Public or Private: what is the best route to a better education?  I am following the thought of my last post.  The question I asked was: does education have to be so expensive.  Today I want to extend that question by looking at the ups and downs of private and public education.

I have arrived at this point by following the work of rebels working outside the system: architects and alternative educators.  My investigations led me to James Tooley.  He believes that private education is the solution to the crisis of education in developing countries and has helped to set up a chain of schools in Ghana called Omega Schools.

These are not democratic schools, but they do answer some of the questions I have about the way Leonard and I are working on projects for Summerhill Democratics:

  • how do you involve people in education and get away from the top-down model?
  • how do you make school founding affordable?
  • how do you create a repeatable model that is cheap and effective?

Most important of all:

  • how do you work outside the system?

Do What You Want to Do

The main advantage of a private school, from my point of view, is that it allows you to do what you want to do.  If you do not want to work within the controls that state bureaucracies impose on their teachers and school administrators, going private gives you the possibility of offering an education that you choose.  The freedom is not total but, provided you adhere to some basic norms to do with childcare and the curriculum, a democratic school should be legal.

I advocate for democratic schools so it perhaps seems inevitable that I would say they are the best option for developing countries.  A democratic school, designed according to the model we propose, reduces the formal curriculum to the essentials, stresses self-learning through projects and activities and builds a meaningful community that puts school learning in context.

Contrast this with the international curriculum that comes pre-packaged from the government: irrelevant, decontextualised, created as though all children could and should learn the same things.

The Summerhill Democratics model, by contrast, emphasises a tight formal curriculum.  We call it the reduced formal curriculum.  This ensures that the essential skills and abilities are covered to enable children to undertake activities and projects where their interests and passions are given free rein to drive their achievement.  It is not an easy option, but it offers more hope for children in difficult situations because it brings self-reliance, motivation and self-regulation to the fore.

Learning how to live in a democratic community and understanding the fundamental difference between freedom and licence is hopeful.  Learning that there is an authoritarian structure of knowledge that comes from distant places far above your level is hopeless.

James Tooley and Private Schools

James Tooley suggests that private schools are a better option for developing countries than mismanaged and corrupt state bureaucracies.  The Omega schools and the similar programme that is running in India provide a model for quick, sustainable and hopeful education.  Local teachers and educators can get on board with the projects quickly and adapt them to local needs.

It is not only state superstructures that are suspicious.  In the light of the scandals with NGOs and Aid agencies, there is a strong argument for giving development money directly to the people who can spend it and use it.  The Green Party in the UK argued strongly that development money should be given directly to women.  There was an article in The Independent in March.  The idea is not a new one: many years ago I heard that development money coming through the UN was being funneled directly to women.

I don’t believe that women are any better at spending money than men- the point is to give people the ability to make decisions that affect their own futures.  This is the principle behind democratic education: children should have the freedom to make choices; their parents should have the freedom to choose the kind of school their children want to go to.

Back On the Ranch

Meanwhile back on the ranch it is increasingly difficult to make substantial progress in the most stable modern democracies.  Strong states take more and more powers to themselves.  Everything is regulated and supervised by “experts”.  Small-scale private schools are unheard-of.  Something is wrong with this picture.  It certainly doesn’t convince me, because I fell in love with the idea of freedom that Neill proposes.  It is an idea that depends on human qualities that are far from the image of education that we have in our public education systems.

What do you think?

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