Some thoughts about "democratic schools"

(-> German translation/Deutsche Übersetzung)


The term “democratic school” has always seemed problematic to me. It’s problematic because democracy isn’t really the point. Democracy is a tool for creating something else: a community where free learning is possible, as much as such a community is possible. All democratic schools should be run by a democracy, but not every school that is run democratically is automatically a democratic school.

A democratic school is a place where students are responsible for how they use their own time. It is a school which does not try to encourage students, explicitly or implicitly, to take classes and tests. It is a place where people are treated with respect, and know they can expect justice to be served when someone disrespects the community or an individual.


It just so happens that certain styles of democracy serve as excellent tools for upholding freedom and respect. However, it’s very easy to get it wrong, which is why Sudbury schools are very insistent on getting it right. These schools set up very well-defined democracies, because democracy is only good so long as it does not overreach — it has to be there to protect students’ freedom in the present, without presuming to know what choices are better for their future, or infringing on the privacy of their feelings.


Incidentally, the word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public matter”. This hints at a very important idea: the polity (the state, the city, the school) is a public institution, and is something you keep separate from private things.

Sudbury schools use a Judicial Committee which focusses on whether school laws were broken (not on why, or what the individual is going through personally). Some in the free school movement express uneasiness about this seemingly severe approach to justice. However, anyone who has spent some time in such a school knows it is a good thing. Judicial Committee deals with the public aspect of disputes — disrespect of community decisions in such a way that bothered someone enough that they fill out a complaint. This process ignores the personal aspects completely and intentionally.

However, it leaves plenty of room for individuals to address these aspects on a truly personal level. And these are things that come across better when they’re truly and sincerely personal (like talking about problems at home, or about issues one is having with the school or with people there). The judicial process may not directly address the problems that lead people to break community decisions, but it does help others see the problem, which allows them to deal with it. And on the upside, it respects people’s privacy — sometimes you don’t feel like telling just anyone about how you feel.


There are other benefits to separation of the public and the personal. When the community has accustomed itself to this habit, democratic meetings work better — being warned by the Chair is a technical issue, not a personal thing you have to get annoyed about; you can argue strongly against a friend’s motion without them taking it as an insult; every member of the community can apply their thinking to the process as much as they’d like without constantly worrying about the conclusions being taken the wrong way.


When a democracy protects the community’s interests and the individuals’ interests while keeping them separate, that democracy can create a democratic school. It can create a place where students develop freely and learn to direct their own learning and gauge their own success. It empowers students to determine their own direction and participate vigorously in community life.

None of these things are automatic, and protecting them is half the secret of success for those democratic schools that have succeeded.

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5 thoughts on “Some thoughts about "democratic schools"”

  1. Hello Michael,

    did you consider a translation to German – would be very helpful…

    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Mike,
      Good idea.
      I don’t write in German or translate my own work because my written German is pretty poor. If someone would like to translate this piece, or any piece I write, into any language, they are most welcome to do so, so long as they don’t forget to mention that I wrote it. :)

  2. The first point I like! It would be better to call democratic schools free-democratic school or democratic-community school. But anyway democratic school is better than free school. It is always difficult to find a short name for something bigger.

  3. My son attends a new democratic school. This is its second year and the founding staff members have all decided to leave so there is a bit of chaos right now. Parents are stepping in to take over the school for the following year. Many of the students are leaving. As much as I love the school and the idea of a democratic school there are potential problems. Students will use write ups as a black mailing tool. The teenager who chairs the school meeting manipulates and bullies the younger students. In every system there of course is potential for someone to twist it to their benefit. This seems to be happening at my son’s school. Harsh resolution plans, suspensions, and hours of restriction time have become the norm. Some of the students watch for any small rule violation to write someone up. There are almost 400 rules. The frustration is apparent with the 10 to 12 year old boys. It is not a great atmosphere to feel free and to learn when other students are watching your every move for write ups. Students are leaving, no longer want to be there, and yet a group of parents want help recruiting new students. Done well, it can be a beautiful experience but if twisted it can be a mess.

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