Jackie Spillane’s interest in alternative education began after her daughter was bullied in primary school.
“My beautiful daughter, in fourth class, was bullied to within an inch of her life,” she says. She could see the impact when she went on to national school, and into secondary school. There were flashbacks, and anxiety attacks and weeks off at a time.
“The anxiety was so deep-rooted it was never going to stop if we left her in school,” says Spillane. She and her husband began to homeschool her, and she was happier.
Together with a friend whose child was also struggling at school – and later a larger group of families – Spillane began to research alternatives.
This year, she and her colleagues started collectively to homeschool their children using a new model they had found, for a democratic school.
Now, they are in the process of registering as a charity and finding a premises. They have 30 families signed up who want to embark on the next step: opening a democratic school in the Bray-South Dublin area.
Democratic schools are far from a new invention – there are about 70 in Europe today, according to the European Democratic Education Committee – but it seems that this would be a first for Ireland.
There are a couple of different models. Some follow the template of Summerhill in the UK, which was set up in 1921. There, students are offered classes, but can decide whether to go.
Others follow the example of Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, in the US, which was established in 1968. This is the model that Spillane and her colleagues plan to emulate.
The idea underpinning the school is that there is no need to teach children. Given the right tools and supports, they will teach themselves and each other.
This type of school has no classes and no curriculum, and staff members have no authority over students. All decisions are made democratically. Students are responsible for discipline. Staff are sort of like reference books.
“It’s about encouraging ingenuity, independence, and the ability to think critically,” said Spillane, last Friday.
The Sudbury Model
Students help each other out, says Owen Harnish, a 17-year-old student of Sudbury Valley School in the US, he spoke to me on his mobile phone during school on Tuesday.
Harnish said he was homeschooled until he was 8, when he started at Sudbury. He knew how to read, but when he was 15, decided his writing could use some work.
So, he turned to an older friend for help. “One of my friends who graduated last year was a good writer, so I asked him to help me, and I learned a lot from him” he says.
That is how it works, says Harnish. You realise yourself you need to improve something and so you ask others for help.
Harnish says he hasn’t come across any students who have graduated from Sudbury Valley without knowing how to read or write – even though the kids teach themselves.
“I’ve never seen people who haven’t learned those two things. They are really necessary things,” he says.
Harnish says the model is not suitable for everyone though. Some people thrive in a more structured environment, he says.
This type of school functions as a participatory democracy, in which all decisions are made at a weekly school meetings, and each person – student or staff – has one vote.
The school meeting decides how funds are spent, establishes committees to oversee operations, and hires and fires staff members.
In Sudbury, staff don’t have tenure. Instead, their contracts are renewed each year following a secret ballot.
“The staff who survive this process and are re-elected year after year are those who are admired by the student,” writes Peter Gray, a research professor in Boston College’s Department of Psychology, in an article about the school.
“They are people who are kind, ethical, and competent, and who contribute significantly and positively to the school’s environment.”
Gray was so impressed by Sudbury Valley when his children attended it, that he became convinced that traditional education was pointless.
A trustee of the school, he researched where former students went on to work. He says 75 percent went on to third level, and that those who did not also reported living fulfilled lives.
The Model to Follow
For her planned school somewhere between Wicklow and South Dublin, depending where they secure a premises, Spillane chose the Sudbury model of a democratic school, which doesn’t have classes, over the Summerhill model of a democratic school, which does.
That’s because it fitted better with what the group believes in, she said. “There are lots of graduates in terms of alumni that we can look to for reassurance.”
In the US, Sudbury students have gone on to a mix of careers. (The school is in a well-off part of the US.) Harnish wants to study law or go into law enforcement, when he leaves school next year.
“Engineers, neuroscientists, video-game designers among others. There are a lot of entrepreneurs, because they have the freedom to figure out what they want to do and just do it,” says Spillane.
Said Gray, the research professor, by email: “What is most interesting to me is that many go on to careers that can be understood as continuations of passions they developed in play when they were students at the school.”
The idea of a school run by students might conjure up images of corridors in chaos. But that’s where, in the Sudbury method, the judicial committee comes in.
