Do you like politicians? I thought not. Introduce democratic meetings to schools the wrong way and you end up with kid politics: a miniature version of the venal and corrupt world of national politics.Who wants to stand as class representative?
Mostly nobs, of course.
- And who wins?
- The one with more friends.
- And what does he win?
If winning means being able to lord it over the other kids that is a democracy I just don’t want.
Freedom not Democracy
I believe in freedom not democracy:
- Political democracy, elections and democratic process- meh
- Freedom to believe, say and be what I want- yeah!
This means that the democratic meetings I propose for the school won’t trump the kids’ freedom. I don’t want that kind of lousy consensus whereby the majority decides what everyone has to do. The basic principle I want is that everyone should do what they want and the meeting is there to talk through the inevitable disputes.
There won’t be any permanent posts. The meetings will have to be chaired and there will be a secretary, but these will be jobs anyone competent can do. No one will be represented by another; everyone will have the right to speak equally. There will be no meritocratic grease-pole.
I am much more interested in the children having freedom than in consistent democratic practice. We all know that democracy can easily be swayed one way or another by charismatics and charlatans. The school itself will safeguard against this by clearly describing the functions of the meeting. What meetings talk about should be directly relevant to the lives of the children. They should not waffle about in abstraction.
Limits on Size
This puts limits on the size of the community. It means that there may not be whole school meetings when the school grows. This does not bother me. The meetings are the vehicle for children to decide on rules that affect them and bring up problems. If they spend 90% of their time in class groups that is the level at which democracy should work for them.
I’m not in favour of School Councils. Representative democracy with children seems more likely to take away children’s freedom than add to it. I’m in favour of free people deciding common issues in respectful meetings. That is what I mean by democratic meeting.
When I was creating Club House Democracy in a Canadian state school classroom a young teacher asked me if he could watch my class pretty much run and organise itself. I said sure, so Brad spent time in my room and also watched the children run a meeting. (Twelve year olds). He said, “I’d like to try that”. He had a class of 30 nine year olds. I gave him some tips on what was required to have a meeting, told him how to start with him as chair to teach procedures; some of his students came and watched our meetings.
Like Ducks to Water
The day arrived and at recess he came upstairs and said, “ They went for an hour and want to continue after recess. It was brilliant. How do they know how to do that ?” I said well, actually kids take to democratic meetings like ducks to water.
But, of course, as with most things in a democratic free school, if the infra- structure isn’t there, if what’s happening and why isn’t clear, if there are not laws or rules regarding what’s going on, it can be a chaotic catastrophe. I watched such a disaster of a meeting once in a very well-known American democratic school. I wondered, “How could this be happening ? Don’t they KNOW ?”
As Zoe at Summerhill said to me in one of several interviews I did with her, “ People who visit don’t see the structure. They’re not supposed to, of course. But visitors do tend to think it all just randomly, miraculously, happens. Summerhill is, as you know, a very structured place.” Upon which, I may add, freedom of choice of action in democratic community then surfs quite wonderfully. Zoe, like Jason, thinks the freedom at Summerhill is the most important thing. She doesn’t like the term ‘Democratic School.’
So: One, children take to democratic meetings quite naturally. Two, the children need to know the procedures of meetings, the purposes of meetings in the school and what meetings can and can’t do. Three, you can, unfortunately, have democratic meetings without a lot of freedom. Ouch.
Adding to that, the school, before the students show up, must know the basic procedures, the purposes, the parameters of meetings. Meetings involve a balance of authority ( Chairperson, procedures) and democracy. Control plus freedom and equality.
Just as a great Democratic Free School has a logical balance of freedom, authority sharing, equality and democracy
This stuff just doesn’t, “ Happen, man.”