It’s Happening All Over the World
It has been good to see Summerhill getting a positive response from the media. Even The Times carried a supportive article by Libby Purves on 13th December. However, it has become plain that many of those who are in sympathy with Summerhillian ideas still believe Summerhill to be unique. In fact there are scores of schools all over the world with similar ideals, and some of them offer different freedoms to Summerhill, and some of them work in tougher social conditions.
Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, USA, for instance, with two hundred students between the ages of four and twenty, has no timetable of lessons at all. Children who want to learn to read or to study chemistry do it on their own or with friends, or find a staff member who is willing to help them. More than half of the students who have spent all their school years there have gone on to get university degrees. Many other children, who had suffered humiliation and failure at other schools, have recovered their self-respect at Sudbury and gone on to lead happy and purposeful lives.
At the Fundacion Educativa Pestalozzi in Ecuador, staff have to accept that instructing, pointing out, motivating, persuading and anticipating are not adequate interactions between an adult and a child. Children are allowed absolute freedom of choice within a carefully prepared environment. The school provides no lessons, and if parents are discovered arranging lessons for their children after school they are told to take their children away.
At Bramblewood, a country community in the USA, children live with their families or on their own as they choose, and arrange lessons with adults, singly or in groups when they feel they want to.
I have been to all these places and everywhere I have met relaxed, confident, friendly young people concerned about each other’s welfare and the welfare of the world in general. I have also seen some remarkable examples of academic success, but in most places that seems to me to be of secondary importance.
At Sumavanam, though, in Andhra Pradesh in southern India, success in examinations is the children’s prime objective. The school is in a poor rural area where poverty means a one-room mud house with no furniture and the threat of starvation. Children come to the school when they are able to walk there on their own. Even the very youngest come to school to learn, so that they may pass exams and escape from the poverty that surrounds them. The teachers treat the children with kindness and respect and in break times they play with radiant freedom, but lesson times are serious. All the children work independently at their own level, and they help each other as a matter of course.
At Sumavanam the education is free; none of the children’ s parents have any money. The same is true at Moo Ban Dek, follows a Summerhillian pattern enhanced by Buddhist principles. Children who have had to Lght for food in the city live together in peace and security.
I could write about a dozen more schools, each different in its way but each demonstrating that children’s self-respect guides them more effectively than adult authority. Adults can be appallingly unimaginative – how could anyone seriously put forward the idea that every child in this country needs to cover the same curriculum? – and children are innovative and individual. Schoolteachers and governments tend to strive to keep the world the same, and to keep it under control: children want to change the world and make it free.
In the west it is usually only children who have failed in conventional education who are allowed the experience of freedom at school. Parents who have the money can send them to Summerhill or Sudbury Valley, but children whose parents have no money only get the chance if they live in an area where there is a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) like the Oakley Project in Surrey. Liz Noble and Helen Nelson who run it, work on the principle that “if the self-esteem of the individual is enhanced then the unwanted behaviour pattern will cease” The system works, but the authorities cannot believe it; they insist on sending the staff on courses in physical restraint.
Physical restraint is of course inevitable in the end if you want to run your school like a dictatorship. Those with ideas of their own have to be controlled by force. Conventional education violates children’s originality instead of nurturing it. It is only when they behave badly enough to be sent to a PRU like Oakley that at last they are respected for their ability to think for themselves.
Summerhill shows that children develop when they are not forced to conform; Sudbury Valley shows that children learn when they are not taught; Sumavanam shows that children may strive for conventional objectives when they see a purpose behind them; Oakley shows that children can redeem themselves when they are given the chance. I worked for five years at Sands School in Ashburton, Devon, which also demonstrated these truths. I used to think that it was the only school in the world, apart from Summerhill, that was taking children seriously. Since retiring five years ago I have been around the world and seen how wrong I was.
A new understanding of education is beginning to emerge from a hundred different sources in dozens of different cultures. I know of schools in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Holland, Israel and Japan – and that’ s just the beginning of the alphabet. I have also visited or communicated with free schools in New Zealand, Australia, India, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States, and I have heard of many more in other countries. There are state schools, private schools and schools dependent on charity; there are boarding schools and day schools, schools for rejects and schools which select their pupils with care, schools with rules and without rules, with punishments and without punishments, with lessons and without lessons, each schools with an individual way of sharing the responsibility for its affairs. What unites them is the understanding that children need freedom to think for themselves if they are not to lose their natural eagerness, sociability, curiosity and self-respect. It happened early this century with Ferrer in Spain, it happened in the early ’30s with Summerhill and Dartington Hall in Britain, and it is happening now all over the world. Surely this time the message must get through.
David Gribble For more information on Democratic Education – visit www.sern.org and visit our Article Archive