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Frankfurter Rundschau, 16th August 2005

Knowledge  and Education

[Picture of a young child drawing a symbol a timetable board Caption:  Writing your timetable yourself and just learning what is fun: is that sensible or naïve? Representatives of "democratic schools" draw up a balance sheet about the results of free learning.]

Of their own accord

Utopia or successful experimental laboratory? In Berlin "democratic schools" discussed learning without compulsion.

By Jeannette Goddar

Fourteen-year-old Maria has made up her mind: school, as it has presented itself to her for eight years, is not for her. They tell her what to do, instead of letting her learn independently, she says, and educate her to conformity and submissiveness instead of independence and strength of character. To change all that, from August 26th Maria will be going to the newly founded Halle-Leipzig Sudbury School, where there is neither timetable nor curriculum nor rules about breaks. The students, aged between three and seventeen, learn what they want to learn and organise their school according to rules that they make for themselves. There is also no compulsion to go to lessons or even to go to school at all.

Because it is like that, there is admittedly no legal status. The Leipzig regional school authority has neither recognised the school nor accepted the appeals from the 35 parents for freedom from compulsory school. Nevertheless the Sudbury School wants to start: "Our children are running out of time," says one of the founders, Uwe Hartung, "and if the state does not recognise that then we will just begin."

Almost everywhere around the world people would see Maria, the school girl, and Hartung, the father and teacher, as either exceptionally brave and consistent, or exceptionally naïve and dotty. At the "International Democratic Education Conference" they were perfectly normal. School students from all over the world who only learn when they want to gathered there.

From all over the world? Almost. One of the first lessons that the unschooled participants received, was that alternative education is no privilege of Western hemisphere: students had travelled from so-called "democratic schools" in Israel and India, Japan, South Korea and Russia. And, of course, from the classic nests of anti-authoritarian education, from the US American Sudbury School to the British Summerhill. The latter offered the most prominent guest of the conference - Zoe Readhead, one-time pupil and present head of Summerhill School - and daughter of the legendary founder and progressive educator, A. S. Neill.

But what distinguishes a democratic school? Otto Herz, likewise a well-known progressive educator, acted as devil's advocate and taunted the self-appointed school democrats: Isn't every school democratic? Because every undemocratic school would immediately be closed down? Haven't state schools also offered free voting rights for a long time, and also dealt with the idea that learning only works when the learners are involved? And, particularly devilishly from the point of view of the public, don't children need pressure so that they learn that life cannot be entirely pleasant?

His victims fought back worthily, and themselves pointed out to the sceptics that the seventy or so democratic schools around the world could be seen as small but effective laboratories of learning without pressure. "All children want to learn and make something of themselves," argued Zoe Readhead, "you only have to give them the time to find out for themselves what is right for them."  That sometimes this is a roundabout route she conceded without reservation: Summerhill has also had students who roared around on skateboards or played in the woods for three years - until they turned into enthusiastic wood-workers or IT experts. Megan Carrico from Canada, also a school head and the daughter of the founder of an alternative school, added that from a democratic point of view there was no alternative: "Every school that doesn't ask its students what they want is undemocratic."

On a closer look at the strange blooms in the international school landscape it also became clear that the model can be clearly divided: at one end of the scale there is the Sudbury model, in which there is absolutely no teaching. "Most of the time I chat with friends, read books or listen to music," said student Michael Sappir from Jerusalem. Only when the children ask for it will teachers - that are called co-workers here - offer some sort of instruction on particular themes. At the other end of the scale are models like the British Sands School and to a lesser extent Summerhill, where there are timetables and lessons, but the students themselves decide whether they will take part and if so what they will take part in.

What has happened to the many generations of ex-pupils, whether they have not only been happy but also successful, is virtually unresearched. David Gribble, founder of Sands School is over seventy and has visited almost every democratic school in the world. The only study that he knows, he says, is thirty years old and only dealt with 50 former pupils in Great Britain. Of them - admittedly in the bright 70s - above average numbers became writers, musicians, doctors and social workers.

More than 30 years after the peak of anti-authoritarian education and four years after Pisa the idea is becoming popular in Germany. One year after the opening of the Sudbury School in Überlingen on Lake Constance the Leipzig school is starting. In Berlin, Hamburg, Münich, Köln/Bonn, Lüneburg and Osnabrück there are related initiatives. In the world as a whole the type of school developed in Massachusetts in 1968 has been imitated about forty times. In most other countries the foundation of such schools is somewhat easier because of different laws about school attendance.

In Germany the organisers are relying on not being stopped and on every state school accepting students from Sudbury schools - ultimately that is the only way to integrate them into the desired system. Anyway there are not many students involved - in Leipzig there are 35 registrations.

Otto Herz was diabolical again about the schools, which are tiny almost everywhere: "I have nothing against your pedagogical ideological backwater - but you aren't going to have any effect on the real world."

[In the box:]


Almost 400 school students, teachers and educationalists from 28 countries discussed the future of the progressive model at the 13th world conference of democratic schools in Berlin. Supporter of the conference is the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC), founded in 1993. For the fact that the annual IDEC took place for the first time in Germany was largely due to the young people of the Berlin children's rights group KRÄTZÄ. Since 1992 KRÄTZÄ has been working for more democracy in schools and the strengthening of the rights of children and young people.


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