Why Are Democratic Schools Harder to Get into than Hogwarts?
by Robert Alcock
This is the first of a series of posts by Robert Alcock. If you want to learn more about him check out his webpage for the project Abrazo House. If you are working with us on developing democratic education you might like to be a guest blogger yourself. Drop us a line.
Warning: Empowered young people can be dangerously subversive.
It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard about Summerhill—the world-famous “free” or democratic school in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921 by A. S. Neill. It is currently run by his daughter Zoë Redhead and, according to its website, is “still ahead of its time.”
Back then, circa 1987, I was an adolescent enduring the tedium, bullying, snobbery and general horror of a posh private school in Coventry. Phillip Larkin, a former pupil at the same institution, wrote of his own glum upbringing: “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault … / Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”
Actually it was a good school, academically speaking. I learned to excel at passing exams, especially in subjects like maths and physics where the answers were cut-and-dried; and over the years I’ve come to appreciate some of the other stuff I picked up there, as well—including Larkin’s advice not to “let the toad work / squat on my life” but to “use my wit as a pitchfork / and drive the brute off”. But as far as learning to become a happy, well-balanced adult who knows what he wants out of life and how to get it, I was pretty much in the same boat as the grouchy old bard of Hull.
I read Summerhill (1960), Neill’s bestselling book about his school and his educational philosophy, more-or-less at the same time as another classic of radical education, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1971). The impact of both books was dramatic. I resolved (effective immediately) to”deschool” myself and take charge of my own life and education, and (someday) to give my own children, in turn, the freedom to direct their own learning and their lives. Which I’ve been trying to do ever since, with varying degrees of success. In this series of posts, I intend to write about some of the obstacles to practicing “free”, or democratic, education in the real world—or at least the portion of it in which I’ve found myself.
Summerhill: Still Ahead of its Time… Unfortunately
I’m not the only one to have been profoundly influenced by Neill and Summerhill. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re probably in the same camp; it’s one of the most influential books on education ever written. Most people who have really thought about education during the last half-century will have read Summerhill, or at the very least, be familiar with its central thesis: that children learn best, and are happiest, when they are free to govern themselves; and I’d like to think that a good proportion agree with it.
Two generations of educators (and educated people) have come of age and matured with an awareness of Neill’s ideas. One might expect, then, that it would be commonplace to find these ideas implemented in the education systems of Western countries. You’d think that a parent nowadays, seeking a democratic education for their children, would have a wide range of options to choose from—alongside more traditional, hierarchical schools catering for parents who prefer to have their offspring stuffed with knowledge in time-honoured fashion.
But you’d be wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Summerhill is, unfortunately, still very much “ahead of its time”. The reality is that a child growing up today has not much more chance of attending a democratic school like Summerhill than he or she has of going to Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Freedom to Govern Themselves
In the UK, which after all is where Neill’s ideas took root first, there seem to be no more than a handful of democratic schools (though a definitive list doesn’t exist). Of course there are many schools that have a certain, limited amount of student participation in school governance (like including students on a school council). Plenty of schools call themselves by some label (alternative, “free”—whatever that means—, Montessori, Waldorf, Steiner, Pestalozzi, etc.) that can lead people to confuse them with democratic schools. But none of these guarantee children’s freedom to govern themselves and direct their own lives and learning—the irreductible core of Neill’s philosophy of democratic education. Of course, who’s to say a school that calls itself “democratic” truly is democratic? Even Summerhill has had mud flung at it by people who suggest that it can’t “really” be a democratic community when it’s run as a family business. (Which begs the question, can there ever be a truly, 100% democratic community? Power imbalances are an inescapable part of life.)
But as regards schools that call themselves “democratic”, in the UK there seem to be only six (1), with (I estimate) some 400 pupils in total. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I’d be prepared to bet a stack of gold Galleons that that’s less than the total number of child actors, including extras, who appeared as Hogwarts pupils in the eight Harry Potter movies. (There are more than 4 million school-age children in the UK, by the way.) The situation doesn’t seem to be very different in other Western countries.
Schools of Magic
Actually, the comparison between democratic schools and Hogwarts is interesting from several perspectives. In what we know as the “real world”, children have little or no power, so they seek it in the worlds of the imagination. Many are fascinated by fantasy stories involving magic, often with little people and/or children as protagonists. Before Harry Potter came Middle-Earth, Narnia and Earthsea (which, of course, also features a school for wizards.)
