How democratic education can apply in a school setting with examples from inspiring projects and schools around the UK. - National Democracy Week - July 2018


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This is the first in our series of articles for National Democracy Week 2018. Sally Hall takes a look at the how democratic education can apply in a school setting with examples from inspiring projects and schools around the UK. For more articles in the National Democracy Week series, see our campaign page here. We’ll be publishing new articles every day this week, so keep a look out for more takes on this important topic.




Discovering the concept of ‘democratic education’ changed my life. As an educator, it opened up a whole new way of seeing the world and interacting with the children that I work with. For me, democratic education is very simple and can be summed up as:

  • Children and young people having a VOICE: a say in how their learning environment functions. 
  • Children and young people having a CHOICE: in what they want to learn and how they learn it.


Here at Phoenix, we believe in the following democratic values in education: autonomy, collaboration, agency, authenticity and equality. Having the opportunity to visit and research schools and projects in the UK and around the globe that practise democratic education has allowed me to see first-hand the benefits of doing education differently. Below are a few examples of each value in practice:


Autonomy: When students are able to follow their own interests and learn because they want to, they stay curious, learn what they're passionate about and develop their sense of identity.

  • Room 13 International is an inspiring example of a space where children are able to learn autonomously. The story of Room 13 began in 1994, when a group of students established their own art studio in Room 13, Caol Primary School near Fort William, Scotland. The now global network of studios encourages students to take the lead, be creative, and to think for themselves.
  • Another concept that encourages autonomy in schools is SOLEs, or Self-Organised Learning Environments. Within a SOLE students are given the freedom to learn collaboratively using the internet. An educator poses a Big Question (e.g 'Can anything be less than zero?' or 'Why do things fall down and not up or sideways') and students form small groups to find an answer. A growing number of state schools around the country are using this innovative approach.
  • Finally, at the London Nautical School, teachers pitch their courses to the students, who are given the power to choose the course they want to study. This encourages staff, students and parents to work closely together to evolve the content of the courses on offer. It has also created radically different courses, which are highly engaging and are placing students at the centre of the learning experience.


Collaboration: Progress happens when we work together and being part of a team is an essential part of our happiness. This is how society evolves.

  • At the Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, circle meetings take place each week and involve all children in the school. These meetings provide an opportunity for everyone to share in decision making and to have their voice heard. Wroxham set up a Transformative Learning Alliance after it gained National Teaching School status from the National College in 2011, supporting teachers and schools around the country to make their practice more collaborative.
  • Another great example of collaboration in schools is Collingwood School in Hull, which equips pupils with the skills to recognise and manage their own feelings and nurture their relationships within the school through the use of restorative practice. Daily community circles and mixed age coaching groups ensure all pupils have a voice and thrive in an environment that promotes respect and appreciation of differences.


Agency: When every member of a learning community has input and influence, they learn how to have a positive impact on the world around them.

  • This year, after a 3-day Democratic Journeys programme with the Phoenix Education Trust an amazing thing happened at Clevedon School in Somerset. A group of students launched a campaign to make a library out of two shipping containers in the form of a boathouse at the school. The campaign was entirely student run and their crowdfunding appeal raised nearly £2,000 towards their target.
  • Another example of students taking power into their own hands to make improvements in their school is the Friendly Faces group set up by young people at Aylsham High School in Norfolk. Friendly Faces is an anti-bullying and peer support group which offers a space for pupils to come and talk through their worries every break and lunchtime.


Authenticity: To function in the real world, students need to be involved in the world as it really is. The society around us can be our classroom.

  • The Plymouth Creative School practices an innovative project-based learning approach which allows children to become immersed in finding answers to real-life questions, encouraging curiosity, and allowing children to see the relevance in their learning.
  • Another interesting concept is used at Bealings Primary school to help children to learn through drama. In a Mantle of the Expert, a fictional world is created in which the children all have roles as an expert in a particular field. Their presumed expertise develops into a genuine expertise in certain areas of learning (some of them pre-planned by the teacher) and their understanding of certain concepts (again, planned by the teacher) is greatly enhanced.


Equality: When adults and children see themselves as equal partners in the learning journey, mutual trust and respect becomes the foundation for deep educational engagement.

  • A growing number of democratic schools and spaces around the country allow children and young people an equal say in the running of their learning environment. All rules and decisions are made together. Our Democratic Education Directory maps the projects and organisations around the country that support or practise democratic education and support the idea of equality in education.


Thanks for reading - do get in touch with us if you have any more inspiring examples to share of the power of democratic education in practice!

Sally Hall

The Phoenix Education Trust 


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