Another Way is Possible: Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School, by Derry Hannam

Transcript from Derry Hannam’s talk at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) on 30th October 2020 #WebIDEC2020:

I must warn you that although this lecture is not a lecture or a speech or even just a talk – it is a story – and that still gives me the opportunity to say a lot!!

“Another Way is Possible. Becoming a democratic teacher in a state school”

This is the title of my not-a-talk today and also the title of my new e-book. I will put the link into the chat with a half-price coupon code – if you buy it during the conference the proceeds will all go to the wonderful organisers of the conference.

Some say that the title of this e-book is an Oxymoron – that you can’t be a DEMOCRATIC teacher in a mainstream school with things as they are, in England anyway, with the emphasis on test scores, prescriptive curriculums, authoritarian and hierarchical structures, behaviour management, isolation rooms, exclusions, inspectors, league tables, high levels of mental illness in young people – research shows that in England we have the unhappiest young people in Europe. I have often said that:

“It is almost impossible to stop young humans from learning – but schools manage it somehow!”

Young people missed their friends during the pandemic lockdown – but not lessons! They did not miss having no choice, no control or no consent in their learning.

The book and this not-a-talk is basically my story. It is the story of the evolution and implementation of two Guiding Principles.

The First Principle:

Student participation in decisions about their own learning, not just learning in more interesting project-based ways about content provided by the teacher or the official curriculum, but real Self Directed Learning around the interests and purposes of the students themselves. You could call this Self-Exploring Learning as well as Self Directed Learning. 

The Second Principle:

Student participation in democratic decision making in the everyday life of the class, school, or learning community – the creation of a human rights respecting democratic context for the learning which is in itself a major source of learning about who you are as a person, about democracy and about citizenship. This involved attempting to create non-coercive spaces within a compulsory school system which is substantially coercive, authoritarian and hierarchical. What Stuart Grauer in his talk called “pockets of democracy.”

I knew that it would not be easy because when I was at school, learning about democracy and human rights was like reading holiday brochures in prison – not much point unless you were about to be released or escape! I didn’t know if it could be done – but I thought it was worth a try! I would become an educational opportunist without a clear plan but with firm guiding principles and ‘make it up as we went along’ (The title of a lovely book by Chris Mercogliano of Albany Free school in Upstate New York.) I would become what John Abbott calls a ‘responsible subversive.’

The book is in 4 parts:

First – Where did the ideas come from.

Second – Implementing them in a secondary modern school where the children had just failed a very high stakes test – the 11+ – making it up as we went along.

Third – Reflections on what it all meant and what it has to say for NOW.

Four – It concludes, as I will in this non-talk, with some suggestions for  education ministers (who should be at this conference by the way!) as to how can state schools move towards becoming Democratic Learning Communities. There is also an Afterword – What does it mean for the future, with climate change and 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) – talks I have given at recent EUDEC and IDEC conferences in Greece and Ukraine.

The book  starts with my own school experience. My dad grew up in Dublin and was a bus driver. I was put in the top most intelligent stream or class at Primary school.  Streaming appeared to be based mainly on where you lived. Apart from me and my friend Dave our top stream class was made up of Posh (rich)  kids from detached houses with cars and televisions– who would probably pass the 11+ and go to grammar school and some on to university. Lower stream kids came mainly from smaller or municipal houses and would go to secondary modern school, leave at 15 and be destined for labouring work. It struck me as totally Unfair. Primary school was boring and tedious preparation for the 11+ test even though you weren’t supposed to be able to prepare for it! It gave me a thorough introduction to the English class system.

School never seemed to be interested in what I was interested in. Just seemed to want to make me feel anxious and that I was ‘no good’ at things. I passed the 11+ and got an interview for a very posh “public” school (elite very expensive private schools that educate about 7% of the population in England). But surprisingly I did not get to Dulwich College because my father wrote “none of your fecking business” on the interview form where it asked for ‘father’s occupation’.

Throughout grammar school I remember being asked “what does your father do?” by the headteacher when I chose Latin and Greek classes because my father said that I might want to be a priest . I didn’t have the guts to say, “none of your feckin business!!!” Just – “he drives the 47 bus that stops outside school.” I was just about top of the class in everything in the first year and last in the class at everything  by the end of the second. Nobody bothered to find out why. I was just told that I needed to pay more attention in lessons and stop looking out of the window and dreaming my own thoughts – my main thought being “how the hell do I get out of here?”. I was bored stiff. Needless to say I was not  welcomed into 6th form or destined for university. I left school at the earliest possible age. The best bit of school was learning to fly the little 2-seater Chipmunk aeroplanes through the air cadets. Out of school by best memory is of learning to sail with our not very religious vicar where my mum cleaned the church. He didn’t pay her much money but I got a free place on his sailing trips.  He had a system which I liked, even though most of the other kids were  from private schools and I didn’t like them much. Every Easter he rented a fleet of 5 berth sailing boats on the Norfolk Broads. Each trip you moved up the chain of command – so by the time I was fourteen on my fifth trip I was skipper (captain) commanding a crew of privately educated kids who might be older than me. That doesn’t happen much in the English class system. It was authority based on competence. I quite like that.

Years later when I was an English school inspector spending two weeks at the wonderful Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts I found something similar. I was shown around the school by a twelve year old boy because the staffer and founder, Mimsy Sadofsky, was busy with a parent when I arrived. He asked me which part of the school I would like to see first. I said well I am a music inspector so can we go to the music room. I noticed all the instruments were in good condition and undamaged and I started to play a tune on the lovely grand piano. “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington.

 “Oh Derry you can’t do that. If you do that I will have to bring you up to the JC!!” [Judicial Committee]

“What’s that?” I asked – feeling very guilty.

He explained, “you need to be certified to play the school instruments.”

“OK, how do I get certified?” (You have to remember that in the UK being certified means you are about to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital!!)

 “You have to be certified by a member of the music corporation.”

 “What is the music corporation?” I asked.

 “Ah – it’s all the students and staff who play and understand how to take care of musical instruments.”

 “OK – who is a member of the music corporation?” I asked.

”Weeeell I am. I play the violin,” he said.

 “Great. Will you certify me please. What do I have to do?”

 “Oh, play me something you love.”

 I played Satin Doll – again –  but this time without interruption.

”My that’s pretty” he said. “You’re certified” and wrote my name on a list on the wall.

Years later I shared a room at a conference with Mike Matisoo from Sudbury Valley – he told me that I am still an SVS certified musical instrument player. I love telling this story at official conferences in England. It says so much about respect for young people’s knowledge and competence and a structure that genuinely shares power and authority in the community of the school.

My grammar school gave me no careers advice – just from my Dad – “get a job where you have carpets on the floor and get paid monthly.” (He was bitter about the fact that in England a bus driver was paid weekly and the driver’s cafeteria had linoleum on the floor!)

My experience of work at 16 before becoming a teacher at 25 was pretty dull. In my first job I was in charge of posters for the London County Council Parks dept. Then I became a trainee surveyor – playing the piano in pubs in the Old Kent Road during three hour lunchtimes. Discovering the council members’ library. Reading philosophy books and putting books in a carrier bag instead of using readers ticket – which I couldn’t get. I always brought the books back. Quite dangerous returning stolen books. Riskier than stealing them – you should try it!

Then I worked in a democratic therapeutic community for mentally ill young people. Treatment was living together rather than drugs and electric shocks or brain surgery. It was non hierarchical – all used first names from the senior doctor in charge to the newest admission. It worked. The readmission rates were low with none of the side effects of physical treatments. I thought:

If it works for disturbed teenagers why aren’t schools run like this?

Finally, I worked for Oxfam – giving talks about world poverty in schools – I discovered that I was quite good at it. I started Oxfam groups in the schools and got invited back. I decided to become a trained teacher.

Teacher training was in many ways a waste of time – a turning point came when I argued with the behaviourist psychology lecturer:

“I don’t want to teach salivating dogs [Pavlov] or lever pulling rats [Skinner]. I want to teach children!!”

We did a deal. He let me create my own ‘alternative’ psychology course. I found dusty shelves in the college library full of books by GUESS WHO? A.S. Neill, Homer Lane, John Dewey. WOW – the world lit up. At Summerhill I read that kids could choose what they wanted to learn in the context of sharing in the democratic management of the school community. It made total sense – just as Marko Koskinen said it did for him. It was everything that my schools had not been!!

So – I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to try it out.

My first teaching practice was in a council estate primary school. The Year 6 class teacher was ill so the head teacher was delighted if I took the class for four weeks. It was in Oxford so there was no 11+ pressure. All the kids would go to local comprehensive schools.

So I started by getting in early on the first day and arranging the desks and chairs in a circle. The kids arrived and were puzzled – especially when I sat in the circle. I explained that they could either study and present projects on anything they liked– either individually or in groups – or do work-sheets that I had prepared. The only condition was that they would present their project to the rest of the class at the end of my stay with them. I said we would start every day with a class meeting and make decisions by voting. It was a great success, parents got involved, the head was delighted and I got A+ for my Teaching Practice!! Oh – and nobody chose to do my worksheets by the way!!

My next Teaching Practice was in an authoritarian secondary school. It was a disaster.  I took some history classes and in one we talked about democracy and it led to a discussion about how the students felt about school. Word got back to the staff room. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to try out democratic meetings but get on with teaching the industrial revolution. And because of my unprofessional behaviour  I was not allowed to let students prepare and teach lessons on bits of the syllabus they found interesting as I had planned. I had a teacher sitting at the back of all my lessons from then on. If I hadn’t had a supportive tutor who had been very happy with my first Teaching Practice teaching and I would have parted company.

The third and final Teaching Practice was an even more exciting rerun of the first. The class teacher was an about to retire ex-army officer with a little bit of an alcohol problem. When I said I wanted to create a democratic class meeting and get the Year 6 kids designing their own projects, instead of saying ‘over my dead body’, he said, “Fantastic – I’ve always wanted to try something like that.” We worked together brilliantly – fortunately the kids loved him for his slightly unconventional ways. Once again the head was pleased, parents became involved and we ended the 6 weeks with a class festival. I got another A.

Then came the B. Ed and I moved from the teachers college into Oxford University for my fourth degree year.  Academically it was amazing – though a cess-pit of the English class system. Most of the students came from expensive private schools and had very arrogant entitled attitudes. What I loved about, it apart from earning quite a bit of cash playing in 3 University jazz groups, was that you could basically organise your own learning. As long as you turned up for your tutorial every week and handed in your essay you could go to any lectures that interested you and ignore the ones in your subject if they were not interesting. You could just go once and not go back.  I studied History and Politics. Things happened like I had to have a viva (oral exam.) on Jeremy Bentham – I compared him to Hitler and the don/lecturer who marked the paper was a big fan of Bentham. He decided that I must be either very original or crazy so we talked over for coffee for an hour in his room and I got the degree I wanted. I liked the slightly eccentric side of Oxford.

So I had to find a first job as my third child had just arrived.

I presumed it would be in a primary school and I had some possibilities in a couple of progressive private schools. But my politics said no – these progressive private schools seemed to me to be ‘pioneers of possibility’ and Summerhill was an inspiration, but the state system was where the mass of kids were and that’s where I wanted to work. We had to change it!!  So when  I saw an advertisement for a humanities teacher in an Aylesbury secondary modern school to teach English, History, Geography, Soc studies and Religious Education to one class for 60% of the week I thought that sounded interesting  –  and I really liked the head teacher who interviewed me. I didn’t tell the whole truth about what I had in mind but he already had some quite radical ideas – like he wanted some integrated work though he admitted that the heads of subject departments were opposed to the idea. He appointed the Head of Geography from another school as team leader and with some more new young teachers made up the 1st Year Humanities team of seven with a timetabled planning hour each week. I was to have my own large classroom for the 60% of the school week I would spend with my Humanities class. For the rest of my schedule I would teach other history classes with older students but in the same room.

This gave me the three T’s that I think are important for democratic experimentation:

TIME – for lots of talk, for a class meeting, for students to really become absorbed in what interested them without bells ringing and movement to other rooms, for student presentations etc.

TEAM – not to be on your own – and with scheduled planning time to share ideas.

TERRITORY – to have a dedicated space, with lots of display space and storage. So that was a good start.

Before the term started the heads of the various subject departments all sent us loads of totally unconnected subject based stuff to do. The team leader felt that in our first year we should go along with their requirements. I knew that it was not really what the head teacher wanted so I kept quiet and decided to go my own way – except for preparation for whole-year group team outings.

On the first day once again I got in early and arranged the chairs in a circle and sat in the circle myself. The kids were shown into the room by some older students and sat in the circle. I told them my name – first and family – and told them that in our classroom I was Derry but anywhere else it would have to be Mr Hannam. I explained what the five subjects covered – history – the past, geography – other parts of the world, social studies –  how people live in communities, religious knowledge – what people believe, and English –  how people communicate. A boy called David, who I am still in touch with after 50 years,  said ‘that includes almost everything in the whole world. Can we learn about anything in the world?’ So I said, “I suppose it does – we’ll have to think about that.”

