Boys writingItaly, 2002. Treviso, Trieste, Ferrara, Padua and Milan

(English translation of a talk given in Italy)

I have been a teacher for most of my life, and for most of my teaching career I worked in two democratic schools, one after the other. The children absorbed all my attention, so I had no energy left to look around and see what other people were doing in the same field. In the nine years since my retirement I have begun to explore the wide variety of such schools that exist all around the world.
I have been invited to speak to you about four topics that are probably completely unfamiliar to you - IDEC, WREN, Sands School and my own recent research. They are interrelated parts of one big picture. I would rather answer questions than make a long, uninterrupted speech, but how can you ask me questions until you know what it is that I may be able to tell you about? I'm afraid I must start with long explanations.

Firstly, a simple, factual description of IDEC.

IDEC stands for International Democratic Education Conference. (The meaning of the phrase "Democratic Education" will be explained later.) These conferences happen every year. There is no IDEC committee or governing body. Nobody is a member of IDEC. Each year a school offers to host the next year's conference, and once this offer has been accepted, everything that happens is decided by that school. This includes the length of the conference, the presence or absence of guest speakers, who is invited, the accommodation arrangements and the cost. Conferences have lasted two days and ten days. There have been conferences with a full pre-arranged programme, and others where every event was decided by the participants after they arrived. Accommodation has been in local homes, in tents and in the Olympic Centre in Tokyo. The cost to participants has varied from nothing to £30 a day.
The first conference took place in 1993 in Israel, and four countries were represented by about twenty participants. The 2000 conference took place in Tokyo, there were seventeen countries represented, and about a thousand people attended. This year's conference will be back in the Pacific, in New Zealand.

IDEC, it is clear, is an important and genuinely international phenomenon.

Although of course there is a central unity of purpose, IDECS are characterised by variety and absence of central control. That is also true of many of the participating schools.

I have been present at every IDEC up until now except for one. At every one I have made new friends and learnt about excitingly different schools.

Progressive Education

Which leads on comfortably to WREN

As IDEC has become better known, so more and more schools and organisations have been able to get to know one another, to compare problems and successes, and to offer mutual help. One result has been WREN, which stands for Worldwide Real Education Network. At the 2000 IDEC in Tokyo my wife Lynette and I were asked to set up a database of schools, people and organisations that held to particular ideals. They constitute a fair description of what I would call "democratic education". These ideals are as follows:-

  • respect and trust for children
  • freedom of choice of activity
  • equality of status of children and adults
  • shared responsibility governance by children and staff together, without reference to any supposedly superior guide or system.

The database is on the web at [now]. It has about 60 entries, representing contact with over 30,000 learners of all ages. Many of the schools and organisations have websites of their own, which provide more information and further links. The database can be put to many different uses, but to my mind its most important function is simply to show that the movement towards informal education is indeed worldwide. As one recent member put it, "All of a sudden I felt part of this huge community of like-minded people rather than an isolated nutcase in a town nobody has heard of."

You join WREN simply by emailing your desire to do so, and giving us the information required for the database. The address for the time being is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., although the site is managed by someone in Thailand.

The various criteria are not intended to be an indication of a general direction of thought rather than hard requirements. Different people give them different interpretation and emphasis, but there is sufficient agreement to form a coherent group.

I shall go over the criteria again, to show how far removed this general direction is from the conventional, archaic and paternalist approach of most politicians and educationalists all over the world.

Firstly, respect and trust for children. This does not mean an assumed and condescending courtesy, it means a certainty that children are at least as concerned for the welfare and happiness of other people as adults are. It means not being afraid of children making their own decisions. It means valuing the opinions of a child as highly as you value your own.

Secondly, freedom of choice of activity. The most striking example of this is when all lessons are voluntary. If you have a history lesson timetabled for you, and you decide you would rather watch a video, or play cards, or go skateboarding, it is your right to do what you decide. In some of the organisations I have visited learning is an altogether individual business, and there are no group lessons at all. In others there is a regular timetable, but pupils attend only those courses that interest them.

