My Experience - Danny Whitehouse talks about his experience of democratic education.
One dewy May morning in Norfolk, when school had broken for the spring holidays, I felt momentarily liberated from the Dewey decimal system which categorised my working days, in a State School Library. I was sitting on the roof of a Poet's Squat, analysing my dreams. These dreams would inform a Utopian novel, about an Ideal School, which would of course never be realised, and certainly never published. Someone was plucking a fiddle, and another friend was fraying at the edges of her dissertation and dead-heading roses. A skylark sung with me…
"This school" I declared, "will be founded on a principle of respect towards children, building on student's innate motivations, and housing anyone who is interested in the subjects (that is, there will be no age divisions, and people will have the choice of which classes they attend). Furthermore, this Knowledge Centre will be run democratically, and all children will be empowered to voice their opinions and frustrations, taking responsibility for their own learning and experience."
"Poor subject for literature" my friend fairly pointed out, "it's too perfect, of course! Readers want to see characters suffering and struggling against oppression". She was right, and maybe that's also what our Education Department wishes to see the subjects of their knowledge implantation undergo. Her sister, however, worked at a school in Germany, called Free School Leipzig, which seemed to correspond entirely with my sense of a better education system. It was too good to be true so I had to see it with my own eyes!
And I was on the next plane to Germany.
At Free School Leipzig I stayed with, and shadowed Rachel Roberts, the current director of the Phoenix Education Trust, who was teaching English there and intensely engaged in the democratic process of the school's governance. From the moment I stepped foot on the playground, and was outsmarted in Four-Square, I felt I had come home. This was an environment so holistically nurturing of children's developmental needs and self-determined inclinations; the teachers were human beings (something I had considered to be oxymoronic until that point); the students were passionate and conscientious, and what's more, their eyes were open! (For a child's sense of curiosity to be intact at the age of 13 had seemed a hopeless paradox, to me, having been raised according to the militant, Victorian customs of Orderly Lines and silver-coated Spoon-Feeding.)
Later, I discovered that the ghost of A.S. Neill, the Father of Democratic Schools (Summerhill, established in 1921), was just down the road from me, in Suffolk. I subsequently arranged to run a series of Creative Writing workshops there, to observe how that particular paradise functioned, parking my bicycle and pitching my tent in a nearby cow-field, between sessions. When summer arrived, I hitchhiked and couchsurfed to Dartmoor, to participate in the IDEC EUDEC Democratic Education Conference. Young People chaired panel-discussions about the future of Education in England, and a ten year old kid from Israel declared that he would be starting up a school of his own (once he had got through High School, and perhaps completed a degree or two, and undertaken a round trip to the moon). Why not? The attitude of adults there was so encouraging of the fresh input of our youth.
In Brixton, London, I marvelled at how The Family School daily develop new curriculums, to correspond to the National expectations, yet tailored to the emergent inquisitiveness of their students. For instance, if someone likes playing with clay, the teachers will facilitate a workshop on the science (and danger!) of urns, and will colour balls of the stuff to use in counting games, the students will be supported to arrange weekly visits to a Pottery and the students themselves will manage the itinerary of bus times and plot a route to the venue. All the while, social skills are prized first and foremost. The children learn to use 'I' messages, so you have five year olds explaining to somebody who has been playing too rough and tumbly that this behaviour 'is not cool, and I don't like it when you disrespect my feelings, because I have told you already that I prefer to play gently'.
At the moment, I am self-employed as a Youth Worker in Norfolk, and am involved in a diverse range of projects that empower and informally educate Young People, through Youth Clubs, Drop-Ins and a Youth Council. I was not to know that the skylark's song and the company I shared on that roof two years ago would divert the course of my life so dramatically. The principles of Democratic Education shall forever rule my head and heart. And why should I write a book about it, when this alternative Utopia exists in reality?
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