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taz, 03.08.2005

"Industrial schools ruin school-children"

Schools and learning are more successful when they are organised fundamentally democratically. Michael Sappir, who goes to school in Jerusalem, is certain of this. Because the students decide the rules. And they find out for themselves what they want to learn. Formal learning puts families under pressure.

Interviewer: Ole Schulz

taz: Michael, school democracy - what does it mean to you?

Michael Sappir: Democracy in my school is not an end in itself. We use the rules of the democratic game to organise things as we want them. At our school everyone is free to do what he wants. No one tells the students what they have to do, but they do what interests them.

How is that organised?

There are two democratic institutions: the school meeting, that meets once a week and at which everyone, pupil or teacher, has one vote. Here the rules are made for everybody, with the majority of the pupils. In addition there is a justice committee, that meets every day for an hour. It decides about complaints and offences against the rules. All in all it works very well.

Does this committee also give punishments?

In principle it does. If someone breaks a rule for the first time and it is not a particularly serious crime like violence against things or fellow-students, then there is only a warning. If it happens again there can be a fine, but it is never much. And when someone has caused trouble in a particular place, he can be forbidden to go there for a while. In really serious cases the school commission can decide by a majority vote to expel the child from the school. Up to now that has only happened once.

Can the students vote about everything, for instance also about financial matters?

We think that there is no better way to learn how to handle money, than directly dealing with it. Anyone who has to sort out the yearly budget learns very quickly. That even happened with my mother - and she was one of the founders of the school.

But is a child who has only just come to school actually capable of it?

The younger children generally don't vote when they don't understand what it is about. And also all questions are discussed before the vote. If someone doesn't understand something properly, it is explained.

What is a typical day at the Jerusalem Democratic School like?

Every day is different. Everyone organises it according to personal interests. The school is anyway open from eight o'clock in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon. Because of the difficult political situation in Jerusalem people are unfortunately not allowed to leave the school during that time - only with an adult.

Right, but what is a typical day like for you?

Because I am chairman of the computer group, I spend a lot of time in the computer room, to help people. Then I like listening to music, but above all I talk to other people a great deal. Sometimes I also read or play outside the school or do sport. Anyone who wants to is allowed to miss school for two days a month without an excuse. Only when you would like to stay away from the school for longer do you have to ask the school meeting.

The concept of the American Sudbury Valley School is considered among democratic schools to be the most significant. Generally speaking there is no regular instruction in classes.

A priori we have no formal instruction. If courses are arranged then it is because children have decided together to get lessons in a particular subject - for example genetics or the philosophical school of idealism. The lessons then take place in an open form, like a discussion group. Learning is usually informal in our school; you read about something that interests you, and when you can't get any further you ask someone who knows more about it. We are convinced that you learn best from life itself and contact with other people, by communicating with them.

Don't the younger children in particular need guidance from adults?

No. But people who have been ruined by normal, industrial schools certainly do.

Why do you talk about industrial schools?

Because this type of school for mass-production has hardly changed since its foundation in the time of the industrial revolution. Children who have never been to that kind of school don't usually have any problem in finding out what they want. They are used to occupying themselves.

What children are at risk?

Older students who come from ordinary schools and are used to doing what they are told have pretty big difficulties. The younger children in our school play a lot, and just by doing that they learn a lot. And when they get older, they begin to deal with more serious questions of their own accord. For instance in our school not all the children can read and write well when they are eight. Sooner or later they all learn.

There is a criticism of democratic schools, that they are elite private institutions - because they cost a lot of money.

The idea of an elite is no part of our philosophy. School fees of about 200 euros a month for the first child are simply necessary, because we don't get any money from the state. And also at our school families which aren't able to pay the full fee get reductions.

What distinguishes you from your friends who go to "normal" schools?

Many of them seem to me to be unhappier - with life in general and with their schools in particular. Many have big conflicts with their families, whereas I seldom disagree with my parents - because they let me do what I want. My friends who go to other schools are always under pressure from their parents, for example to do their homework. I find it sad that traditional schools produce so much tension in families.

Democratic Schools
- a film about the desire to learn

Demokratische Schulen
- Ein Film über die Lust zu lernen
Resolution der
IDEC 2005

IDEC 2005 Resolution
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