Our School Systems Are Not Working – Some Proposals For Change

This is a transcript of a speech given by Derry Hannam at the Holistic School, Taiwan on 18th October 2020:

I am very pleased to be invited to give this talk at the Holistic school in Taiwan – the Summerhill School of Asia – and to follow in the eminent footsteps of my good friends Yaacov Hecht and Kageki Asakura.

My name is Derry Hannam. I was a secondary teacher, vice-principal and secondary school inspector in the English state system for 35 years always trying to challenge traditional authoritarian methods. I have just written a book about my experience of introducing democratic methods into a class and then a whole school entitled “Another Way is Possible: Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School” published as an e-book by Smashwords.

Now I work closely with the networks of democratic alternative schools that are growing around the world, supporting their creation and survival and attempting to import their thinking into state systems. I was privileged to be able to take part in the successful defence of Summerhill School against the attempt of the UK government to close it a few years ago. I regard schools such as Summerhill and the Holistic School as being “Pioneers of Possibility” – because of their independence they can dare to be beacons of light to shine the way forward for the rest to follow. I enjoyed the article about the Holistic School written by Yong Shian Phoon in 2015.

In this talk I will argue that the time has come for the kind of education that you and I believe in. An education that truly recognises the genius of every child. An education that rejects coercion, rote learning, anxiety and endless testing and instead allows for the natural flow of learning through curiosity, creativity and collaboration. That encourages self-directed learning in a context of participatory democracy and respect for human rights. Quite unlike my own experience of school where I describe learning about democracy and human rights as being the equivalent of reading holiday brochures in prison.

I will argue that such a self-directed education is not only the human right of every young person but also what is needed for our economic, environmental and social survival as civilised societies.

Your system in Taiwan scores highly on international league tables such as that of the OECD/PISA yet I believe there is widespread unease about its traditional emphasis just on academic examination grades as the only measure of successful education. Despite this unease I think that there are still many crammer schools in Taiwan – buxiban do you call them – together with high levels of student anxiety and unhappiness. The situation is similar in England. We have the unhappiest school students in Europe. We don’t have the crammers/buxiban  – yet! – but we certainly have politicians who want more hours to be spent on academic subjects. On the other hand at least some of your leaders seem to be saying that your system needs improvement with more emphasis on issues such as gender inequality, human rights, and freedom of speech. I wish this was true in my country where the English school minister of education has recently told schools that capitalism is not to be questioned in class. Most importantly some Taiwanese parents and teachers, though perhaps not yet enough, want change and I look forward to learning more about this in the discission

When I was an inspector my work involved reading the brochures and mission statements of many state schools. They often sounded quite imaginative. Their statements about the purpose of education I could often agree with. They talked about preparing their students for becoming citizens in democratic society, preparing their students for worthwhile careers in the workplace, preparing their students to be lifelong learners, and usually also claiming to be developing the full potential of every student.

All very good you might think. The only trouble was that when I got to the school to carry out the inspection I found that usually almost none of this was true!

Far from learning about democracy I found that not only did the students have very little opportunity to participate in any meaningful discussion or decision making, about their learning or about the school as a whole, but neither did the teachers. Most head teachers behaved like authoritarian dictators and still do. The teachers had little say over what or even how they would teach and the students were not only told what to do all day long they were pursued after school with homework over which they had no choice or control. Even if there was a students’ council it was rarely allowed to discuss anything that challenged the authority of the head teacher and even if it did its decisions would be ignored. Yet I learned from years working with the Council of Europe Education for Democratic Citizenship project that learning about democracy has to be experiential as well as conceptual to be effective. Just listening to teachers talk about democracy is not enough. The information goes in one ear and out of the other! It has to be lived in the everyday life of the school or it is indeed ‘reading holiday brochures in prison.’

So, not much learning to become a democratic citizen.  

What about learning for the workplace?

Well most secondary schools taught subjects to single-age classes that had little relation to real life,  often in groups defined by ‘ability’ in a schedule or time-table of one-hour periods of time or something similar. Sometimes the time would be longer for mathematics or science because they were ‘very important’ subjects, and shorter for music or drama or art because they were ‘not at all important.’ In some English schools these ‘arts’ subjects are disappearing altogether. Well what has this got to do with any workplace that you have ever seen? Groups of workers of the same age martialled from building to building every hour by a bell!  The head teachers would admit when challenged that this was true but claim that the learning and testing was preparing students to get good exam grades that would eventually lead to highly paid prestigious careers. ‘But for how many?’ I would ask? ‘Well for some of those who get to the best universities,’ would be the reply. “What about all the others?’ I would ask. ‘And what about the young people with a gift for music or painting or gardening or caring for the old?’  The head teacher would then tell me that it was the government that I worked for that was forcing her or him to judge the success of the school by its academic examination results, and of course that would be true. The government showed little interest in curiosity, creativity, collaboration or communication – the skills that many employers ask for, because they are too difficult to grade.

