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.