Creating a Democratic Class and Curriculum, by Derry Hannam

Rather than impose my own idea of the kind of structures that the class democracy should have I decided that we would make it up as we went along by dealing with issues as they arose. The one thing I was clear about was the need for a class meeting. As the school required that all form teachers should appoint a boy and girl form captain from day one whose principal duties were to collect and return the class register to the school-office we had an issue to be discussed and decided straight away.

The children in my class came mainly from three different primary schools so some of them knew each other and thus had the advantage over me as to who should take up initial posts of responsibility¸ however minimal those responsibilities were at this stage. Not knowing that it was illegal, I decided that as well as collecting and returning the register the form captains would also have the responsibility of recording the attendances and absences in order to give them a bit more to do.

I got to the classroom early on my first day, pushed all the tables to the side of the generously sized Room 3 and arranged the chairs in a circle. I then went to the school hall to take delivery of my class. I was a bit shaken to find that the average second year class size was to be thirty- four students and that 1H had thirty-five! Twenty-six had been the most I had met on teaching practices. Fortunately, the school administration was well organised and I had already been issued with a class register with all the pupils’ names, dates of birth and addresses typed into it so we were spared that rather tedious task and could get straight down to making decisions.

Having been told where to sit in their primary schools there was a bit of confusion as the students found seats in the circle and a few puzzled faces when I also sat in the circle. I told them who I was and that I was both their form teacher and their humanities teacher and that I would be working with them for about half the school week. I said that we had the whole morning together as humanities was timetabled into three half days and the whole of Friday; a major feat of imaginative time-tabling by the deputy head.

I explained that humanities consisted of history – which was everything that we knew from what was written down in the past; geography – which was about the world today; religious education – which was about what people believed; social studies – which was about how people lived together; and English – which was about how we communicated and expressed ourselves with our language.

One boy, David put his hand up and said, ‘That sounds like everything in the world! Are we going to study everything in the world?’

‘Well that might take more time than we have,’ I replied.

“I am rather hoping that you will choose to learn about the parts that really interest you and then tell the rest of us about it.”

‘Will we be able to learn about anything we like then?’ he asked.

‘That’s a really good question,’ I said. ‘We are going to have to talk about that!’

I then took the register and explained that in future this would be the responsibility of the form captains. The only problem being that we had not yet got any! I invited suggestions as to how we could get some. Many people spoke at once and some put their hands up so I quietly said ‘we aren’t going to make any decisions if we go on like this.’

I took a book from the teacher’s desk and said:

“All those who agree that when we are having a class discussion you only speak when you are holding the book and that until we all get to know each other we should say our name before we speak.”

All agreed. This was our first vote and our first decision as a class. The problem immediately arose as to what to do when the book-holder had finished speaking. Kerry suggested that the book should be passed to someone who had their hand up chosen by the current book-holder. All agreed. This was our second decision. It worked fairly well, though there was a tendency for people to pass the book to someone they knew, which made the hand waving a bit frantic from some of the others.

David then suggested that the book should be passed to the next hand up to the left then it would be ‘fair.’ Again, all agreed. This was better and Andrew suggested that I as teacher should choose temporary form-captains until the class knew each other well enough to have an election. ‘What is an election,’ I asked. He explained, thereby creating our first example of a student teaching a lesson! I thought this was a pretty good idea but asked ‘how should I choose them? I don’t know who would be best any more than you do?’

Peter said that all who wanted to be a form captain could put their names on pieces of paper in a box and the first boy and girl whose names I picked out of the box would be form captains for two weeks. This time the vote was divided as Sally H wanted the trial period to be four weeks with different people doing it for a week at a time. A second vote was held to decide between Sally’s suggestion and Peter’s. Sally’s suggestion won and so four girls names were picked out of the box. This was not necessary for the boys as only four wanted to do it.

Already we were beginning to get to know each other and learn each other’s names. The level of listening and reasoning was already impressive. The democratic citizenship curriculum was creating itself!

As the number of decisions was growing I asked how were we going to remember them all? Gina said that I should write them down and put them up on the class notice-board. This was voted on and I agreed to do it, but said that I hoped I could soon hand the job over to an elected class secretary. Several people immediately offered. Mostly girls and one boy. This all took over forty minutes or so and by the time I ended the meeting over half the members of the class had spoken. Some many times. I then handed out timetables and explained which parts of the school they had to go to for various lessons that were not part of humanities.

This took us up to break time. After that I asked the class to get the chairs and tables arranged in three rows, fairly quickly, but without pushing and bashing and to choose seats quietly and without argument that could disturb neighbouring classes. Some hopes! The break bell went creating the urgency for some rapid cooperation which put an end to the chaos. Before releasing the class, I said that I thought we had a new problem to solve which was how to get the tables back and the chairs into a circle for a meeting, and vice versa, quickly and quietly in future. I asked the eight form captains if they would meet me just before the end of break to get the room ready for another class meeting after break. They agreed and all turned up early.

After break we discussed how to manage room rearrangement more efficiently. Someone suggested that it wasn’t necessary and that we could have a meeting with the room in its ‘normal shape’ with chairs and desks in rows. Others disagreed. One of the Davids, whose mother was a teacher in the school, said that:

‘It was much better to be in a circle as we could all hear and see each other and it was more equal and anyway it would separate meetings from lessons.’

An interesting comment as we had not had any lessons yet! Another vote was held and it was decided to meet in the circle.

I said that it was very hard to write down the decisions and at the same time manage the voting so would a form captain handle the votes in future? They offered to take it in turns. The form captain role was growing by the minute.

Then came the question of how to get the room back to its classroom configuration quickly and quietly. After discussion it was agreed that there was no magic way other than everyone having their own place at their own table in an agreed spot which they would be responsible for removing and replacing. I had not foreseen what a can of worms ‘who would sit with who’ could be. It was decided, with another vote, that people who had friends from primary school could sit with their friend and that I would place anyone who was left over. I wasn’t too happy about this but could not think of anything better while we had three rows of five tables as the basic classroom shape. I sketched a map on the blackboard showing where everyone would be sitting once a few minutes had been spent negotiating friendship pairs.

Now we could practice classroom rearrangement in earnest. I set a target of two minutes with minimal chair scraping and collisions. That was easily achieved after several attempts, leading to a challenge from Ian that we should aim for one minute in future. We got it to 82 seconds by Wendy’s smart new underwater watch, which she had won at a swimming gala in the summer holiday. That was good enough for me and lessons began with a good feeling that we had collectively solved a few problems successfully. There had been a lot of communication and learning before ever an ‘official’ lesson was delivered!

I issued exercise books for English and checked that everyone had something to write with. I asked the class to write about their nice memories and their not-so-nice memories of primary school. They could say anything they pleased so long as they avoided mentioning teachers by name. Next, they were to go on to write about their feelings about coming to their new school.

I explained that if anyone had any difficulties with writing they could quietly explain these to me as I walked around the class. There was no one who could not attempt the task, though some obviously launched into it with enthusiasm and others, fewer in number, were relatively hesitant. The lunchtime bell seemed to come very quickly so I said that they could carry on with their writing for homework, which school policy expected me to set three times per week. I released them row by row saying that if they had any better ideas on how to leave the classroom in an orderly fashion we could discuss them at the next class meeting. I was touched by the smiles and ‘bye Mr Hannam’ as they left and felt quite pleased with my first morning’s work as a teacher. I knew that I had been blessed with a bright and sociable bunch of eleven-year-olds.

Humanities was not on the time-table the following day but the form captains delivered and marked the registers at form time. We all found our way to the hall for lower school assembly and all but two members of the class handed in their English books for me to read.

I realized that I had to think carefully about how to handle the school requirement that I set regular homework. I personally believed that the kids should be encouraged to carry on with their schoolwork at home if it was interesting for them to do so – and did not interfere with their other interests. I felt that it was quite a good idea for them to work independently at times but I didn’t want to set homework just for the sake of it. It would not lead to the kind of relationship that I was hoping for.

I decided to discuss my dilemma at a class meeting. I would make it clear that neither I nor they could unilaterally alter or ignore school rules as I had signed a contract not to do so when I took the job. To ignore this would not be a very good model for the ‘rule of law’ which I wanted them to understand as part of their learning about democracy. But we could talk about different interpretations of the rules!

Reading their first pieces of writing was a shock that I suppose I should have been prepared for. The effect of failing the 11+ had been devastating for nearly all and especially, it seemed to me, for the children from what I guessed were the more aspirational middle-class families. I was nearly moved to tears by the statements from several that although their parents said they ‘could do well at the secondary modern school’ they nonetheless felt that they had failed their parents. They believed that they had let them down and that they might pay the price for rest of their lives.

What a dreadful burden to impose on an eleven-year-old child! I had ‘passed’ the 11+ with ease and had no conception of just what a sense of failure not getting a grammar school place could induce in those who were not successful. It reinforced all my previously somewhat intellectual commitment to comprehensive schools with a powerful emotional underpinning. It was a crime to subject these young undeveloped people to such an experience at this age; to demolish their self-confidence just as they were about to enter adolescence with all its attendant uncertainties and challenges.

It was all so arbitrary. If they had been born in Wales there would have been grammar school places for 30% of them whereas in our town, where people were not obviously seriously less intelligent than in Swansea (12), the figure was only 13%. In fact, it was widely known that the validity of the eleven plus tests was seriously open to challenge and probably totally unreliable. The truth of the head teacher’s understanding was brought home to me and my commitment to his redeeming mission became absolute. I had a therapeutic task on my hands and not just an educational one.

Fortunately, room 3 was my teaching base for various history classes that made up the rest of my teaching load and I did not have to share it with any other teacher. This made it possible for the room to become 1H’s own space. This is normal in a primary school but almost impossible in secondary schools where space is dedicated to subjects rather than groups of students. The next humanities session was on a Friday afternoon so it was possible to arrange the room in a circle for a meeting during registration and get started right away. The form captains had met the previous day, on their own initiative, and decided who would be ‘on duty’ on each day for the next four weeks.

It seemed very complicated to me but it worked. In fact, students of this age often seem to solve problems in ways that seem convoluted to adults. I put this down to the fact that actually they were playing at problem solving and that it was the play that mattered to them more than the solution; a process beautifully described in Peter Gray’s Freedom to Learn (2013). Nonetheless, their solutions usually worked – and if they did not they would learn from their mistakes and come up with something new and better. It was much later that I discovered from the work of Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966), Lev Vygotsky and Lois Holzman (1993) that this was a classic example of Vygotsky’s ‘tool as result’ in action. The process was what mattered. The solution was almost irrelevant; just a further opportunity to learn.

I began to feel that the more problems we faced as a class learning to live together the better. Everything was an opportunity to learn and be creative. It was an endless road of opportunity. Why had nobody told me this at the teacher’s college? Could it be because they didn’t know? All those lectures on ‘behaviour management’ were just lessons in how to deny the opportunity for self-management by individuals and the class as a collective.

I started the next class meeting by explaining that it was customary for meetings to be run by a chairman or chairwoman. Instead of a passing book it was the chair’s job to ensure that only one person spoke at once and not for too long, that they kept to the point and that everyone who wanted to speak should have a chance to do so, and not just the chairperson’s friends.

I said that I would chair the first meeting for a while and then hand over to the ‘on duty’ form captain. Nigel suggested that there should be a separate election for the chairperson as the form captains were getting all the interesting jobs. Somebody else said that we should elect a new chairperson for every meeting. Somebody else said that as it would be really good for their confidence if everybody should take it in turns to chair a meeting. Others felt that this would be a waste of time as we would spend so much time electing chairpeople that nothing would ever get discussed. Eventually, a majority thought that as the form captains did not really have very much to do and as they wanted to be form-captains they should chair the meetings in turn until we got to know each other better. This was voted upon and agreed.

I then said that I could not chair the meeting and make notes of decisions at the same time and that we needed a class secretary as well. This led to a discussion about what qualities were required. Being able to write quickly and neatly so that everyone could read it on the class notice board were agreed to be the essential requirements. Volunteers were asked for and five girls and one boy offered. All were asked to immediately write some notes of what had been decided in the meeting so far. They were given a few minutes to do this and then the resulting pieces of paper were passed around the circle numbered one to six by me. The vote was then for the best number rather than a person by name so that people did not just vote for their friends.

To everyone’s surprise, including his, Michael S received the most votes and began work immediately. He did the job so well, writing up his rough notes at home after meetings as voluntary homework, that he was re-elected time after time over the next two years. Nobody ever said ‘this is a girl’s job.’ He had not liked his primary school much and had become upset and depressed by the death of his younger brother two years before. His mother told me that failing the eleven plus had been the last straw and that she feared for his future mental health. (50 years later he is now CEO of a successful financial services company.) She was delighted by his endless writing up of class meeting notes and encouraged him to use her type-writer. I think he was probably the first in the class to learn to type.

Throughout the two years I worked with the class he never let us down even though he was often in trouble in himself and with other teachers. I still have a large collection of his minutes of meetings and the proceedings of the class court which was to come later. From time to time he was punished by other teachers for not doing his homework but he never failed to produce the minutes of the class meeting and the class court. On one occasion when he was ill, he made his mother bring them to school to give to me personally! Probably I should have suggested that being secretary was as important as a learning opportunity as being chairperson and encouraged others to challenge Michael’s monopoly. I did not do this and I am not totally sure why. Possibly because I felt that he needed the role in some deep psychological way that I did not fully understand.

Certainly, it was useful to have a committed and literate minute taker and very soon everyone in the class was writing extensively in their project work anyway, but I suspect the real reason that Michael kept the job through the whole of our two years together was that the role was so important to his identity. He was never challenged by other class members though I know that one or two would have been happy to have the job. Could it be that they recognised and respected the benefit to Michael? I don’t know – but I am never surprised by the care for each other, kindness to each other, and profound moral understanding that young people can show for each other when they are free to do so. There were to be many examples of this during our time together.

The spirit that was already developing in IH was the exact opposite of that which was imagined by William Golding in his dark novel about fascistic violence in young people, Lord of the Flies (1954), which is often held up as an example of what will inevitably happen when young people are free to develop their own self-management or self-government. I suspect that Golding’s novel has more to say about the values of English public schools that normal children. For me Kohlberg in his writing about moral development in ‘Just community schools’ (1987) was being proved right and Golding proved wrong. More recently the Dutch writer Rutger Bregman (2019) has collected an array of evidence to contradict Golding, most notably the story of six Tongan schoolboys shipwrecked on the Pacific island of Aku in 1966.

There are those who would say that the care and kindness manifest in 1H ‘was because you were there manipulating the situation and providing a safe holding environment within which the young people could safely play at democracy.’ They might be right to some extent though I do not consider myself to be a particularly caring or kind person. It suggests to me that teacher training should incorporate learning experiences for more teachers to do the same! But I just do not believe that the bullying malignance of Lord of the Flies would ever have taken control of 1H and not just because of the innate kindness of most of the students. It was also because they were creating a culture of kindness. The class was learning how to stand up to occasional bullying through the democratic structures that emerged. In the adult world we need the values and strengths that grew in 1H to deal with fascism and fascist tendencies. It is hard to imagine anyone in 1H voting for Donald Trump. Certainly the one- time class members that I am in contact with would not.

Now I had a form captain as chair and a competent secretary who I could hand over minute taking to. I was now free to become a member of the meeting who put his hand up when he wanted to speak. Chairs of the meeting gradually learned that I as teacher should not automatically be chosen to speak as soon as I put my hand up. Some found this very difficult to implement however much I asked them not to give me priority. Others rather enjoyed testing out whether I really had temporarily relinquished the teacher’s power to speak whenever I felt like it. In the context of the meeting or the court I explained that unless something very urgent happened, like a fire drill, I had normally handed my authority as teacher to the chair of the meeting while the meeting was in progress. If I put my hand up it meant that I was a citizen of the meeting and not ‘dictator’ teacher. They cautiously felt their way by daring to test that I meant what I said.

While the meeting was in session the chair was in charge and I had no more right to speak first than anybody else. I made it clear that this was not the case when I was in my role as class teacher teaching a lesson. The principle was that the democracy must not be bogus but its limits must be clear. We agreed that last lesson on Fridays would always be class meeting time and that whoever was ‘in the chair’ was also ‘in charge’ so long as they did not break the school rules – such as ending the meeting early and letting everyone go home before the rest of the school (though this was often suggested!)

In my experience children seem to be quite happy to live with the ambiguity of this situation. They accepted that this was a kind of ‘play’ democracy where the authority that I delegated could be reassumed by me as teacher if necessary. I never had any doubt that I could have resumed a traditional teacher/adult authority role at any time if I believed that the class was becoming ‘unsafe’ for any student. It was possible for the democracy to be real and yet ‘held’ at the same time. It could never have degenerated into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation because I would have intervened. Yet I don’t think this is why it did not degenerate into this condition. I was modeling behaviour that respected the right and the space of every individual to speak and to be heard – to participate – and I think this was accepted and absorbed by the class. In a word (or three!) it was fun, it was interesting, and it was learned.

The class did not feel impelled to endlessly test me out as adolescents might if they had had no experience of this way of working when they were younger. On the other hand, if the teacher does not join the ‘play’ and behave ‘as if’ they had surrendered their authority then I don’t think the democracy would work and lead to important learning. I was like a drama teacher who was able to step in and out of role – in role as participant citizen then ‘out of role’ as teacher in charge.

My long-term aim was to create as many posts of responsibility as possible and to regularly subject them to re-election so that it would be almost impossible for anyone not to have some experience of at least one job over the year. In reality this was more than possible because the class continually created additional jobs which they would volunteer to do, and which often did not call for a class election. Some examples were organiser of the class fashion shows, or chess tournaments, or lunchtime discos, or five-a-side football challenges, or editor of endless columns in the class newspaper. Overall editor of the class newspaper was always an elected post though, as were other key roles such as keyholder of the class games cupboard or class timekeepers – and many of these elected officers also had elected deputies. Over the two years of 1H/2H there was nobody who did not have at least one ‘job’, many had two or three and a few played many roles.

Once we got the curriculum rolling, the class and I negotiated the seating arrangements around the needs of different kinds of activities of which there were basically two. When they were working to curriculum decided by me, they would sit in groups basically of their choice but I would accept no argument if I wanted to place a new student, or one who had few friends, in a particular group. I explained to the meeting that much could be learned by sharing ideas with each other and I did not want anyone to sit alone and be left out. I answered questions about it but in the end made it clear that I was going to make this decision as teacher responsible for the well-being and learning of everyone in the class. This was never seriously challenged and hurtful or rejecting behaviour towards less popular students was very rare.

I carried out regular sociograms where everyone was asked to secretly name the two people in the class that they would most like to work with. This gave me a powerful understanding of who was popular and who was isolated. Overtime the ‘popular’ tended to stay popular but the ‘isolates’ definitely became less isolated.

When the class was working on curriculum generated by them around topics and questions of interest to them then the groups would be created from those sharing the interest, and I would accept people working on their own if they were the only one with that interest. Often these were the most isolated students at first, but gradually they became less isolated as the class began to cohere as a group. They became accepted as ‘characters’ with some odd tendencies. Probably at any time three quarters of the class would be working in groups and eight or nine would be working alone.

Although we had a fairly large classroom with a fair bit of storage there was not enough space or tables for every individual to have a two-seat table to themselves. A group working on ‘navies in Roman times’ might have two tables with four people around it whereas individuals working on ‘secret codes’ and another researching the ‘history of clothes’ might have to share a table.

Right from the start of our time together I had said that as we were spending quite a bit of class time learning about things and questions that we found very interesting it would be a good idea to share them with the rest of the class. Everyone, including the shyest, agreed with this when I put it to one of our earliest class meetings. Although individuals and groups were not always ready when they promised to be nobody ever refused to ‘teach their topic’ except for the few occasions when somebody had chosen an issue about which almost no source material was available. Sometimes a parent or other adult would be invited to assist with a presentation.

Arguments did occur, as would be expected, and there were differences of opinion about the noise level in the room at times. Some said I was too strict and some said it was too noisy. The same people sometimes said both at different times. This was a perfect subject for the Friday meeting agenda! I told the meeting that I set the noise level at what I was comfortable with at the time and if I was tired, I would sometimes insist on silence. ‘Can you think of a better way to set the noise level?’ I asked.

Christine suggested that it would be more democratic if people could put their hands up if they found it too noisy and then it would depend on how the pupils felt and not just me. I asked how I would know whether the ‘hand-up’ meant a need for quiet or need for my help as teacher. David K said that the left hand could mean quiet and the right hand could be a request for my help. I pointed out that if the room had to be quiet for just one pupil then that was no more democratic than if I wanted it quiet to suit me. Tim suggested that if five left hands went up it should be followed by five minutes of no talking.

‘How would we know when the five minutes is up?‘

‘Mr Hannam can tell us.’

I said that ‘I am not too happy to do this as I want to be helping people not watching the clock.’

It was decided that Wendy with the big watch was elected unopposed to the post of class time-keeper. It would be the form captains’ job to count the left hands going up and when it reached five they would call for ‘five minutes quiet.’ When it was up the timekeeper would call ‘five minutes up.’

Next Monday morning was a humanities session and in my opening remarks I said nothing about the new noise level rule but just waited to see if the system would work. Nobody had forgotten the decision of the previous Friday meeting which Michael, the class secretary, had pinned up on the class notice board at registration time in his best writing and in great detail as ‘1H LAW NUMBER ONE.’

Well, as might be expected on a Monday morning, everybody had lots to say to each other and the room soon became quite noisy. I did nothing as the decibels passed the point of my idea of a good working environment. Suddenly seven or eight hands shot up – mainly left hands too. The duty form captain Andrew duly pronounced ‘five minutes quiet’ and a near- total hush came over the room. Gradually, people began to whisper, until Wendy announced ‘five minutes up.’ This went on in all the humanities sessions of the week with quiet times being called about twice per lesson. I was absolutely amazed by the success of the scheme as I had not once had to tell the class to be quiet.

Imagine my shock when on Friday morning Michael pinned up the agenda for the afternoon class meeting. Item one was ‘The hands-up system is not working. Something needs to be done. RJ, CE, AD SG’ – these being the initials of the four students who had asked Michael to put the item on the agenda.

