01 January 2006
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 David Gribble

IDEC stands for International Democratic Education Conference. It is not an organisation or a group, but a series of annual conferences. What happens is that at each year's conference a school or similar organisation volunteers to run the conference for the next year, or for the year after. At intervals calls have been made for an official structure of some kind, but in practice the autonomy of individual groups in arranging their own conferences has made for exciting variety.

The first conference was in 1993, in Israel, at the Democratic School of Hadera. A few teachers and students from democratic schools found themselves at a large conference in Jerusalem, called "Education for Democracy in a Multi-cultural Society." The speakers were mostly philosophers, professors and politicians, so the teachers and students had little opportunity to contribute. A small group was invited to Hadera for two days after the big conference, and the discussions were so stimulating that it was agreed to meet annually.

Since then there have been IDECs in Britain (three times), Austria, Israel again, Ukraine, Japan, New Zealand, India, the USA and in 2005 in Germany. The 2006 IDEC is to be held in Australia, and in 2007 it will probably be in Brazil. The number of countries represented has risen from the four present at the original meeting in Hadera to twenty-seven at the Berlin conference.

Each year everything is in the hands or the organisers for that year – dates, participants, cost, accommodation and style of conference. The length of the conferences has varied between the two days of the first one to a fortnight in 1997. Young people of school age have nearly always played a large part; the conference at Sands in 1997 and the Tokyo conference in 2000 were run almost entirely by school students. The longer conferences have included days of sight-seeing and varied social and cultural events. Sometimes there has been a full programme of prepared talks and workshops, and sometimes the programme has been entirely decided by the participants after they arrived; sometimes there has been a mixture. For the first few years, when the conferences were smaller, they were funded entirely by the host organisations or by outside agencies, but more recently participants have had to pay a fee. All decisions about such matters are taken by the organisers.

There are differing views as to the purpose of the IDECs. Some see them as an opportunity to discuss shared problems in a supportive atmosphere. Others hope to spread the idea of democratic education by inviting possible converts and attracting favourable publicity. The purpose of any given conference is decided by the organisers. For anyone with liberal ideas about education, attending an IDEC for the first time is an astonishment and a delight because so many people are there to celebrate an approach that they are used to hearing condemned as a wrong-headed eccentricity.

The organisers of the 2005 Berlin IDEC were determined to produce a declaration at the end of their conference, and after much discussion this was the final wording:

We believe that, in any educational setting, young people have the right to decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn, and to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their organisations - in particular their schools - are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary.

This all-embracing resolution is interpreted in different ways in different schools. Some schools offer lessons without compulsion to attend, whereas some do not even offer lessons. Some create complex legal systems with corresponding sanctions, while others try to avoid rules and punishments altogether. All rely on an atmosphere of freedom, trust and equality.

The Berlin IDEC was not organised by a school, but by KRÄTZÄ, a group of young people devoted to energetic campaigning for children's rights, including the idea that education should be a right but not a duty. It was held for a week at the FEZ, a children's park and recreation centre in the south-east of Berlin, and for two days in the Humboldt University, in the centre of the city. The FEZ part of the conference was for people already involved in democratic education, and the Humboldt part was open to the general public. The democratisation of state schools and the training of teachers for democratic schools were prominent themes. There was reasonably sympathetic coverage in the national press, and great appreciation by participants of all ages.

Supporters of Lib Ed would find attendance at an IDEC extremely uplifting, not so much because of the talks and workshops, inspiring though some of these are, as because of the general atmosphere, the fun, the serious conversations and the variety of countries represented. So if you happen to be in Australia in July this year, or in Brazil next year at the right time.

 . . .

(A list of some of the schools and other organisations involved can be found, and information about the 2005 and 2006 conferences at and www.idec2006.orgwww.idec2007.orgwill presumably appear in due course.)

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