Roy was exasperated. He was trying to engage kids in his classroom and had a timetable so that they could come for scheduled lessons, but another adult had taken over the Café- an open access space with colourful furnishings, bean bags and free coffee. He found that the kids were more drawn to the social hang-out than maths lessons.

“That’s not freedom of choice,” he said. “If you offer a kid a cake or a carrot, what are they going to choose?”
“Nothing wrong with cake,” I replied.
“Sure, sure. Not a good comparison, I know. What I mean is, if there are too many options bang goes freedom of choice.”
“But they still have the option of going to class if they want to, don’t they?”
“They do. But I am not going to play a popularity game as a teacher. I am not that kind of person and I don’t think it helps anyway. I’m a teacher and I teach. Kids can opt to do my classes or not. I’m fine with that. But it doesn’t make sense to me for there to be competing activities at the same time, run by adults who do want to win popularity contests.”

This situation tends to repeat itself in democratic education. Free school teachers are lamentably drawn into the kind of games that will attract children to the activities they propose. I use the word lamentable because the sad spectacle of adults trying to win children over to their side can only make me groan. It’s certainly not how I understand Neill.

This kind of game is worse today than it was in the past. Children remain children for much longer. They can go well into their young adult lives without taking any real responsibility for the consequences of their actions, are bombarded by mass media telling them how entertaining life can be and have relatively fewer possibilities of taking an active role in the economy at an early age.

If democratic schools offer anything, they offer children the possibility of making choices and owning up to the responsibility for the choices they make. They can decide what they study and when. They can choose not to study and dedicate themselves to other activities of their own making. They can take responsibility within their communities through committees and meetings.

All of this is thrown into the balance if an adult proposes, for example, a camping trip in the middle of term. Those children who go are out of the community, suddenly freed of all the commitments they might have to their normal school life. And worse than this, they are doing it all only because it has been proposed by an adult: they don’t even take responsibility for the decision. Lamentable.

There are other dimensions to the same problem. If you have a lower school activity room and an upper school activity room, it does not make sense to allow the older kids to join the younger ones and the younger ones to join the older ones, except in special cases. Offering competing activities at the same time that are open to all takers just makes the school into a kind of pleasure park where commitment means nothing and the only thing that matters is finding the quickest route to the most immediate pleasure.

Once the dynamic of competing activites starts to disrupt the timetable, you can wave goodbye to lessons arranged as structured courses. And if the rot sets in, you will start to find that you cannot put on a musical performance, a play or an exhibition.

I think this is the price you pay for adults’ egotism. Democratic education should be about something more than that, shouldn’t it?

What do you think?