The Organic Child

Throughout history, many great thinkers have explored how to create the optimum conditions within which life skills can be taught to young minds. These have ranged from Rigid (hierarchical and disciplinarian) to Relaxed (self-determined and non-hierarchical) curricula and environments. Most people associate Alternative Education with the child-centred Montessori schools where learning happens through play and exploration, or the Steiner-Waldorf schools who work creatively with a child’s own pace of development.

Some thinkers, however, such as Scottish writer AS Neill in the early 1900’s, believed in the power of teaching self-responsibility through giving students freedom of choice. Neill was considered controversial and avant-garde when he set up Summerhill School in 1921, the first children’s democracy in the world, and which is still operating today, a community with a philosophy based on Equality, set in 12 acres close to the Suffolk coastline.

Summerhill, is a mixed boarding school for ages 5 to 18 years with pupils from the UK and overseas integrating in small classes which closely attend to each child’s needs. The emphasis is on building self-confidence through self-government and compassion. Children can choose to attend lessons if they wish, but nothing at Summerhill is compulsory or enforced.

In March 2000, the school was threatened with closure by the government owing to their unorthodox methods, but after much publicity and lengthy legal challenges brought about by the children and staff, the school is now protected and has a unique inspection system in place which takes into consideration the children’s own views. It has become an inspiration worldwide with its distinctive educational practices and spirit of openness.

Since AS Neill created his controversial Summerhill School, Democratic schools can be found across all continents, inspiring and guiding new thinking in how we can better educate our children.

Sands School in Devon is the second independent democratic school in the UK for girls and boys aged 11 to 17 years. It opened its doors in 1987 and has consistently attracted Good Ofsted reports since. What is unique about Sands is its lack of hierarchy or Head Teacher. The school is jointly managed by staff and students on an equal basis with the core values of Trust, Respect and self-direction encouraged among everyone. Students choose their subjects to study in small groups to ensure that anyone with SEN receives the individual attention they may need.

Brockwood Park school, founded in 1969 is a boarding school for 14 to 19 years set in the heart of the Hampshire countryside. It bases its learning around the teachings of educator philosopher, J. Krishnamurti. There is no punishment or reward and no grades, comparisons, competition or prizes. It is a school which encourages self-discovery through the creation of holistic study programmes by the students themselves. For those students who wish to take exams, they are encouraged to do so only when they feel ready. Such philosophies believe that enforcement of any activity undermines self-confidence and creates anxiety which will inhibit the acquisition of knowledge.

Alternative education is a fast growing community worldwide which adheres to the two tenets of: self-determined learning and a learning community based on equality and mutual respect. These communities aim to prepare students for life in the real world from a different angle than the mainstream education establishments, armed with self-confidence and curiosity, with abilities to communicate, negotiate and question, steeped in a philosophy of respect and compassion for their fellow men and women.

Alternative Education has its fair share of critics, especially regarding the lack of discipline. How will these children cope with the demands of the workplace which require reliability and the capacity to take orders from authority figures? But these schools maintain that they aren’t about force-feeding facts and figures until exam time – they prefer to focus on the development of the whole child, inside and out. So perhaps alternative education is better suited to those students who may be struggling with the rigidity of mainstream schooling.

Perhaps we should conclude there is room for everyone, and that Choice is a good option for both parents and child.