Talk for the staff of the education department at the University of East Anglia, Norwich 2005.

Democratic EducationThe 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.

Democratic EducationThe 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.

I worked at Dartington almost continuously from 1959 until it closed. In 1983 the Trustees of the school appointed an incompetent headmaster who revenged himself for his immediate failure by stirring up a monstrous and unjustifiable scandal and resigned after only one term. In that short time he had done the school enormous damage, and four years later, in 1987, the Trustees, in spite of protests from children and staff and offers of financial help from parents, closed the school down.

Emma Fein, who was a pupil at the school at the time, wrote a poem about the closure of the school, contrasting the atmosphere of the school with the look she saw in the headmaster's eyes. I will read you a few lines, because they tell a great deal about the school.


"Believing in the good of humanity we stood as if naked.

Somewhere there is something good in everyone, people make mistakes, but if given a chance they will grow and change.

Too innocent, too giving to be aware of what was really there.

Those eyes were too hard, too unfeeling to listen, to accommodate anything but that which their own gaze was after.

I never realised how fragile the whole thing was. A community surviving on human values was crushed by a liar - someone who craved power and projected his own hang-ups onto others.

Only someone who had dealings with pornography would see the world around him as a den of sex and vice -

If you live in a large family you learn to understand the true nature of the love that exists there.

Much was learned, much has been lost".


The closure of Dartington Hall School resulted in two new schools appearing in the same area of South Devon. Park School, for children from three to eleven, had started in 1986, because the Junior School of Dartington Hall was closed first. Sands School was founded by a group of children and staff from the senior school in 1987. Both, in their different ways, continued the Dartington tradition.

I was one of the founders of Sands School. We were determined that it should never be closed down by a remote group of Trustees, and Sands has written into its constitution that no decision may be taken without due consideration of the views of the school meeting of students and staff. In addition to Leonard Elmhirst's string of negatives - no punishment, no religion, no uniform, no compulsory anything and so on - Sands added some positives, principally the notion that common sense should take the place of rules, and the idea that all decisions about the running of the school should either be taken by, or else be subject to the authority of the weekly school meeting of pupils and staff.

While at Sands and Dartington I knew of very few other similar schools. Summerhill and Countesthorpe were the most important.

Countesthorpe is a comprehensive school in Leicester. For a few years at the beginning of the 1970s it was a model democratic school. There were 1400 children there, and up until the sixth form every child had an individual timetable, and almost every timetable included large chunks of what was known as "team time", when pupils followed up their own individual interests.

As soon as I retired in 1992 at the age of 60, I began to hear of other democratic schools in other parts of the world, and I discovered that most of them believed themselves to be almost unique. If I didn't know about them, and they didn't know about each other, I don't think it is unreasonable to suppose that many of them will be new to most of you as well. I shall therefore spout a list of some the places I have actually visited, with their most striking characteristics, to give you an idea of the extent of the development of the idea of democratic education worldwide.

After Dartington and Sands I thought I was way out on the extremes of liberal ideas in education, but soon found out how wrong I was.

At Sudbury Valley School in the USA, for instance, it is not just that there are no compulsory lessons – there are no lessons at all. If you are a pupil there and you want to learn something you have either to study it on your own or find an adult who is willing to help you. Alongside this extreme freedom as regards learning, there is an elaborate system of rules, devised by the school community, and punishments are dealt out by the so-called Justice Committee of pupils and staff, which meets as often as necessary – sometimes several times a week.

Hadera Democratic School is in Israel; surprisingly enough there is a big movement towards the democratisation of education in Israeli schools, and Hadera is the leading example. It has a less conspicuous but similar justice system to Sudbury Valley, but it offers rich range of classes and activities which children attend if they wish to.

Tamariki, in New Zealand, only takes children up to the age of 13, when they have to go on to conventional high schools. The first head teacher, June Higginbottom, refused to deal with children's disagreements and complaints about each other's behaviour; she said they must handle them themselves. What emerged was a system of small meetings, which are called whenever there is a problem. If someone knocks over your sand-castle and continues to spoil your play even after you have said, formally, "I request you not to knock over my sandcastles", or whatever it may be, you call a meeting of children who are nearby. The meeting will probably involve four or five children, one of whom will take the chair, and a decision is taken as to how the problem can be solved.

