In the second of three blogs released alongside his new book, “DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide”, Joss Sheldon takes a look at the democratic schools...


It has the force to do so much good — to inform and inspire, encourage people to think for themselves, and prepare youngsters for adulthood. It should, at its very best, help citizens to become active participants in fully-functioning democracies — able to access information, tell fact from fiction, and make good decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, our schools seldom achieve such worthy outcomes, as George Carlin once explained:

“(The establishment) doesn’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that! That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right! You know something? They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago. They don’t want that! You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers! People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it”.

Our schools help to pump out these obedient workers…

After twelve years in such institutions — doing whatever their teachers command, completing boring assignments, and following the strict edicts of the school timetable — well, pupils have been molded into workers who will do whatever their bosses command, complete boring tasks at work, and follow the strict edicts of a company’s timetable

It is hardly the best foundation upon which to build a democracy.

But what if things were different? What if we were taught to question everything? To not be subservient to our leaders, but to actually participate in our nations’ leadership?

What if we left school having already participated in a fully-functioning democracy?

Summerhill School (Wikimedia Commons)

For a lucky few, who have attended a “Democratic School”, we do not need to ask “What if”. Because such institutions, whilst niche, do exist in the real world.

The first, “Summerhill”, was established in 1921…

The Summerhill system is simple: There are no uniforms, lessons are voluntary, exams are optional, and everyone has “The right to play”. Everyone attends a weekly “General School Meeting”, where policies are proposed and rules are set by a show of hands. A six-year-old’s vote holds as much sway as the headmaster’s, and teachers are regularly outvoted by their pupils. Should anyone break a rule, they must stand trial in front of their peers, who will vote to decide their fate. This is not “Playing” school. The majority have real control.

Summerhill went on to inspire the Sudbury Valley School in the USA, which inspired a raft of other “Sudbury Schools”…

These go further than Summerhill. They do not have any official classes whatsoever, nor do they follow any sort of curricula. If a pupil wishes to learn something, they might teach themselves. Alternatively, they might find a teacher, and ask them for help. The chances are they will learn at a much faster rate, should they choose to do this, because they are studying something they want to learn, without any sort of coercion. They will be motivated to succeed.

What is more, because they are not burdened by an official curriculum, pupils at the Sudbury Schools are set free to study the things that inspire them, which prepares them for careers in later life. One pupil, for example, discovered a passion for photography. He built a darkroom, perfected his craft, and went on to become a professional photographer. Another fell in love with the trumpet, practiced for several hours a day, graduated, and became the first horn in a major orchestra.

“DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide” by Joss Sheldon

There is, however, a major flaw with Summerhill and Sudbury Valley: They do not receive state funding. Only a few pupils, with wealthy and open-minded parents, are able to access these institutions.

A solution to this dilemma can be found in Brazil. The “Santo Antônio do Pinhal School” is state-funded. And it is democratic. There are no lessons, walled classrooms, homework, examinations, fixed timetables or traditional teachers. There are meetings at which democratic votes are held to make decisions.

How has the school managed to get the state on side? Well, it does follow the national curriculum. Only it does not do so in a linear, one-size-fits-all fashion. It breaks topics down into “Tiles”, allowing individual pupils to study them when and how they choose.

The school adopts the Confucian principle: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I learn”. Through doing the things a child likes, they learn the things the state would like them to learn…

A child who enjoys music, for example, will probably choose to play an instrument of their own free will. They will have to learn some literacy skills, to read the sheet music, and some numeracy skills, to keep time. If they like reggae, they may go on the internet to learn about Jamaica, protest songs and black culture.

And why does the state continue to back the school? Because it gets a return on its investment. The Santo Antônio do Pinhal School is the best performing state school in the entire municipality.

Sky Forest Kindergarten (Pixabay)

Even this may be a little too radical for many governments. Yet far more moderate, semi-democratic alternatives do exist…

Finland’s schools teach “Media Literacy”; helping citizens to tell fact from fiction when deciding how to vote. Germany has five-thousand “Forest Kindergartens”, which allow pupils to run free, out of sight (but not out of earshot) of adults. At over a hundred “Big Picture Schools”, in five different countries, students are asked to create their own individual learning plan.

Sometimes evolution is more practical than revolution. It might be more practical to start by running our schools like Finland’s and Germany’s, before going “Full Summerhill”…

A more in-depth look at the democratic schools can be found in section three of Joss Sheldon’s book, “DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide” — a section which also takes a look at democratic journalism, policing and armies. The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, and all good book-selling websites.



Radical author of ‘DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide’, ‘Individutopia’, ‘Money Power Love’, ‘The Little Voice’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Involution & Evolution’.