Curriculum Content

Free schools do not have to reinvent the wheel 

We are using the English National Curriculum guidelines that give well-researched and coherent descriptions of formal curriculum content. It is not a recipe for a school: it specifies minimum standards; schools are free to add what they will; schools are free to organize their school days as they choose.  The minimum standards aspire to protect children from arbitrary decisions to reduce their right to education.[1]

Minimum standards vary from country to country.  It may be an option to seek status as an international school and follow the curriculum of another country.  Cambridge International, for example, has an enlightened reduced curriculum as the basis for its international programme.

The English national curriculum (ENC from now) divides schooling into what it calls the Core and Foundation subjects: 

There is a lot of content in this curriculum.  Some alternative teachers might want to refocus the curriculum on the Foundation subjects in an attempt to engage children’s interest. A.S. Neill repeatedly talked about the role of interest in effective learning, so there seems to be some justification for this.  It might take the form of structuring the curriculum so that it is more engaging, focuses on project work or searches out opportunities for cross-curricular opportunities.

We don’t take this route. There are a couple of reasons why:

  • The first is that the variety of children’s interests is huge.  If you try to mix all those colours you will just end up with brown.  It is absurd to pretend that you can make your school learning engaging to all learners at the same time.  
  • The second, and more important in my view, is that we prioritise freedom.  We don’t want adults, whether they are teachers or curriculum designers, high-jacking children’s interests and turning them into brown sludge with attainment targets, level tests and rankings.  We want them to freely engage with their own interests, whatever they are, in the informal curriculum and through free play.

On the other hand, a school is a school, and everyone, from the smallest to the biggest, knows that you go there to learn.  We focus on the core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science.  Children, parents and visitors to the school should be instantly aware that these subjects are given importance and priority in the formal curriculum, even if there are other attractive and productive subject options available as well.  

There will be respectful silence during lessons, leisure-style activities will not be on offer by staff at the same time and excursions will be planned in advance.  Even within the Core, curriculum reduction will come into play.  We recognise that there is a lot of filler material in the ENC or any other state curriculum.  This might be attractive in a school where children are obliged to sit in classrooms and have no other outlet for their creative energies than what is designed for them by teachers. But that’s not the case in a Democratic Free School.

The Core teachers will have to be sensitive to the nature of their job: it is not about presenting the ENC in all its detail.  It is certainly not about preparing more children for more examinations.  It simply implies a responsibility towards all children in the school, regardless of whether they regularly attend lessons or not.  The same is not true of the Art teacher, for example.

We maintain the core as the most important part of the reduced formal curriculum and focus our energy and teacher resources in this area.  ( These are the areas that will be most scrutinised by governments and most parents. We are not saying that the Arts etc are in any way inferior in the life of students at Prado School etc.)

Not everything that is learnt needs to be taught in formal lessons. Much of the outer circle can be addressed through project work, in workshops and as a part of the informal curriculum … as well as play … in a free school.   The school management will be aware of the learning that goes on throughout the community and will be prepared to present this as evidence in the case of inspection or outside interest.  It would be absurd in a democratic school, for example, to have regular classes on Citizenship; if the school is running well it is a living lesson in the subject.

A few subjects, not many, struggle in a free choice habitat. Learning a foreign language requires consistent, regular application over a long period of time and has not given good results in democratic schools where children have the freedom to go or not go to lessons.[2]  School managers need to decide whether it is worth devoting valuable resources to a curriculum area that will not give good results or to give a taster of a foreign language within the school and allow parents to sign their children up for private classes independently.  

We always recommend giving children the maximum amount of free choice allowable in the system within which you are working.

Key Stages [3]

We do not follow the same progression as the ENC or other educational systems.We have a different perspective on “moving up” due to our emphasis on freedom.  Free play allows children to live out their childhood without the sense that they are wasting time or not preparing for the future.  They arrive at formal learning at different rates and with different intensities of focus.  

We have no fixed ages for moving up although, in general, we think children are only ready to become fully engaged with formal classes at the 12.5-13 ages. [4]  

Children Will Follow Their Own Developmental Narrative:

  • When you give children freedom to go or not go to lessons, many of them will choose to spend their time following their own Personal Developmental Narrative.  
  • When they decide to go, the teacher may face deficits in prior learning.  
  • The organization of the formal and informal curriculum plays a vital role in giving children a return route.   For example, having an activity room in view of formal learning gives a child the opportunity to see what the class is like without participating in it, to approach a return to formal learning by degrees.  
  • The reduced curriculum also allows multiple entry points, because it is inherently more flexible to work with a lighter content burden.


Giving children free choice obliges the school to give children good information so that they can make appropriate choices.  It is responsible, for example, to let them know when they are approaching a significant milestone, such as moving up, what they most likely need to know at the next level.  Children, like adults, are susceptible to thinking that the task they face is too enormous to take on and need help in chunking it down; they may also feel that things will right themselves magically without any effort on their part.  This belief can come from a popular myth in democratic education that study when you want to study is ten times more effective than the kind of study you do in state schools. ( Although it is generally observed that students who freely choose to engage in lessons often make rapid progress. They simply encounter little or no internal friction re the work.)

The Reduced Curriculum on the Timetable

The Core needs to have priority on the timetable.  This means that we will have English, Mathematics and Science in the morning, with no competing teacher activities at the same time.  In lower school classes, we have different classes for different levels and may easily find that a teacher’s whole morning is given over to Mathematics and English, with perhaps one or two spaces per week for Science. This often leaves the younger students to get on with their action and activities on their own, or with the help of friends. Which is a great thing.

[1] This is how I understand the following statement: “Schools are free to choose how they organise their school day, as long as the content of the national curriculum programmes of study is taught to all pupils.”

[2] Language learning in the ENC is at a very low standard and is obligatory only up to age 14.  For many children this results in a significant proportion of their childhood being given up to classes that give them no functional use of another language.  The issue of effective language-learning is not unique to democratic schools.


The ENC Key Stages reflect a long tradition in the UK of “moving up” from primary to secondary school after the 11+ examination. Private prep schools customarily add one more year before senior school.  In Spain, where we are based, the first year of ESO as secondary education is called here is also a year later than in the ENC.  In Canada there is an intermediate or Junior High system from 12-14.

ENCKey Stage 1Key Stage 2Key Stage 3Key Stage 4

[4] We have seen many free schools that, due to the difficulties of providing a full secondary school curriculum, graduate their children age 11.  We strongly feel that this is the wrong moment in the developmental arc of most children to progress to the secondary school system.  The proliferation of ‘democratic primary school only’ schools is storing up problems for the children who are forced to leave them before they have completed the free childhood that seems to have been promised to them.

Shoving children on into ‘senior’ learning before the age of 12+/13 is cutting childhood development off at the knees. 10 to 12+ is the Age of Veteran/Professional Children. Their abilities for ‘Senior Child’ informal/active learning and for the exercise of a maximum sense of independence, free choice, and running and organising their own lives in a democratic community with democratic meetings is at its peak. It must be honoured in Democratic Free Schools.


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