Thirdly, equality of status of children and adults. First names for everybody, tu and not voi, equal voting power in any group where decisions are to be made by vote, no separate rooms for the staff where the children are not allowed to enter.

Fourthly, shared responsibility. Some people prefer the term "self-government," and perhaps the best description would be somewhere between the two. "Shared power" is another possibility. If you have power in a group, that means you also have responsibility. If the school buildings are yours, you are responsible for their upkeep and you must play an appropriate part, whatever your age. If there are social problems in the school, you cannot just leave it to someone else to find solutions. The responsibility for the effective running of the school is not taken over by the adults, but shared between all members of the community. There is often no head teacher. Children and staff together share in the power to appoint or dismiss teachers or even to change all basic elements in the organisation of the school.

And the last item on my list is democratic governance by children and staff together, without deference to any supposedly superior guide or system. The idea of democratic governance has already been discussed. The point of the second part of the sentence is that the voice of an authority figure, a Rudolf Steiner or a Krishna Murti, a religious leader or a prime minister, must never be accepted unquestioningly, or worse still referred back to as an infallible guide. The ultimate arbiters must always be the school community of children and adults.


Sands School

I will give examples of different ways these ideals manifest themselves in the last part of this talk. First, however, I shall tell you about one particular school. It is the one which I helped to found, and the one in which I taught for the last four years of my teaching career before I retired at the age of 60.

We founded Sands School when Dartington Hall School was closed, in 1987.

Progressive Education

What a lot of questions that simple sentence implies. Firstly, what was Dartington Hall School? It was a school I had taught in for almost thirty years, and where all my four children had been educated. When it was at is height it had three hundred pupils, aged between three and eighteen. It was a boarding and day school where parents had to pay substantial fees. In Britain there is no way round this unfortunate situation – if you want to be different you cannot work within the state system. Some state schools have managed to be different for a few years, but before long they have always been closed or forced to change their ways. Dartington, as an independent school, was able to be different. There was informal friendliness between adults and children, there were voluntary lessons from the age of thirteen, no system of punishment, no uniform. The degree of shared power fluctuated at different times in the school's sixty years of history but there was always a wide range of freedom.

Dartington Hall School was closed down by its own Board of Trustees. They were legally responsible for it and in fact the owners of its premises, but they had little contact with it. They closed it down against the wishes of the children, their parents and the staff. They had lost sight of the virtues of the system and saw only the problems. They failed to see that these problems, of which drug use was the one that shocked them the most deeply, were not specific to the school but were common to adolescents all over the country. They thought that their model school should have no problems. They did not understand that what was wonderful about the school was not an impossible absence of problems, but a particular way of dealing with them.

When the school was closed there were fourteen children left who wanted to continue with the same kind of education, and three staff, of whom I was one, who wanted to continue working with them. We were determined that our new school should not be set up so that it could be closed down by people who did not understand it. The main duty of the necessary legal body of Governors at Sands is to ensure that the school is run in accordance with the wishes of the students and staff, as expressed in the school meeting.
The school meeting, which takes place once a week, or more often if there is a crisis of some kind, is open to all the children and all the staff. When decisions are voted on everyone present has one vote. There is no head teacher, but one of the teachers is chosen as administrator. The administrator does everything a head teacher would do except take any decisions. Many people find this sentence difficult to take accept, so I shall repeat it. The administrator does everything a head teacher would do except take any decisions. One of the main duties is to make sure that all necessary decisions are in fact taken, and that they are then acted upon.

When Sands started the children decided that they wanted a formal timetable that was to be compulsory for everybody. This was not what the staff wanted, but the children wanted a secure framework. Lessons are no longer compulsory, and this is how a recent student, Immalee Gould, described the situation in an article in the English magazine Lib Ed:-

I am probably one of the students who attend their lessons most regularly, but I do not go to all of them. Sometimes it is just more important to go up to the moors, or to watch a video, or sort out a conflict between other people in school. I am not going to spend the rest of my life in maths lessons, but I am going to spend time with people doing real things. At Sands we realise that lessons are not the most important thing in life.


