So You’re the Reduced One

By the Formal Curriculum we mean the teacher curriculum, regardless of teacher style. Democratic Free Schools on the Summerhill Model have three curriculums: Play, the Informal Curriculum and the Formal Curriculum. Infusing all of these are: 

  • Free Choice of Action in Democratic Community, 
  • Enriched Emotional and Social Development 
  • The principle of Freedom not Licence, 
  • and the Keystone Community Meeting with one person one vote. 

This is not easy to understand without being at the school since, although everything that happens in a school is, in theory, a part of the curriculum, most people define curriculum as “content” that is offered by adults to children. Summerhill is different. 

We want to respect children’s freedom and help them learn. At Summerhill children have free choice to go or not go to lessons: this means that there are lessons for them to choose to go to and teachers to offer these lessons. This is fairly conventional: the basic formal curriculum is not negotiated with children although teachers bear in mind individual and group differences. It is unconventional to give children the option not to go to those lessons. It is unconventional to say that what they freely choose to do does not have to be approved by an adult. 

Introductory Note by Jason 

The term curriculum actually refers to everything that goes on in a school. In most schools the whole of the curriculum is delivered or overseen by adults. In democratic free schools there is a formal curriculum that is delivered and overseen by adults, but we aspire to reduce this: a reduced formal curriculum. Children have time and space to grow up on their own and make their own decisions. When adults are not acting within their role as teachers they are equal to children: their interests and ideas do not have more weight than children’s. 

Essentials To Keep In Mind


Children have the right to time, and to fill time with chosen action. A Reduced Formal Curriculum creates time. Even if children choose all the lessons in a Reduced Formal Curriculum they they will have time left over to play, access the informal curriculum or choose to do whatever else they wish as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others, even sleep, socialize, be bored. The gift of time transforms ‘school’ into a living community. Controlling time means controlling children. 

OCCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Curriculum Disorder.

This is real. It is the constant creation of more and more formal curriculum by educational professionals, university departments, politicians and media/publishing corporations for a variety of unthinking and self-serving reasons. Children do not need to learn that much formal curriculum. It is a fantasy. (Although it keeps them busy in dysfunctional habitats.) Students in England, for instance, don’t need 10 GCSEs. At Summerhill they take the number of exams they think they will need for the next step in their lives. 


It is important that democratic free schools offer the essentials of a formal curriculum to allow students to learn subjects they want in a formal manner and proceed to next-step school learning (college etc) should they choose to do so. A Reduced Formal Curriculum, if not taken for enjoyment, is a fast way to collect the tickets required to get past the next academic gatekeeper.


An efficient Reduced Formal Curriculum will make interference by state education authorities less likely. A free school cannot deny that it lives in a nation state with education law and hope to last without offering basic learning skills and content in core subjects. And, in any case, what’s wrong with offering that? We think, even without a hovering state, it’s an offer that children deserve. 

Children Have The Right

Children in a free school have the right to do as much formal curriculum learning as they want to do, and it should be provided as a matter of policy if asked for. The formal curriculum in a free school is not a second-class option, but considered equal to any other activity chosen by a child. 

Traditional Schools

Too often nothing else to do, nowhere to go. The architecture, time- tabling and size of schools makes it near impossible to offer essential age- appropriate/energy-appropriate child habitats that offer more than a formal curriculum. This is not the case in free schools. 

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