This article was originally published in the Connect Journal, an independent bi-monthly publication supporting active student participation in primary and secondary schools. It is a 'practice journal' that has been published in Australia since late 1979. 

 

 

 

Students at a table

 

Chairs and tables set out, the bell rings, and students start to pile in; there are many new faces to get to know and names to learn. This is not an ordinary classroom at the start of the school year: this is a Democratic Journey with the Phoenix Education Trust! The chairs are arranged in a circle, and we begin with a ‘check-in’ to hear what brings each participant to the session, what we need from each other, and what we hope to learn through campaigning to achieve positive changes in our school.

 

We are a small charity, and we have been working for 17 years to promote Democratic Education: the idea that children and young people learn better when they can manage their own learning, that they should have choice in how, when and with whom they learn, and that they should have a say in how their school functions, just as adults should have a say in how their country, work and home functions. ‘Democratic schools’ like this exist all around the world, and each one is responsive to the specific needs and interests of the community they serve.

 

Our organisation was established by people that were involved in Sands and Park School, two places in the South of England where children and young people are highly autonomous in their learning, and participate in meetings where every person has an equal say in decision-making about the issues that affect their day-to-day lives. Another of the most famous progressive schools is here on our doorstep: Summerhill. Established in 1921, it boasts that it is “still ahead of its time”. We’re very proud to bring some of their innovative ideas and mechanisms into other settings, to give more children an opportunity to experience first-hand what it means to be taken seriously, to have relationships with adults based on trust, respect and equality.

 

 

Back in the classroom at in a small rural state secondary school, we start off with some icebreakers to get the group moving about and out of their comfort zone, then we break down into smaller groups. The discussion is focused on ‘confidence’ and ‘communication’. What do we mean by these words? How do students currently experience ‘communication’ with teachers and peers in the school? What are some of the characteristics of teachers that you most get along with? Some ideas start to emerge... “communication is two-way... working together”, “it has to be a connection”, “it isn’t just talking at people until they take on your ideas”.

 

Together we then move on to thinking about an action plan. How can we, as a group of students and staff, have our voices taken seriously on school issues that are important to us? We facilitators watch and listen as the ideas begin to flow, and the young people discuss how they could influence the school’s behaviour policy and how they could have an election for school council roles. It is enthralling to see where the discussions lead to,

seeing the young people think for the first time about how they can influence change in

their schools, and the staff who are often so surprised and cheered by the ideas, initiative and critical thinking displayed by these brilliant youngsters when given the chance.

 

We run these Democratic Journeys in order to try to bring democracy into more schools, to ignite or rekindle a spark in children and adults, to inspire students to take control of their learning and influence the decisions that affect them. We believe this teaches valuable life skills such as problem-solving, innovation, social and emotional intelligence, independence and free-thinking.

 

Recently, we’ve been undertaking a wide-ranging and thought-provoking strategic review of our work in schools. From April to July 2017, we reached out to our networks through our website and social media, emails, newsletters and events. We invited people to participate in our review through surveys, interviews and focus-group discussions. We hosted events and arranged calls with a great variety of individuals and organisations in order to ask this question: How can we bring about real systemic change within schools and allow young people more of a say in their education?

 

Through it, we learned about and made contact with lots of new schools starting up that offer a nurturing learning environment where children a real say in their education. Many of these are small learning communities, rather than registered schools, initiated by parents who want to see something different for their children. We’re excited by this idea of a ‘tipping point’ that when more people are aware of and involved in innovative alternatives, democratic and self-directed education will start to become the norm.

 

We also received a lot of affirmation for the mission to bring these ideas into mainstream school settings and making students aware of their rights, outlined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Perhaps most relevant here is Article 12: that every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them, and to have their views taken seriously. School councils can contribute to more participatory experiences, but at Phoenix, we also value the range of other positive outcomes that arise from democratic mechanisms, such as a better quality of relationships between students and staff, and the freedom for children to follow their own emerging interests.

 

Finally, many of our supporters voiced the need for case studies and objective research to raise awareness and to gather evidence for the effectiveness of Democratic Education in attaining its aims. There are a handful of state schools in the UK that use extremely innovative practices, similar to Democratic Education, to allow their children more flexibility in their learning. For example, the Wroxham School in Hertfordshire makes sure children’s voices are heard in the weekly circle meetings. At the London Nautical School, teachers ‘pitch’ their courses to pupils at the start of each term, and allow them to choose which ones they want to take. These are really positive examples that we would like to celebrate and tell more people about.

 

Back at our training session, it’s nearing the end of our day together, and the students are presenting their plans to the senior leadership team of how they would like to use new communication approaches in their school to make positive changes. They co-agree to introduce student-led assemblies, to elect several students to attend regular Senior Leadership Team meetings and to write a role-description for governors attending school council meetings. Every single attendee indicates that they ‘very much’ enjoyed the session, that they learned or benefitted from taking part and that they now feel more confident in their communication skills as a result of the training. The students are so positive about how the session has gone: “I learned more today than I do in a month of normal lessons...​ it felt real, learning that’s actually useful to us in our daily lives.”, “I enjoy developing skills as a person and this was a fun way of doing that”.

 

We leave the school enthused by the meaningful connections that we made with students and staff, and with a real sense of optimism and hope; maybe we did light that spark and inspire those students to use their voices! As we develop our services to take into account the learnings from our recent review, we remain utterly committed to lighting, nurturing and fanning that spark and inspiring more young people.

 

Click here to see the original article in the Connect Journal.

 

Sally Hall and Danny Whitehouse

September 2017