Visiting Paris Schools

Schools with no lessons? No adult imposed curriculum or rules? Schools where children have an equal voice to the staff and make real decisions about how the school is run – including hiring and firing the staff, and how the budget is spent? It’s hard not to have visions of breaking windows and Lord of the Flies, no matter how many books and articles you see saying this isn’t the case. In order to see what they are really like our whole family (me, my husband and our two always unschooled children) went to visit two schools in Paris. France is experiencing somewhat of an explosion in democratic schooling right now, there are already three democratic schools in Paris alone and at least 31 over the whole country.

Paris is just a train ride from London where we currently live and I speak French, so it was the obvious place for us to investigate schools. Our visits were brief  – just a few hours at each school – and so these are just my first impressions.

Sudbury School Paris was our first call – a bilingual school. The only English language Sudbury model school in Europe that I know of and it’s in France. Their school meetings and judicial committee are in English, but the students mostly speak both English and French.

We were late to arrive due to everyone sleeping in after a very long day travelling from London the day before – however this wasn’t a problem as they have a relaxed start to their day and students do not have to arrive at a set time.  When we did get there we entered immediately into the main room of the school  It’s a small school in a space which has been thoughtfully divided so that in one (very) large room there is a sofa area, a dining table, a kitchen, bookshelves, a play area with blocks and games and even a bunk bed for naps.  Space is not divided into ‘adult’ and ‘student’ spaces, school polices are on bookshelves in the main room and children were playing video games in the only room which could be described as an office. We noticed immediately how calm it felt.  Each student was getting on with their life and learning, two little boys were playing board games and building roads with Kapla blocks, another student was playing Magic the Gathering with a staff member, whilst others were playing Roblox and someone was working through a curriculum. Students cooked food when they wanted to, or ate ready prepared food from home. There are no set meal times. One boy left to go and buy himself food – students can leave if their parents have given permission, the older ones alone, the younger ones with an adult or an older student. By the door there was a list of possible outings with bus times, and a list of who can go out alone and who needs to be accompanied. The staff were interested and engaged and available and really friendly and welcoming. They talked us through how the JC worked and showed us their recorded outcomes which really helped us to envision the process, although that day there were no cases so we didn’t get to see one.

Before we knew it we had been there for over two hours, had downloaded a new coding game and played a board game with frogs and logs. We’d built a bridge and watched Finding Nemo. When we left to get lunch, we could see everyone carrying on towards the afternoon. The sense of well being and contentment stayed with us as we caught the bus to the Jardin de Luxembourg and spent the afternoon on the circular zip wire in the crisp cold park.

L’Ecole Dynamique was another pleasant surprise in a different way. We almost missed it at first, an unobtrusive door in a large building. Inside the atmosphere was quite different because rather than one big room there are several smaller ones. However it still felt calm and focused, with children, adults and one baby spread across several rooms, some playing video games, some watching TV, some eating, some playing and some chatting. Each room has the equipment for something different – a music room has a keyboard and drum kit, the movement room has exercise equipment and crash mats, the cinema room a projector, the quiet room had books and places to relax. There’s a mezzanine with a dolls house and more Kapla blocks. Over the road was the new art and crafts room, with carpentry equipment and pottery. In the common room the children were chatting or playing on tablets which they bring in themselves. One boy cooked himself steak and spaghetti, and then cleared up after himself. Soon after we arrived one of the staff members left with several of the younger children for an all day nature walk which happens every Tuesday. There’s no outdoor space but they can go to the nearby park every day if they want to. In the short time we were there my daughter announced that this was her school and she wasn’t leaving, and my son downloaded a new app which one of the boys was playing.

I’ll leave it to my husband to sum up how we felt on leaving Paris. Those are how schools should be, he said. We’ll be going back.

