The Free School, Leipzig - a Democratic School?
I came to the Free School Leipzig just over two years ago. I had heard of the school through EUDEC, the European Democratic Education Community, and I came here full of enthusiasm to see how on earth a truly democratic primary school could function. Having had experience in the democratic education world, both through my work and my experience as a student at Sands in England, I was (and still am) on a mission to look at different schools and find out, how they function, how democratic they are and how effective this is.
My first impressions of the Free School were full of critical analysis. What I saw was not a democratic school, but a school which deployed some democratic practices. And, I felt it was a farce to call a school like this a democratic school. What I have learnt in the past two years is that the school is actually in a very different place to where I had initially thought it was. There are a wide range of educational ideologies within the school community, with parents, teachers and students from a diverse array of backgrounds, holding a diverse array of beliefs. However, one thing is clear, we are standing in the middle of the exciting and experimental process of democratising our school.
In the last year there have been many changes which have meant that we have, in my eyes, become more of a democratic school. The school is changing in many respects as a result of expanding into a secondary school. Many of the changes have been pioneered by the older students and they are are much broader than merely dealing with the intricacies of how we will prepare students for the school-leaving exam. These changes involve dealing with the articulate, free-school-educated, young adults who we now have in our community. They have their own ideas, they are capable of expressing themselves eloquently, they have a strong sense of what their rights are, they have an active interest in how the school works, they want to be listened to, they want to be a part of decision making processes and they are determined to make themselves heard.
For example, last year the staff team discussed the year group structure for the next school year. When this decision was presented to the school meeting many of the older students were unhappy with it, but they didn't just complain about it, or demand a change – the way children are often expected to react. They developed an alternative proposal and brought it to the school meeting, the school meeting decided the issue required more detailed discussion and a small group meeting was arranged. This workgroup (a combination of staff and students) met a couple times and discussed the issues openly and maturely and came to a conclusion that met everyone’s needs.
But many changes have also been led by the staff team. We meet for 2 days twice a year with an objective external mediator/supervisor in order to work intensively on internal issues within the team and the school. Last year, in the spring supervision, the team chose the democratic development of the school as its central issue. It was a very intense and practically focussed supervision, the team worked together to adapt their broad range of opinions and feelings to create a series of practical steps which everyone was comfortable with.
We decided that to be democratic, rather than involving the students in all decisions, it is important to clearly define which decisions are going to be made with the children, and then to ensure that these decisions are made in a genuinely democratic way. This meant that a lot of the work that was done at this supervision was to define exactly where, when and in what ways the children could and should be involved in decision-making processes. After the supervision we introduced a system by which the students participate in the recruitment of new staff. Now there are the same number of elected student representatives as members of staff involved in the recruitment and decision-making process. Some student representatives conduct interviews with applicants (separate from the interviews with team members). Then, when an applicant is doing a trial week with us, the student representatives make an effort to talk with the applicant, see how the applicant fits in with our school and look at how she/he is with the other children. The student representatives also ask the opinions of their peers and feed this into discussion in a team meeting. Then in the team meeting in which a decision is made about employing someone, the student representatives each have one vote, as do the members of the team. The students who have participated in this process have conscientiously carried out their role. They have taken their responsibility seriously and made a great effort to express the feelings of their peers, even when this has meant using their vote to vote in opposition to their personal opinions.
They have also learnt in this process a lot about the practical steps involved in the employment process; how you do an interview, how far in advance you need to start searching for people, how to define what makes someone a good teacher and so on. This process has now been used for several positions and will be reviewed later this year. A clear issue that came out of the team’s discussions was that we didn't want to end up having hours-long school meetings with children who weren't interested, didn't understand or didn't have the ability, making decisions that were important to the running of the school.
I do not believe making a decision democratically means that everyone has to participate in the process, it means that everyone must have the opportunity to participate if they want to. It was decided that many issues could be dealt in a democratic way by announcing them in the school meeting or morning circle and setting up small, open workgroups or committees who would meet and work on suggestions.
In the past year we have seen many such workgroups and committees, comprising sometimes only a few people and sometimes a substantial number, almost always consisting of a combination of adults and children. One such committee was a group that decided on rules and logistics for school camp. We had a very pleasant smooth school camp, with great respect for all the boundaries that had been set. I think this was a direct result of these rules having been made by the students themselves; they saw the sense in the rules, they respected them and they regulated them themselves. Workgroups and committees have also met to discuss the cleaning time, the computer rules, the structure of school meetings, the managing of some of the budget and the group structure for next year, among other things. Ultimately, what I see is that firstly, the children's behaviour, when they really feel they have ownership of something, is exemplary. Secondly, this sense of ownership results directly from participation in the decision-making process, and, finally, when responsibility is given it is taken seriously and respected.
We are in the process of experimenting with aspects of democratic education. We are trying ideas, seeing what happens and learning the whole time. I feel privileged to be a part of this school during this exciting time, following and contributing to the changes and developments that are taking place.
We are not democratic school, we are a school interested in democratic ideas and willing to try them out and see where they take us. I believe we are becoming more democratic by the day!