Leonard kicked off by saying that the school would be like a train with carriages- some larger than others. He looked first at the Junior Carriage, (age 9-12+). Then he looked back down the scale and stopped at Primary.
Where you put the age divisions in this train depends on the culture and country you work in. We have worked with schools in many countries and they define primary and secondary in different ways to the the United Kingdom. One thing that we strongly disagree with about the UK system is the way that childhood is cut off at 11+ to go to secondary school.
We think that children should be allowed to live out their childhood.
At the lower end there are other considerations. School has extended into early childhood in the West. School starts at five, but many children already have a couple of years behind them in pre-school or kindergarten.
We think that school proper can start at 6+.
This does not mean that we think that pre-school is a bad idea or that children should be with their parents. We have no moral take at all. We just think that the democratic community only really starts to work when children are 6+.
Jason discusses the Senior School below. I want to focus on the Junior Level and why I think it’s the lynchpin age of a democratic free school. And especially important in starting a school.
The Junior age ( Class 2 Summerhill, ages 9+ to 12+) is the age of Veteran Children. At the top of childhood skills. They are extremely competent organisers, love to act with an almost professional independence, enjoy running their own space. They ‘get’ democratic meetings right away, can run their own, and the teacher can, if the environment is properly Age Appropriate, leave the kids alone most of the time: “ First try to do it yourself, next ask a friend, and last if you have to, go to the teacher.” They will embrace the concept of ‘Personal Developmental Narrative’ instinctively. They will teach one another.
Note: If the school does not have a proper Age Appropriate environment for this age it can cause serious problems. If the they get bored and aren’t offered what Veteran Children need in space, resources and responsibility you’re in trouble.
This age group will even take over and run a state school classroom. A new teacher, in a state school where I developed Club House Democracy, said to me after he introduced democracy, “How do they know how to run meetings and run the classroom so easily ?” This age just does.
A friend of mine ran a summer program for English in Spain. He tried to run a Clubhouse program but didn’t have the right ages. He wanted early teens. They were not interested and it didn’t work. This year he offered the program to 9 to 13 year olds. It was a spectacular success. They took it over and basically ran it themselves.
The Junior Age is destroyed in state schools where children at 11/12 are shipped off to senior schools. It’s against all developmental observation. I think it’s a crime. But Democratic Free Schools can also miss the mark. If the Juniors don’t have their own Clubhouse Age Appropriate Space that caters to their particular genius they are caught in limbo, with Seniors the main pillars. If this happens Juniors really can cause problems in a school.
I’m a Canadian so I’m a federalist : There is a Central Government but there are Provinces with a discreet geographic space and powers in that space. The Juniors are, you might say, a very particular Province of Childhood.
When Jason and I and Will Readhead, a Summerhill Vice Principal, were investigating the design of a Democratic Free School in Lithuania we asked : Where do we start? It was a no brainer to begin with Juniors.
There is also another critical reason: The Juniors are pretty much literate and numerate, and at the other end of the scale, they do not yet have to be concerned with curriculum that ends with state examinations.
The Primary children can sit about and discuss and vote about small matters, but they are much more dependent on adults. And they are at the age where the introduction of numeracy and literacy is more of an issue. Whether it’s gently Compulsory, Product Placed, or Optional.
The Seniors will begin to look outward, take stock of their skills, think about what they are going to need for state exams and college entrance. And be teens.
So at both the Primary and Senior levels there are ‘other essential distractions’. That is not the case with Juniors. The school can slash the curriculum back to bare essentials and let the kids run with it. Done properly it’s a very deep immersion in freedom of choice of action in democratic community. It’s the most free age in a democratic free school that finds itself in a nation with a Ministry of Education Policy. And all schools, for good or ill, do find themselves in that situation.
Shrinking Adult Influence
Finally, most people who approach us re school consultations start with little kids. This is a serious problem if you really want a deep freedom to nurture itself. Adults can become way too influential. Little kids in a school with a well-run Junior group will look up to these students, and if there is a senior school will look to those students as well. This seriously, positively, shrinks adult influence and offers a much bigger sense of freedom and independence to the little ones. Adults become considerably irrelevant, unless really needed. ( And all children, young and old do want adults to be there, as security and for structure when required).
It’s the adults in a Primary-only Democratic Free School that are the problem, especially if they haven’t experienced a complete Age Range school. They will not know how to step back, when to step back, and when to allow serious pre-Junior freedom from adults to start to develop.
You can start with only little ones or only seniors. But I wouldn’t unless I absolutely had to.
The senior school is a problem. When you offer examinations in your school there are two dangers:
- Teachers will like teaching to the examination because it makes their planning and discipline easier. It gives them prestige. They will subvert the freedom of the children
- Children will see examination passes as the purpose of school. They will reduce their own free activity in favor of following standardized syllabus materials.
It would be better for a school to start without the examination level in order to establish its learning culture. It takes a strong principal, with a clear vision and firm policy statements, to resist anxieties regarding results. Teachers tend to gauge their success by the grades of the children they teach. We need something else in place to stop this happening.
In the podcast I said that children should not be steered away from non-academic interests. This is an over-simplification. Although it is true that classroom learning tends to be academic, that does not mean that the academic is done particularly well in the classroom. My position is that children should be able to engage in free learning whether it is academic or not without the constraint of following a formal curriculum or syllabus.
For example, one child might have an interest in metalwork. That is the kind of learning that traditional schooling tends to make academic, by changing its name to Technology and making a fake connection with industry. In this case, I would say resisting the pressure to make the subject academic is right.
Not Academic Enough
However, cultural pursuits are not academic enough in most schools. Courses of study for languages and literature, for example, do not give children who are really interested the chance to gain breadth and depth. Bright kids are shuffled around from subject to subject in the endless pursuit of bits of paper.
A free school gives space, time and encouragement for children to choose their directions whether they are academic or not.
- Teachers do not just teach to the examination.
- Not all learning takes place in the classroom.
- Children take the examinations they need to and no more.
Teenagers Aren’t Sick
In the podcast I mention what I call the psychopathology of adolescence. Some people talk about teenagers as though they were suffering brain disease. Grey adults muddy the excitement of being a teenager as though it were sick to react to the world with excitement. They want to tie adolescents to the desk in case they do themselves a reckless injury. That is not the culture I would create in a free school.
I’m with Neill in wanting to protect children from what he called “neurotic” teaching. Some formal learning is fine and I don’t want to deprive children of essential skills and examination passes. But it is a very bad idea to give up the whole of your teenage years to a dull grind.