Problems abound with democratic meetings. We all know this whether we have worked in democratic schools or not. The fact that there is a free and equal vote does not make them free or fair. Meetings are not necessarily wise or efficient in doing business.
We started our discussion on Wednesday by talking about some of these problems. This picked up on last weeks discussion in which we talked about the need to create a culture within the school.
Top 5 problems:
1.Whining to the Meeting. The meeting can come to seem like a mummy or daddy figure. “I’m bringing you up!” then becomes like a little kid whining: “I’m telling.” The Meeting itself can encourage this kind of whining if the community does not have a well-implanted culture of sorting out problems for yourself. This means that children should first try and solve difficulties they encounter by themselves, then find help from other members of the community such as ombudsmen (a lousy word but a great function). Although it is right for Meetings to replace traditional authority figures and roles, the aspiration is to create a system where individuals are better able to sort things out for themselves.
2. Politics, bloody politics. We do not want the Meeting to be a training ground for politicians. We do not want to have the verbal kids getting their way all the time. We do not want there to be elected posts such as class representatives and presidents. This is the School Council model but it drifts dangerously away from the direct interests of kids and creates a lousy kind of meritocracy. If the school grows too big for their to be direct democracy with everyone taking part in Meetings we want to have separate communities and separate meetings in order to make the democracy relevant to the exercise of freedom.
3. Individualism against Community. There is a tension between community and individualism. The extreme pursuit of individual liberty can lead to a breakdown in community spirit. It can become dysfunctional. It is one of the great benefits of democratic schools that children can learn about this opposition in practice, understanding how the exercise of their own freedom has an effect on others and vice versa. There is no perfect balance, but we have to accept as adults that at times we may have to put the argument for community values if there is a chaotic descent into extreme individualism.
4. Charismatics. We all know them. They are people who get more than their fair share of attention. They might have nice teeth or a glib turn of phrase. Often it is hard to put your finger on exactly what makes someone charismatic and it might seem cruel at first to dump them in the pond just because they have a winning smile. Charismatics, however, are dreadful for democracy. Especially adult charismatics.
5. Fixed Roles. In a democratic community you do not have a fixed role. The Chairman, for example, is only Chairman whilst acting in role and has to step down from that role in order to comment in a case.
And Now For Some … Some Basics
Following on from point number 5 we need to set out a system for the democratic meetings so that standard roles and practices are clear to everyone:
We need to ensure that the function of the Chairman is clear and that the first Chairman knows what to say and how to say it. We will also need people who can act as Secretary and a system for creating the Agendas and first Law Books.
Function of Meetings
We will have to decide on how many meetings there will be and what is their function. For example, there may have to be separate court meetings (what has been called Tribunal at Summerhill) and general discussion and laws meetings. If we decide that the functioning level of the community is at class level we may have more regular information-sharing meetings. A Day School might want small general information meetings at the start of the day, and a get together at the end. Maybe not.
Size of the School
The size of the school will determine many features of the meetings. A transitional model that posits a school the same size as Summerhill School is going nowhere. We accept that the size of the community there works well in those conditions but school starters have to consider how they are going to balance their books as well as perhaps present a more adoptable model for the bigger world of many children.
We have often said that the ideal age for starting a democratic school is 9-13. These veteran kids are articulate and thoughtful enough to run their own affairs. They have not yet entered adolescence and they are not preoccupied with examinations and formal learning to the same degree as older children. We are going to deal with the concept of Clubhouse Democracy in the near future, which is particularly well-adapted to this age range.
It would be quite possible to have a well-functioning school for one hundred children at this age. However, in time the school would have a tendency to grow up and down. Previously we have suggested that there is a “rule of 100”. We might even say that it should be a “rule of 70”. When a community gets so big that the members cannot see each other’s faces in a Meeting it will start to subdivide.
This means that a larger school will inevitably have to think about how to create sub-communities, or ‘provinces’. The 9-13 Clubhouse has its own unique features. Younger children do not need the same level of democratic participation: the experience of freedom is much more immediate. Their meetings will have a different character to the meetings of the older kids.
It is remotely possible to have a meaningful community meeting for a school of 400 but we think that exclusively large meetings would leave staff and students seriously removed from the day-to-day realities of school life and that most children would cease to experience the deep sense of democratic community membership and control critical to Democratic Free School Education. It is more appropriate to have local meetings, with occasional meetings or events at the whole school level.
Older teenagers start to look at the adult world in all its broad variety unless they are compelled to the textbook by rigid schooling. There is no reason that the computer geeks should not run the computer lab, that the artistically talented should not organise the Art Room and so on. The older members of the school can also help the younger children to understand how democratic meetings work.
But Hey, Don’t Forget …
Democratic Free School meetings generally work; are meaningful, interesting, rewarding and often fun. Properly organised and introduced, the meetings give free schools an essential sense of community, of group and individual empowerment. By and large, children will find them easy to understand and to run … again, if the adults of a new school create a framework for the first meetings, and if the school works realistically and methodically through normal meeting issues in the first term, first year, of a new school adventure. You will find out more than you ever have about freedom and democracy, about the individual and the community.