Progressive EducationIt seems clear to me that the most important thing in life for adolescents is to learn how to get on with other people. This is what they most want to do, and yet conventional schools seem to be designed to prevent them from doing so. They are often made to sit quietly in lessons for hours without speaking to each other, they are not allowed to co-operate or to help each other with their work and their time for socialisation is kept to a minimum.

Sands allows continual social contact, in the classroom as well as outside it. Most of the time things run smoothly, but not always. Here is a comment from Bonnie Hill, another former student, who, like Immalee, was still at the school when the remark was recorded:-

Most of the time the atmosphere in the school is good, but sometimes it's horrible and stressful. I think this is OK because in school meetings and at other times we can look at what is causing the stress and what we can do to make the situation less stressful. It helps us to learn to deal with situations which are stressful. Some students think the school is ideal, but I don't, and I don't think it should be or can be.

This student had very much more realistic expectations of her school than the Dartington Hall Trustees who had expected their school to be perfect.

Sands is distinguished from many other democratic schools by the fact it tries to make as few rules as possible. On the first day there were only two - no drugs and no alcohol. By the second day a new rule had been added, by the children who wanted to smoke, that smoking would only be allowed outside the building. These rules were accepted by the whole community, so there was no need for any system of punishment. Sad to say, as the school has grown the rules have multiplied. From time to time punishments for certain breaches of the rules have been introduced, but apart from one strict rule about drugs, these systems have always proved ineffective and been abandoned before long. When you consider the ordinary costs of punishment - hostility, injustice, resentment, fear and so on - and then you realise that on top of all that it is not even very effective, it is only rational to abandon it.

There is, however, a systematic punishment for anyone who breaks the rule about drugs. Anyone who brings cannabis into school is automatically suspended for a week, and is only allowed back into the school after a discussion with the school meeting. This rule is enforced by the students themselves, which means that it actually works, unlike the rules about drugs in more conventional schools, where the staff have to attempt to deal with a situation which is kept secret for them.

The children who go to Sands nearly all want to take the national exams when they are sixteen, or in some cases earlier. They don't take as many subjects as their counterparts in conventional education, but they achieve high enough standards in those they do take to go on to whatever they choose when they leave the school. The most able students, instead of having A grades in ten subjects and a distorted view of the relative importance of school subjects and the rest of life, have a variety of grades over six or eight subjects, and a proper sense of their own worth as individuals. Less able children are likely to do better at Sands than they would do in other schools because of the opportunity to drop the subjects they hate and to get extra help in the subjects that are significant for them.

At some of the other places I shall describe it is believed that any timetable or programme of stimulating material interferes with students' private motivations, and prevents them from finding their own true interests. I should like to give you a contrasting view from another Sands student, Matt Williams.


I think the academic side of Sands is very good at motivating me to do work. The ideology of self-motivation only works for about half the people, and the rest of us have a counter-philosophy which is about wanting to learn but relying for motivation on enjoying being in lessons with people you like being with, who are the teachers. I don't enjoy the idea of having to get everything together for myself, because it means I don't have as much time for sitting around and talking to people and moving around and socialising. The atmosphere in the lessons is similar to the rest of the time at Sands, so I only know where the academic work begins and ends because of the timetabled structure.


Other schools around the world

I shall be pleased to answer any questions about Sands after this talk, but first let me tell you very briefly about some of the schools I have visited around the world that embody similar ideals, but are very different in their practice.

Sudbury Valley, in Massachusetts, is one of the schools where all motivation must come from the children themselves. There are a hundred and fifty young people, between the ages of three and twenty, and there is no timetable of lessons at all. When a child decides to learn, it is up to that child to work alone, or to find others, adults or children, who can give the necessary help. In terms of academic learning the freedom is total. Social control, on the other hand, is extensive; there is a whole book of rules, made by the school meeting, and there is a Justice Committee which meets several times a week to consider breaches of the rules and administer appropriate punishments.