By this time several people wanted to speak at once so I got a book off my desk and said:

“I propose that you should only speak when you are holding the book and that when you have finished you should pass it to someone else. Who agrees? Who disagrees?”

Hands went up. So we were voting already and making class rules. Fortunately I made copious notes every night so the book is very detailed about the minutiae of how the class democratic learning community evolved with its class meeting, class court (very similar to the Judicial Committee in a Sudbury Valley school) – which became necessary to deal with breaches of the growing number of class laws, class clubs, class newspaper, and many many student initiated projects around their own interests. Many jobs were created – over the 2 years we were together everyone did something – often several different jobs. The popular posts , such as editor of the class newspaper, or chair of the class meeting, class secretary or, class treasurer, were elected and all had deputies. The secretary minuted all class meetings and sittings of the class court. Everyone experienced chairing a meeting in those 2 years. Everyone learned to speak in meetings. They even created a class tax system of 1p a week to buy games for the class games cupboard. I kept a pile of pennies in my drawer that kids could borrow from in case they hadn’t got their tax money. It was never stolen – sometimes it went down but sometimes it went back up again.

I binned most of the prescribed work from the subject heads of department  as the kids needed more time for their self-directed projects – we just did a few of the less boring items for appearances sake, usually as project based learning with kids choosing which aspect they would study. Occasionally I even taught a lesson! It was agreed that everyone would share their project in some way with the rest of the class. Often the results were published in the class newspaper which had an elected editor and many sub-editors for different columns such as sport, music, or fashion or model railways. It gradually covered all the walls of the room and the door and some of the windows.

Short story writing and poetry became very popular. The art and drama teachers became very supportive and used the kids writing in their lessons. Artwork illustrated the poetry anthologies that the class produced and sold to parents.

I have often talked about my first class and the effect it had on the whole school and been told I should write it up. Stuart Grauer told me the same after his talk on Monday. A year or two ago two people talked me into it – Alfie Kohn in the US said it is really important that people who think about school in a different way should think and write about where their ideas came from. And Michael Fielding in the UK who  believes that there are rich radical traditions in English state education that are ignored and insufficiently recorded and unacknowledged  –  was also encouraging. So I sat down and made a start.  While I was doing this an extraordinary thing happened. A face appeared on my Facebook. It was a 58 year-old balding man who I sort of recognised. “I’m Andrew from your class 1H and I read an article by you in the TES and then googled your name to find you are still at it.”

It was an amazing piece of synchronicity because I was just writing about an incident in which he had been involved 45 years before. The day the head teacher came to my room with some visitors and I wasn’t there – but the 34 kids were all working quietly on their projects. I was in the library. The visitors were puzzled that the room was virtually silent without any sign of a teacher. Andrew, who was class chairperson at the time, explained that they were having a ‘quiet time.’ The class had a law that if 5 people found it too noisy they would put their hands up and the elected timekeeper would announce ‘5 minutes quiet.’ If anyone spoke during  a quiet time they would have their names put in the class book – 5 times in a week and they would have to appear before the class court on Friday afternoon. Andrew then went on to tell the visitors ‘our teacher is a bit soft and if we didn’t have our class government it would be chaos in here.’  The head told me this with a chuckle while at the same time telling me off for leaving my class unsupervised. I said ‘they were supervised – they were supervising themselves.’

Throughout our two years together Andrew’s projects had always involved transport systems – I had told his parents that he would get a geography degree one day. They were polite but doubtful as this was a secondary modern school of 11+ failures who did not get to university. “Well,” he said “I did get a geography degree and am now  deputy head teacher of a primary school which runs as democratically as we can.” He was still in touch with a number of kids from the class – all in their late fifties. Some have written pieces in the book suggesting that their success in life owes a lot to their two years in the democratic class from when they were eleven to thirteen. Recovering their confidence as learners after the dreadful 11+ experience.

Instead of getting fired as I expected by the end of the year other parallel first year humanities classes were also adopting some democratic practices – class meetings, class rules, class court, class clubs, class fund, class newspapers etc (much to the annoyance of my class who thought they had invented it all!!)  The head decided to carry the first year humanities experiment into the 2nd Year and I was put in charge of the 2nd year humanities team. 7 teachers and 220 kids for 60% of the school week. All the other six teachers were volunteers to join what the older senior staff called  ‘Derry’s crazies’ and I was able to appoint three new young teachers from college.