It has one staff member and several students of different ages, and its membership switches around regularly. It has a jury, a judicial clerk, and the power to call witnesses.
Any student or staff member accused of doing something wrong must appear before it. It’s just like a court – complete with a law book each school can alter through a vote at a school meeting.
Spillane says the collective homeschooling set-up she is currently involved in employs this method of resolving disputes.
“So far, the judicial committee has just been extremely effective. Once you know you can be written up you are reluctant to behave badly,” she says.
She believes that children are more concerned with what other children think of them and less likely to misbehave when they have to answer to their peers. “This isn’t a bunch of adults imposing something on kids, it’s your peers, and it’s quite amazing,” she says.
Harnish says the judicial committee is like a court in the real world, “except that the people who are determining guilt and passing sentence are also the same people who are investigating it,” he says.
It works well most of the time, but can go wrong sometimes, he says. “A lot of the time when it goes wrong, it’s because they talk to one person and they don’t talk to all the witnesses, and it ends up with a corrupt story being followed.”
This is going against the agreed procedures: “as long as you stick to what you know you need to do it works well,” he says.
What About the Leaving Cert?
As Spillane tells it, some of her friends and relatives are shocked that she has removed her children from mainstream education, particularly as it means they might not sit the Leaving Certificate.
But Spillane isn’t worried. “There are multiple routes into college. We are brainwashed into thinking the Leaving Cert is the only way, but medicine is possibly one of the only third-level courses for which you need the Leaving Cert,” she says.
Some other courses besides medicine at some universities are limited to those with the Leaving Certificate in specific subjects.
But it’s true that there are other paths into higher education, says Collette Harrison from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). “There are well-developed alternative routes for any individual to access higher education in Ireland, that does not require the Leaving Cert.”
She says that FETAC Level 5 courses are equivalent to Leaving Cert and are run by the Education and Training Board (which used to be called the VEC) or by private providers.
These FETAC Level 5 courses are often referred to as Post Leaving Cert courses (PLCs), but Harrison says you do not need to have sat the Leaving Cert in order to access them.
Harrison says numerous students are already taking this route, and there is no reason why children educated in a democratic school could not access it.
Wicklow Sudbury School
Once they have set up the Wicklow Sudbury School, the team behind it will make sure that they allocate resources where they help students most, Spillane says.
If a student decides they want to do engineering, the school might employ a maths tutor to prepare them, she says. Parents are also keen to help teach.
“The parents want to get involved and offer their skills, so there are lawyers, teachers, architects, engineers, entrepreneurs, who will all offer professional advice and instruction for those learners who want it,” said Spillane.
While many teachers struggle today with the intrusion of phones into the classroom, the Sudbury model takes a different approach. Children have constant access to their devices.
Spillane says she struggled with that. But from her experience so far using the method in a homeschool setting, kids soon get bored and decide to do something creative.
“It’s a very animated atmosphere with huge amount of activity and a tremendous amount of energy,” she says, of the collective homeschooling arrangement.
Reading and Writing
Spillane says she is certain that Ireland’s first democratic school will open in 2017.
At the moment, Spillane says the group plans to open it in the Bray or South Dublin area, once they find their perfect premises.
Thirty families have signed up and Spillane believes that there are many more parents out there searching for alternatives. “Mainstream education is great for some kids but simply doesn’t suit every child,” she says.
The Wicklow Sudbury School is unlikely to get state funding anytime soon, as it won’t be following the state curriculum. Instead, it will be funded through fees.
The group have worked out a model of payment. The minimum annual fee will be €2,400, but after that, the fee will be based on the parents’ household income – from 12 percent to 14.5 percent, depending on how many children they send there.
Spillane says that the whole system is back-to-front at the moment. Students are focused on what course they can get points for, not what they want to do with their lives.
“I really have an issue with the fact that the education system is 100-percent geared towards exams, and it’s not really about education,” she says.
Spillane seems tired of selling the idea of a democratic school, and ready to get started with it.
“I’m just not interested in convincing anybody anymore,” she says. “We’ve done exhaustive research into this, but it’s just such a leap for most people.”