To some people, especially those with a scientific training, “magic”— as in “magical thinking”— is a dirty word, meaning fuzzy, nonsensical, credulous, wishful. But “science” doesn’t have to be in conflict with “magic” any more than it does with “God”. “Magic” is the word we use when someone— it could be an athlete, a performer, an artist, a teacher, a student— pulls off something amazing that nobody could have foreseen; and these moments come when a person expresses their own inner power in a way that only happens to people fully in command of themselves. “Magic”, in other words, is very similar to “self-directed action”.
There’s a great moment in the 2008 BBC TV drama Summerhill (2)—which, if you haven’t already seen it, you should watch immediately, preferably with a child—when one of the teachers tells the inspectors, who have come to try and close down the school, “I do hope you’ll experience some of the Summerhill magic while you’re here.” To which one inspector replies, “I’m sorry, but I can’t see ‘magic’ here on my tick list.” The teacher thinks the inspector is joking; but she isn’t. In the end, of course, she does discover the magic of free education, and the school manages to stay open, so that a few children—but only a very few—can go on learning in freedom.
Seeking the Hidden Door
The door to the “magic” world of democratic education seems to be as well hidden as Platform 9 3/4. Why are so few children able to benefit from a democratic education? And more to the point, what, if anything, can parents and educators do about it?
Broadly speaking, it’s easy to answer the first question— though the conclusion doesn’t give much comfort to those who would like to find answers to the second. It’s not very surprising that democratic education hasn’t been able to make much headway, when democracy generally— and democracy within the education system specifically— has been in retreat for decades.
In England, the trend towards a “totalitarian” education system, in which every significant decision is made by the Minister for Education, has been going on for forty years, and is now almost complete (3). In this context, it should come as no surprise to learn that democratic schools are not very popular with the government. Throughout the 1990s, the Department of Education kept Summerhill on a secret “hit list” of 61 independent schools that it wanted to close down (the real-life case on which the BBC drama is based). It was only thanks to its worldwide reputation that Summerhill managed to raise enough money to take the government to court. When the truth about the “hit list” came out, the government was forced to concede that future inspections of Summerhill would have to include an expert in democratic education— though as of 2015, they have reneged on this agreement (4). (I wonder what happened in the other 60 schools?)
The other country whose education system I know something about is Spain, where I’ve lived for 15 years and raised two daughters. Prior to the civil war, Spain’s education system was among the most progressive in the Western world, thanks to institutions like the Insititución Libre de Enseñanza; under Franco, it was rigid, backward and dominated by religion. Under democracy, competence in education is theoretically devolved to the 17 autonomous communities, but the reality is somewhat different: the education system is a political football that’s kicked back and forth between the two main parties in the Madrid parliament. I think I’m right in saying that every single national government since 1977, whether “socialist” or “popular”, has enacted its own education law, imposing its own ideological preferences on the regions (where politicians also have their own axes to grind, of course, particularly as regards regional identity and language). The regulatory framework is very rigid, with the result that most alternative educational projects (again, whether they call themselves “democratic” or not) are not formally recognised as schools. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to compile a definitive list of “democratic” schools in Spain (5).
In my next post, I’ll speak about my own experience as a parent and educator doing democratic (and not so democratic) education in the “real world”.
Robert Alcock is a writer and ecological designer. He came to Spain in 1999 to do fieldwork for a PhD in Marine Ecology. Since 2006 he and his partner Almudena Garrido have been creating Abrazo House, an educational project located in the Aras Valley, Cantabria, where hundreds of volunteers from all over the world have come to get their hands dirty and to learn about ecology, natural building and sustainable living.
His first book, “The Island that Never Was”—a personal memoir of 15 years in the dream life of a unique neighbourhood, the post-industrial Zorrozaurre Peninsula in Bilbao—is being published this month (December 2015) by Editorial ZAWP / Asociación Hacería Arteak Elkartea.
Robert collaborates with Summerhill Democratics to bring democratic education to eastern Cantabria.
He can be reached at ralcock (at) euskalnet (dot) net, or on Twitter @AbrazoHouse.
1 Summerhill itself and a nearby primary school, Bealings, in Suffolk; Small Acres School, in London; and three (Park School, Sands School, and the Small School) in Devon. Source: Wikipedia and EUDEC, the European Democratic Education Community.
2 Directed by Jon East. Available to view online at https://vimeo.com/22205368
3 Sir Peter Newsam (2013), Towards a totalitarian education system in England
4 Zoë Redhead in Summerhill News issue 21, autumn 2015.
5 There are quite a number of “alternative” education projects throughout Spain; a few examples include Andolina (Gijón), El Dragón (Madrid), Laboragunea (Bilbao), Ojo de Agua (Alicante), Papoula (Soria), and Tximeleta (Navarra). However, they don’t all legally qualify as schools, practise democratic self-government, or call themselves as “democratic”.