David Gribble

For people who work (or have worked) in democratic schools, it is perfectly obvious that ours is a better system than the authoritarian education adopted by most conventional schools. We know, for example, that we help children and young people to discover their own interests, to see learning as a pleasure, to develop personal responsibility, to cooperate with others and to see themselves as people worthy of respect.

Young people like coming to democratic schools because they are happy there and because they can learn what is important to them. Their natural desire to learn is not destroyed. When they go on to universities, they are often astonished to see so many students who are not at all interested in the subjects they are studying, because they have only come to the university either in order to get a qualification, or because that is what is expected of them, but not in order to learn anything interesting.

Hostility to democratic education has no rational basis, but it is alarmingly widespread. I will give three examples, two from the UK and one from Belgium, but there are many similar stories to tell

My first example is William Booth, a state Nursery and Primary school, in Nottingham. I spent a couple of days there in April 2010  because I had seen, in their own description of the school, the words, 'At William Booth we love children and we love helping them to learn.'

I was not disappointed when I got there. I was impressed by the way the children were allowed, for instance, to leave their classrooms whenever they wanted to get a drink or a piece of fruit from the main hall or just to go and let off steam in the playground. I was shown round the school by an eight-year-old girl who took me by the hand and led me from one place to another. This had been entirely her own idea -  no one had told her to do it, and she had not needed to ask permission.

The school had been inspected by Ofsted, the official government inspectors, in February 2007, and had received a favourable report. However, there was one worrying comment:  'The school's individual style of teaching, based on guided intervention rather than traditional class teaching, helps to ensure that children learn well and make good progress. Behaviour is good, though there is some restlessness at times when children learn more formally in groups.' The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that formal group instruction should be abandoned in favour of the more individual style, but the inspectors took the opposite view. They recommended that the children should be obliged to do more work in groups in the hope that they would learn to sit quietly and pay attention.

In December 2010 the school was inspected again, and received a shockingly negative report. It was required to make specific changes which did much to destroy its unique character. After a follow-up, a third group of inspectors noted that they had seen children reading to each other, rather than reading in class with a teacher, and considered this unacceptable. In January 2012 Andy Mattison, the head teacher, was suspended and the school was brought back into line with conventional practice.

My second example is Pédagogie Nomade. This was a democratically run state school in Belgium for 60 students between the ages of 16 and 21. It opened in September 2008. In Belgium, as in France, school staff are appointed from a government list, not chosen by head teachers or school communities. In its innovative context Pédagogie Nomade was at first allowed to appoint its own staff, because the whole character of the school would have suffered if the usual procedure was imposed. However, in September 2010 the authorities refused to allow one of the co-founders of the project to continue to teach, in spite of being supported by the whole school community. This struck a blow at the basic principles of the school; its future was in doubt.

In response, they published a book of support, written by students, parents, staff and others. Here are a few brief quotations.

I can't find words powerful enough to explain what the idea of the end of Pédagogie Nomade evokes for me.
Adults have always treated me as if I would be incapable of being intelligent, of making my own choices until I was an adult myself, and here the teachers are already talking to me as if we have known each other for a long time, and here I am no longer afraid of being simply myself.

I came to Pédagogie Nomade hoping to find a school that was different. In the traditional school I didn't have any specific problem except for boredom. One of the things that made me bored was that my class progressed too slowly for me, and I had the feeling I was wasting my time.

Pédagogie Nomade is a different kind of place for living and learning, a place where you learn to learn, where you try to attain knowledge rather than every second having to prove to an omnipotent teacher that you aren't an incompetent little shit.

And this is another quotation from the girl I have already quoted who came to Pédagogie Nomade because she was not learning enough in her conventional school. (Notice that: she came to Pédagogie Nomade because she was not learning enough in her conventional school.)

If this school had to close, ask yourself what would become of all those students that it has been able to help, and that it will go on helping to the end? Ask yourself, even if there are only a small number of us, how many students out of sixty would want to go back to a traditional school? . . . Not me, anyway, I would certainly never want to set foot there again. My place is in PN and nowhere else. And it hurts me to think of all these students, who I live with every day, going back on the streets or getting involved with their former problems all over again. I don't want that to happen to them, I know that PN is a unique experience for all of them, and how much it means to them, how much they depend on it as their last chance.

