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taz, 08.08.2005

Flower-power schools from all over the world...

...are meeting for a world conference in Berlin. They want to help the radical democratic schools in Germany.

The little signpost says "Curriculum" and points to the left. The bigger one points in the other direction and says "Curiosity". That is the provocative logo of the 13th International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) that is taking place from tomorrow in the Humboldt University. Students, parents and teachers from the flower-power schools are meeting in Berlin, in order to contribute something to the modernisation of the Pisa-tormented German schools.

From the point of view of the organisers that is thoroughly necessary. According to the view of the democratic educators there is not a single genuinely democratic school in this country. "Democratic schools are distinguished by the fact that every student can decide for himself what and how he will learn," says the co-organiser Mike Weimann from the Berlin children's rights project Krätzä. "They make the school rules with the teachers according to the principle 'one man, one voice.'"

Such a radical democratic concept, with no marking system or fixed lesson times, may seem strange - in a country where the schools are divided sharply according to three types of ability, where there is a central requirement that students are separated out according to their attainment.

The democratic schools, on the other hand, are still defiantly adhering to the progressive concepts of the past, such as those of Summerhill School, founded in 1921. Zoe Readhead, the daughter of A.S. Neill, the Summerhill founder, will be the best known participant at the IDEC conference. "Our philosophy," says Readhead, "starts from the freedom of every individual - and it has not changed." The children may dress quite differently from the children of the 1930s, says this icon of cosy education, "but they still have the same needs: children need to play, they need the society of other children, adults who support them and a safe, loving environment."

Around the world there are at least 70 schools, principally in the USA and Israel, which satisfy the strict "democratic" criteria. In the concrete realisation of freedom to learn, democratic decision-making structures and openness of the school day there are of course clear differences. Some schools offer courses in traditional school subjects; the children can take them, but they do not have to. In others, like the Sudbury schools, teaching only happens when the students ask for it. Decisions may be made according to a simple majority, or elsewhere by consensus. The idea, though, that there is total laissez-faire in these schools is a myth. "We have about 190 school rules," Zoe Readhead says of Summerhill, for instance.

In Germany, in spite of shattering PISA and Timms results, people still have difficulty with basic school reform. But there are not a few indications that the long derided progressive schools, which, as democratic schools, avoid traditional cramming and increased pressure to achieve, work better than is generally assumed. The Bielefeld Laboratory School and the Helene Lange Gesamtschule in Wiesbaden, for instance, both achieved good PISA results.

Giving children charge of their own learning is an old demand of progressive education. However there is controversy as to how far it is sensible to leave it entirely to the students to decide whether, what and how they want to learn. In the Hanover Glockseeschule, the only public alternative school in Germany, there have been many projects, no 45 minute divisions of the day and no keeping anyone back for a year ever since it started in 1972. However since that time it has departed from other principles of the experimental first years; in the 7th to 10th classes a compulsory timetable has been introduced and last year marks were given.

That children have to be given "reasons for motivation" is emphasised also by Ernst Rösner from the Institute for Research into School Development in the university of Dortmund - and that will not always work "on a totally optional basis." For Rösner "school is and remains a demanding institution," by which he means something thoroughly positive: "Anyone who follows a sport, makes demands upon himself, and I am thoroughly convinced that a school which does not demand effort, which does not encourage and challenge, is missing the purpose of education."

The defenders of democratic schools reject this suggestion: "We are not absolute opponents of instruction," says Uwe Hartung from the Sudbury School Halle-Leipzig, for instance. "What makes the difference is that in our schools no one is compelled to take part in lessons. It is the students who decide when and how it takes place." When the Sudbury School Halle-Leipzig opens on August 31, 35 students aged between three and seventeen will be learning according to the libertarian principles of Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1969 in Massachusetts - helped by eight adult staff-members, five of whom have been trained as teachers. The basic principle of the school, according to Hartung, is "trust in the ability of students of every age to decide for themselves what topics, material and people are important for their lives and learning."

Uwe Hartung will not concede that the children's future is being damaged because they cannot get a qualification that leads on to other things,. "For those who want it, we will offer the opportunity to prepare themselves in the best possible way for external exams."

But the legal situation of the Sudbury School Halle-Leipzig is as yet uncertain - in that respect it is similar to the other four parental initiatives which are trying to set up Sudbury schools in Germany. In spite of initial statements of approval from the Ministry of Culture it looks at present as though the regional educational office will forbid its operation as a private school because that would mean applying for to release parents from the duty to send their children to school. The majority of the parents, however, will not be put off by the expected fines.

For the co-organiser of the school conference, Mike Weimann, the restrictive behaviour of the authorities is incomprehensible, especially as the law specifically allows the foundation of private schools. "My hope is that they will at least give the democratic schools a chance, even if they have to change decrees and laws. The could, for instance, let them run as experiments in co-operation with academics."

The fact that learning without compulsion, exactly what the democratic schools advocate, is learning that endures, is also confirmed by the findings of brain research. The human being may be born to learn, above all when he is young, says the famous psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer, but he only "does it well, when it gives him pleasure, when he is personally motivated to pursue things." And it can hardly be argued that ordinary German schools promote that kind of learning, free from fear and compulsion.

Ole Schulz

Democratic Schools
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Demokratische Schulen
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Resolution der
IDEC 2005

IDEC 2005 Resolution
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