No one knows more about democratic education than the students who have experienced it from the inside. Not in theory, but in practice. What’s it like to learn in a democratic school? How hard is it to adjust to other school or university systems? How does democratic education prepare you for the real world? Check out what real graduates are saying about their experiences…
Rachel Roberts – Democratic Education and Me
When I was 12 years old I was a student at the state comprehensive school in our town. I had always been a bright student; intelligent, interested, motivated. But now I was struggling. Struggling with the system; authority, staying in the top sets, exam pressures, social pressures and rules from above which made no sense to me. I became depressed and ill. I stopped attending school, I more or less stopped speaking, I pretty much stopped being recognisable as me. My parents were worried and desperate, what could be a solution? What could bring their daughter back?
We were lucky enough to live in beautiful south Devon near the democratic school SANDS. A family friend knew of the school and through fortunate circumstances offered to assist in paying the school fees. I had heard of this school, and I was wary: Wasn’t this a school for special kids, problem kids? I decided to give it a try none the less.
On my first trial day I sat down with a teacher, and he said, “How about I tell you, you don’t have to sit any exams, in fact you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” This was perfect. Within my trial week I already began the slow process of coming back to myself. Without the pressure from others I only had myself and my expectations to live up to, and my self expectations were plenty high enough. I’d always loved the structure of rules but never understood all the pointless rules in life, here I could be a part of making up the rules ensuring that only rules which made sense existed. The school fitted like a glove.
I did many things in my 3 years at SANDS. I wrote poetry, made crazy sculptures, climbed, made a million pom poms, performed in plays, drank never ending pots of tea, jumped in the river, talked about everything from geese to feminism, chaired school meetings, campaigned, communicated with people of all ages, listened and – somewhere within it all – completed 8 GCSE’s grades A-C.
I left SANDS feeling indestructible. I was confident, maybe a little arrogant. I had learnt a way of functioning in this world that was respectful and made sense. I knew I could reason my way in and out of anything. I felt I was far better prepared for the big wide world than my contemporaries. I knew what I wanted and I knew how to be motivated to achieve things on my own.
This was initially mistaken as ‘bad attitude’ by my tutors at college. They knew I had come from SANDS and expected me to be a ‘problem student’ from the beginning. To begin with, being back in the authority structures of the system was a real struggle. But after a few months I learnt where the boundaries were and how I could push them within reason, and my tutors learnt to appreciate my direct manner.
I went on to study Sociology at the University of York. At the beginning of university I still felt I was better prepared than my peers. I already knew about independent learning, and isn’t that what university is about after all? I suffered a bit of a shock: It was that classic little fish from small pond into big ocean phenomenon. No one knew me, I had no personal relationships with my tutors, and it finally dawned on me that although I had been directing my own learning it had always been within a small supportive environment with lots of one-to-one interaction. Once again it was a struggle. I had to actually learn how self-governed learning really works, but I got there in the end.
My interest in Democratic education never left me. I took elective modules in ‘Education towards a better world’ and ‘Philosophy of Education’. I wrote my dissertation on ‘Idealism meets Reality’ discussing what kinds of people may be products of democratic education and to what extent they are or aren’t prepared for integration into this society.
After university I worked for 6 months in a children’s care home. This was challenging and a big learning curve for me. The children and I came from different worlds. They quite literally couldn’t comprehend being treated or listened to with the kind of respect which I had come to learn everyone deserves.
Upon leaving this job I had remembered why I believed in the importance of democratic education and was determined to do something more actively involved. One day I idealistically typed ‘Democratic Education Jobs’ into Google. And unbelievably an internship with the Phoenix Education Trust appeared. I had missed the application deadline, but I called up anyway: This was exactly what I wanted to be doing. I worked with Phoenix for just over a year, initially as an intern and then as an employee. Through this I worked with the English Secondary Students Association (ESSA) coordinating their annual Student Voice conference and delivering workshops in a range of schools. We offered the schools assistance in developing their student voice programs, helping students’ voices actually be heard and student councils to function actually democratically.