Pédagogie Nomade was closed in the autumn of 2011.

My third example is from many years ago. I have chosen it because there is such clear statistical evidence of the success of the school in the  most conventional terms. This is Risinghill School which, from 1960 to 1964, was under the headship of Michael Duane. It was allegedly a comprehensive school, that it to say a school taking children of all levels of ability, but in fact there were two grammar schools - schools for academically successful students - nearby, and so most of its students had low expectations.

It was in an underprivileged area, and it started with extreme disorder. Children who were used to being slapped and beaten at home and at school could not at first understand the new approach. After eighteen months the good example set by those students who had come to appreciate the way they were treated began to guide the newcomers, and there was no more chaos.

For eighteen months the school staff had to face the original disorder, but Michael Duane stuck to his guns. 'It is the only way,' he said. It was the only way to show these children that at Risinghill they really would be treated with a respect they had never met anywhere else, that here they would truly find a refuge from the violence outside. These young people lived in a world where crime, drunkenness and prostitution were commonplace, yet when they finally realised that they were being treated as reasonable human beings, it was as reasonable human beings that they reacted.

And they demonstrated the success of the school in perfectly conventional ways. The O-Level exam, taken at the age of 16, was intended only for the top third of school students, the remainder of whom took a lower-level test. In 1960, when the school had just started, 5 children passed O-Level in one subject or more. In 1961 the score was 16, in 1962 it was 20, in 1963 34 and in 1964 42. The average number of subjects passed by these students, was between three and four. The A-Level exam was for students who stayed on at school after the age of 16. Risinghill naturally enough had no candidates in 1960, but in 1964 had three candidates, two of whom went on to university. And it was not only academically that the school succeeded. When it started there were 98 children on probation, that is to say convicted of criminal offences and supervised by probation officers. In 1964 there were only 9 children in such trouble. And in 1965 the school was closed and Michael Duane was sacked, never again to be offered a headship in any school.

I have four possible explanations for this wilful blindness to the evidence. The first is the common assumption that if children are not disciplined, they will run wild and break all the windows. The second is the absence of academic support, the third is a refusal to be influenced by what is derided as 'anecdotal evidence' and the fourth is simple conservatism - this is the way we have always done it, and we see no reason to change.

Let me take these explanations one at a time.

Firstly, the assumption that undisciplined children run wild. There is an uncomfortable truth in this, because when children have been restrained by a rigid system of rules, and these rules are suddenly relaxed, some of them may naturally behave wildly. This happened, for instance, at Risinghill and in the 1970s at Countesthorpe Community College in Leicester in the UK, another democratically run state school that had difficulties in its first years. Both these schools eventually ran smoothly and successfully, but the local press remembered and reported only the initial disorder. Risinghill was closed, and Countesthorpe was returned to traditional methods by a new head teacher.

Now let me take an example that points in a different direction. Highfield was a state junior school in Plymouth, in Devon. (A junior school is for children from eight to eleven.) When Lorna Farrington became head in 1994 an atmosphere of riot had already been established within a failed authoritarian system. It was so disorderly that Lorna Farrington, the new head teacher, was allowed to do whatever she wanted to improve it. In her first week she was twice physically attacked by parents, but by the time I visited the school a few years later it was a contented, orderly place, with parents helping in the library. This change was achieved, not by increasing the disciplinary pressure, nor by removing all rules, but by a gradual series of improvements that convinced the children that they were in charge of their own school. One of the first things Lorna Farrington did was to arrange for each class to make its own rules for behaviour during lessons. Another was to introduce circle time, when a class would sit in a circle with their teacher and discuss whatever issues were bothering them. Bullying was controlled by the children themselves. When it was thought necessary to bring someone's parents into the school to discuss a problem, it was not the head teacher, or any other member of the staff who asked them to come in, but the children. (This was because so many of the parents had had bad experience of school and were actually frightened of schoolteachers.)  And so on.

Orderly, conventional schools do not attract public notice. Disorder in unconventional schools is reported in the press and remembered for ever. I say 'unconventional schools' because many conventional schools seem to manage to suppress negative publicity. In the summer of 1983 Dartington Hall School, the school in Devon, where I spent most of my working life, was all over the national press because of the wild accusations of a newly appointed authoritarian head.  During that same year, other schools escaped lightly. A press agency working for Dorling Kindersley, the publishers of my first book, discovered that at the same time as Dartington was filling front pages, Eton, the top private school in the country, had expelled one boy and suspended six others for vandalising a local church and doing thousands of pounds worth of damage to the organ pipes, Stowe, another expensive private school, expelled twelve students and suspended a further five for using drugs and stealing a master's car to go to a party in the middle of the night, four 'suppliers' of cannabis and LSD were expelled from Repton, another school in the same category, (and if there were four suppliers, how many users must there have been?)  and at Badminton, a co-educational private school, a dead baby was found in a girl's locker when the staff had not even noticed that she was pregnant.

These stories show that things go wrong even in highly selective, expensive schools with high reputations, but somehow these schools manage to get their troubles hushed up.  If these stories hadn't been discovered by a professional press agency I would never have known about them. Dartington did not have the protection offered by conformity to traditional methods, and its troubles were exaggerated with glee.

Dartington Hall School was soon to be closed by its own trustees, who should have been defending it. Highfield, Lorna Farrington's school, has now been amalgamated with another school, and presumably returned to what the official mind sees as normality. Countesthorpe College succeeded in ending truancy and staff-student conflict, but when a conventional head teacher was appointed, both problems reappeared.

In this context it is important to remember that disorder does occur in authoritarian schools, and if it is not suppressed by aggressive adults, it persists. In any authoritarian school there is a perpetual danger of this suppression resulting in explosion. If there is a teacher with weak class control in a conventional school, that teacher is ruthlessly humiliated by children who are delighted to find the opportunity to rebel.

To many people who have no experience of democratic education, but only remember the way their own instinctive behaviour was repressed when they were at school, it seems self-evident that children and adolescents who are not kept under control by adults will be at best idle and generally riotous. When they themselves weren't kept under control, they rebelled.

It is not only adults who feel like this. If they have not seen democratic methods working, young people who are still at school are just as cynical.. I can remember reading Neill's That Dreadful School when I was fourteen or so, and thinking that it was just stupid. Without teachers to keep us in order, I thought, how would we ever learn anything? And unfortunately it is true that when young people who have been kept unwillingly quiet suddenly find that they are free to do what they like, some of them will explode. An everyday example of this is the awful shrieking you often year from primary schools in the UK when the children are allowed out at break times.  And it happened at Risinghill, and it happened when Countesthorpe opened, and in both these schools it took over a year for the atmosphere to correct itself.

It takes courage and consistency on the part of the staff to work on through such periods of disorder. But the disorder is a direct consequence of the previous repression, and when an authoritarian system actually breaks down, Lorna Farrington's success shows that what is needed is not more of the same, but a straightforward involvement of the students in the running of their own school.
As far as I know there is not much serious academic writing about democratic education, and most of what I have read seems either to miss the point, or to be written in such obscure language that no ordinary person can understand it. For instance, I recently had an email from someone interested in democratic education,  who says that "What we hope to achieve is the development of critique and alternatives, grounded in a critical-phenomenological alternative to anthropology, and epistemology." It may be good, but I don't know what it means. And what about this, from the blurb for  the promisingly entitled Democratic Education, by the American, Amy Gutman, published in a new edition in 1999:

"Who should have the authority" to shape the education of citizens in a democracy? This is the central question posed by Amy Gutman in the first book-length study of the democratic theory of education.  The author tackles a wide range of issues, from the democratic case against book banning to the role of teachers' unions in education, as well as the vexed questions of public support for private schools and affirmative action in college admissions.

What about the young people themselves? I get the impression that they simply don't matter. Not only does no one ask their opinions, it even seems as if writers on education do not even visit schools at all. They base their theories on other people's theories, but do not relate them to any practical experience.

