Basic Notes on the Wednesday Podcast


Democracies have always been, from Athens to the present day, artificial constructs. People working in Democratic education often forget this.
What are democracies trying to do? They are attempting to give rights and defined/distributed powers to the enfranchised, and trying to create an infrastructure that balances personal authority with community authority.

Freedom of choice of action in democratic community.

When you remove the Teacher as Total Authority, as the sole pillar of a traditional system of education, then you have to face up to the question: What takes its place? With only the removal of an authority structure there will be, as with only the removal of an autocratic regime in a nation state … big problems.

A Democratic Free School is a mini democratic-state curriculum for children. What will make it work? What will allow it to be successful, to survive?

Understanding, accepting the need for a Structure for Freedom and Democracy is the first step. This was pretty much missed in the early 70’s. It was a major reason that most Democratic Free Schools … dozens, if not hundreds, only lasted an average of 18 months.

Visiting a successful Democratic Free School you will find a variety of authorities created and/or understood by the students that take the place of The Adult as Total Authority:

Individual authority
Authority of role
Authority of place
Authority of Time of Day
Authority as a member of the community

Authority of the Democratic meeting
School Meeting Laws
School Traditions

Authority of Health and Safety Laws
Authority of the Department of Education
Authority of government Laws

Authority is natural. It’s a basic part of the universe. In a Democratic Free School there is Intelligent Distributed Authority (Shared) 

In life, as well as in a Democratic Free School, at different times:

  • you can freely choose what you want to do
  • you are in authority over others
  • others are in authority over you
  • you have shared authority and negotiate or discuss what actions should be taken
  • a vote must be taken about Action and Authority

In any successful Democratic Society there are ‘political’ institutions, structures. Checks and Balances that allow the democracy and the freedom to function without licence and without unnecessary, invasive adult-only authority.

We all want a sense of orientation. Children, as well as adults, like a sense of/understanding of Place, Time, Freedoms, Expectations, and of Community Law and so on. Such life frameworks are natural to all of us. This does not mean that children need excessive authority or structure.

A Judiciary:

At Summerhill Tribunal cases are part of the School meeting. The Tribunal can be, and has been over time at Summerhill, a separate meeting. In Neill’s time it was Fridays and the General meeting was on Saturday. At many schools there is a court system.There are laws and a variety of warnings and fines- usually work fines. Summerhill students get pocket money and so can actually be fined.

This means that students must take the responsibly to ‘bring people up’ for breaking a law, and there follows a discussion and then a vote. 

This must be an objective process so that friends feel comfortable with bringing one another up or bringing a teacher up for breaking a law. Once a case is over it’s over.

An interim system of ombudsperson problem solving is also important. It prevents too many issues showing up in schools meetings. It solves problems quickly. Which children often prefer.

Appropriate Habitats:

Architecture/ design allows for a variety of discrete habitats in the school that allow for the wide range of the school’s activities, play, formal and informal learning, meetings and so on. The selection of habitats has to allow for the peaks and valleys of child energy and activity natural to each age group. These “release valves” are essential for the integration of childhood into a distributed authority environment.

If a child must run about and make noise she must have a a place to run about and make noise. Denying this is like denying gravity.


In a new school you plan as well as you can but you will have to observe and alter habitat from time to time; and analyse termly.


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