After a year of doing this I was wanting to take a step further in the radical direction and gain some experience working with younger children. I spoke with Anna from Phoenix about this, and she suggested I contact the Free School in Leipzig, people whom she and I had gotten to know through EUDEC. I wrote an email application and secured an internship as an English mother tongue worker in the school.
I came to Leipzig for a 6 month placement without knowing a word of German. (I’d never chosen to learn a language. I just didn’t want to so I didn’t … I was a student at a democratic school you know.) Now a year and a half later I have a full-time teaching post at the school, and I can almost fluently speak German.
Without democratic education I don’t know what would have become of me. But I definitely wouldn’t be here doing this as I am now. It has shaped everything in my life so far and will continue to shape my future.
Paco Yoncaova – My Experience at Kapriole … and beyond
I spent my primary school time (5 years in my case) at a democratic school in Freiburg, Germany. After that I attended a comprehensive school to graduate (Abitur) there in 2006. I feel that my time in the democratic school, even though it was shorter than at the state school, did form me significantly for my life: I think this time helped me to keep that mind-attitude of naturally being interested in things, enjoy discovering and learning things and not feeling I always only have to prove something to someone else. It helped me to become a person, I would say, whose mind is free for the actual content of a matter. When I look back at my primary school time I see that excitement that lived inside me. There were so many things to be explored, so many doors to be opened, and the nice thing about it was that we all, teachers and fellow students alike, we did it together. We all tapped that big bubble of knowledge together, taking our motivation and interest as the engine that drove us through it. Everybody was a member of the crew and provided his or her abilities to get best prey at the end of the day. There was nobody who fed us with a certain amount of stuff we had to learn right here right now. We were all like little nutshells dancing on the vast ocean of knowledge, and the school was our home base that provided us with the instruments and materials that we needed to extract the interesting parts from this deep sea.
Later in my secondary school I felt that people who wrote good grades without knowing or being interested in the matter were happier than people who knew and understood things but wrote bad grades. Democratic education helped me not to not judge my personality by grades. I definitely feel well prepared for life and to lead it a way I choose. I feel that a lot of people around me are trapped in schemes (school, study, work, family, security, insurance). I feel that I’m often able to take a step out, view things from another perspective and then choose what I want to do.
In secondary school I often felt slowed down by jumping from one test to the next. We didn’t have time to look behind the scenes. Very often we only learned how to pick an apple an not how to grow the apple tree. Later on, you are lost if there once is no apple to pick because you cannot fix the cause. I feel that my time in democratic education provided me with the mind attitude that brings me to find the cause and fix it instead of being lost if the tools I have don’t fit. This is one of the most valuable diamonds I took from that time. People often don´t recognise this as actual learning, but to me it’s one of the most important things to learn in life because it is, for example, the key to get back to things you learned in school but forgot about them long ago.
After graduating from secondary school I worked for several months in India in a project as a volunteer, did my civilian service in Germany in a landscape architecture office and now am voluntarily working for a project (for over one year now) to build and establish a democratic school in Peru. Sometimes people try to tell me I’m losing these years just because I’m not studying something. I’m very grateful to have made the experience that not only schools and universities are places to learn and study but the whole world is full of places that I can go to and learn from.
Chae-eun Park – My Experience at Summerhill
I went to Summerhill at the age of 7 and I left when I was 16 – spending nine years there. There is so much about Summehill, or democratic education for that matter, that has given me a unique life. I suppose first of all, being at Summerhill with all the freedom gave me a happy childhood. I could choose to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted and wherever I wanted to it. I wasn’t forced to do anything but I did plenty. Running around, playing games, hanging off the arms of big kids and climbing trees. Eventually I grew out of those activities, started going to lessons and began taking some responsibilities in the community, which I did out of pure interest and joy. While I was at Summerhill I took everything I did for granted. Chairing a meeting, not going to lessons or going up to ask a teacher to teach me history was just a part of daily life. Naturally, I always knew exactly what I wanted and how to approach it solely under my own initiative. As a bigger kid who took much responsibility for the community (chairing meetings, problem solving in minor to large disputes, organising events etc..) I became more confident.