We adopted a pattern of democracy and student directed learning across the whole year group. We created a second year students’ parliament. We hooked up with the drama and art departments who aligned their work with the Humanities projects. We produced plays, poetry anthologies, exhibitions for parents. Kids could move from teacher to teacher as all classes were timetabled at the same time in a row of adjacent classrooms. We had the use of the school hall and teachers from other departments, parents etc would give talks to whoever wanted to attend based on my Oxford University experience. Class newspapers covered every available wall space.  Kids from one class could go to presentations by kids in other classes if the topic interested them. Presentations happened all the time when students were ready.

We went as a class to give lectures at the local teacher’s colleges about class democracy. That was really nice. We planned our 2 hour presentations in some detail. I was instructed by the class meeting to explain how the class worked “to get the attention of the audience.”  Then everyone in the class who had some responsible job, which was just about everyone, would talk about what they did. Of course the student teachers didn’t want to listen to me but they certainly wanted to listen to the kids. It was great. We never had any difficulty in filling the time and I have met some of those teachers over the years who have vivid memories of the events.

We were written up in the Sun – a national tabloid newspaper owned by the Murdochs. I was so naiive. One of the mothers had a brother who was a reporter on the Sun. She had told him about her daughter’s democratic class and how much she was learning as editor of the class newspaper. She asked me if he could visit the class with a photographer and sit in on a class meeting and the class court. The class was wildly enthusiastic when we discussed it in class meeting, especially Rosemary whose uncle was coming to visit. They were invited but I forgot to tell the head teacher and ask his permission. In life I have learned that it is often easier to do things and apologise afterwards rather then ask permission before hand.

In the week leading up to the journalists visit something strange happened. A boy called Ian started to break all the class laws. He was not normally anti-social but he was chair of the class drama club. When the day of the visit arrived the men from the Sun joined our regular Friday afternoon class meeting. They answered lots of questions from editors of columns in the class newspaper about ‘what’s it like working on a real newspaper.’ Then came the class court with Ian in the dock as the only offender. Sally was the chief magistrate/judge with a big hammer to call the court to order –  David and Peter were her assistants. The photographer got his camera out at this point. It dawned on me that they were more interested in the class court than the class democracy itself – and that Ian had worked out that the best way to get his picture in the paper was to get himself tried in the court. And it worked. The paper paid for a bus to take us all to London to meet the editor and be presented with the first 34 copies, signed by him, as they rolled off the press with our story in it. I was pretty nervous – but in fact the story was very friendly and and supportive of democracy in schools as education for citizenship – and there was a large picture of Ian and the class judges with me at the back with my hand up asking for their permission to speak. The Head teacher was annoyed that I had not asked for his consent – but pleased because the parents loved it and told him so.

Don’t expect a quiet life if you become a democratic teacher in a state school!

I have  many more encounters with the press and I learned a lot about how to deal with them and get them on your side. Useful – because I had  learned nothing about that at teachers college!!

I realised that what we were doing was turning these kids on to learning in a remarkable way and at the same time they were learning to manage a democratic community. At this time I was reading the work of Kohlberg and Gilligan about moral development which they developed from the work of Piaget. I will close my 1H/2H story by telling you about Jo – who has a chapter to herself in the book and I apologise to those who have heard this before but I think it is very important.

In the second year of my democratic class we admitted a very troubled girl, Jo, from a Romany family into the school. She had been bullied and victimised in her previous schools and had become an aggressive bully herself. I decided to put her into my class as I thought they would be strong enough to control her behaviour and actually might be able to help her. She made friends with some much older students in the school  and began to bully and steal from younger ones – but never from anyone in my class as she was cautious of the class laws and the class court.

Eventually the head teacher decided that she would have to be permanently excluded from the school as parents began to complain. My class found out about this and one day after school had finished I was walking back to our classroom and I met some students from the class. They said to me:

“We are having a class meeting after school to discuss what we can do to help Jo. You can come too if you like.”

I loved that – I was their teacher and they were telling me I can come to a class meeting they have called if I want to! Of course I joined them! There was a long discussion. One boy said, “we should be nice to her somedays and nasty – like not talk to her – on other days – to see what works.” That was rejected as unkind.

Eventually they decided that they would do the kindest thing they could think of. The class captain decided to resign and so did the chief judge from the class court and the class decided to elect Jo to both jobs – the most important in the class in the view of the kids. The chief judge, Sally, said that if Jo became a judge she would realise what effect anti-social behaviour had on other people.

The next morning when she arrived, a special class meeting was called. Jo was told that she had been unanimously elected to both jobs. She burst into tears and ran from the room. Some students went to fetch her. When she returned she told everyone, “Nobody has ever been kind to me in school before.” Her bullying and stealing stopped and the Head teacher was persuaded not to exclude her.

It demonstrated to me that the young people in the class had developed a mature and moral concern for each other through having real power and real responsibility. Through sharing responsibility and having the freedom to make real choices they had become responsible. They could never have grown in this way if they had just been told what to do all the time.

In the book I also consider a dilemma that I have never really resolved. How much do you tell your bosses and your colleagues what you intend to do before you do it – especially if to some extent you are making it up as you go along. As I have said it is easier to explain afterwards than get permission. But if you don’t forewarn then you should not be surprised when you meet resistance. Like the heads of departments who lost control of years 7/8 as the Integrated Humanities programme was introduced.

I recommend having a good think about who will be affected by what you plan to do and make sure you have cover from above and friends who you trust to work with you. Two together are so much stronger than two individuals on their own. Three is better and four – well you are motoring.  All advice that I have regularly failed to practise myself! BUT – I never got fired – though perhaps I came close to it a few times.

Parents were overwhelmingly supportive during those first two years perhaps in part because it was secondary modern school – they were so thrilled to see the confidence returning to their kids after the blow of 11+ failure . This of course kept the head happy.  But my biggest problems came from staff unsympathetic to the democratic developments. Annoyed by this upstart only just out of his probationary year or because their subject departments were being undermined. On the whole the kids had no problem with switching from the democratic atmosphere of the humanities classes, which covered 60% of their curriculum time, to the more authoritarian ways of the other teachers – maths and science for example– but there were problems. Such as my class with the shouting maths teacher. I must tell you what happened!

She shouted at them to be quiet and they just became noisier. The class got fed up with this and wanted to learn some maths so after some weeks  they decided to have a quiet time in her lesson.  In the next maths lesson 5 hands went up and the timekeeper said “5 minutes quiet!.” The teacher then shouted “why have you gone quiet?” No-one would reply because it was a quiet time. The teacher complained to the union and I was  reprimanded for undermining the discipline of a colleague. I apologised and told the class that they had not made life easy for me and that I was pretty fed up with what they had done.

So – if you have democratic laws in your class make sure the kids know this is for your class only!!!

In my second year the head asked me to create a school council that was to include teaching and other staff. It was enormous. Over 100 staff and student reps.  The first meeting was smooth enough and heads of all years had by now set up elected students councils.  The new school Council   was requiring the spread of student democracy through the whole school.  BUT At the second meeting we hit the rocks. Second years asked why some teachers were always late for lessons and 4th years wanted to know why the marking of their humanities examination course work was delayed. Prior to the meeting and without my knowledge the union branch had decided that I should be disciplined for unprofessional behaviour for allowing these issues to appear on the agenda as it involved kids questioning staff behaviour – even though the head had allowed the two items to appear on the agenda. Well that was fun!

If you choose to be a democratic teacher in an authoritarian school don’t expect to have a quiet life.

The book concludes with a series of more theoretical chapters in which I analyse what I believe was going on in these classes. Issues and questions such as:

  • Love and the Public Service Ethic                                                                 
  • The importance of democratic structures and human rights                                                            
  • Non-coercive relationships and the importance of play                                                                        
  • Curriculum, Streaming and Selection, Oracy and Literacy, Assessment and 
  • Learning
  • Education for Citizenship,  Human Rights, Sustainability and climate change, social and economic Entrepreneurship

Concluding with their relevance for the present situation in England. Then as an Afterward to bring things up to date I include two talks I have given at recent EUDEC [European Democratic Education Conference] conferences in Greece and Ukraine where I link the need for self-directed learning in a democratic context with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the loss of many jobs that it will bring, climate change  and all that implies.

Ah well – it was amazing for my first two years of teaching. After 2 years I was headhunted to be Head of Humanities in an enormous new comprehensive school of 2000 students in a nearby town. Here we had a special building where we could have 200 students of different ages at one time for 25% of the curriculum with a team of ten teachers. After 3 years I moved to be Head of an 11 to 16 House with 8 tutor groups of mixed age students at a progressive community school in the north of England at which I eventually became Deputy and Acting principal. There’s a lot more stories to tell about all that . But don’t panic – It’s another book!!

But always the two guiding principles – SDE in a Democratic and Rights respecting context.

Then becoming an inspector – well at least it meant that when the government tried to close Summerhill in 2000 I could work as an expert advisor to the Summerhill legal team against the inspectors. And of course we won. Henry and Zoe [Readhead] can tell you more about that!!

Since then I have worked closely with state systems in Europe partly through the Council of Europe as well as the Democratic Education movement of IDEC and EUDEC – I have been described as a ‘bridge person’ trying to translate the spirit of the democratic schools and self-directed learning into the mainstream – as I said earlier – that’s where most of the kids are and that is where change has to come.

I suppose you could say I was lucky – but my advice to newly qualified teachers is do your best to make your own luck by choosing your first post extremely carefully. Too many enter the profession full of idealism and good intentions only to be ground down and made cynical by authoritarian old timers before the end of their first year. 50% of teachers in England want to leave the job within their first 5 years in England. And it’s often some of the best ones who are the first to go. Its tragic.

So – Don’t take any old job. Use your discretion and choose carefully.


As Wayne Jennings says in his brilliant book School Transformation, and as I had learned as an inspector of over 200 schools, look beyond shiny school mission statements that claim to be aligned with genuine educational purposes such as – WE HELP OUR STUDENTS BECOME GOOD CITIZENS (but give them no opportunity to experience democratic decision making) – WE PREPARE OUR STUDENTS FOR WORTHWHILE CAREERS IN THE FUTURE WORLD OF EMPLOYMENT (but gives them no choice or autonomy and show no awareness that nobody works obediently in rows in factories any more and moves to another activity and another room every hour when a bell rings) – WE FOSTER LIFE-LONG LEARNING (while boring kids to tears and making them feel they can’t wait to be finished with school learning – more like LIFELONG FORGETTING ) – WE HELP EVERY CHILD TO FULFIL THEIR POTENTIAL (while forcing them all through a one size fits all subject based exam oriented machine, divided up by age, with no control over their time or their learning –  exams designed to fail many and create anxiety in the rest, which take no regard for the interests and passions of each student or helping them discover and develop their own identity).


Even in England there are a few public state school like the XP School in Doncaster, or School 21 and its partners in the BIG EDUCATION Group in London who will give you opportunities to explore student curiosity, creativity and capacity for collaboration and competence. Or, of course you could emigrate to Norway or Denmark or New Zealand where the whole school system is more as I have described.

So let me conclude with three suggestions as to what can be done about our public school systems:

First – Governments need to create departments for alternative education within their ministries of education. These would open the democratic private schools, my pioneers of possibility, to everyone by paying  their costs so they would be free to parents. They would also fund the creation of new democratic schools where self-directed learning and self-exploring learning can be a choice for all who want it

Second –  They should instruct all schools to introduce the 20% principle. 20% of curriculum time for all students to practise self-directed learning around their own interests and passions. This could be one whole day or two half days per week or just 20% of  time within subject lessons. Schools should create a ‘20% Committee’ of staff and students to plan how this programme would be organised and managed. This process would introduce the idea of students participating in serious school decision making. Ideally this should lead to the creation of a 20% department led by a teacher of assistant principal status and staffed by teachers from all subjects who chose to work in this way thereby creating a team of experienced self-directed learning facilitators. It would have its own part of the school buildings –  the 20% wing where exhibitions and presentations of student projects could be held. An entirely new approach to assessment would be required maybe based on processes rather than finished projects – failure would be something to be learned from and not to be feared. 20% of students of mixed ages would be in the wing at any one time.

A few state schools in England have created electives programmes for half a day per week (10%) which involve mixed age groups in activities agreed between staff and students. These are very successful and greatly improve the quality of relationships in the school The activities also draw in parents and other members of the local community. But why stop at 10%? As students learn to take responsibility for their own learning they begin to develop the skills that really do prepare them for employment.

In one school that I inspected some of the elective activities were led by students themselves. A parent told me that their children would ‘get off their death beds to get to school on electives day!’ In fact, part of my job as an inspector was to check the student attendance figures for each half-day of the week. The highest figure was consistently for ‘electives’ afternoon on Wednesdays.

