Sudbury schools are very different from traditional schools. In Sudbury schools, everyone is allowed to do whatever they want – limited only by a strong school democracy, which maintains limits that protect the individual and the community.
Sudbury schooling is based on the twin concepts of trust and responsibility. The students, members of the school community, are trusted to manage their time and make their own decisions. At the same time, all members of the community are given full responsibility over their own lives, and an equal share in responsibility for the school as a whole, by means of the school’s democratic framework.
It can be difficult to understand Sudbury schools before you have spent some time in one. These schools have a lot of structure, but not of an obvious kind – especially if you are used to the academic achievement-oriented structures of traditional schooling. People visiting a Sudbury school for the first time often get the impression that it is “recess”. But Sudbury schools don’t have recess – students are always free to move around and engage in whatever activity they are interested in pursuing. Conversation, sports, free play, art, reading and academic studies are all examples of what these activities may be – in most schools, academic studies are not the most common. Sudbury schools allow free and unstructured activity due to the observation that given responsibility for their own time, people will seek out the activities they need most for their personal learning and development. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in such a school sees this in action, time and time again.
The structure of Sudbury schools is not specifically about academic learning, or even about learning as a whole. Instead, the school’s institutions concern themselves with administration, fair rule of law, and maintaining the personal liberties of the individual within the school. Most important of these institutions is the democratic School Meeting, where each member of the community (students and staff) has one vote and the right to participate. Sudbury schools’ School Meetings hire and fire staff, manage the school budget, and make School Law, which forms the basis for fair and equal resolution of day-to-day problems, as well as management of the school’s institutions. School Law may include a seemingly petty rule of thumb saying that if someone left their seat for less than ten minutes the seat is still “theirs”. But it may also include attendance requirements, basic rights of each individual (such as personal safety and the freedom of speech) and complex administrative regulations concerning the different institutions School Meeting has given authority. Most schools also have a Judicial Committee that deals with infractions in a structured way, providing due process and fair treatment to all without discrimination (which also means staff can be brought up before the committee just like students; in fact, staff is often treated more strictly in Judicial Committee, due to their duty as elected and paid employees of the school.)
These institutions, along with the Sudbury name, and the philosophy and literature behind these schools, all come from Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, which has served as an inspiration and model for all schools that call themselves Sudbury schools. There is, however, no central authority on these schools, and all schools that use the Sudbury name do so voluntarily and without consulting Sudbury Valley or any other school or institution.
Currently, most Sudbury schools are located in the United States, with several schools spread out across the rest of the developed world. Most of them are in the United States, but there are a few in Europe, and two in Israel.
discuss-sudbury-model, a public mailing list for discussions about the Sudbury model, is one of the best places to get answers to questions about this type of school and the philosophy behind it.
Finally, the Sudbury Valley School website also has a selection of articles and book excerpts, videos, and discussions from the discuss-sudbury-model list.