Democratic Schools

Imagine going to school and having the freedom to do whatever you want.

If you want to play in a band all day with your mates then do it.

If you want to spend the day playing video games, fine.

How about cooking in the morning and then playing outside in the afternoon? Go ahead.

The only conditions are that you can’t engage in anything that is not destructive or criminal.

Oh yes and the other thing, the adults in the school don’t have the title of “teachers” either.

Do these places actually exist?

They certainly do, they are called democratic schools and they are all about self-directed life-long learning.

The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) define democratic education in their Directory of Democratic Education as

education in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults.

Democratic schools are attracting much more serious attention than they used to because children in these settings are offered a freedom from the very things those in mainstream education spend much of their time debating and arguing about, e.g. compulsory lessons, coercive disciplinary systems, homework, uniforms, competitive testing, age and ability grouping, a ‘them-and-us’ culture, arbitrary rules, standardised curriculum, a focus on academic subjects, and the fear of making mistakes.

Children and young people in democratic schools, whatever their age, have autonomy and are trusted to collaboratively make decisions about how the community is run. Some have a judicial committee to enforce rules and deal with conflicts.

One of the world’s oldest and most fully documented democratic schools is the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Mass.

These are ‘intentional communities’ as explained here in the next video by Kezia Cantwell-Wright, founder of the East Kent Sudbury School:

Mainstream schools today could be criticised for producing the most over-supervised and over-structured children in the history of education and this wouldn’t be far from being spot-on.

The idea of giving children the freedom to learn isn’t new and something inspired by the philosophy of Summerhill School founded by Scottish writer and rebel, Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921.

This is all about the politics of engagement and teachers as “transformative intellectuals“.

The very idea of democratic schools meets with plenty of opposition and it isn’t for everyone but I can’t help but agree with Benjamin (2019) who says, despite its limitations, democratic schooling principles can

function as catalysts for altering power dynamics in schools, making schools more adaptive and stakeholder-focused.


The Democratic Education Directory is an online resource which maps individuals, organisations and schools who practise or support democratic education in the UK

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