I also checked the school’s examination record. It was significantly better than might have been expected for a school in such a socio-economic environment!

A recent publication on the future of teacher training from the well-respected Economist Intelligence Unit, called “Staff 2030: The Future of Teacher Training” recommends 20% time for student directed learning. It points out that the skills such an approach develops are precisely those required by the workplace of the 4th Industrial revolution – which it describes as:

“A post-industrial landscape, where intangible forms of capital like algorithms, data and software are creating wealth, requiring new self-directed competencies in young people.”

Some forward looking companies, usually but not always in the fast growing hi-tech industries such as Google, already provide staff with 20% of their paid workplace time to develop projects that interest them, not directly related to company projects. Susan Wojcicki, now CEO of YouTube, created G-mail in her 20% time when she was at Google.

Susan’s mother, Esther Wojicki, a senior teacher at Palo Alto High School in silicon valley ‘…advocates “20% time” to introduce self-directed learning into the schedule. She argues that this should be “innovation or ‘moon-shot’ time where students are given freedom to come up with their own idea of what they want to do, what they want to study, and how they want to do it.” This has led to the ‘20time Project’ spreading through more middle and high schools in California under the slogan:

“Your students will be future ready if you give them the time!”

The Pareto Principle, named after esteemed Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, is interesting. It specifies that 80% of consequences frequently come from 20% of the causes, asserting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. He noticed that 80% of peas on a pea plant came from 20% of the pods and that 80% of Italian tax revenue came from 20% of texpayers. Etc, etc. I would bet that 80% of student learning would be generated in 20% self-directed time!

Of course the democratic schools movement has already reversed the 20% self-directed time and 80% provided curriculum  –  in many cases to 100%/0%. This is precisely why I believe it to be in touch with the future, while most mainstream school systems stagger on like collapsing dinosaurs. Its students know how to take control and responsibility for their own learning and how to be curious, creative, collaborative and communicative. As Peter Gray daid in his talk it is how young humans are born to be until school systems get to work on them. In our democratic schools our students also learn how to participate in democratic communities that are grounded in human rights where they can create their own identities out of their personal passions and interests rather than defining themselves by their examination grades.  As paid employment declines in the future this will enable them to define themselves as unique individuals and not rely on full time paid work as the basis of their identity. It seems to me that there will have to be some form of universal basic income to replace ‘benefits’ to support future democratic societies but that is beyond the scope of this story.

Third – My third requirement of government to change our school systems is to encourage and provide money to create democratic schools within some large mainstream schools – schools within schools or SWS. These would offer parents, students and teachers the choice of  a democratic school as a separate unit within a large conventional school where self-directed learning in a democratic and rights respecting environment would be the norm. Unlike the 20% wing the School- within-a school would offer self-directed learning full time for those students who wanted it – or any mix of the two as suggested by the Unschooling School advocates at this conference.

There is a history of such schools in the United States where, inspired by the ideas of Lawrence Kohlberg and his vision of ‘just community schools’, a number of schools-within-schools were created within large high schools at Brookline and Scarsdale near Boston. Recently the idea has spread to Europe with the creation of similar schools in London, England and Tallin, Estonia.

The schools-within-schools are essentially the democratic schools which we know and love but having to meet the interesting challenge of existing in the direct proximity of or even sharing a building with a traditional school. Managing the interface between the two can be both difficult and fruitful as Charlie Moreno Romero is learning at his Suvermae School in Tallin in Estonia – the name of which just by chance translates as Summer Hill School. Charlie is running a workshop at this conference which I recommend to you.

But I am out of time and just before I close, having set out what is wrong with what we have and made some suggestions as to how we can move to a better place, I would like to end on a note that gives me great hope.

All around the world, inspired by that wonderful sixteen year old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg, we are seeing a demand for change coming from young people themselves. In England it has led to  campaigns entirely organised by young people – one called ‘Teach the Future’ and another ‘Pupil Power.’ In the face of the challenges of climate change they are demanding a more relevant, joined-up and student directed school curriculum that addresses both climate change and social inequality in schools that are fully ‘green’ and are  bases for action in their communities to produce a more sustainable way of life.

It is our task as adults perhaps to help these groups to make international links than can give strength to each other.

Thank you for listening. Anyone still there?

Derry Hannam, Seaford , UK

Book link –  CODE CE78V

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