Government Interference:

01 September 2007
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Booroobin web site imageThe Tale of Booroobin Sudbury School in Queensland

Governments often object to schools that do not conform to traditional standards. In the UK Risinghill Comprehensive School was closed and Countesthorpe Community College had a new head appointed who completely changed its character. The attempt was even made to close down Summerhill School, an independent school supported only by fee income. The Taipei Autonomous Experimental Project in Taiwan was not actually closed, but brought to an end by the ingenious method of not allowing it to take any new students. The Dutch government is introducing legislation to force all schools to follow the national curriculum, and even in Denmark there is talk of return to the old methods.

Proof of success, even by the most conventional standards, is no defence. Nor is parental approval. Governments seem ready to spend large sums of money in legal action against even very small schools. Summerhill seldom has more than 6o pupils, and a large proportion of them come from other countries. Booroobin, in Australia, only had about a dozen. Its story illustrates governmental vindictiveness.

Booroobin was based on the principles of Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Sudbury Valley was founded in 1968, now has over 200 pupils and has been taken as a model by many schools in Canada, Germany and the Netherlands as well as in the USA. It represents an extreme freedom with regard to curriculum, based on the idea that children naturally learn what they need to learn without compulsion, just as they learnt to walk and talk, and that any form of compulsion or organised instruction interferes with this natural learning. This freedom is balanced by a surprisingly rigid and wide-ranging organisational structure: the power is lodged in a weekly meeting attended by any staff and students who are interested, which among other things makes rules and grants permission to students to run particular activities; rules are enforced by a justice committee which meets, every day if necessary, to deal with any breaches. The ages of the pupils at Sudbury Valley School itself range from four to twenty. The great majority of students become literate, articulate, purposeful and responsible adults. Well over two-thirds of a sample of 119 alumni interviewed in 2002 and 2003 had university degrees.

In 1996 Booroobin was set up by Derek Sheppard and a number of colleagues, including students, to follow this model.

In 1999 they adopted the only official standards that were known to them, the Adelaide Declaration of National Goals: Schooling in the 21st century . These had been agreed by the Australian Government and all the State Ministers for Education after years of discussion and debate. Booroobin integrated them into its own unique curriculum document at the request of the Queensland authorities; the required standards related well to the Sudbury ideals and also broadly reflected international human rights law, which, along with democratic values, underpinned the principles, philosophy and day-to-day operation of the school.

In Australia independent schools receive financial support from the government. The Queensland Minister for Education was unhappy about paying for such an unusual school as Booroobin, and in 2001 the state government passed a law about the accreditation of non-state schools which required them all to teach a new official curriculum. Booroobin refused to do this and after a campaign of protest on the one hand and legal action on the other its accreditation was withdrawn. The school had to close.

Booroobin's next step was to open the Booroobin Centre of Learning, where home-educating parents met the full running costs, and there was no claim that the place was a school. Nevertheless the state government continued its persecution. The Minister for Education threatened criminal action and fines. Even though so few children visited the Centre for Learning the Minister found it necessary to make these threats on the grounds that it appeared to be operating as an unaccredited non-state school. Booroobin consulted solicitors expert in criminal law, and on their advice reluctantly suspended operation in July 2006.

Derek Sheppard, who has played a leading role at the school throughout its history, was particularly offended by the fact that the Minister was representing a Labor Government. He saw the attack as an assault on individual rights and totally undemocratic. In his view the Minister was trying to defend a failing system of state schools by preventing any experimentation outside them, and in so doing was demonstrating an irrational authoritarianism typical of the state system within the schools as well as in their administration.

In November 2006 Derek Sheppard received a summons by post requiring him to appear at the Magistrates Court in an adjacent city on December 14 to answer the criminal charge that he had operated an unaccredited non-state school for a week in November 2005. The summons was initiated by the Queensland Minister for Education.

Sheppard's family had no money to pay solicitors or a barrister to defend him. Booroobin was in debt. It was difficult to understand the reasons for the charge, as the school had closed in 2003 and the Centre for Learning had been suspended for months. It was a criminal charge, so if found guilty Sheppard could have faced a fine or imprisonment.

After a number of postponements, the charge was simply dropped on June 7th 2007. No evidence was ever produced.

A group has now been formed to set up a new, small, independent, not-for-profit, democratic school which will conform sufficiently to Government requirements to ensure accreditation. It has been generally accepted that there will have to be one fundamental change in the school's day-to-day operation: it will in future offer classes in mathematics and English to students of all ages, and classes in other subject matter will be advertised. They hope the school will be able to open in 2009. Whether this will constitute a victory for Booroobin or for the government is an open question.

Postscript

Blue Mountain in the USA has appealed against the withdrawal of its charter. The appeal was heard on August 16th. In spite of the coherency of the school's defence and substantial local support, the district board voted exactly as it had done previously. Blue Mountain's next step will probably be an appeal to the State Board of Education.

The school will open as usual in September, promising to stay open until the end of the autumn term even if all appeals fail. Like Booroobin, it has a team working to explore options to remain viable even if it can no longer be a charter school.

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