Find out more about Sudbury School Paris here: www.sudburyschoolparis.org and Ecole Dynamique here: www.ecole-dynamique.org

Learnings from Eudec

The European Democratic Education Conference, 2017, seems like a lifetime ago now but it has taken the last two months to fully process everything we took away from it.  For those of you unfamiliar with Eudec, it is a yearly event held in Europe, bringing together democratic schools and projects, as well interested individuals from all over Europe and further afield too.  The conference is incredibly intense, where enthusiasm runs wild and is both utterly infectious and impossible to contain. In fact it was almost impossible to remember that democratic education is not widely known about in the UK.

I’m not sure I have experienced ‘community’ quite like it.  Days are filled with back to back workshops, discussions, speeches, film screenings and more.  The term like minded people has never been so true for me as it was in this setting.

We took so much away from the experience, I want to summarise just some of what we have learnt that will most certainly help us on our amazing journey to start this school.  Lets start with the first speaker:

Frances Alvo

What a start to the conference this was for us.  Frances attended Sudbury Valley School and her talk was titled – Exploring the concept of passion while living the Sudbury model.  When you spend so much time researching, reading and by most people’s definition obsessing over Sudbury like we have, it’s very exciting to finally meet and hear from someone with first hand knowledge, someone who actually attended and graduated from the school.  The time we spent talking over things with Frances afterwards was also very helpful.

Frances talked about not finding a passion during her time at Sudbury. She immersed herself in the school and was involved in the governance, later becoming the Judicial Committee Clerk.  It is clear that she gained a great deal from this as well as her overall experience at SVS but it wasn’t until later that Frances realised that although she hadn’t – like lots of students – found a particular passion, that was okay because actually what she had learnt was to be passionate.  She is now obviously passionate about lots of things in her life, she is ready to take life as it comes and be happy while choosing paths that speak to her at the time.  This expressive, articulately spoken, driven young woman is clearly a great advocate for democracy in education and of course Sudbury Valley School itself.

Three of us attended Eudec.  If there had been any less we wouldn’t have been able learn and engage in what we did. The timetable of events (most of which put on by the attendees themselves in an open space format) was so full we had to split up and tackle different things at the same time as to not miss out.

Here are some of the titles of talks, key note speeches, open space discussions and workshops that we were involved in and my brief thoughts on the ones I attended;

Peter Gray

Self Directed Education as a worldwide movement: WHY THE TIME IS NOW !!!
Peter Gray’s book ‘Free to Learn’ started me on this incredible journey.  Joining us live via video link from his home office, Peter Gray’s plea for help on his mission to start a worldwide movement for democratic education was as passionate as you would expect.  Why the time is right, right now, was broken down into four points and he expanded on each but these are the outlines:

  1.  Increased toxicity in schools  
  2. Never has there been more evidence of the outcomes of Democratic Education
  3. Never has it been easier for children to self educate
  4. The Workforce emerging needs individuals with skills that traditional schools are not succeeding in but that Democratic schools are

Peter Hartkamp

Beyond Coercive Education – A plea for the realisation of the rights of the child in education.
This talk was based on Peter Hartkamp’s book titled as above, which I highly recommend, debunks common myths surrounding coercive education.

Henry Redhead

Summerhill School
Henry Redhead gave an insightful and witty view of life at Summerhill, stating that the social and emotional well being of the child comes first and academic learning comes after and often later.  He discussed in quite a bit of detail the schools experiences with the UK inspection process with both OFSTED and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.  This has been invaluable to us as we prepare to register as an independent school.

Sociocratic Schools

Very interesting session discussing the organisational structures and ways of setting up sociocratic schools and how they work in practice.  Although we are not going down this route, the ways in which they come to unanimous decisions was incredibly thought provoking and there are definitely lessons to be learned.

Why is democratic education so white and middle class? – What can we do to change this?

