Training for Democracy

I cannot imagine that many of the readers have not come across the ‘talk the talk’ phenomena that seems to be so prevalent in Fiji, it is not unique to Fiji, but there certainly does seem to be a strong case to argue that Fiji has considerable practice at it. ‘Talk the talk’ occurs in meetings and discussions that are convened to actually bring in an action plan, but instead generate a lot of hot air, much discussion and in the end nothing seems to get done. One might argue that there’s nothing wrong with a social talanoa, but of course if something does really need to be done, then ‘talk the talk’ becomes a barrier, not a positive process.

Recently a potential guardian for an incoming student to our school asked me if I knew about Summerhill school in the United Kingdom. The short answer was that I did, and in fact our school uses one particular innovation that Summerhill has created, namely the art of teaching children how to hold democratic meetings. These meetings are designed to ‘walk the talk’ that is the meetings create actions to get things done before the next meeting. 

In the world of progressive schooling, Summerhill has a special place in being perhaps one of the most ‘out-there’ progressive schools. Situated to the north and east of London in England, this is a mainly boarding primary & secondary school (day schoolers are there but boarding is encouraged). There are between 60-90 children in any one year. The main philosophy that comes out of the Summerhill programme is that education should be a place where children can dream, create and explore of their own free will. In the early days, Summerhill was dubbed the ‘Do-as-you-please’ school, which actually is not a bad summary of the educational philosophy but the context in which this was stated made it out to be a negative thing. 

After all, critics argued, isn’t school the place where children get to learn from the experts? Aren’t children ignorant of the world and are they not schooled to be given knowledge by their wise teachers? Is it not the case that many governments have spent millions or even billions of dollars on the best way to set up schools and teach in them? Teachers are trained, qualified and certified by smart people with ‘Professor’ before and all sorts of additional letters after their names – surely they know what is best as to what to teach, how to teach and how to assess that teaching?

Well the answer for some, including A.S. Neill the founder of Summerhill, is a definitive ‘no’. One way in which his point of view does give us pause for thought is, why do most of us have very pleasant memories of our early childhood or Kindergarten and the early years of primary school, and yet sometime when we are about 9 or 10 years old, we start to dread school? At this age ‘school’ is something you try to get out of, something to complain about, something that children have worked out is a ‘necessary evil’ that that our parents require of us? The reason, Neill thought, was because school was a coercive, boring, and pretty irrelevant learning environment. 

Summerhill is very different – for many shockingly so. Children decide if they want to attend classes (yes you better read that again – the children decide if they want to attend class). They decide which classes they want to attend and even which examinations to take (if at all). Parents receive no school reports, they are not encouraged to come to school other than for a three day camp at the end of the school year. Facilities on the school ground include a skateboard park, forests to run around in, trees to climb and fall out of. Children are encouraged to play but there is no structure to this play, in other words the school does not advocate a sort of education by stealth through play.  

Surely a recipe for chaos? Anyone who has read the book ‘Lord of the Flies’ or seen the film(1963 or 1990) of the same name, would surely know that this style of school could NEVER work! Any ‘sensible’ parent would know that, if given the opportunity and left to their own devices, children destroy property, livestock, neighbourhoods and eventually themselves. 

Yet Summerhill has been in operation since 1921. Applications to enter the school are strong, despite an attempt by the UK government in 1999 to shut it down (because of the ‘classes are optional’ approach). The UK’s government has since changed their minds and produced official reports that state their satisfaction with the school and rate the school in certain areas as ‘astounding’ (such as the engagement by children with school activities and their overall wellbeing). Children appear to have not negatively affected academically by the ‘freedom’ to choose, but it is clear from interviews with the children and with their parents that many other aspects of their character development such as curiosity, independence, open-mindedness, patience and so on, has been positively affected by the school. Why is that?

The first thing to realise about Summerhill is that ‘free choice’ does not mean anarchy or chaos, the key to ensuring that this doesn’t occur appears to be grounded in the democratic participation practised in the school. This is recognised the most, in the three times a week school meetings that occur for about 45 minutes each. The curious feature about these meetings is that they are run, minuted and acted upon by the children as equals with the teaching and adult staff. Let me be totally clear here; this is the ‘real’ school meeting, not a pretend school meeting. The decisions made in these school meetings are the ones that are acted on. 

Attendance is not compulsory unless you are part of a dispute or issue. Teachers of course participate but they are individuals who carry one vote just as the children are. There is a chairman, a secretary, a fines officer and an Ombudsperson who mediates disputes outside of the meetings.  The rules are created and altered during these meetings and decided by democratic voting. So despite the apparent ‘freedom’ that the children enjoy at Summerhill, in reality they are bound by school rules; the difference is though that these are rules that the pupils helped to make and create. If they don’t like it, they can alter the rules as long as they can persuade the rest of the school members to vote for a change. These meetings also are the places where personal grievances are aired, so that if someone feels that they are bullied or picked upon, they can bring this up at the school meeting. If the charge against a person is a serious one, an investigation can be instigated and a tribunal for the episode is convened. Ironically the school that is dubbed the ‘Do-as-you-please-school’ actually has quite a number of rules and regulations. 

Whilst we do not totally agree with the ‘freedom for anything goes’ approach to learning, we think that there is a real place for the democratic meetings that children run in the context of school as a community. For the past two and a half years, our school meetings has been run mainly by our children. Our teaching staff have run the meetings perhaps two or three times, mainly when we started this, in order to demonstrate how to do these meetings. Our office bearers have slightly different titles to make it clear that these are roles that the children take on, it is NOT a part of their personality. We have a Facilitator (‘chairperson’), a Scribe (‘secretary’), and an Ombudsperson, as well as an assistant facilitator, scribe and a time keeper. The Facilitator is recognisable by a large hat that they wear whilst they hold the role. Children can speak if they put their hand up and are awarded the talking stick (actually an iroi), in which case they must stand up to address the whole school and have their say. Voting on issues occurs often, our teaching staff may also vote, but it only counts as ‘half’ a vote to offset the influence that senior staff might otherwise carry. There is now enough institutional memory that our more experienced children are perfectly capable of running the meeting and explaining the ‘rules’ of the way the meeting is run to our new school children. For the most part, the school meetings are summarised with action points and finally the new office bearers for next week are chosen by the existing office bearers. In other words everyone gets a turn in being an office bearer. 

There has been three occasions now where restorative justice has been considered. Two occasions have required the perpetrators to make reparations to the rest of the school community, one occasion has been dismissed as not requiring any restorative justice to be applied.

I guess when it comes down to it, we want to train our children to actually ‘talk’ and more importantly do the ‘walk’ – sometimes referred to as ‘walking the talk’. We are grateful that Summerhill’s democratic meetings have shown us a way and pedagogy to let that happen, and would urge other Fiji schools not already doing this, to consider this approach as a powerful way to teach democracy in action.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant