‘Why I believe children should run schools’

School’s out: Would democratic education lead to St Trinian’s levels of anarchy?
by Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts is an education consultant, writer, speaker and careers coach working at Royal Holloway University in London. An advocate for democratic education she works with the European Democratic Education Community.

The future is uncertain, so young people need to retain their creativity. And according to Rachel Roberts, top-down authority cannot do this. It is time for the kids to take over.

We are living in interesting times. We are ready for new solutions. What you so often hear from all sides of an argument is that they are “doing this for our children’s future”. Yet that future is one of the biggest unknowns. Are today’s children going to be doing jobs of which we can’t yet conceive? Will the world still exist in the way we know it?

One thing we can be sure of is that it will be the next generation that will carry the responsibility of navigating us through it. That is why we need to start our thinking with education. What is it that children need to experience to be equipped to tackle the challenges of our time?

There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips. Second, being told what to do – to resolve problems they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.

Democratic education is needed. A system where children can have a say on matters that affect them.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like?

The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out. Democratic education is needed. A system where children can have a say on matters that affect them.

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.

The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inquisitive nature. Young people are curious. They want to make sense of the world— that’s why they ask questions. A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.

While I was teaching at a democratic school, Freie Schule Leipzig in Germany, a 10-year-old girl came to me. “I haven’t come to any English lessons all year, because I’ve been busy doing other things I was more interested in. Now I want to learn English, but I don’t want to come to classes because I don’t know many words yet.”

“OK, do you think there are other children who feel like this?” I asked. Yes, she said. “Do you want to find them and decide what kind of English teaching you want?” Within a week, she had mobilised a full group of students who felt ready – now is my time to take on the English language, because I want to! We organised an intensive English week and were able to cover a term’s worth of curriculum in five days. We repeated this model term after term.

This democratic approach works because foundations of mutual respect, equality, dignity, trust and shared responsibility are the compass that navigates school life. With these in place in every school we’d have a vast improvement on the current system.

Sound sensible? Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?

This is an extract from Rachel Roberts’s article in The Guardian.

You Decide

  1. Should schools be run by children?


  1. In groups, draw up a constitution for your school with ten rules and principles to guide it.

Word Watch

Repeating information without analysing or even understanding it.
Democratic education
The term dates back to the 17th century. In 1693 the English philosopher John Locke wrote of education “None of the things they are to learn, should ever be made a burden to them, or imposed on them as a task.”
Freie Schule
Meaning “free school”.
A city in Saxony, in the east of Germany.

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