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Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 8th

Whatever you like.

Conflict about "democratic schools": children in Germany too should be able to decide for themselves about what they are taught - an unthinkable idea for the authorities.

by Gunnar Herrmann

[Under a picture of three girls working at a table together, the caption says: Reading first, or maths, from eight till twelve, or would it be better in the afternoon? In "democratic schools" the classes themselves decide when they want to learn what.]

It reads like an extract from a Utopian essay in a school magazine: lessons only happen when people want them: the teachers are called co-workers and can be voted out if the children are unhappy with them. For 35 children from Saxony these ideas are soon to be part of normal school life. From September they will be going to the Halle-Leipzig Sudbury School, which was solemnly opened on the first of August at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

This annual "world conference of democratic schools" took place this time in Berlin, so as to support alternative ways of education in Germany. It isn't easy for them - a school where the pupils can decide what, when and from whom they will learn, hardly fits in with German curricula, laws, prescriptions. For this reason a conflict with the authorities in Leipzig is on its way, and neither the parents nor the educational officials are ready to give way.

Equal rights for all

One of the founders of the Leipzig school is Uwe Hartung. The 44-year-old teacher is a passionate defender of progressive education, as it is practised in the English Summerhill School and the Sudbury Valley School in the US state of Massachusetts. Around the world there are more than 40 organisations on the Sudbury model, and it served the Leipzig people as a model for their new foundation too. There is also already a German Sudbury School in Überlingen, on Lake Constance - which is admittedly not officially recognised.  Hartung knows of six other groups between Münich and Osnabrück which are planning to set up Sudbury Schools. In Berlin the groups formed themselves into a network, in order to represent their interests more effectively.

Organisations like the Sudbury schools describe themselves as "democratic schools". That means that the students are given a great deal of space for voting rights. They only learn what they want to learn, can use their free time as they like, decide in a meeting on a few rules for the running of the school and in many cases even plan the finances of the school. In the meeting the teachers have the same voting rights as the students. The keeping of the rules is looked after usually by a kind of school court, which is run by children and grownups. "Schools are not any cleverer than the pupils themselves," says Hartung the Leipziger in justification of the voting rights of the children. What's more they prepare children in the best way for life in a democracy: "Schools should do what is usually done in society as a whole."

In the opinion of the regional education authority this degree of freedom of course does not match the requirements of the constitution. As a result of the constitution and the school laws of the different regions the state has a duty with regard to education, says Gerd Kusserow, deputy leader of the authority. And because the state has this duty, pupils cannot be allowed to decide for themselves whether they educate themselves or not. According to the views of the authorities of Saxony this means that school is a place where learning proceeds according to a system. And that is exactly what people like Uwe Hartung are refusing to do.

Fines for parents.

How the conflict might develop in Leipzig can be predicted by studying the example of the Katzenhäusle, the school in Überlingen on Lake Constance, which works according to the Sudbury concept. Mathias and Karen Kern, joint founders of the initiative, have been careful and for this reason are reluctant to use the word "school". Matthias Kern prefers to call the Katzenhäusle a "centre for communication and education, where older and younger people meet during school time and create something together, which cannot be a school."

On the other hand the Upper School Authority of Tübingen calls the Katzenhäusle "illegal". For that reason parents who send their children there have already had to pay fines of up to several hundred euros, because in the opinion of the authority they are breaking the law about school attendance. According to official spokesman Paul-Gerhard Roller the education department lawyers are already considering how they can shortly bring the organisers of the school to the cash desk too. The final step would be to have the children taken to a state school by the police - but up to now the authorities have not dared to do this. Roller does not think an agreement is likely. To achieve that the Katzenhäusle would have to change its concept fundamentally. What the school authority is demanding above all is that the Baden-Württemberg educational standards should be maintained. That means that fixed learning objectives must be achieved in a fixed time.

Neither the Kerns nor Hartung have any fundamental objections to learning objectives. They are convinced that Sudbury children can reach the required state standards without a problem. But the children themselves should choose their own ways of achieving this. "Many children may not learn to read until they are twelve, but when they are fifteen you will not see any difference from children who learnt earlier," says Karen Kern.

Hartung himself has a 15-year-old daughter who goes to Summerhill School in England. Marie wanted to learn English when she was three years old, and according to her father she was already working on higher mathematics when she was thirteen. Now she is less interested in it. "Suddenly she has begun to prefer making music, and now she also plays football," says Hartung. That his daughter is not yet thinking about final exams doesn't worry her father. "If she decides to study, then she will pass her exams in the shortest possible time." According to Hartung only one in forty Summerhill students leave without being ready for high school.

Such figures are not accepted by the Leipzig school authorities. The problem is admittedly that up to now there has been no really well-grounded scientific work about the opportunities and risks in "democratic schools". This needs to be carried out in experimental models. Gerd Kusserow hints that there is in principle the possibility of looking on the Halle-Leipzig Sudbury School as an experiment and then evaluating it in terms of results. "But that is a political decision. Here we are administrators," says Kusserow.

In the mean time the newly founded school in Leipzig is getting ready for a conflict and has employed a lawyer. Whatever happens the school should open as planned on August 27th - with the usual festival of sweets.

[In Germany it is a custom to give all new children a big paper cornet full of sweets on their first day at school.]

Democratic Schools
- a film about the desire to learn

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

IDEC 2005 Resolution
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