In our community everybody matters and everybody has a voice. We feel that empowerment in education begins with having a greater say in how the community is run for both students and staff.
The weekly meetings with all the teachers and students are where we discuss and decide on what we will study together, how we treat each other, off-site activities such as trips and more. Decisions are made by arriving at a consensus where possible, with teachers and students having one vote each.
We believe that children should have a say in the all the decisions that impact on their lives and that includes what happens in our learning community. For us it is difficult to understand how any education that is child-centred cannot be democratic and involve the children in decision-making.
We normally understand democracy on 2 levels.
One where you vote for somebody who represents you in a parliament our council, and two, where decisions are made with a majority of the votes.
The way it works in our meetings is the children represent themselves in a direct democracy. They speak for themselves, think for themselves, and learn valuable skills like how to listen deeply, make compromises, include minority opinions, and communicate respectfully. In our democratic meetings, decisions are normally made by consensus, where everybody agrees. Proposals are made, questioned, and discussed until the proposal is modified to include every body’s needs and when there are “no objections”, it is passed. We only carry out voting when there is not enough time to get a consensus, for example when we are voting for a new topic and there are 10 proposals to decide from. Votes are made anonymously. The chair or facilitator is always a student and is decided by consensus or a vote. Students need to be with us for a term before they can put themselves forwards as candidates to be the chair.
The first element of choice is before students join us. They can do whatever number of days they want, and they can do try outs to help them decide. The try outs help the children to make informed choices and we know very well that what they want to study is influenced by the content of the class, as well as the relationship with the teacher and peers. They may also have other educational activities they pursue outside of our community, so they are free to decide which days they want to do with us. This means that when they decide on a day, they are motivated and committed, helping to produce a good learning atmosphere for all in the classroom.
The democracy extends to the individual classes where children have their say and decide on what they will study. In the topic-based classes, students create a scheme of work with their class which is followed weekly. In literature, children propose books to the rest of the group then decide on one to study for 6 weeks or so. In a class called “Students Decide” children have the freedom to learn about what they want whether it be individually, in small groups or one large group.
When recruiting new teachers, children are involved in finding the right person. After an interview class a teacher is then questioned by the students who have, over time, acquired a very sharp sense of what they are looking for in an educator and what they are not. They are looking for educators to inspire them and let them freely explore their learning and be there to accompany them on the journey. Some of our students have done 15 to 20 interviews already and are learning important life skills.
Representative democracy is in crisis because there is too much distance between the voters and their elected representatives. The distance gets filled by lobbyists, the media, corporations and powerful interests so apart form elections every few years, we have little say in the key decisions that affect our lives. Democracy needs to become meaningful and relevant to us all again. We believe that in direct democracy, where you represent yourself, people feel empowered and feel like they are active agents in their lives. Education is the perfect place to start to learn how represent yourself, and see how democracy can enable you, and your community to live happier lives.
This huge task will take time and will be inherited by today’s children as they grow older. We believe that our children should have a good grounding in how real democracy works. They should be supported to respect differences of opinion and be given tools to help reach common ground together.
We support our students to listen to their own wisest and most compassionate voices and to learn to collaborate together respectfully.
We have mediation circles where students who are having a disagreement can ask their peers to mediate for them in a supported, neutral process.
We hope that our students will go out into the world full of agency, hope and the skills needed to make a difference.
Democracy in education is an important step towards empowering the engaged, heartfelt citizens that this planet needs.