Rachel Roberts

This is the text of  a Radio 4 Four Thought, first broadcast on 18 November, 2015

When I was at school I sat on a sofa and made pom-poms all day, every day, day after day.

When I was at school I missed all my academic lessons for a week in order to sit in the corner of the art room and smooth the surface of my sculpture, a giant plaster of Paris egg, with the back of a silver spoon.

When I was at school I made an agreement with my tutor that I would not do any exams or homework for at least a term.

When I was at school there was a stationery cupboard in the English classroom, and I hid in it, lying down on a shelf, peering through the white slats of the closed wooden door watching and listening to the lessons for the year above me.

This was a democratic school.

My school.  

Six months before these strange tales I was a different person in a different world, the world of mainstream education, the kind of place that most of us think of when one says school.  And, I wasn't well.  I was disengaged, I wasn't attending classes, I was a constant stream of excuses to not go into school at all.  When I did make it in I was bullied, I failed the tests, I had panic attacks.  I was mentally and physically unwell - my parents were worried sick, the doctors couldn't figure out on what was wrong - jaundice? Chronic fatigue syndrome? The psychologists couldn't get anywhere either; they asked me what was wrong and I said, 'I hate school,' then shut down. That's as far as any session got. 

I wanted to stop living and I did stop talking.  

But, now let's leave those dark days behind and return to that school I started with.  A democratic school: my school, a place where I could be me.  Because there are some other things I remember about my school. 

When I was at my school I wrote extra English essays every week which my teacher kindly agreed to read and give me feedback on.  

When I was at my school I chose to take my GCSEs a year early - and got all the grades I needed.

When I was at my school I effectively chaired meetings of 60 people, 55 teenagers and 5 adults, in which we made all the decisions about how the school was run. 

This meeting was run on a one person one vote basis, it governed the school and resolved conflict.  Think of it as the head teacher.  This meeting had the authority to decide how everything worked, and it was where you were sent, by your peers, if you had broken the school's rules which you yourself had been a part of making.  

No, this isn't a new idea. I'm talking about a re-boot of an old idea which has been around for hundreds of years. and this idea fits modern life and our individual and societal needs, now more than ever.   And it can be applied - and is indeed spreading - very much more widely than just in schools.

We are in an age where technology enables us to interact with more people and have our say in different ways.  Top-down structures are being unravelled and unheard voices are getting louder and more influential.  So this long-standing approach which fosters agency and collaboration is now coming of age.  
This is its moment.  

Democratic education is education in which the child has the right to learn what, how when and with whom they do it. 

It is about putting education in the children's hands and providing the support that  they need to lead their own independent learning journeys, allowing them to use their initiative and follow their intrinsic motivation. 

And democratic education is about respecting rights.  Many people don't realise, but article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to have a say and be heard on matters which affect them.  How many schools really allow that?

So what do you think?  What's buzzing through your head?  
What if they make the wrong decisions?  
If I'd been given that much freedom in school I would have just messed around. 

Well, maybe you're right, maybe you would have.  But, I believe that's not because of who you are.  I believe that's because of the environment you were in, and how you were treated. 

"Children who are trusted will become trustworthy.
Children who are respected will learn a proper self-respect.
Children who are cared for will learn to care for others."

Practising democratic education isn't about letting children stamp their feet and make demands - nor is it about leaving them alone to run amok.  It's about supporting them and facilitating their development, so that they can be motivated to fulfil their potential.    

Later as a democratic school teacher, I watched students as young as six years old, exercise this level of responsibility.

The children came to me.
"We want to climb the trees in the playground!"

"Ok, that's understandable. Let's think about it, " I replied.

"Let's have a think about it.  How thick are the branches? How high would you go?  How hard is the ground?  Is there anything underneath?  Is it safe?" 

They always came through - they asked the questions themselves half the time.  They formed solid proposals, they articulated these to the community and they passed rules which worked for them, their peers, the staff and the law.  

I'm sure some of you are thinking, "That's all very well, but who can afford to invest this level of resource, who can afford to take these risks?  You're talking fantasy land for the privileged few, right?"

Well, in a way, yes.  Historically, many of the schools practising democratic education, especially in this country, have been independent schools, but not all of them. And, that's not to say they have to be, or that this type of education only works in a context of wealth and privilege.

The school I taught at in Leipzig is a state-funded free school. Half of the families live almost entirely dependent on benefits.  And, in this country, too, there are alternative education provision centres, catering for students who have been excluded, which not only embed this type of culture but are acknowledged by Ofsted for providing an outstanding service to their students. 

And those voices which are generally heard the least, they  really need this.

I understand that this might sound like pie in the sky to you - but I'm talking about something real.
There is an opening up to this culture and in many ways it's leading the evolution of our time. 

Check out Silicon Valley, it is brimming full of multi-billion dollar tech companies which operate along these lines - with their flat management structures, unregulated annual leave and general lack of dress code.

This approach isn't just being practised in tech - there are housing associations and social enterprises the world over.

There are manufacturing companies which have brought their trade from financial downfall back to boom by democratising their workplace - by inviting their employees to choose their job titles, define their codes of conduct and even have a say on their own pay scales. 

People are happier, they are more motivated. Surprise surprise, they're more productive.  Bottom line the company does make more money. 

I have seen these workplaces, I have seen these schools.  And, what I can tell you is that this democratic approach is far more possible than most of us think. 

We hear enough about inconvenient truths - this is a convenient truth. 

And, no, I'm not expecting a revolution where everyone suddenly throws away everything they've always been doing and succumbs to total chaos and a complete rebuild. 

But what I do believe is that there are some simple steps that any school or organisation can take to move in this direction. 

And, by schools taking these steps we will be instilling the values in young people which will equip them for modern times. As we interact with more and more people through our fast-paced, complex modern lives, we will know how to talk, listen, understand, compromise  and generally just get on with each other for mutual advantage.

I'm not talking about this because it's good for business.  What I am about is committing to the underlying values.

Everyone has had a moment in their lives where they have felt heard, trusted, respected, valued, happy.  And, in that moment everyone has felt better off, motivated and willing to give. 

If we can achieve the hard outcomes we need from education by enabling children to experience these values  - shouldn't every school be doing this?

Not only can it fuel economic progress, but, more importantly to me, it can fuel social progress too.




#1 Jerry Mintz 2015-12-15 05:09
What school did you go to? Summerhill? Sands?

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