celebrities). The intial review of documents includes correspondence, minutes, prospectuses and applications for Malting House (Susan Isaacs Jacobs, Summerhill (AS Neill) and Beacon Hill (Bertrand & Dora Russell).

The most extensive collection so far is the amazing online archive of Dora Russell’s work.  Though only married to Bertrand Russell for a short time she kept the name ‘Dora Russell’ throughout her life and enjoyed an incredible career in writing and political activism after Beacon Hill closed.

The question that interests me is this: Given that all three opened to great fanfare, with similarly passionate, intelligent leaders and middle class pupils, why did two of them fail so quickly? And how did Summerhill, perhaps the most unlikely of all, survive until the present day?

I’m interested in this question because the current focus on new schools talks as if opening a new building, with new leaders and good intentions is inevitably going to bring a lasting and positive change.  Sometimes this is true; but almost as often, it is not. Are there warning signs?  Are there patterns that can tell us which new schools are going to achieve well? Because if there aren’t then a policy based entirely on opening new schools could be nothing more than a blind stab at educational improvement.

As AS Neill says in this letter to Russell after the school folded:”Oceans of new ‘progressive’ schools (are) mostly compromises”.  Never forget that new schools always become old ones eventually.


Letter from AS Neill to Dora Russell available in the International Institute of Social History archives:


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