Gert Biesta is an academic whose ideas, as far as I can understand them, I approve of. In his book, Beyond learning: democratic education for a human future, published in 2006, he starts by demolishing the idea that the most important part of education is the communication of knowledge and skills. Of course certain skills and relevant knowledge are important, he says, but what matters more is the opportunity for interaction between different members of the community. This results in what he calls the 'coming into presence' of unique individuals, something that is impossible where the  atmosphere is one of conformity or repression.

I agree with this, as long as I have properly understood his phrase 'coming into presence,' but even Biesta offers no examples of actual practice to illustrate what he means. There is a huge gap between what philosophers of education are saying, and what democratic educators are actually doing. I have a relevant quotation here from Kurt Vonnegut, the Slaughterhouse Five man. It comes in his book Palm Sunday.

It has been my experience with literary critics and academics in this country that clarity looks a lot like laziness and ignorance and childishness and cheapness to them. An idea which can be grasped immediately is for them, by definition, something they knew all the time.

My impression is that educational philosophers and academics see practical examples as a lot like naivety and ignorance and amateurishness and triviality. An idea that springs instantly from experience is, for them, by definition, something they can safely ignore. We need to convince the academic world that our experiences are more important than their theories.

People who defend the status quo in education dismiss stories of success in democratic schools as 'anecdotal evidence.' They imply that they will only consider evidence based on systematic research resulting in analysable statistics. This immediately disposes of the whole of A. S. Neill's work and most of Dan Greenberg's.

Without using any evidence, statistical or otherwise, academics are happy to build theories on each other's theories and disappear into a cloud of polysyllabic obfuscation. The 'critical-phenomenological alternative to anthropology and epistemology' is typical, but what about the 'rhizomatic movement that can take multiple directions as an effect of multiple intra-activities'? That comes from an article in a book by the Englishman Richard House, called Too Much, Too Soon, published in 2011, which has the commendable subtitle Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood, but has very little in it about the children themselves. I'm sure you can produce plenty of examples from your own reading.

A. S. Neill of Summerhill tells the story of the time he found a boy throwing gravel at a garage door that he, Neill had just painted. Instead of being angry, he joined in and threw more gravel himself. When they had enjoyed themselves sufficiently  - and throwing gravel at new paint must be great fun - they cleared up the mess and painted to door again. Is this story really less important than, for instance, critical-phenomenological alternatives? I have no idea, but I understand Neill's story and I don't understand the term critical-phenomenological.

I remember interviewing a girl who applied to come to Sands School, the school in the UK that I helped to found in 1987. It was in the middle of the summer holidays when there were no current students around to interview her. She had been expelled from her previous school for sniffing glue. I asked her why she had sniffed glue, and how often she had done it. She told me she didn't really know why she had done it, and that she had only done it once. I trusted her, and offered her a provisional place. At the end of her first term her report commended her responsible behaviour. She said that if she showed it to teachers from her previous school, they wouldn't believe it.

A story like this, or like the Neill story I have quoted, carries no weight. It is an anecdote, and cannot be confirmed. Without confirmation there is no reason to believe it, unless you want to. 'Unless you want to,' and wanting something to be true is as futile as day-dreaming. But what if it is true, nevertheless, and is only one of hundreds of examples that could be quoted to indicate the same conclusion - that trust engenders trust, respect engenders respect?

Another reason for discounting the value of this story is that even if you accept that it is true, its significance depends on the remark made by the student - teachers from her last schools wouldn't have believed it. For conventional educators, remarks made by students carry almost no weight.

The value of democratic education is in the actual experiences of the children, not the theories of the staff.

When it was announced that Dartington Hall School was to be closed I collected pieces for a book of reminiscences and reflections of pupils and ex-pupils. I managed to get one for each of the seventy years of the school's existence, and it was published under the title That's All, Folks, words which had mysteriously appeared on the roof of the school when the closure was announced . Of all the seventy pieces there are only two that are similar. How can the different experiences of hundreds of children be reduced to statistics?

Democratic education consists of a mass of individual experiences, and these experiences are its justification. But accounts of individual experience are anecdotal evidence, and for some people this is enough to dismiss democratic education altogether.

However, these very people are only too ready to seize on anything that goes wrong in a democratic school and use it as evidence of failure. Drug use in an authoritarian school is punished by exclusion, and the reputation of the school hardly suffers. Drug use in a democratic school is seen as a failure of the system.  One example of failure is acceptable as evidence, but a thousand examples of success are dismissed as anecdotes.

