The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Democratising Schooling: Enfranchising our pupils to foster responsibility

27th November 2013

ResPublica's Tom Versluys argues for a more radical approach to education

In previous decades the UK’s education system has been targeted for numerous reforms, but in many ways its potential has barely been tapped. The biggest failure of today’s vision of educational reform is its inability to see schools as the generators of social, political and economic capital that they could be. One system of education is particularly promising in this respect: the ‘democratic’ school. The potential of a more involved, more participatory learning environment is vast. The best way to explain this is to relate it to some of the problems that we see in today’s society.

In the first place, our political system is something of a shambles. It is a democracy in which much of the population – 35% of people in 2010 – do not vote, and one in which many people could not vote in a well-informed way even if they had the inclination to do so. It is for this reason that I am sceptical about compulsory voting – I’d rather have people not vote at all than turn up at the poll booth and make poorly reasoned or misinformed decisions that will later affect my life and the lives of others. For example, almost anybody of voting age, by dint of their vote, can opt to send our country to war. There is also a broader problem of political disillusionment, and a resentment of authority figures and leaders, especially among young people, 56% of whom did not vote in 2010.

Likewise, much of the UK is racked with debt because people are ejected from school at the age of 16 or 18, when they are expected to find their way in a financial world that is even more complicated than its political counterpart. Yet here, as with voting, they have no experience, and faced with a steep learning curve people end up getting into trouble. Hence, they become the unwitting facilitators of national, international and personal debt crises.

At the moment, it is as though we expect the free market of ideas to teach people the skills they need to navigate society’s institutions, but even if this were feasible, out in the ‘real world’ knowledge is unevenly distributed and the cost of failure is high. We leave all this to the metaphorical ‘invisible hand’, with perhaps the odd intervention, such as the lacklustre citizenship syllabus that is currently mandatory in state schools at certain grades.

If children were encouraged to become politically and economically active within the school environment, these institutions would become invaluable training grounds for later in life. This need not necessarily be a complete system of democracy: even if responsibilities were limited to simple things like the determination of school timetables, the allocation of playtime and sporting funds, and other minor rules and regulations, children would gain a basic understanding of the democratic process without fundamentally infringing on their education.

But this is a rather pessimistic perspective. At a school called Summerhill there is a full-fledged democratic process. Students choose which lessons to attend, and children and adults vote as equal members of a legislative and judicial body. But contrary to what might be imagined, the system functions well. Order is maintained with no undue leniency because all participants have a clear stake in the process. Everyone appreciates the value of authority figures, and the difficult decisions they have to make. Summerhill has produced numerous successful alumni, from TV stars and artists to academics in education and mathematics; and while early professional opinion was marred by traditional bias, the most recent Ofsted inspection in 2007 claimed that its students’ development was ‘outstanding’.

It is probably true that not every school would work as well as Summerhill, but in theory this style of education could be as permissive or restrictive as its practitioners choose. There will be many proponents of traditional education who scoff at the notion. However, there is no reason why the fundaments could not be kept intact. The democratic element could serve as a correlative to provide an informal education in politics, financial responsibility and other life skills that are transferable to the ‘real world’. The beauty of this, moreover, is that the environment would be a controlled one where learning by trial and error would not lead to life-changing consequences, as is currently the case.

We cannot know for sure whether Summerhill’s students are more financially responsible, politically engaged, professionally successful, and appreciative of social structures than the average person, but former pupils seem to think as much. A democratisation of education might not be a panacea to our country’s problems, but as a strategy to repair ‘broken Britain’ from the ground up it is full of promise.


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