Summerhill being a boarding school made the community closer. The pupils and the teachers were like family members rather than just people I knew at school. Living with friends could bring about personality clashes, but now I feel that it was all part of the lessons I needed to learn in life – to work and live with people. We had great relationship with the staff. The teachers were more like friends and family and it felt easy to approach them. And because it is a small school I felt they could customise the classes or any outside activities to suit me and others who required them. Also, because we were equals and there wasn’t a clear formal barrier between students and staff members, we could share friendly intimacy and talk about anything. I personally found it fascinating talking to staff members because I could hear about their life experiences before Summerhill. I still keep in touch with some even after having left Summerhill almost 2 years ago.
At Summerhill I learnt responsibility, the confidence to take action independently and the ability to work and live with people. The value of these lessons has been especially evident in the past year of my life in London in a state education system as well as a flat full of different people. I have found that such a transformation of independence from Summerhill to London life has been relatively smooth because I had been well prepared from my time at Summerhill. By the end of this year I will have the same qualification as every other 18 year old in England, and I will proceed to university, even after all that time I spent at Summerhill not preparing for the next exam. Summerhill has not only given me an opportunity to explore in my childhood but it also gave me a good base of friends who are like family and a sense of independence and self-sufficiency that I will have with me for the rest of my life.
Anna Ramm – My Experience at Summerhill
I’m not going to try to hide the overenthusiastic cheesiness of my feelings towards Summerhill… I was a pupil from age 7 to 17 and my memories of being there create a nostalgic glowing ball in my chest which threatens to explode every time I think of it. I have no idea where I would be now if I hadn’t been there… It helped me to gain confidence in myself, and helped me to grow up without turning out too much of an idiot. I don’t mean that I’m not stupid – isn’t everyone? But I do feel that I am accepting of the people around me and considerate of other people’s opinions.
When I first started at Summerhill, I wouldn’t have said boo to a goose. Somehow, by the end of my time there I felt comfortable and confident enough to voice my opinions in meetings. I was a school ombudsman, beddies officer and chairman. I organised events to raise money for Amnesty International and worked on the lounge for the End of Term parties. I did lots of other stuff too – film making and photography, drama, singing and just… stuff.
Summerhill allowed me to explore possibilities and made me feel that I could do anything. That’s a pretty awesome feeling. When I left Summerhill and started college, it was a bit of a culture shock. I had kind of assumed that it would all be fine, but I found it quite difficult. There were only a few people there that I got on with and I found it frustrating not being able to manage my own time. The course was really badly organised and it tried my patience. I found myself back being the quiet, shy one. In my second year, I embraced being alone and worked on projects independently. I didn’t attend college much, but I did the work and read the “Learning Objectives” and got good grades. Although the day it finally ended was a happy one, I am really
glad that I went there. It made me more tolerant and more independent in the big wide world beyond school.
So far, my university experience is much, much better. The course is based at a TV studio in Norwich and we have a social space which is shared with the other 2 years of the course. There’s a community feel to the place and I can wholeheartedly say that I love it. I’m not so shy these days. I can talk to people I don’t know and I’m not petrified by asking a person at a desk for a train ticket. Of course, it’s not all down to Summerhill but it does play a big role.
Summerhill gave me time to develop as a person in a supportive community and follow my own interests without the restriction of compulsory lessons. I sang in a band and travelled to Athens to perform at a festival,
I made films and helped to set up EUDEC.
Life after Summerhill was hard at first. My early interest in photography and film has led me to a degree in Film-Making at my first choice university. One might say: “You can take the girl out of Summerhill but you
can’t take Summerhill out of the girl.”
Thank you, Summerhill.
Follow-up research about democratic schools graduates:
Since January 2024, every EUDEC member school is invited to share with EUDEC the name, email and phone of the parents. This will ease the setting up of research about the outcomes of democratic education.
The first step is to add a line in the “consent form” that the parents sign every year in schools:
☐ We agree that (SCHOOL NAME) may share our names, email and phone number with the European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC), for follow-up research on the outcomes of democratic Education.
Here is the list of schools who told they want to take part in this project:
- La Cabane, Marseille (FR)
- EDE, Évreux (FR)