At the meeting it quickly emerged that these four and many others were annoyed that people were whispering in quiet times. They were not as impressed as I was by the absence of open talking and the generally undistracting environment that had been created without me having to say a word. The fact that I was pleased that the law was achieving its purpose and that the whispering in quiet times was not disturbing anyone was not the point so far as the objectors, and many others it transpired, were concerned.

‘It’s not fair,’ they argued. ‘It is the same people who whisper all the time and if everybody did it none of us would be able to get on with what we are doing. What’s the point in having a class law if it does not apply to everybody?’

Of course, they were quite right and had taken to heart my earlier comments about the ‘rule of law’ applying to everybody. They easily won the vote for enforcement at the meeting – even some of the most frequent ‘whisperers’ voted for it! I think the idea of being able to hand out ‘punishments’ seemed to make some of the class feel that now they really did have some power.

The four concerned had a plan and it was no coincidence that they were all form captains. Their proposal was that the two duty form captains should each record the names of whisperers in the back of their rough work notebooks and that I as teacher should set the offenders ‘lines’ to write as a punishment with a tariff of ten lines for every time somebody whispered during a week.

I must say I was not too keen to be put into this role especially as I really thought that writing lines was a complete waste of time. I was corrected by David K.

‘That’s the whole point of setting ‘lines’ to be written. It is supposed to waste their time otherwise it would not be a punishment.’

I argued that the ‘punishments’ should do something useful for the community but David won the day for the hardliners with the riposte, ‘If lines stop the whispering in quiet times that will be good for the community.’

Several people objected that the form captains would not put their friends ‘in the book.’ I then explained that in real life the law was enforced by the police, in this case the form captains, but that justice and punishments were handed out by the courts of law. It was the job of a court to consider the evidence carefully and give the ‘accused’ the chance to defend themselves against the charge.

‘Let’s have a court then,’ proposed James C.

This was discussed at some length and the meeting ended at the end of the school day without a decision being agreed. We decided to continue the discussion at the next Friday meeting and in the mean-time everyone would find out as much as they could about how courts worked for that week’s homework. In fact, preparing for a meeting discussion often became homework and nobody seemed to object. I learned from several parents that some members of the class spent a great deal of time on research which included interrogating them and often asking questions that they the parents did not know the answers to, such as ‘who chooses the magistrates and judges in the English court system?’

During the next week seven people had their names in the form captains’ rough books for whispering or talking in quiet times, mostly once or twice, but in Lawrence’s case eleven times! On the following Friday I allowed enough time for a meeting and a sitting of the class court should one be created. The form captains explained the totals of their ‘bookings’ and it was decided to set up a court that would sit after Friday class meetings if there were any cases to hear.

It was obvious that many pupils had found out something about ‘courts’ and several had read and cut out local magistrate court reports from the local newspaper. Andrew created a special exhibition space on the class notice board called ‘What courts are for’ and put all the cuttings up. Three pupils were elected as class magistrates from about ten volunteers. I was very impressed that after working with these children for a month these three would almost certainly be the ones that I would have chosen. Two of them had been form captains during the trial period and it was decided that nobody could hold two such important offices at the same time so two new form captains who were not magistrates were elected for the rest of the term. This fitted neatly with my lesson on real life law where policemen could not also be magistrates or judges.

I went on to explain how a jury worked. If the accused pleaded guilty then the magistrates just had to decide on a suitable response but if they pleaded not guilty the meeting decided that the rest of the class would vote as a jury. The results would be recorded by the class secretary, whose job was rapidly expanding. It was further decided that an offender would only have to appear before the class court if they had been put ‘in the book’ at least five times in a week.

The court duly sat, with a special table for the magistrates who had a carpenters hammer as gavel that had been left in the room by the caretaker. Another table became ‘dock’ before which the accused would stand while the jury, which included me and the rest of the class, sat in a semi-circle behind the accused but facing the magistrates. Nearly everybody had watched courtroom dramas on TV.

The first and only defendant, Lawrence, said he was ‘not guilty’ as he had only been borrowing rubbers and pencils and anyway at the time he didn’t know that there would be a court and possible consequences. He had a good constitutional point against retrospective legislation of course and I supported him in the proceedings. However, the magistrates disagreed and I decided not to intervene as I had already prepared time for the court to sit and allowed expectations to rise. (With hindsight I think I was probably wrong in doing this.)

Lawrence was found guilty by a majority vote of the jury. The magistrates conferred and said that as this was his first offence and as they had not yet had time to discuss with Mr Hannam what punishments they were allowed to give he would just be told not to talk in quiet times in future. There was some sense of anti-climax in the jury, some of whom might have been hoping for a hanging, but Lawrence seemed relieved and promised to obey the court’s instruction in future. Something he, and one or two other ‘serial whisperers’, had great difficulty in doing for the next two years!

Many meetings were later spent discussing the purpose and suitability of punishments and what was meant by ‘justice’. Were they meant to deter and how did deterrence square with justice? Should there always be a ‘community service’ aspect to punishments? Should restitution be a part of it? Should mitigating circumstances be taken into account? If somebody had been provoked, were they entirely responsible for their own actions? I still have contemporary notes of these discussions and find it hard to believe that these kids were only 11/12 years old and that they were supposed to be ‘non-academic.’ It was a major self-directed programme of citizenship education and gave me endless opportunities to explain the legal concepts involved in answer to their questions.

More laws were passed. Eventually there were fourteen of them. Some were very specific. For example, ‘only form captains or Mr Hannam can mark the register.’ Others were very general. ‘Nobody is allowed to hit, swear at or bully another person.’ Offences against specific laws would be brought to the class court by the class official concerned but breaches of general laws could be reported by any member of the class to a form captain, who would prosecute the case on their behalf.

This later developed into a system whereby anyone could make their complaint in writing on the court notices section of the class notice board. I always made it clear that the class meeting could not pass a law that conflicted with the law of England or the official school rules. This ‘do it yourself’ practical justice system proved to be remarkably close to the Judicial Committee (JC) process used in Sudbury Valley model democratic schools that I have since visited in many countries (Greenberg 1992).

While the social learning involved in the creation of the democratic classroom was emerging very quickly the lesson content side of the curriculum was more constrained.

The head teacher wished to see some sort of integrated curriculum. He might even have been persuaded that it could be to some extent co-constructed with the pupils. The heads of subject department certainly did not. They feared loss of status along with loss of control of part of their curriculum territory.

The new head of lower school who chaired the first-year humanities team meetings had his own ideas about how history and geography could be linked while still taught as discrete subjects. The heads of those subject departments were more or less happy with this. He had never taught English however and here he bowed to the prescriptions coming from the head of that department. None of this allowed much scope for the students to pursue their own interests in depth as self-directed learning, asking more and more profound questions, which was what I wanted to see happen. Nonetheless, no attempt was made to impose a subject timetable on each class so there was still a fair bit of flexibility and I made maximum use of it.

I could not entirely ignore the team generated history and geography curriculum as a number of whole year trips were planned around it which otherwise would have made no sense to my class, so I squeezed it into the minimum possible time. I created my own bank of resources for this team curriculum to enable the class to work in groups exploring the material through their own questions. I set their investigations into context with a small amount of factual teaching from the front. The groups would sometimes choose to study one issue which they would present to the rest of the class and at other times individuals in the group would pursue their own questions or write their own stories. These would then be included in a collective piece of work.

The prescribed and very tedious English exercises and tasks I substantially ignored. I thought that the class was doing plenty of writing already and was developing very good communication skills and extending their vocabulary through the participative democracy. I had a private reading time at the end of every half day when pupils were encouraged to read stories rather than non-fiction and to write reviews for the class newspaper.

The newspaper quickly covered the whole back wall of the classroom and spread along the side wall that had no windows. By half term there were sports (several), fashion, book review, quizzes and puzzles, jokes and cartoons, poetry, transport, pets and bird watching, ponies and many other columns each with its own editor.

Sometimes I would teach a short poetry lesson based on my enthusiasms or a poem recommended by a pupil. These lessons, to my surprise, were very popular and led to lots of poems being written for voluntary homework. Several class poetry anthologies were created and printed into booklets. The head of art read these and often used them as stimuli for art lessons.

Sometimes I would read a book to the class and sometimes students would read parts of a book that they found exciting or just talk about a book that they were reading. Sometimes I would be asked to read all or part of a book chosen by a class member. Parts of the catchment area were quite middle-class and I had several avid readers and reviewers in the class. The idea that reading and then reviewing what you had read was fun spread around the whole class.

Compulsion, coercion and punishment for failure would have been totally unnecessary and counter-productive. I kept extensive but somewhat secret notes on what everyone was doing but despite sometimes being asked resolutely refused to give marks or grades beyond ‘wow – I enjoyed that’. My notes were most useful to keep the head teacher and parents happy though this became less and less necessary for parents as they saw what their children were doing at home.

Once the official humanities team curriculum, the meeting and court, and the reading times and poetry sessions were in place between a third and a half of humanities time was available for the pursuit of individual interest projects, which were presented to the class as they were completed. This probably represented an average of around 20-25% of total school curriculum time. These project presentations provided a steady flow of student taught lessons which often happened on Friday afternoons before the class meeting and, if there were any cases, the class court.

The head teacher once chose to visit my classroom just as a group that had studied ‘firefighting’ set light to a model of a seventeenth century London house built of wood and straw to demonstrate the spread of the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was safely placed on a metal tray standing on two bricks and they quickly extinguished the flames with model hand pump engines made from water pistols. I had a bucket of water handy just in case. I think I was lucky with this head teacher. Far from reading the riot act to the class he asked some interesting questions and congratulated the students on their ‘vividly interesting’ lesson. He also told me afterwards never to do anything like that again inside the building as it was lucky the fire alarm had not gone off and finished off learning for the whole school for the rest of the day!

Maybe at this point I should include a summary of the personal, social and civic learning that I believed to be taking place after just six weeks of the first half-term which more than justified the time spent on meetings and courts.

The most obvious was probably the confidence that developed in all the students in their ability to articulate their thoughts and feelings and express them to others. The belief that they had something important to contribute and that it would be heard by others – the teacher and their peers. This developed along with a sense of responsibility which arose from realising that what they said could influence events in a way that they would actually have to take responsibility for. They became responsible through being given and accepting responsibility.

As a teacher I am perfectly capable of ‘controlling’ a class in the conventional manner which involves ‘repressing’ potential misbehaviour through strength of personality, experience and, as a last resort, punishments. The students are afraid to disobey and so long as they are not too afraid a purposeful lesson can take place in an orderly environment. It was my belief that this approach denied the class the opportunity to learn how to manage itself as a community and thus to learn important lessons of citizenship. These include the need to work together democratically to decide and legislate for what kind of community they want to live in, to elect an executive to implement those decisions and, if necessary, to act together to defend law and order through a democratic jury based judicial system.

All this existed in my classroom. I chose to allow a bit of chaos to emerge, not difficult when thirty-five eleven-year-olds are contained in one room against their will in a compulsory school system, in order to use it as a resource for learning. Normally in schools where teacher authority rules in the classroom chaotic behaviour only surfaces in the relatively uncontrolled context of the playground or the school bus where bullying and reigns of fear can occur as the strong vent their feelings on the weak and anti-social acts go unchallenged.

Quite quickly, and certainly before the first half-term holiday, what little disturbing or anti-social behaviour that there was was not being contained by me but by the peer group. I believe that the democratic atmosphere of the class meant that there was very little serious anti-social behavior to deal with but inevitably, with 35 young people and one adult in one room for hours on end, it was guaranteed that there would be some. The students, or enough of them to make it work, had learned that when they worked together through appropriate structures and processes which they had participated in creating they could deal with problems themselves.

Although I was usually there as back-up, they gradually learned that they could solve problems, without me. At first my presence gave them the security to know and feel that, if it was too much for them, I would intervene to support them. As time went by I found that my actual presence was less and less necessary. Although this approach takes up a fair amount of time it offers priceless opportunities for important learning in itself and also frees the teacher to work closely with individual students who need help. In creating an orderly environment through the democratic cultivation of self-restraint purposeful learning can flourish without fear or adult coercion.

This was not just my view but also that of a growing group of very supportive parents. Far from complaining about my apparently unusual methods I was already receiving very positive feedback from a number of parents who saw the self-esteem and self-confidence returning to their children after the ‘11+’ disaster. They were delighted to hear about the self-restraint and self-government that was developing in the democratic classroom. Several comments were passed to the head teacher, including some requests from parents of students in other classes for transfers into my already overcrowded class. This probably explained the support that he always provided and the interest that he always showed – though it did not always make for easy relations with all my colleagues.

The head teacher was not happy about teachers leaving their classrooms during lesson time. As my class became more and more self-managing towards the end of the first term I got into the habit of visiting the school library to find a book or to check something, or to use the school phone, feeling confident that all would be well on my return to the classroom. I regarded this as a useful test for the self-management system that was emerging. As it was against the school rules for younger students to visit the library alone or in groups during lessons, a rule that I felt to be singularly stupid, I would sometimes accompany a student or a group who wanted to research a topic.

On one occasion I was summoned to the head as a result of this. He told me that he had called into my classroom to see how I was getting on as it was coming up to the end of my first term. He had found the class working in silence yet I was not in the room. The form captains had told him that ‘Mr Hannam has gone to the library and because it was getting a bit noisy, we are having a quiet time.’ He accepted this without further question and left the room. He had waited outside for a few moments to see if disorder broke out as he half expected. It didn’t and he returned to his office.

He said ‘I have two questions for you Derry. Firstly, what on earth is a ‘quiet time’, and secondly do you know that staff are not supposed to leave their classes unsupervised?’

‘But they were supervised,’ I replied. ‘They were supervising themselves. A quiet time is something they have created to keep the noise down when they are working on their projects.’

It says a lot for the man that he just accepted this with a resigned, ‘I hope I am going to be able to live with your appointment Derry. That’s all for now.’

A few months later the capacity of the class to make itself quiet led to another summons to the head. This one was more difficult and highlights the problem of creating a democratic self-governing class in a school where such an approach is not the norm.

1H had a mathematics teacher who had great difficulty in controlling all her classes. She rapidly resorted to shouting at kids to be quiet and this just made them noisier. She shouted at 1H and they rather resented it – especially as several students actually wanted to learn some mathematics.

Although I had told the class that their laws only applied in my lessons, I obviously had not made the point strongly enough because they called for a quiet time in a maths lesson. Apparently, a number of hands went up as the room became noisy. The teacher demanded to know what was going on. The form captains later explained to me that the timekeeper announced ‘five minutes quiet’ and the room became silent. She then shouted at them to tell her what was going on. No-one would answer. It was a quiet time. Eventually one of the form captains explained that ‘this is what we do in Mr Hannam’s lessons when it is too noisy.’ Instead of saying ‘that’s a good idea, you can do the same in my lessons’ she announced that what they did in Mr Hannam’s lessons was up to Mr Hannam but in her class they were to be quiet when she said so.

That might just have been the end of the matter but unfortunately a very honest but forthright girl called Rosalyn observed ‘But Miss when you shout at us nobody takes any notice.’ It was no more than the truth but great offence was taken by the teacher who complained to her union representative that I was undermining discipline in her class.

There were two unions in the school in what seemed to me to be a permanent power struggle for members. The maths teacher was in one and I was in the other. Without telling me her union representative complained to the head teacher about my ‘unprofessional’ behaviour in telling my class how to behave in other teachers’ lessons.

He explained why I had been summoned to his office. He was his usual reasonable and slightly ironic self. When I told him that I had told the class that our democratic laws were only for my lessons I have no doubt that he believed me. He said he would tell the union representative that it was up to me how I ‘controlled’ my classes but that he had made it clear to me that as their form teacher I must make it clear to my class that each teacher had their own methods which must be respected. He took some responsibility on himself as he had created the ‘integrated humanities teacher’ role. Perhaps he had not realised that the children would think of the methods of the teacher who taught them for over half the school week as the ‘normal’ methods. ‘We live and learn,’ he said,

“…and Derry you might like to learn that if you are going to do things in a democratic way, and I am behind you when you do, it would be a good idea to explain what you are doing to the other teachers who teach the class.”

At the time I was very grateful to him for his support as when I first heard of the union complaint I thought I might be fired! Later, however, I wondered if he should not have taken a bit more of a grip on the situation himself. If he wanted me to do things in a democratic and self-directing way then with his years of experience, he could or should have foreseen the dangers and advised me more carefully before incidents occurred.

I was to meet this problem again in my next two posts and then see it from the other side when I became a deputy head myself. This is probably easier said than done though as my ‘methods’ were not carefully pre-planned and out of a text-book. I was making it up as I went along – or rather the kids were!

