Start With Freedom, NOT Democracy

You have a meeting because you have freedom.  That is what we agreed on last week.  Children have freedom to do what they choose and, since they are not little robots with identical ideas and desires, they have things they need to sort out.  Our school does not inflict the authority of the teacher or the adult on them; it resolves issues and disputes through a democratic meeting.

It was important to labour this point because we don’t want to create a democratic school for the sake of democracy.  We have to create a democracy to preserve our freedom.

Freedom? Democracy?

This week we are going to look in more detail at the features of this democracy.  It is important to give this some careful thought because, as we said last week, Summerhill provides our reference point but it cannot be a blueprint:

  • Our school will not be a boarding school
  • It will not have the luxury of space that Summerhill enjoys
  • There may be more children
  • They will not necessarily cover the same age ranges that are at Summerhill.

Setting up the Meeting

Setting up a meeting is not the same as running a Meeting in an established school such as Summerhill.  Although children take to running their own democratic communities easily, someone has to lay the foundations.  How often will you have meetings?  What will they talk about?  How much authority will they have?

Start Up Recipes Make Sense

Remember, we put freedom before democracy.  Children in democratic schools learn how to use their freedom and how to negotiate amongst themselves in democratic meetings where everyone is equal.  The adults have an equal voice and vote in the meetings, but their opinions do not carry extra weight by the mere fact of being adults in theory.

In practicea democratic school is for the children not for the adults.  This means that school leaders and teachers have an obligation to ensure that the components of the democratic community, including its meetings, work well.  They need to ensure that children understand how to use and run the meetings.  Everyone should feel that the possibility is open for them to use the meeting.

A Democratic Curriculum

I hesitate to use the word curriculum only because the word is so abused by teachers and parents.  The curriculum is not just what happens in classes and textbooks.  Even the English National Curriculum states clearly that its provisions only cover a part of what happens in a school; the full curriculum is everything that happens in a school.

Since we have democratic meetings, don’t we have an obligation to tell the kids why we are having them and how they can use them? We can’t rely on the traditions that established democratic schools such as Summerhill have.  No, we have to explain why we are doing what we are doing and how we are going to approach it.  We cannot allow the project to be derailed by silliness, apathy or malice.

We are going to talk in more depth about this in a series of posts about Clubhouse Democracy.  We will go into greater depth about precisely what you say when you start to share authority with children.  For now, it is enough to say that you can create better conditions for your democratic meetings to succeed if you have thought clearly about what you want them for.

Problems Ahead

We are going to have to talk about the potential problems before we get to the good stuff that we want.  Democratic meetings do not necessarily work very well.  Leonard tends to be more positive about them than Jason, but we have both seen meetings that have worked smooth as silk and meetings that have dragged on for hours giving all the wrong kind of attention to the same old trouble-makers.

Natural Obstacles

Just having democratic meetings is not going to mean we won’t have the same troubles that other schools have with rule-breaking, teenage angst and boring repetitive behaviours that get on everyone’s nerves.  At times we may want to stand up and say, “Enough already.  I’m putting my foot down as Principal and telling you this cannot happen.”  It will never be absolutely clear whether we should or should not do this.  It is a question of judgment. Over the decades Neill has said this, and Zoe as well. Though hardly ever.

If we don’t get the basics of the school meetings in place, however, we will not get anywhere.  This week we want to do that.

Differences of View

We do not agree about everything.  Jason wants freedom more than democracy.  He has a tendency to buck against being told what to do or telling someone else what to do.  Democratic meetings, in his opinion, are neither wise nor efficient but they are the best manner of preserving the freedom of members of an equal community when freedom is given priority.


Leonard is more optimistic.  He thinks that children’s meetings often make wise decisions and are remarkably patient and tolerant in considering the problems that come before them. He does not see meetings making the repeated and chronic errors of judgment that Jason sees; he doesn’t think that there is a systemic problem with democratic meetings, although he recognises that there can be, in the course if a term, some pretty lousy meetings. Still, he says, they are still usually better than the British parliament.   He also has a greater belief in democratic schools as a possible ‘natural training ground’ for democratic citizens than Jason does.

If you listen to the second Democratic Meetings podcast you may pick up some of these differences of opinion.

Tune in!

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