The rule of 100: Scale and Democracy

The school I went to was not democratic.  It never could have been.  It was too big.  In this post I want to talk about the effect of scale on democracy.  I want to talk about why this is important and what consequences it might have for your situation.

My school was not especially big.  There were maybe 800 students.  800, however, is far too many to have a successful Meeting.  Instead we had assemblies where the kids filed into a large hall, with the youngest at the front and the oldest at the back.  The adults sat in the last file watching.  The headteacher and whoever else was presenting the assembly sat on the stage.

If democracy were simply a matter of taking votes, this could be made democratic.  Why not?  You just put out a few proposals and take a vote, don’t you?  So, you might think that you can change your school assembly into a democratic school easily.  You might think it is just a question of scale.

Big groups, however, tend to divide into smaller groups that make sense.  This happens naturally and it is what I call the rule of 100.  I chose 100 because Leonard mentioned centurions and Roman legions the other day.  In fact, I think 100 is at the upper end for a community where people feel they are directly involved: 80 would be better, and even that might start to subdivide into smaller groups.

Groups subdivide in a natural way so that people can see the faces of all the people they want to deal with.

Summerhill School has had anything from 30-100 people in the community at one time.  The community can be cohesive at that scale.  Everyone can feel that their voice is heard.  They can enjoy their freedom, which is always a higher priority for me than the mechanics of a democratic system.  They can defend their freedom and argue about the boundaries of freedom and licence in a community where they know everyone pretty well.

What Happens in Bigger Groups?

Bigger groups divide.  This is a natural process.  A big blob of oil on a surface will subdivide into several smaller blobs: it’s like that.  Schools tend to divide children by their age.  This makes sense.  It is one of the joys of childhood to have a group of friends who are all more-or-less of your age and share the same interests.  So, in school, the divisions turn into Year Groups and Classes.  That is the natural level of what you might call the community: a community of peers.

My school had seven years: that makes a little over 100 per “group”.

Schools that want to create a sense of community that cuts across these horizontal barriers, artificially create “houses”.  The idea comes from boarding schools, where children across the age-range live in houses.  Instead of having all the 14 year-olds in one house and all the 15-year olds in another, for example, you have a house with children from 11-16 all together.  Hogwarts is the most familiar example of this system, but it is used in day schools as well.

Houses are smaller groups.  Even so, with five houses in a school of 800, you still end up with a group of 160.  It is still too large to be a democratic community.  Schools who want to promote the idea that these “communities” are real do so by giving “house points” for achievement.  You can win something for your group.  You can also lose them by “bad” behaviour.

B.F. Skinner might have approved.  Napoleon would have liked it.  It is meritocratic.

The Parliamentary Proposition

Schools that want to introduce democracy often opt for a parliamentary system.  The class is the functional unit of community, particularly at primary level, so the school has each class elect representatives.  The representatives are then given the job of presenting the views of their small community at a Meeting attended by representatives of all other classes, the staff and the head teacher.

In secondary schools the same procedure can be used with tutor groups.  Tutor groups, though, are not as cohesive as class groups in primary.  Also, teenagers start hanging out with groups of friends that cross the old boundaries of class and year.  Girls go out with older boys.  There are different style groups, to do with music, fashion and interests.

The School Council is a faithful reflection of representative democracy at a state level: you get a vote in an election but you don’t have a vote on every issue; you may not have voted for your representative but he still represents you.  Unlike national elections, however, there are no parties to give greater power to the representatives.  The system has several problems:

  • School Councils start from the principle that democracy is good, not from the desire to stimulate and protect the free choice of action of community members.
  • Individuals cannot bring up matters that are of direct interest to them.
  • The school principal in particular and teachers in general do not go to these Councils as equals.
  • The representatives are elected but the class meetings are heavily influenced by teachers. “Good” kids get a better shout at democracy.

Community: what you have in common

When you are creating a democratic community, you need to be clear as to why you are creating that community.  We suggest that the primary reason is to give children freedom to make choices about their lives.  The democratic part comes after the exercise of freedom.  For this reason we do not “teach” democracy.  Democratic meetings arise as a natural way of dealing with problems of governance once you have removed the figure of the teacher as policeman.

In a large school, the problem of setting up sub-communities that will be able to work effectively is taxing.  There are some practical ways that this can be approached at both primary and secondary level, which we shall discuss over the coming weeks.

For the moment, I want to focus on some of the key issues in scaling-up from Summerhill.  I’ll leave you with my list of some issues.  If you have experience in any of these areas or would like to express an opinion, please leave a comment in the forum on our webpage.

  1. Little kids live in their play and fantasy worlds. If you democratize classrooms in the state sector you end up with Meetings of very little kids who have no real interest in them.  It seems like you are imposing meetings on them for your own ideological reasons.  How do you get around this issue?
  2. How does a large school, such as a 1500 comprehensive, create meaningful communities? Teenagers create their own communities of interest.  It is easy for school communities to seem fake.
  3. Do you try to create horizontal communities by year group? Or do you try to create vertical communities like houses?
  4. Adults who set up schools tend to be strong personalities who want to be seen as leaders. In larger schools this is even more the case.  Is there a way around the paradox that you need these people to set things up, but you need them to shut up?

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