IDECs at Summerhill from 1999 to 2021 – What’s Changed and What Hasn’t? What Needs to Change for United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goal 4’ to be Realised by 2030?

Transcript from Derry Hannam’s talk at the online Summerhill Festival of Childhood, October 3rd 2021:

My 1999 IDEC [International Democratic Education Conference] talk was given at Summerhill when the school was under threat from Ofsted inspectors. There had been a hostile hatchet job inspection earlier in the year and the school had been told to make lessons compulsory or be closed. It was an interesting situation for me as I was an inspector, albeit part-time. The mood at the conference was both festive and sombre with a strong determination to resist thanks to the courage of Zoe and her husband Tony. But a legal challenge to Ofsted had never succeeded previously and would not be cheap. My talk was aimed at Ofsted and was called ‘Biodiversity or Monoculture – the Need for Alternatives and Diversity in the School System’.

I began…

“In this talk I am going to argue that there is an emerging consensus that schools should become significantly more democratic than they commonly are if they are to effectively educate for democracy and human rights – or even to effectively educate at all in the 21st century…

I shall further argue that the process of change required of schools is difficult to manage, poorly understood and that a more experimental and innovative approach is required in contrast to the centralised prescription of recent years.”

So what happened next and since? Where are we now, and where are we going?

I would like to highlight some key points in today’s talk –  

First the court case. Ofsted tried to shut Summerhill if it did not give up being Summerhill.  They lost. Summerhill won!!! Dear old non-coercive kid-friendly Summerhill is still here with more kids than ever and able to celebrate its 100th birthday in style. Hooray!!!! Being a part of that was undoubtedly my most useful work in ten years as a school inspector, both in Ian Cunningham’s alternative inspection team and more covertly working directly with the defence lawyers to identify the procedural errors in the official inspection.

[Report of an Inquiry into Summerhill School, 2000:]

But in some ways the school system in England is now worse, more prescriptive, more test-ridden, and more coercive, while the situation is mixed internationally. On the bright side are the amazing state funded developments from Israel that Yaacov has told us about, such as the new multi-pedagogic democratic campus with Montessori/Sudbury/Hadera model schools all on the same site with a shared activities building, and the proposed all-age community learning hub in a poor part of Tel Aviv; the new national curricula in Norway and Finland which offer scope for self-direction and project based learning even though teachers complain they have not been equipped to manage it; in Switzerland 20% of curriculum time is to be decided by the school which can include the students; in Italy climate change is at the heart of the new national curriculum; in Colombia the highly student participative Escuela Nueva network of schools devised by Vicky Colbert. On other hand the news from France and parts of Germany is not encouraging.

We have the proliferation of school mission statements in England and North America. I call them the four great school hypocrisies or lies!

Number one. ‘We prepare our students for the workplace of the 21st century.

Really!? Whoever heard of a workplace remotely like most schools – sitting obediently in rows of desks dressed in uniforms waiting for bells to ring and asking for permission to go to the toilet.

Number two. ‘We prepare our students for democratic citizenship.’

Really!? Most schools are run as hierarchical authoritarian dictatorships.

Number three. ‘We realise the full potential of every student.’

Really!? Most schools don’t even bother to find out what it is when they are stuffing heads with standardised unwanted information.

Number four. ‘We prepare young people for lifelong learning.’

Really!? Many kids are put off learning for ever by school. Those like James Mannion who value ‘learning to learn’ have to do battle with those who want more and more coverage and subject content – and learning to learn is not obviously winning, not in England anyway.

In England the Education for Citizenship curriculum came – and went. In 2000 by chance I found myself in a position to influence policy and from 2001 all 14-16 year olds in English state schools were supposed to take part in ‘democratic decision making and responsible action.’ Money was provided for research and teacher training, new inspectors were appointed and in as many of 25% of our 3500 secondary schools over the next 9 years it actually happened, to some extent at least. Student councils appeared in most secondary schools though many were tokenistic. Then again in 2002 I had another opportunity to influence policy and the law was changed to allow students to sit on school governing bodies (school boards). Even though they were not allowed to vote research showed improved decision making when kids were involved.

– but in 2010 the new Conservative GOVErnment replaced all that experiential stuff with teaching “British Values” – we could have a long heated discussion about what they are!

Meanwhile in Europe the ‘Council of Europe Education for Democratic Citizenship/Human Rights Education’ project said (with a bit of help from me – once again I found myself in the right place at the right time) –  ‘if you want young people to learn about democracy they have to do it in school and not just listen to teachers talk about it. OBESSU, the European School Students’ organisation took up the cause. In Finland school students themselves organised a Demokrati i Skolan project and wrote their own Metodbook to introduce more self-directed learning and democracy into Swedish speaking schools in Helsinki. In Norway the government created the Wergeland Centre to spread the word about school democracy across Europe especially in the East and the ex-communist countries.

I began to understand what a meme is when I started to hear other people repeating things I had said at these school democracy conferences. For example;

“It’s almost impossible to stop young humans learning – but schools manage it somehow”

Gdansk 2013


“When I was at school learning about democracy and human rights was like reading holiday brochures in prison”

Copenhagen 1999

In the world of the democratic education movement IDEC grew; EUDEC and all the little DECs were born. Highlights of the last twenty years might be the IDEC in Berlin in 2005 (which led to the first democratic schools in Germany unless you count the Laborschule in Bielefeld); Leipzig in 2008 (where EUDEC was born) ; Puerto Rico in 2012 (where the public school system showed great interest and the president of the state school teachers union sent Yaacov’s talk and my talk to all state school principals); Poland 2015 ; Finland in 2016 (where hundrED was launched); Paris in 2017 (when Ramin Farhangi reached three hundred thousand French speakers with his TED talk on Sudbury Valley and Ecole Dynamique) ; Crete and Ukraine in 2018 and 2019 also reached out to large numbers of state school teachers; then the first online IDEC in Nepal last year.

In 2016 democratic educators (some of who are at this event – Yaacov/Kageki) attended the Council of Europe ‘World Forum on Democracy Through Education’ in Strasbourg where nearly 2000 participants voted for the 20% self-directed learning idea after Yaacov sneaked it into his talk. We had discussed this beforehand! I asked some of the few who voted against it what they objected to – “it’s not enough!!” they said.

The number of democratic schools worldwide has grown rapidly over this twenty years – nobody knows quite how many. In South Korea, the Netherlands/France/UK/Israel (where they became state funded). Theory developed and needs to be developed further as is now happening in Eudec thanks to Henning –  and some contrasting models of decision making emerged such as majority vote vs. Sociocracy or to curriculum or not to curriculum – the Sudbury model or the Summerhill model – with the Hadera model as a middle way perhaps.

The need for alternative teacher education has grown as the number of democratic schools grew. There are interesting debates about the role of adults and the skills required in democratic schools. We now have more vacancies than appropriate applicants for democratic schools in some countries, perhaps including England, even though very many teachers want to escape from oppressive state school systems (as many as 50% in England!!). A certain amount of de-toxification and de-coercive schooling is often required though to ready them for the role of non-coercive non-authoritarian facilitator.

In most English state schools, driven by PISA league tables and the threat of privatisation, teachers are endlessly assessed and students are endlessly tested. Both are made ill by it. Post-Covid we have punitive ‘behaviour hubs’ for young people who have forgotten how to ‘obey’ through lockdowns – millions are spent on behaviour management. We have a ‘behaviour management tsar’ as James Mannion mentioned. Government knows there is a well-being and mental health crisis in English schools. Their response – let’s have more anxiety inducing tests and more fear-based, rigid, threatening, zero tolerance school regimes, with isolation and exclusion for minor ‘offences’. This is supposed to make everyone feel better! It beggars belief!!

A new phenomena is appearing and I am not sure whether it should encourage or concern us. Private for profit franchised chains of schools that do actually practice some self-directed or self-managed learning in to some extent democratic contexts are appearing. The Acton Academies or GalileoXP for example. The first Acton Academy outside the US has opened in Canada. I have met the principal and liked her very much. The first in the UK is about to open in Surrey – the richest county in the country. They see the sense of our views but for me lack the idealism and concern for equality and social justice that underpins most of the democratic school movement. I have always defended fee-paying Summerhill and Sudbury Valley from friends struggling with poverty in some state schools as “pioneers of possibility” – showing us what can be done so that it can be transferred to the state system for all kids to benefit. I have to say that I am more comfortable when these schools are free with state funding available so that all can attend who want to – as in Israel or the De Vallei school in the Netherlands. There are some wizards of course, like Lucy Stephens in England who has pulled off free admission but without accountability to the state at her flourishing and delightful “New School” in Croydon.

I would like to say a word about inspection regimes – how to deal with them or not. In England Ofsted has learned a little but not much since 1999. The independent SIS is government licensed to inspect private schools and it has learned rather more, educated by Summerhill perhaps with which it seems to have reached an understanding. The best situation has developed in the Netherlands where the closures of the Sudbury model De Kampagne and De Koers schools after a bitter court case led to a new dialogue with the inspectors. In fact the newer Harderwijk Sudbury school, sadly closed but not by the inspectors, actually became a training school for inspectors. This has also been successful for Bas Rosenbrand in the Netherlands who advocates building bridges with inspectors before you even start your school. There are also promising signs from Flemish speaking Belgium. I know that Yaacov’s view is that once it gets to court you have already lost – so perhaps the Summerhill case is a dangerous example for others. Certainly in Germany the closure of Ammersee School in Bavaria is not such a happy story and nor is the current scary situation in France.

A word about research – we need more of it. In 2001 I wrote a report for the minister of education in England to explore whether the few more than usually democratic state secondary schools that were implementing the new citizenship curriculum were getting worse or better results because of it. It became known as ‘The Hannam Report’ and is still available online in several languages including German.

All 3500 English state secondary schools were supposed to be giving 14-16 year olds the opportunity to engage in ‘democratic decision making and responsible action – in school or the wider community.’ I found 20 schools with ‘democratically opportunist’ head teachers that were really doing it well and were involving all their students in a myriad of ways. Their conventional results (exam results, attendance figures, and exclusions for anti-social behaviour) were all better than the average for schools in similar socio-economic areas. My findings were confirmed in 2006 by the National Foundation for Educational Research. A very large meta-review of some 3000 studies by Mager and Nowak of Innsbruck University in 2012 also endorsed my findings.

There is the Sudbury Valley “Pursuit of Happiness” follow up of alumni from 2005. The High Scope study also in the US over many years is another encouraging story. Mcallister and Mannion’s 8 year study in England (“Fear Is The Mind Killer”) which James presented last week is also important, as is the PhD work of Charlie Moreno Romero.  All are useful. Some raise the question of whether a 20% creative programme that develops metacognition and oracy in a learning skills programme should be justified as supporting a coercive examination structure for the remaining 80% of time or whether it is just the right way to do things in its own right!? But I am a realist and you have to start somewhere.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics all threaten to reduce the need for full-time paid work. Here is what the democratic schools are good at and here is their opportunity I believe – identity building. As full time paid employment declines supported by universal basic income (UBI) those used to self-directed learning will know what they are good at and what they want to do with their lives. They will be able to define their own identity from within and not just as an employee with a set of skills.

For those who still have paid work, either devising and maintaining the technology or in human caring which cannot be automated, employers will want soft skills – independent and autonomous but able to be creative, to cooperate and communicate. Self-starters who are able to innovate, to show empathy, to take initiative and responsibility – you know the list!

So I am arguing for 20% Self Directed time in all schools as a start, perhaps through the creation of ‘passion departments’ where students can discover and explore their own questions, interests and concerns.  It’s my ‘modest proposal.’

Google already offers this to its employees and some of its most profitable innovations have come from staff playing with ideas in their 20% paid but undirected time. It is happening in some German schools and in California with the 20T project; in pondering time in Religious Education courses in the schools of one English county; in the new Swiss and Norwegian national curriculums. For me it is not just to support the other 80%, though I know it does – but as a foot in the door for agency and autonomy and the eventual take over of the whole curriculum. Not just to enhance test scores in an obsolete English GCSE examination package!! In the SDE ‘rights’ v. the ‘instrumental’ argument I am firmly on the side of rights while also supporting numeracy and literacy for all – Viva Rights!!

There are state schools everywhere that are changing for the better – The XP School and School 21 in the UK, Suvermai school-within-a school in Tallinn, the Agora schools in the Netherlands, the Future Schools Alliance in Australia and New Zealand, High tech High or the High School of the Recording Arts and many other usually but not necessarily charter schools in the US – all offering self-directed learning opportunities plus democratic governance. Learnlife School in Barcelona is another exciting innovation, now also in Zurich and soon to be in Hamburg and Cambridge.  

Books on SDE and school rights and democracy have proliferated recently, including mine – now free in Polish with 200 downloads in two days. Only $2.45.

25 people have managed to download it so far and the proceeds will go to the [Summerhill] festival. One person had trouble with Smashwords so please try Apple Books as an alternative.

“Another Way is Possible: Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School” Derry Hannam:

Around the world young people are getting organised and speaking for themselves. In the UK ‘Teach the Future’ will be at COPS 26. I have marched with these kids on their climate change strike days and many of them have a better understanding of the issues and what needs to be done than their teachers. The NEU teacher’s union admits this. There is also Pupil Power or groups such as the Portsmouth COPS/UNLOC city wide council of school students. In Europe OBESSU and the European Youth Council are effective. In Italy where the national curriculum is now built around climate change, young people are meeting in Milan with Greta Thunberg today (blessed by the Pope!) In Australia the VicSRC is ‘teaching the teachers’. Internationally we have Fridays for the Future , YxY and the forthcoming AEROx organised and delivered by young people. UNESCO has its Youth Forum.

But –  are they heard at international level?? To what extent will their role at COP26 be merely tokenistic?

I love listening to Yaacov’s optimism which has supported change, and not just in Israel, beyond what you could imagine one person achieving – for example his major new Democratic Cities project in the poorest part of Tel Aviv. It helps me to set some of my own pessimism and anger to one side. I am also inspired to have as friends young people who I have worked with on school democracy projects in various countries over the last 20 years who are now in positions of influence internationally.

In 2015 the United Nations general assembly endorsed Agenda 2030 for a Sustainable World. It has 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) with 169 targets.

“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, by 2030”


SDG 4 goes beyond earlier United Nations education programmes such as EFA (education for all) and the millennium goals (MDGs)  – it requires “inclusive and equitable quality education for all primary and secondary age children and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. It does not say schooling but it does refer to education for sustainable development and global citizenship as its target 7.

Unfortunately the indicators all permit an easily tested and measured narrow instrumentalist numeracy/literacy approach to implementation with no financial or accountability requirements on member states. But it cheers me up to find young people who were once active advocates for democratic schools in their national school student organisations at the heart of these organisations and proposals. 

Antonia Wulff, once president of the Swedish speaking school students organisation in Finland and author of Demokrati i Skolan now works as policy and research director for Education International (EI), the international teachers union organisation. In this capacity as a representative of a CSO (Civil Society Organisation) she had a hand in the creation of SDG4. She is unhappy about the way things are going and has edited and contributed to a great book ‘Grading Goal Four’ (free download from which includes a chapter (16) on the need for greater involvement of young people internationally.  

This chapter was written by Luke Shore, a one time English school student activist and member of the board of OBESSU. Only today I heard from Karoline Myklebust, also a school democracy advocate and alumni from the Norwegian school students organisation EON, who now in her thirties is CEO of the not-for-profit, Laerdal Global Health – a Norwegian company that is central to the delivery of SDG3 to reduce neo-natal and maternal mortality worldwide – her target is a ‘million lives saved by 2030’ – and they are over half-way there!

My own daughter Zoe (no accident that!!) having run her own successful company is now sustainability/innovations director for the multi-national GANT clothing corporation in Stockholm. She has been working on SDG13 ‘sustainable production and consumption’ with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy recycling project to reduce the amount of textiles that end up in landfill – currently 93%. Ellen is the best known alumni of the rural secondary school where I was vice-principal before she became famous for sailing single-handed around the world.

Unesco, the UN agency responsible for the monitoring of progress towards SDG4, has produced its own post-covid future of education proposals which EUDEC is currently responding to. It is not the most progressive document in the world though it has some good points. Gabriel will be discussing this in the next session (

Andreas Schleicher and the OECD have done a lot of damage through their PISA league tables – though Finland has been an interesting anomaly! But Schleicher and his OECD-EDU mates have realised that the world needs more than STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or even STEAM with added art. Their new report attempting to quantify and develop indicators for the soft skills, the social and emotional learning and well being is called ‘Beyond Academic Learning’ – it is well worth looking at even though it fills me with a sense of ‘better late than never’ or ‘now you tell us!!’ (

But I would like to finish with a piece of seriously and perhaps epoch shaping good news from Canada where the Unschooling School organisation and the Ottawa Catholic School Board have created the Hope Programme – with a bit of encouragement from my friend Richard Fransham. Home schoolers and unschoolers in Ontario will have free access to the resources of the Board’s virtual elementary and high school and all its physical 80 schools to take what they need rather than accept what the system chooses to give them. Is this the beginning of a non-coercive publicly funded state system I wonder? Maybe this could morph into the Community Learning Hubs providing for all ages that are locally based but globally connected that many of us are groping to imagine and realise. The kind of project that Yaacov told us about in Tel Aviv.

Anyway – in the meantime – ‘wake up at the back or it’s detention for you’ –  happy 100th birthday Summerhill – and Paolo Freire – who would also have been 100 this week!!

Thank you for your patience!

Derry Hannam is a retired deputy head teacher of a community comprehensive school and former Ofsted school inspector. He is currently an international consultant in Education for Democracy and Human Rights. You can read an excerpt of his book, Another Way is Possible – Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School here.