The Kleingruppe Lufingen in Switzerland was run by Jürg Jegge, whose books are virtually unknown in this country, in spite of the fact that his first book, "Dummheit ist lernbar" sold over a hundred thousand copies in German. The Kleingruppe consisted of six children who no other school would take. Dummheit ist lernbar means Stupidity is learnable. Jegge found child after child who had been as it were trained to be a problem. Children became stupid because they were told they were stupid, they told lies because they were categorised as liars, they were insolent because someone had taught them that that was what they were. If they were able to stay long enough with Jegge, they usually recovered.

Tokyo Shure in Japan represents an extreme in a different direction: it is for school refusers, of which there a great many, because of the savage pressure in conventional Japanese education. Pupils who are enrolled at Tokyo Shure therefore have no obligation to attend. The school is just open from half past nine or so in the morning until seven o'clock in the evening; it offers a rich programme of activities and lessons requested by the children, and they find they want to be there. Some go back into conventional schools, some go on to university, some leave to go into the world of work.

Butterflies, in Delhi, is even more extreme. It is an organisation for street and working children, and it has no school buildings. The street educators have big trunks of teaching materials – some attractive games, posters and work cards but also slates and chalk – which they bring to agreed places at agreed times, and any children who want to come may attend. They have to want to come very badly, because any time spent with the street educators is earning time lost, and the street children generally earn only just enough to survive. The working children, who sleep at home in the shanty-towns with their parents, may get beaten for not having earned enough money during the day. When I visited Butterflies in 2001 there were 800 children who attended.

Democratic EducationMoo Baan Dek in Thailand, is a village of abused, abandoned or orphaned children run on a Buddhist adaptation of Summerhill principles.

At Fundación Educativa Pestalozzi in Ecuador there are no lessons, and the staff are told that they must not even persuade, encourage, draw attention to things or make suggestions.

Sumavanam is in a poor rural village in India: children who want to come may do so as soon as they can walk there on their own.

The Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Chicago...

Information Overload!!


Examples of democratic education

Dartington Hall School, Devon
Summerhill School, Suffolk
Sands School, Devon
Countesthorpe Community College, Leicester
Sudbury Valley School, Massachusetts
Hadera Democratic School, Israel
Tamariki, New Zealand
Die Kleingruppe Lufingen, Switzerland
Tokyo Shure, Japan
Butterflies, Delhi
Moo Baan Dek, Thailand
Fundación Educativa Pestalozzi, Ecuador
Sumvanam, Bangalore
The Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School, Chicago

This overhead gives a list of some of the places I have mentioned. I haven't put it up just to help you to cope with the information overload. I've put it up to illustrate a point that is made by schools like Sudbury Valley and the Fundación Educativa Pestalozzi, where staff are banned from proposing topics of study. As soon as you make a list, what is on the list becomes apparently more important than what is not on the list. The mere existence of this list will make it more difficult for you to react in your own individual way to what I have been saying. If you have questions in your mind that are more important to you personally, this list will tend to wipe them out. In the same way, according to Sudbury and the Pesta, any school timetable, no matter how rich, runs the risk of distracting young people from their own personal needs.

Of course I hope that the brief descriptions of these various places has interested you, and that you will want to know more about them, but perhaps you have other concerns.
I'll mention a few possibilities, but I won't write them up on an overhead because that would give them too much importance over any others that you may want to bring up.

You might be interested, for instance, in questions about lessons and academic standards, or discipline and behaviour, or the balance between rights and responsibilities, or the necessity or otherwise for rules and punishments, or the question of whether compulsory free education is a contradiction in terms.

That little list illustrates an argument in favour of offering possibilities. When I was teaching the ten-year-olds at Dartington a child would quite often want to write a story, and ask me to provide ideas. I would produce a string of them - a picnic in a thunderstorm, perhaps, getting lost in a supermarket, telling a lie to get out of trouble and being caught out, living in a cage from the point of view of a rabbit - and suddenly the child would say "I know what I shall write about!" And it would be something completely different.

Democratic Education

So here is another list, which I won't put up on the screen either. This is a list of six things I have learnt since leaving the world of conventional education.

1. Children want to learn. The children who came to Jürg Jegge, the Stupidity is Learnable man, were desperate to learn, but had accepted their teachers' view that they couldn't. The street children who come to Butterflies are so eager to learn that they are prepared to face the likelihood of being beaten or going hungry in order to attend lessons. Even the school refusers at Tokyo Shure soon find that they want to learn and come into school even though they don't have to. Students at Countesthorpe, helped and guided by staff, found topics to study that enthralled them, in the way that visiting democratic schools around the world has enthralled me.

2. Children do not want to be pushed around. This is so obvious that it hardly needs enlarging on, but in most schools they accept that being pushed around is part of life, and they make no objection. It is illustrated by the comment of a girl who came to Sands School for a trial day, to see whether she liked it and whether the school liked her. "You know what it feels like after a long flight, when the air hostesses open the doors? Well, that's like Sands."

3. Children wish to live in an environment that is sufficiently orderly for them to be able to do what they want to do, to learn what they want to learn, to achieve what they want to achieve, but they do not like it to be too tidy. Tamariki , in New Zealand, originally a private school, had to produce detailed policies on every conceivable aspect of education in order to become recognised and receive state funding. One of these was their Policy on Mess. It started: "Policy on Mess: Rationale: For children in this age-group a degree of mess promotes creativity and learning."

4. Children are in some ways less influenced by tradition than adults - they are less likely to say "This is right because it is the way things have always been done" and more likely to say "This is right because everyone benefits from it." I saw many examples of this in my five years at Sands School, but I met a particularly attractive instance at the Justice Committee meeting that I attended at Sudbury Valley; there were only minor offences being considered - a complaint about someone destroying someone else's paper aeroplanes, a quarrel between some small girls about who was using which chair as a bed for their dolls - but the staff member present kept on pressing for punishments for the offenders. The children, who were the majority, simply ignored him, and solved the problems peacefully.

5. What most children want to learn most is how to get on with other people. In traditional schools they are given very little time to learn this. At some schools children are not allowed to talk in the corridors, and I once visited a primary school where they were not even allowed to talk in the dining-room. At democratic schools learning how to get on with other people is the main subject.

Democratic Education

6. What one adult decides, or what a small group of adults decides, is less likely to be right than what a larger group of adults and children decide together. I learnt this lesson from an incident at Sands, when I still had the title of head teacher. I thought I had handled things well, only to see later that it would have been very much better handled by the school meeting. Not long afterwards I proposed that my title should be changed from head teacher to administrator, because my responsibility should not be to make decisions, but only to see that all necessary decisions were made. This proposal was accepted.

What I have presented has been not so much a mosaic as a jigsaw-puzzle with the pieces still scattered around the table. The picture on the box reveals that there are three main principles - respect, trust and love.

  • If children are respected, they are able to retain a proper self-respect, and they respect others.
  • If children are trusted, they show themselves to be trustworthy.
  • And if children are loved, they find it easy to care about other people.


During World War Two David Wills ran a hostel for unbilletable evacuees near Edinburgh - unbilletable because they were too foul-mouthed, dishonest and wild for any normal family to be asked to take them in. On the subject of love, he wrote: "For when I speak of love I do mean love – I mean the kind of feeling a parent has for his children. . . . It consists of establishing a relationship such that, however much the child may wound his own self-esteem, he cannot damage the esteem in which we hold him."


As I have travelled around, being repeatedly astonished at each new place I have visited, I thought I had pretty much covered the range of possibilities. Then, last year I learnt about a place where children aged ten and eleven employ the adult who works with them, raise the money to pay his salary, keep all the accounts and deal with all the correspondence, order the necessary materials, and among other things arrange exhibitions of their own art work and the work of other artists. They spend as much or as little time with their employed adult as they like, and when they are with him they may read, talk, paint, or just sit around and share sweets. Their elected committee does all the administrative work that adults take upon themselves in all the other places I have described today, and has recently raised the equivalent of £200,000 to enable them to extend their work.


And where on earth can this be?

It's the art room in a state primary school in Fort William, in the middle of Scotland. It's called Room 13, and Channel 4 has broadcast a half-hour video about it that the children made themselves. When I said they had raised "the equivalent of £200,000" I was trying to mislead you - they have received a grant of exactly £200,000. And the children themselves are deciding how it is to be used.

Democratic education is not just something that is only happening in private schools where the parents have to find the fees, it is not something that is only happening in remote countries where the conditions are entirely different to ours, it is happening in an ordinary primary school in Scotland. Maybe we will soon be seeing more of it down here in the south.