Visits to my classroom from the head became fairly regular. One visit was especially hilarious with hindsight. This time he arrived in my classroom with a group of five teachers from another school which was considering setting up a similar humanities programme to ours. Once again, I was not in the room and the class were working in an orderly way on their projects and supervising themselves. They were having a ‘quiet time’ and I was in the school library helping someone to find a book. A visitor observed:

“There is no teacher here yet the class seems to be working quietly on its own. What’s going on. Where is the teacher?”

The same Andrew who contacted me on Facebook fifty years later was at the time an elected form-captain and chair of the class meeting. He replied to the visitor:

“Well you see our class teacher Mr Hannam is a bit soft and if we didn’t have our own class government it would be chaos in here!”

I reminded him of this helpful comment at a dinner party for class alumni, held at his house many years later. He was embarrassed and said “Help. I actually remember saying that. I could poke my eye out!!” The rest of us just had a very good laugh about it, as did the Head and I years before when he told me what Andrew had said after the visitors had left. I think I was very lucky to work for that man.

He knew very well that I was going through the motions and not seriously following the prescribed curriculum of the component subject departments of the 1H humanities schedule. He was genuinely interested in the motivation of the students who were, by the end of the first term, substantially following their own interests individually or in groups for at least half of their humanities time. Additionally, they were working in investigatory collaborative groups for history and geography topics.

Everything was built around questions asked by the students and thus their purposes were both their own and each others’. A great deal of fiction and non-fiction writing was for the class newspaper which extended to every inch of wall that was not window or blackboard. Poetry and short story writing became almost a craze. Almost everybody was both writing and responsible for editing some column or other and should anyone dare to pin something up without consent of the appropriate editor then it would inevitably lead to a case for the court.

There were endless presentations, discussions, reading book reviews and extracts as well as the proceedings of the class meetings and the class court. Poetry became very popular, both reading, writing and reciting. Many students loved haikus, perhaps in some cases because they did not have to write much. Though I remember that one of the Davids who had written very little in primary school became fascinated by the three-line form of the haiku and spent hours at home explaining to his parents how, if you worked to perfect it, you could say so much in few words.

A number of anthologies were produced through the two years we were together and these were often used as stimulation by the head of the art department. Homework was rarely set formally by me but the students knew it was school policy and most accepted my request that they continued with something that was interesting to them for two sessions of 20-30 minutes per week. Some did much, much, more though I rarely checked.

There is now plenty of research to show that homework is essentially useless as practised in most school systems and that children can make better use of their own time. Teachers are likewise relieved of the burden of endless ‘marking ’ of useless busywork. I did very little or no conventional ‘marking’ in the sense of writing on students’ work. I felt that it was slightly offensive and preferred to send them notes or just talk about it.

The head was fulsome in praising what he saw. ‘It’s what I want for all the first-year classes.’ He told me that he intended to make me ‘head of first year humanities’ and to increase my salary from the third term of my first year. Unfortunately, he forgot to discuss this idea with my immediate boss who was head of lower school humanities out of whose ‘territory’ my patch would be carved. When he was told he protested that he wanted to take the first year again and that I could take the present first year into the second year. I was very happy with that as it meant that I could continue my work with 1H for another year and spread the ideas into the whole year group.

Some of the other teachers in the first-year team had been watching what I had been doing and were keen to take part and keep their classes for another year too – though that was not universal. The ones who thought I was crazy or that my approach might be hard to replicate were able to either become part of a new team around my boss and induct the new first year, or else leave the lower school humanities project altogether, which two of the seven did.

The head teacher was fighting off more criticism from the established heads of department for the humanities subjects than I had realised. It led to some fairly hostile comments in the staff room. To face them down and to justify continuing the approach into the second year the head decided to run a combined general knowledge/verbal reasoning test with all the first-year students. It was called the Bristol Achievement Test. I had never heard of it; nor have I heard of it since. But it was a pet test of the head teacher. I suspect he also wanted to reassure himself that my class would do no worse than the other classes. He was delighted with the results which showed the whole year doing better than would be expected for students of their age.

I was rather embarrassed by the fact that my class emerged with substantially higher scores than any of the others. It could well have been just luck or possibly caused by the fact that the students had been placed into classes on a geographical basis rather any academic form of grouping and, maybe, I had a higher proportion of middle-class professional families in my class. I suppose the test result was what I had hoped for but nonetheless it was hard for a teacher in their probationary year to live with and led to more staffroom comments such as ‘…of course D (the head) gave him the class with all the middle class kids in it.’

I knew that I was taking a chance in setting up the 1H democratic learning community. It might fail catastrophically and get me fired. It had never occurred to me that living with success could be just as difficult. When the union that I was not a member of heard that the head intended to give me a pay rise in my third term they submitted a formal complaint pointing to a regulation in the teachers’ pay and conditions that said that teachers could not be promoted during their probationary year.

‘Bloody marvelous!’ I thought. ‘A union objecting to a pay-rise for a young teacher!!’ As a result, I didn’t get the cash until my second year.

This article constitutes chapter 6 in Hannam’s book, Another Way is Possible – Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School. Published as an e-book by Smashwords, you can order it here.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Copyright 2020 Derry Hannam

Read more from Derry Hannam

You can read these other articles and research papers on our website, written by Derry Hannam:

The 20% Project for Schools – A Modest Proposal

‘I Was a Teenage Governor’ project, organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research in partnership with the Citizenship Foundation and Derry Hannam

“The Hannam Report” – Investigating the Impact of Student Participation on Education

“OK – You’re Certified” – Behind the scenes at the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts

Our School Systems Are Not WorkingHannam offers some proposals for change