This discussion was one that I was keen to participate in. Although I feel we still didn’t reach an answer, headway was made. Having others from around the globe involved in the discussions made it valuable in a way I hadn’t expected. Micheal Greenberg often discusses the individual world views of others and this discussion showed how true his statements are.  – The differing views from varying countries on this issue were plain to see. The outcomes and thoughts often similar but actually the journey to get there incredibly different. We concluded that ‘social class’ and the link to household income was the most obvious answer to why but that didn’t answer the question as to what we can do about that when so many countries including the UK object to providing funding for democratic schools. Derry Hannam made a point which stuck with me. He said “ There is a direct correlation between class and learning outcomes in every country…. EXCEPT Finland, where private education is illegal”. That says it all to me!

Phoenix Education Trust

Building A Democratic Education Movement in the UK!
This only highlighted to me even more the importance of the Phoenix Education Trust and how hard they are working to bring around a real change in our education system. You can check them out and follow the UK’s voice for Democratic Education here: www.phoenixeducation.co.uk

Q & A on Sudbury

Lead by staff from 5 different Sudbury Model Schools.  Kezia found this open space to be one of the most helpful and got lots of insights to both theoretical and practical issues and thoughts.

Derry Hannam

Creating democratic learning communities within state schools
This was one of my favourite talks of the week. Not only was it an absolute pleasure to get to know Derry and his wonderful wife during the week but his experience, story telling ability and true passion and devotion to democratic education for all is absolutely inspiring. He spent his time as a teacher defying management and the status quo by introducing democracy into his classroom and all but throwing the national curriculum out the window. Management soon left him alone when the reality of the results of his efforts began to show! After that you can add; Head Teacher, OFSTED inspector, Advisor to the European Council and UK government and Consultant to his repertoire. Oh and how could I forget the beautiful tunes to entertain us one evening on his new Irish flute! Derry has been very generous with his time, encouraging us and answering lots of questions.

Claudia Reneau

Differences between Unschooling and Democratic Education
Being a long term unschooler and luckily for us – as the talk was in French – a French speaker, Naomi went along to this. This certainly contributed to our thoughts and discussions on a subject that we have been talking about since the birth of the EKSS project. If you haven’t seen, Naomi has summarised her thoughts on our blog recently here: Democratic Education: Unschooling at school?

Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn.  She wasn’t wrong, although as I boarded the Eurostar on our way to the European Democratic Education Conference I had assumed I would see more of Paris than just the conference site itself.  It was so exciting that I hadn’t wanted a break from it at all.  Nearing the end of the week however Kezia and I went for out for dinner only to find this stunning park just across the road. I for one can’t wait for the next one!

Visiting Sudbury School Gent

Sudbury School Gent

As part of the process of preparing ourselves to open our school we are visiting as many other schools based on the Sudbury model and other democratically run schools as possible.  Last week my daughter and I made a visit to Sudbury School Gent.  Despite being short the visit was really interesting and we both enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere.

Despite the language barrier and both the site and people being completely new to her my daughter felt comfortable and at home really quickly.  I think it helped that it felt very much like our house, lots of relaxed spaces with different things to do and a wonderful atmosphere of peace, happiness, mutual respect and personal responsibility filled every room.  The first question she asked was what are the rules, knowing how a Sudbury school works she was keen to make sure she didn’t break any rules out of ignorance.  It was also interesting to see she picked up on the idea of responsibility really quickly and tidied things away after herself, not something she is usually in the habit of doing at home.  She also got her first certification for using the trampoline which required her to understand and agree to the trampoline rules.

We sat in on a couple of Judicial Committee (JC) cases. One of the concerns parents and children raise most often with me when thinking about our proposed school is that the JC seems very punitive and that it might be scary for children to have complaints raised against them.  If you have been used to parenting in a gentle way without the use of punishments I can see why this would at first feel very alien to you.  What we both witnessed however had no sense of ill feeling and blaming.  Everyone was very civil and respectful, listening to each others points of view and explaining their side.  Those charged with breaking a rule were very accepting and agreed that it was fair and justified.  Most importantly everyone walked away friends, one of the most important aspects of the JC is that it clears the air.  Everyone is heard and everyone is treated fairly so there is no need to harbour a grudge, it restores peace to the community.

Find out more about Sudbury School Gent here: www.sudbury.be