Mauricio Wild, of the Fundación Educativa Pestalozzi in Ecuador, expresses the idea of non-intervention in the child's activities in uncompromising terms. Teaching, explaining, guiding, motivating, persuading, anticipating and pointing out, he told me, are not adequate interactions between an adult and a child. This is another idea that is so surprising it needs to be repeated. It is not appropriate, Mauricio Wild says, for an adult to teach, explain, guide, motivate, persuade, anticipate or point things out. The only way the child's interests are influenced is by providing a prepared environment with a wide variety of learning materials and other stimuli.

Progressive Education

Some places may provide conventional lessons, but avoid punishment. One of these was The Barns Hostel, in Scotland , for boys with social problems evacuated from their homes during the last world war. David Wills, the warden of the hostel, gave these reasons:

  1. It provides a base motive for conduct.
  2. It has been tried, and has failed; or alternatively, it has been so misused in the past as to destroy its usefulness now.
  3. It militates against the establishment of the relationship which we consider necessary between staff and children - a relationship in which the child must feel himself to be loved.
  4. Many delinquent childen (and adults) are seeking punishment as a means of assuaging their guilt-feelings.
  5. When the offender has "paid for" his crime, he can "buy" another with an easy conscience.
  6. Punishment shifts the responsibility for behaviour onto the adult, instead of leaving it with the child.

Tokyo Shure was founded to cope with the serious problem of school refusal in Japan. This was not just a question of children occasionally slipping out of school for a day, it was a question of serious illness and all too frequently suicide. Because it is a school for school refusers, a child who is enrolled there does not have to attend. The school is simply open from ten o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock at night, and offers a programme of courses that the children have asked for, and may take up if they wish. Some come as seldom as once a month, many others come every day.

Perhaps the most remarkable organisation I have visited is Butterflies, in Delhi. It has been set up to support street and working children, and offers a powerful example of children's will to learn. Their circumstances discourage them strongly from attending instruction. If they are working children, their employers resent them spending time away from work, they earn less money and their parents may beat them. If they are street children they have to give up earning time, even though a full day's work will only bring in about 30 rupees, or 50 pence. In spite of this loss of income and the risk of beatings, they come to spend perhaps three hours a day with the street educators.

Progressive EducationButterflies has no classrooms or school buildings. The street educators have trunks containing learning materials, including posters, slates and chalk, a few books and various games and toys. They go to agreed contact points at certain times, open the trunks and allow the children who come to choose whatever they like to do. About eight hundred children attend occasionally, and four hundred regularly. It is estimated that 60% of the children who attend for six months will have learnt to read in that time.

I asked Rita Panicker, the founder of Butterlies, how she defined success. She started with the most fundamental element. Success, she said, is when the children trust the adults. Only then do other things follow. These are children who have been frequently beaten by the police and by drunken fathers, who are widely regarded as pickpockets and thieves and who are frequently subject to sexual abuse. To win the trust of children who have suffered all this is an extraordinary achievement, but when Lynette and I visited Butterflies we were immediately accepted as friends.

Rita Panicker went on to say that it is also success when children learn to read and write, even though they may get no academic qualifactions; it is success when they succeed in personal projects, such as research, or finding a solution to a problem. And of course it is a success if they go on to high school and get good jobs. There are children who have been sleeping in the cold Delhi winters in the streets or on the roofs of the railway station who do achieve all these things.

This gives some idea of the sort of education I have seen in different parts of the world where the essential element is respecting each individual child. Sands School is the example that I know best, because I worked there for four years. There is a list of some of the places on the WREN database, and there is an annual IDEC where some of them are represented.

At an IDEC one hears of different approaches involving, for instance, lessons or no lessons, rules or no rules, punishments or no punishments, obligation to attend or freedom to stay away, parliamentary-style meetings with votes or informal consensus. What is the same everywhere is the understanding that children are not merely social embryos, learning to become people. They are people already, with the same rights as anybody else.

At the IDEC in New Zealand later in 2002 it was agreed that WREN was a somewhat undignified name, and the network is now called IDEN, the International Democratic Education Network. It has grown considerably since the time of this talk, and its web address is

*(This information is out of date. In 2017 I passed my responsibility on to Peter Foti - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )