“The function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best,” wrote British educator A.S. Neill.
Shinichiro Hori is one educator who has been strongly influenced by those words. So strongly affected that he has founded several institutions in Japan based on Neill’s philosophy of the free school and is now trying to revive a Scottish school.
The free school is best illustrated by Neill’s own Summerhill School, founded in 1921. The British free school places priority on its students’ freedom and autonomy.
Hori’s current project is to resuscitate a sister free school in southwestern Scotland, which closed in 1997 under pressure from the Scottish Ministry of Education.
Kilquhanity House School was founded in 1940 by John Aitkenhead, another follower inspired by the Neill’s Summerhill School.
Hori had a close relationship with Aitkenhead from 1972 until the Scotsman’s death in 1998, and has said that Kilquhanity influenced his first school, Kinokuni Children’s Village Elementary School, founded in Wakayama Prefecture in 1992.
Aitkenhead closed Kilquhanity soon after a 1996 education ministry inspection. He had been ordered not only to repair the school buildings but also to make changes to the curriculum and principles of the school.
“Most of the orders are against the philosophy of the school,” Hori said. “Aitkenhead was at an old age at that time and he thought that his successors would compromise by succumbing to the authorities’ demand. Though it was against his will, he decided to close down the school.”
But the Kilquhanity story did not end there.
When he heard of the closure, Hori decided to try to reopen the school. “The reason behind the closure was sad, and I wanted to do something,” he said.
Hori’s efforts to revive Kilquhanity can be traced back to his first encounter with the books written by Neill when Hori was an undergraduate at Kyoto University decades ago.
Hori’s attention was caught by the fact that the Summerhill students’ grades were the same as those of students at other schools.
At Summerhill, it is up to each student to attend lessons, and the school rules are made or changed by discussions and votes by students and staff, who each have an equal say.
Hori became more interested in Neill and started studying his theories in earnest while dreaming of having a school like Summerhill in Japan.
“I felt that at schools in Japan, children were deprived of their freedom, and teachers did not let their students think for themselves, use their brains,” he said. “I wanted to create a school where children decided things by themselves, chose what they do and could do things again even if they failed once. These were what I thought were the most important values in the new school.”
Hori continued to study Neill’s theories for his master’s degree and conducted his own research on children.
“I realized that no matter how old children are, they work on things seriously and eagerly if they choose what to do by themselves,” Hori said. “If adults or teachers manage to offer a good learning environment, I’m sure children will grow up strong.”
In 1984, Hori set up a group called the “Association to Found a New School” to help organize a free school in Japan.
After much work by him, his colleagues, the local school board and interested groups, his dream finally materialized in 1992. Kinokuni Children’s Village Elementary School opened in Hashimoto, Wakayama Prefecture.
Hori, who is the headmaster of the school, says its three basic tenets are “for students to decide things for themselves,” “to value individual differences” and “to learn things through activities.”
One hundred students are currently enrolled in the elementary school. A junior high school was founded in 1994 and currently has 58 students. A special high school that focuses on international studies was founded in 1998 and has 36 students.
Hori opened another elementary school in Katsuyama, Fukui Prefecture, in 1998 and a junior high school there in 2001.
As part of his bid to resuscitate Kilquhanity House School, Kinokuni students visited Kilquhanity between 1999 and 2001 for training activities and on school trips.
Kinokuni finally reached an agreement with the Aitkenhead family in 2002 to purchase the buildings and the majority of the property.
Hori intends to reopen the school in a few years and says the Aitkenheads are delighted at the prospect.
“In the initial stage, we’d like to bring the children of Kinokuni and Katsuyama for a long-term stay. After that goes well, we aim to reopen the school officially,” he said.
Students from the Kinokuni and Katsuyama schools will be given preference for spots at the new Kilquhanity. But Hori also plans to accept local children to study alongside the Japanese.
Hori hopes that the Japanese students who will study at the Scottish school will cherish the experience of meeting people from other cultures: “We are not resuscitating the Scottish school just because we’d like Japanese students to learn English.
“We hope that at the Scottish school, students will be able to meet various people with different ideas. It’s great if students can realize that they can communicate with each other as the same human beings, even though we speak different languages,” Hori said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.