Democratic Education is no Utopia


Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!

Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:

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, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before 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.

I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.

I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?

Democratic education is needed

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…

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school 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 inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” 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.

This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:

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?

But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types  have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” 

Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?

And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:

A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn 

Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.

And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.

Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.

Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.

16 thoughts on “Democratic Education is no Utopia

  1. Pingback: Democratic Education is no Utopia – Ed Blog Reader – A digest of interesting writing on educational issues

  2. Salloooha

    I understand by your article that you’re worried that children in Democratic schools will have a total lack of discipline, and this is understandable. However, the Democratic schools that exist (there are quite a few!) work around the idea of ‘freedom, not license’. This means that children (and staff members) answer to the ‘school meeting’ (or judicial committee, or another term depending on the school) if they break a rule. Sanctions and punishments are decided upon depending on the ‘crime’, but here’s where it get’s interesting!…. The children and staff members decide together on these matters! It’s fair and democratic. Summerhill has functioned like this for almost 100 years, Sudbury Valley School since the 1960s, and many others (around 43 in Europe, many more worldwide).


      1. Mark Anderson

        You speak of her being an education consultant like these are dirty words, Martin. What is it you do again? As for the article, reductio ad abturdium indeed.


      2. Martin Robinson Post author

        I don’t even suggest being an education consultant is ‘dirty’. I state a fact, she is talking about schools and she is an education consultant, (which I take to mean she has experience of schools and a reason to speak of them). You are reading into my words something that isn’t there. As for the rest of your comment- are you referring to my blog post or her article?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Utopian thinking: keep teachers in charge of schools |

  4. Geraldine Rowe

    You write, ‘Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. ‘
    If democratic classrooms were anything like Roberts describes I’d agree with you wholeheartedly. However, democratic classrooms are not about ‘putting children in charge’ and adults ‘losing control’ but more about how the inter-generational relationships that the more experienced members of the classroom community (adults) form with those with less experience (pupils).The purpose of this is to work together for the common good. One of the reasons why one so rarely comes across democratic practices in classrooms is that it takes a high level of skill, sensitivity and confidence to teach in this way. It also requires collaborative management from senior school leaders and support from government. Thankfully, there are still brilliant and courageous teachers who believe in offering the space and opportunity for children and young people to have a say in decisions that affect them as an accepted part of their classroom practice. In the centenary of Dewey’s book, Democracy and Education and 50th anniversary of Plowden, the support for greater understanding and practice of classroom democracy is a great topic – thanks for raising it, even if to disagree with it – and one our Department for Education would do well to address.


    1. chrismwparsons

      Ok… I think I’m getting there… Would I be right in thinking then that the purpose of the Democratic Classroom is to enable children to feel, from an early age, a sense of empowerment towards their surrounding world – an ability to influence and change things in keeping with their…er…’instincts’/judgement…., whilst, at the same time, helping them to feel the full burden of responsibility for the consequences to which their choices lead…? Or are we meant to keep them sheltered from that second part because, of course, ‘they’re only children’, and this is ‘only school’…?

      Where does the real education lie….?


    2. Chester Draws

      One of the reasons why one so rarely comes across democratic practices in classrooms is that it takes a high level of skill, sensitivity and confidence to teach in this way

      Which, even by your own admission, means that it should not be pushed as a mainstream way of teaching. Imagine how badly it will be done with people forced to do it against their will or abilities!

      I confess to being highly suspicious of any policy that only works in such cases. For every shining example you might hold up, how many classrooms and schools have been ruined attempting to do this?

      We don’t run a direct democracy in the West, but representative democracies. Direct democracies, as have been found time and again, are much more susceptible to demagogy and tyranny.


      1. Geraldine Rowe

        Teachers tell me that this difficulty is in part because pupils, once they leave Foundation Stage (Reception) are trained to expect initiatives to come from the teacher, and place little value on their own ideas or opinions about what they are asked to do. It is difficult to avoid falling into the either/or thinking that has a tendency to creep into discussions about democracy in the classroom. However, I might say that when something in difficult one can either avoid it or train people to do it, depending on the value one places on the outcome. I believe that it is quite difficult to insert a catheter, but rather than avoid this practice in case people do it badly, we train people to do it well because we value its purpose. For me, the purpose of a deliberative, participative democracy (I know there is a difference between these two, but bear with me) in schools is to build a community of young people who feel they can have a say over things that affect them, and understand how to deal with differences of opinions and abilities. Many children get this from their parents. But many don’t and this is where the social deprivation is intensified.


      2. Chester Draws

        Teachers tell me that this difficulty is in part because, once they leave Foundation Stage (Reception) are trained to expect initiatives to come from the teacher,

        Is there any actual evidence that school teaches students to expect initiatives from the teachers?

        I know what I see, and this is merely anecdote, and that is that students will expect initiatives from good teachers and are quite capable of making their own way if they do not respect the teacher.

        However, I might say that when something in difficult one can either avoid it or train people to do it, depending on the value one places on the outcome.

        Training only works if people have to have the requisite skills and aptitude. You can train a person to play football, but that won’t make them Lionel Messi.

        I know a large number of teachers that can barely maintain standard classroom discipline — despite being trained — and they would be lost in a fully democratic classroom. It would be lovely if all our teachers were well read in their subject, clever and good with people. They aren’t, and they never will be. That’s a shame, but it is a reality that we have to deal with.


  5. Pingback: Democratic Education is no Utopia | While You Were Teaching

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