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Schools Without Rules: A Daring Philosophy

Jordan Catapano


If I were to reflect on my years as a student, I would recall an onslaught of “dos” and “don’ts” that defined the narrow parameters I could act within. The ubiquitous school rules came in the forms of posters on the wall, of chalkboard reminders, of teacher reprimands, of parental threats, and of course that quietly instilled voice in my head that said “stop.” At first glance, these regulations seemed good: They kept me out of trouble and encouraged me to do positive deeds. However, some institutions are reconsidering what role school rules should play in a student’s formative years. After all, if rules limit behavior, then is it possible that these school rules are limiting a child’s growth potential as well?

A Scottish schoolmaster named A.S. Neill founded a boarding school in England in 1921 called Summerhill School. While this was just one of hundreds of schools founded in the century, Neill’s unique philosophy was one-of-a-kind, and has been getting a bit more attention lately. His school was known as a “free school” or a “school without rules” that allows students to do just about anything they want to. A compilation of his writings – called “Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing” – endorses a laissez-faire approach to children’s formation.

In our day of intense regulation, rigorous testing, and strict standards for behavior, it is difficult to imagine how a school like Neill’s could exist. However, the Christian Science Monitor relates that his views became widely popular in the 1960s and even became “required reading in education courses” in the United States and elsewhere. Several “do-as-you-like” schools were founded and a few persist to this day.

What’s presented in a school without rules is a philosophy very contrary to what we ordinarily endorse for our children. If children learn through imagination, play, experimentation, and confidence, then our academic environments do more to stifle than encourage these pillars of development. Our schools identify learning problems and attack them with additional testing, learning interventions and even medication. A school without rules, like Neill’s, would emphasize the need for play, trial-and-error and independence. In a school where attending class is optional and freedom is king, the underlying premise is that children will naturally feel inspired by their own fundamental curiosity. Self-guidance, as opposed to strictly regimented external standards, is what dictates a student’s growth and future success.

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Perhaps Mr. Neill’s perspectives feel safely relegated to the past; however, some schools have begun picking up the “free school” ideals and begun stripping their rule book of its contents. One recently reported arising of a “no rules” atmosphere comes from New Zealand, where The Atlantic reports students at Swanson Primary School are “allowed to climb trees, ride skateboards, and play contact games.” While teachers initially cringed while stifling their instincts to tell students “No,” the school reports that school bullying incidences have drastically declined while classroom attention rates are dramatically increasing.

There is a great deal of skepticism, especially in the intensely structured United States, about the merits of free play. The Swanson Primary School in New Zealand largely limits its no-rules philosophy to recess and instills standard behavior expectations in the classroom. While their school’s initial findings positively correlate freedom to academic performance, a great deal of cultural change needs to occur before U.S. schools would consider loosening their grip on student behavioral and learning expectations.

Many critique the current landscape of rules and standards in the U.S. as making children better “students” but poorer “free thinkers” who can engage confidently in real-world environments. I suppose that question that we need to ask ourselves as educators is: “To what extent do the rules we enforce help or hurt our students?”

Our initial reaction might be that rules are meant for the safety and development of everyone. However, at what point does the pendulum swing the other way, and we recognize the extent of value in the old maxim “rules were made to be broken?”

How do you feel about your rules in the classroom? Do you feel like you are forced to be a strict authoritarian? Are schools like Summerhill and Swanson on the right track or zooming their children toward disaster? Share your thoughts below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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