People believe what they want to believe, and wanting something to be true, I remind you, is as futile as day-dreaming.

The last reason for dismissing democratic education is just that people are always suspicious of change. 'Better the devil you know than the devil you don't,' they say, and 'It never did me any harm,' and 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' There is no actual reasoning involved, it is just a strong preference for the familiar, however inadequate it may be, to any kind of innovation. There is of course also a rosy picture of the past, and the view that if any changes are to be made, it is better to revert to the teaching of Latin and Greek than to risk allowing children to find out about what really interests them.

What can we do to open people's eyes? If I am right, we face these four problems: (1) the assumption that children who are not under the control of adults will behave irresponsibly, (2) the absence of any practical basis for most academic writing about democratic education, (3) suspicion of anecdotal evidence and (4) straightforward conservatism.

'Look,' we say, 'look. It really works, this democratic education.' And they say, 'Yes, we have looked, and at William Booth we found children reading to each other instead of reading to a teacher, and at Risinghill children were allowed to run wild for eighteen months, and at Pédagogie Nomade the teachers abandoned their authority and allowed the students to treat them as friends. This sort of thing cannot be allowed.'

'But look,' we say, 'look. At William Booth the children loved coming to school and were learning a great deal of value, and at Risinghill crime fell to a tenth of its former level, and measurable academic success increased by a factor of ten, and at Pédagogie Nomade young people who had failed miserably at their previous schools actually succeeded.' And they say, 'So what? We are not interested in anecdotal evidence.'

'Look,' we say, 'look. Look at Highfield School, where Lorna Farrington turned an authoritarian wasteland into a productive, happy, child-centred environment.' 'You are just romantics,' they say. 'All that stuff is hopelessly out of date. No rational person can take you seriously. The teacher's job is to train children for their appropriate roles in society.'

'Look,' we say, 'look. Look at the unhappy children we have helped to become happy again, the adolescent rebels who have become responsible people, the angry children whose anger has melted away, the crushed children who have gained a healthy self-confidence. And they say, 'Ah yes, but it doesn't work for everybody. We know of people who have never got  jobs after attending democratic schools.' When anecdotal evidence points the way they want it to, they are happy to use it as an argument.

'And,' they add, 'you are only working with a tiny minority of children and you have a very favourable staff-student ratio. It couldn't be done with children from deprived backgrounds, or in any large school.'

I have seen it working at Countesthorpe College, where there were 1400 students. I have seen it working with some of the most deprived children in the world - abused and abandoned children in Thailand, for instance, and street and working children in New Delhi.

The general public seem to have the same attitude to democratic education as I have to, for example, crystal therapy. No matter if there is occasional evidence of effectiveness, I am not convinced that it is the crystals that were the cause. The evidence for the success of democratic education is a great deal stronger than the evidence for the success of crystal therapy, but nevertheless the general public and, more alarmingly, governments and their education departments, regard us as at best deluded eccentrics, and at worst as criminal corrupters of innocent children.

So perhaps the only answer is to stop telling people how good democratic education is, and simply point out some of the awful consequences of authoritarian schooling. That is what I have tried to do with my website, which has exactly that as a title:  Authoritarian Schooling: a Catalogue of Damage.  If the authorities persist in ignoring or attacking us, we must expose the weaknesses in the methods they favour. It is not enough to deny their criticisms, we must also draw attention to their mistakes. We have answers to their problems, but until they recognise the problems they will not listen.

At present, when politicians observe the problems in traditional schools, they blame the children. When there are problems in democratic schools, they blame the staff. It does not strike them that this is a paradox. It is, as Falko Peschel, the founder of the Bildungschule Harzberg, says,  an incredible contradiction: when things go wrong in teacher-directed lessons it is the child who takes the blame, but when things go wrong in child-directed activities it is the fault of the teacher.

We must make it clear that though things may go wrong for children in democratic schools in spite of the system, in authoritarian schools things go wrong because of the system.  We have to help traditionalists to understand that their problems are an inevitable consequence of their system, and that our problems are solved by the young people and staff working together.



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