Schools are expensive. It is not just the buildings. The staffing, maintenance and resourcing all cost money and, if you do not have the financial clout of the state, you have to pass that cost along to the parents of the children you serve. This means that a decent alternative school is always out of reach for ordinary people. But perhaps there are other options. In this post I want to look at alternative paradigms for alternative education.
Organic Farm Volunteers
I have been thinking about these other options for several years in another context.
Carmen and I started by accepting volunteers to her small property in Asturias in the North of Spain. We started by using the WWOOF organization which is an international organization of organic farms. We do not have a farm, but we liked the idea of taking people in to work in the gardens. Instead of staying in hostels the volunteers exchange their labour for free accommodation and food.
My neighbours in the village thought it was exploitative. “So, you give them a bed and a plate of beans and they work all day. That doesn’t seem right,” said Severo.
The volunteers don’t see it that way. They can travel for longer and gain a richer variety of experiences through volunteering. The option is to work longer in their home country in order to spend more as a regular paying tourist. And the truth is we don’t have an organic farm, we don’t sell our produce and we don’t have enough money to pay anyone to help out in our garden anyway.
I got into offering places to volunteers because I thought we lived in a privileged place and I wanted to share that. They were interested in what we were doing and wanted to share in it and we valued what they brought to the mix.
Then I realized that this way of thinking was much more potent than this small example.
From Work in the Garden to Building a Shed
A couple of years ago, I changed the dynamic by putting an ad up on a different site. It was suggested to me by a friend who was creating a communal work project in his own house. Look at Abrazo House, if you are interested. Instead of organic gardening the volunteers came to be involved in building projects. Communal building projects give you something inspirational. You might have to look the other way when the government inspectors come around, but the results are stunning.
This encouraged me to expand the idea of communal working by building a shed in the style of a traditional Asturian barn. It did not work out too well because I had to go to work and could not dedicate the time and energy to the project that I would have liked. But the idea has stuck in my head that there is another way of working.
One hundred years ago no one in our village would have hired a builder to re-roof their house. They would have got together as a community and done it together. That spirit is still alive and it finds its expression in small-scale community projects which, because of modern communications can attract people from all over the world: we have had volunteers from Australia, the United States, the UK, France, Spain and Hungary.
People get together because they share a vision about what they want to do and they work towards achieving it. This is frequently the spirit of alternative education: you cannot rely on the state, which is more likely to put obstacles in your path than to help you; you need some capital and some initiative; you need to be willing to connect with people to make things happen.
You have to be prepared to fail and try again.
Thinking it Through: Less Expensive
There are people who have thought things through a lot more consistently than I have.
Consider Yasmeen Lari. She is a Pakistani architect who works with simple materials and processes that can help people in their own communities create better lives for themselves. She was motivated to follow this path through the need to provide shelter for disaster relief. But you cannot look at these beautiful structures and not think how much better they would be as school rooms than the lamentable cement buildings that normally go for classrooms in Pakistan and around the world.
What do our governments do to us that we are left without initiative and without communities? Pakistan has serious problems in its education system with a huge proportion of children having poor school buildings and teachers who do not even turn up in the morning. The state, with the assistance of the British Council and USaid, pays for teachers, schools and textbooks that do not work. The dirty cement school buildings, the teachers as minor functionaries and the inappropriate texts are mismatched with children who could be learning so much more.
Couldn’t local communities do better on their own with an imaginative use of local resources?
Let’s Have More DIY
Critics of Summerhill School often say that it is a school for rich kids. It’s true and that fact sticks in my craw. Why is it not possible for poor- or even moderately well-off- people to design and run their own schools?
I followed my enthusiasm for the work of Yasmeen Lari to a range of projects that seem full of promise for a new way of thinking and working. It is essential for anti-authoritarians the world over to come together and think through these possibilities.
Have a look at the Instituto Do It Yourself in Madrid.
I’m not so attracted to the aesthetics, but I think the principle of people coming together in community to work together and learn from one another is excellent.
And if you can do it with a building project, why can’t you do it with a school?
When Neill founded Summerhill School many of his teachers worked for little more than food and accommodation. They gave their time and energy to the project in this way because it was inspirational. It offered them the possibility to try things that were not possible in the mainstream. They felt that they were helping to change the world. In the fifties people lived under the threat of another war with the potential to destroy the world. Today we live with other threats: the seas are filling with plastic, the icecaps are melting, extreme weather events are becoming less and less newsworthy.
In this world, more of the same in education doesn’t make sense. An authoritarian top-down education that works on the basis of an international set of standards doesn’t make sense. What does make sense is to harness the creativity and innovation of people in their own communities to make a better kind of education. It makes sense to educate children to look beyond the classroom window.
What do you think? Do you agree that education can genuinely work on the basis of community? Or do you think we need more inspections and more government help? Should we be allowed to build our own schools the way we want them?
Does it have to be so expensive?