Talk for the staff of the education department at the University of East Anglia, Norwich 2005.
The somewhat unsatisfactory name for the type of education I am going to talk about is "democratic education." I hope that by the time I finish you will know what I mean by it.
I am the world expert on democratic education, as long as you accept my interpretation of the concept. I'm fairly confident that I have spent more time in more democratic schools in more different countries than anyone else in the world. This means that I have to guard against two particular mistakes when I give talks: I have to take care not, on the one hand, to overload my audience with information or, on the other, to omit information because I assume that they understand references that are in fact completely new to them. And I am also so involved in my own ideas that I probably often fail to answer the questions that are the ones that other people really want answered.
What I will try to do, fairly briefly, is to tell you a bit about what I have done and seen, hoping that this will reveal what I mean by the term "democratic education", and here and there to attempt a few provocative comments derived from what I have learnt from my experience. Then you will know what sort of questions I am qualified to answer, and I hope you will have plenty to ask me.
For almost thirty years I was a teacher at Dartington Hall School.
I remind myself that not everyone knows all about Dartington Hall School, so I must I explain. It was started in 1926 by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. Leonard, who had suffered an English public school education, announced that it would have "no corporal punishment, indeed no punishment at all; no prefects; no uniforms; no Officers' Training Corps; no segregation of the sexes; no compulsory games, compulsory religion or compulsory anything else; no more Latin, no more Greek; no competition; no jingoism." That is more or less how it was still when I arrived there in 1959.
Dartington and Summerhill were the two most important radically progressive schools in the country. Dartington differed from Summerhill in a number of ways, four of which are these:
- Dartington was a great deal richer, because of the wealth and generosity of the Elmhirst family;
- Dartington considered academic success important, and while although academic success was possible at Summerhill, it was not a primary target there;
- Dartington had day pupils as well as boarders, whereas Summerhill at that time only had boarders, because its founder, A.S. Neill considered it important to free children from their parents;
- Dartington managed without any system of punishment, whereas at Summerhill punishments were imposed by the School Meeting of staff and children as a matter of course.
The great similarity between the two schools lay in the relationship between adults and children which was, at both schools, one of companionship rather than authority.