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David Gribble worked for 30 years at Dartington Hall and Sands schools. He now edits Lib Ed and champions democratic education initiatives around the world. To hear more from him on children and libertarian education come to Peace News summer camp.

What children want

This is a list of six things I have learnt since leaving the world of conventional education.

1. Children want to learn. The children who came to Jürg Jegge, the [author of] Stupidity is Learnable, were desperate to learn, but had accepted their teachers’ view that they couldn’t. The street children who come to Butterflies, [a street school in Delhi] are so eager to learn that they are prepared to face the likelihood of being beaten or going hungry in order to attend lessons. Even the school refusers at Tokyo Shure soon find that they want to learn and come into school even though they don’t have to.

2. Children do not want to be pushed around. This is so obvious that it hardly needs enlarging on, but in most schools they accept that being pushed around is part of life, and they make no objection. It is illustrated by the comment of a girl who came to Sands School for a trial day, to see whether she liked it and whether the school liked her. “You know what it feels like after a long flight, when the air hostesses open the doors? Well, that’s like Sands.”

3. Children wish to live in an environment that is sufficiently orderly for them to be able to do what they want to do, to learn what they want to learn, to achieve what they want to achieve, but they do not like it to be too tidy. Tamariki school, in New Zealand, had to produce detailed policies on every conceivable aspect of education in order to become recognised and receive state funding. One of these was their Policy on Mess. It started: “Policy on Mess: Rationale: For children in this age-group a degree of mess promotes creativity and learning.”

4. Children are in some ways less influenced by tradition than adults - they are less likely to say “This is right because it is the way things have always been done” and more likely to say “This is right because everyone benefits from it.” I saw many examples of this in my five years at Sands School, but I met a particularly attractive instance at the Justice Committee meeting that I attended at Sudbury Valley; there were only minor offences being considered – a complaint about someone destroying someone else’s paper aeroplanes, a quarrel between some small girls about who was using which chair as a bed for their dolls – but the staff member present kept on pressing for punishments for the offenders. The children, who were the majority, simply ignored him, and solved the problems peacefully.

5. What most children want to learn most is how to get on with other people. In traditional schools they are given very little time to learn this. At some schools children are not allowed to talk in the corridors, and I once visited a primary school where they were not even allowed to talk in the dining-room. At democratic schools learning how to get on with other people is the main subject. 6. What one adult decides, or what a small group of adults decides, is less likely to be right than what a larger group of adults and children decide together. I learnt this lesson from an incident at Sands, when I still had the title of head teacher. I thought I had handled things well, only to see later that it would have been very much better handled by the school meeting. Not long afterwards I proposed that my title should be changed from head teacher to administrator, because my responsibility should not be to make decisions, but only to see that all necessary decisions were made. This proposal was accepted.

David Gribble has written among other books Worlds Apart, Lifelines, and Real Education: Varieties of Freedom, (published by Libertarian Education)

Topics: Education