Though interestingly I was once ordered by the government, when it was planning to introduce citizenship education into the curriculum, to do some research to see if the few state  schools that did listen to the voices of the students and include them in real decision making, and did give students some responsibility and choice in their learning, got better or worse results than other schools in similar socio-economic environments. Well I could only find 20 such schools out of 3500 English secondary schools but the results were encouraging. The more democratic schools got better final examination results, better attendance, and had fewer exclusions for anti-social behaviour than the average for all other schools in similar areas. Unfortunately my report, known as the Hannam Report and still available on-line, although it had some effect on the curriculum of some schools  for a while was substantially ignored by most schools and then forgotten by a new Conservative government.

So school was hardly preparing students for the workplace apart perhaps  for the minority most suited for academic study – and even many of these were made anxious unhappy by the pressure which did nothing to support deep learning.

So – what about lifelong learning?

Well I must have talked with thousands of students in my 200 inspections. The picture was depressing. “It has all been so boring and so anxiety making that once I am out of here I want to forget about school learning for ever.” And of course, as we all know, that is exactly what happens – we forget nearly all the stuff that we have  learned for examinations  because we were not intrinsically interested but purely extrinsically motivated by the  the exam grade.

So not much preparation for lifelong learning – more like life-long forgetting.

What about developing the whole human being by encouraging their interests and passions? Honestly in most schools it just didn’t and doesn’t happen. There is no time to listen to the students to find out what interests them and what they love to do and to learn. The academic pressure controls everything

Do you recognise the picture that I am painting?

So what is to be done?

I have four key suggestions

Number one – governments should create ‘Departments for Alternative Education’ within their ministries of education.

These alternative education departments should actively encourage and provide funding for a national network of alternative schools such as the Holistic School, Summerhill, Sudbury Valley School or Hadera School that would become part of an international idea-sharing network – perhaps like EUDEC, IDEC,  APDEC or the European Sudbury Valley Schools network has done for the largely private democratic schools. These departments should develop some initial teacher training programmes and liaise with universities to initiate more research interest in democratic education. At the same time they should ensure that a specialist team of inspectors develop the competence to inspect such schools if necessary, to ensure child protection and building safety for example and to ensure that the schools are doing what they claim to be doing. I am not opposed to accountability if state funding is being used so long as the inspectors understand what they are inspecting!

We have a tiny handful of such schools within the English state system – you could google the XP school in Doncaster or School 21 in London –  where project-based learning with much student choice in creating learning pathways and a degree of democratic participation is to be found, though still burdened with examinations at 16 and 18. Sadly they do not have strong  official support. In fact there is a general sense of disapproval from some government ministers and inspectors who seem to almost want them to fail.

The situation in some other European countries is more encouraging. In the Netherlands for example a network of schools like the AGORA school in Roermond is emerging with much more emphasis on students identifying and following their interests in buildings that facilitate learning rather than class teaching. There are still final examinations which students must prepare for but these schools feel quite different and non-coercive compared to traditional schools. Also in the Netherlands the government is considering providing state funding for the growing network of private democratic schools. In fact the Dutch inspection system now uses alternative schools in order to train and educate new inspectors. This is very encouraging.

In Finland the whole school system is moving away from coercion towards student’s choice and control with emphasis on project based learning and a degree of student democracy in part achieved through active national school student organisation for Finnish, Swedish and Sami speaking young people. Similar development are happening in Norway and in the nearby Baltic State of Estonia.

In Israel there is probably the most developed network of state funded fully democratic schools in the world where students are entirely in control of their own learning and it is their choice whether to work for state examinations or not. The wonderful Hadera school founded by Yaacov Hecht is a perfect example.

My second proposal for governments is to require all schools, state and private, to allocate at least 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 be free to negotiate with teachers and students in a ‘20% Committee’ how this programme would be organised and managed.

One or two 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 negotiation process is in itself education for democracy. 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 of the 4th Industrial revolution 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.

Her 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. 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 to at least 80% self-directed to 20% prescribed – and in many cases 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. It is how young humans are born to be until school systems get to work on them. I once upset some head teachers by saying that ‘it is almost impossible to stop children learning but schools manage it somehow.’ I exaggerated of course – but maybe not that much!! 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.

This brings me to my third proposal for governments. After creating the ‘Alternative Education Department’, funding private democratic schools and introducing 20% self-directed time for all students in all schools the next step would be to support the creation of ‘schools-within-schools’ in many large state schools. 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 would be the norm.

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 school in Tallin in Estonia – the name of which by chance translates as Summer Hill School.

But I am nearly 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 a campaign entirely organised by young people called ‘Teach the Future.’ In the face of the challenges of climate change they are demanding a more relevant, joined-up and student directed school curriculum in schools that are both fully ‘green’ in their buildings and operation and that are the base for action in their communities to produce a more sustainable way of life.

Thank you for listening.

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

Read more from Derry Hannam

Derry Hannam’s book, Another Way is Possible – Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School has recently been published as an e-book by Smashwords. You can order it here.

You can also 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