DFS Ships: A  History


When I was in the middle of founding my Democratic Free School in 1971 I needed a name; I was in bed thinking about that and thought of the Odyssey. I looked up Odyssey and it said “ A long voyage with adventure and many changes of fortune”. This seemed appropriate and since the school was in an old house that always made me feel that I was on board a wooden ship we decided on Odyssey House. So my idea of Democratic Free Schools as ships on a voyage goes way back.


The first Democratic Free School Ship (DFSS) was built in 1921 and its Captain was A.S. Neill. The captain published a compilation of his writings in 1970 and millions read that captain’s log about the one and only DFSS Summerhill. Young people were innocently inspired; as they played a lot of rock music, grew long hair, became or pretended to be activists hoping to change the world way too many of them also pretended to be free school ship builders and sailors. They feverishly improvised all manner of garage built versions of DFSS Summerhill with cardboard and orange crates and tricycle parts, glueing them messily together with youth culture fantasy … here’s an example:


Its great! It will last forever!


Since nobody knew what they were doing the average life span of those early 70’s Free School Ships was 18 months. When I started my school I hadn’t a clue either … I’d read the book, did some fanciful thinking and then improvised. My school lasted 9 years before it hit the rocks of Board of Education politics and parent infighting, which was a decently long voyage, actually. But we knew from the get go this wasn’t a garage band … grab a guitar and thrash away. (My colleague and I first graduated from teachers college, tried our best to apply thoughtful, practical problem solving,  learned media and public relations skills, swatted on legal and administrative matters … worked hundreds of hours over several months … and with a lot of very good luck created a decent success.)


Look out it’s a government inspector !


Finances port side ! Building codes? Zoning regulations!

Freedom ? What is it exactly? 


The Guild 


A few other schools also prevailed; more started up in the 80’s and later. As they appeared and a few of each batch survived a core of experienced ship builders emerged. They built and sailed a number of variations on the DFSS Summerhill. Experienced crews developed. Sharp eyed Captains as well.

Democratic Free School Ship building slowly became a craft guild; sailing the ships became a well understood, though underpaid, vocation. Captain and First Mate skills were codified. But for a long time this was pretty much a secret society with little presence in the world.


But then BOOM. 
With the internet guild isolation from the world vanished.


We entered a NEW ERA for Democratic Free School Ships.


Building and sailing your very own Democratic Free School Ship can be the most exhilarating adventure imaginable. Especially when your ship is finally launched and heads out of port for its first voyage, a shake-down cruise of beautiful calm days mixed with the inevitable furious gales and unexpected hidden rocks … when Captain and crew must go into ‘Survival Mode’. And then finally … successfully sail triumphantly away !


Fortunately, in the NEW ERA there is no need to be innocent and to fantasize and then simply chance the many perils of your sea voyage. Hopeful ship builders and sailors, captains and first mates have access to advice, training and on site mentoring of experienced guild members.


That is why we founded Summerhill Democratics.


Our Web Page, Blog, Facebook Page and especially our Consultation Packages all have a single purpose: To let you into the guild as visitors or as serious apprentices looking to learn the skills that will help you to build a solid new Democratic Free School Ship, or democratise an existing ship … or even a classroom. Something that suits your needs … your voyage, your way.

So … Engage with us for growth and action.

Your Odyssey Awaits