The Free School – Upcoming Newstalk Documentary

Students at Wicklow Sudbury. Image courtesy Wicklow Sudbury



Download: The Free School Trailer

Think back, what were your least favourite parts of school? Maybe math, maybe physics, maybe you just hated gym. Now imagine a school where you didn’t have to do anything you didn’t want to. A school with no exams, no homework, no classes, not even any teachers. What if I were to tell you that not only does that school exist, it’s right here in Dublin, in a regular semi-d near the cold unfinished boom era monstrosity of the Sandyford industrial estate. This documentary explores a year in the life of Ireland’s most unconventional school, ‘Wicklow Sudbury’. This radical form of schooling has been running in the United States for almost fifty years, but can it work here? We follow the first few months of the fledgling school. Listeners will meet students, staff and parents, and explore what they found lacking in conventional education. In the process we’ll see just what Irish education can learn from The Free School.

Wicklow Sudbury School is an experiment in alternative education, attempting to apply the principles of ‘free schooling’ and ‘unschooling’ in the Irish context. The first ever term has recently begun, and right now the school consists of eighteen students of all ages, learning together.

Free or democratic schools are organised around the principle that students should take a lead in deciding their own educational path. These schools take a radical approach to encouraging free thinking and agency in their students. Free schools offer an alternative to mainstream education. They share an emphasis on child-centered learning: Seeing the learner as an active participant who choses his or her own course of study.

For many Wicklow Sudbury students the mainstream educational system has been a failure. They or their parents haven’t found the education they’re looking for in standardised classes and subject based classes. Instead they’ve chosen a school with no classes, no subject, no homework and no teachers. We follow their first few months in the school and learn how radical education works in Ireland in practice.

Broadcaster: Newstalk 106 – 108fm
When: Sunday 12th November at 8AM, repeated at 10PM on Saturday 18th November.
Online: Podcast or soundcloud.

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Free Schools or No Schools

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Serious question: Why are we so comfortable with imprisoning children for 12 – 14 years? It seems the answer is we’ve constructed an economic system that requires both parents to work, for most of each weekday. Schools act in loco parentis, helping to tame children in preparation for an adulthood of service to industry. They take in creative, artistic, anarchic individuals and release obedient, ambitious conformists. But there is another way.

BBC News recently ran a great retrospective on the free schools of the 1970’s. Free schools, also known as ‘democratic schools‘ serve a caretaker role, without indoctrinating learned helplessness, conditioning obedience, and training respect for unearned authority. What the article doesn’t mention is that free schools, despite having almost disappeared from the UK, are far from extinct. In the United States Sudbury Valley Schools are an increasingly popular alternative, offering a playground for learning, rather than a cage for ‘education’.

Beyond Sudbury, ‘unskooling‘ (a secular equivalent of ‘home schooling’) is a growing movement in the US, as parents (wealthy enough to have the the choice) remove their children from an increasingly unequal, militarised public school system.

Here’s the thing. We pay lip service to entrepreneurship and ‘life long learning’, but if we really want a society of empowered creative individuals, we can’t expect it to emerge from a cookie cutter approach to ‘training’. People learn, dogs are trained.

A kind of amnesia occurs in parents, who forget just how stifling and uninspiring most of their time spent in school actually was. It’s precisely because the majority of school is spent ‘keeping the head down’, trying to placate capricious teachers, and stressing over exam results, that we remember the teachers who went against the grain and genuinely inspired us.

So what can well intentioned parents and educators actually do? After all, we need an income to survive, and fewer of us than ever have access to the extended alloparenting arrangements that our ancestors enjoyed. The answer isn’t simple or easy – but it’s clear. The twentieth century, 9 – 5 employee / business arrangement doesn’t work. It doesn’t allow us to be citizens invested in our communities. It incentivises employees not to rock the boat, as financial institutions mismanage and outright steal vast quantities of global wealth. It trains us to defer to higher authorities, even when they display no real concern for our best interests.

All these issues are connected: the revolution in robotics that will put most manufacturing and service industry workers out of a job in the next twenty five years. The increasing inequality of the globalised economy, concentrating ever more of our wealth in the hands of a tiny group of literally jet-setting plutocrats. The economic necessity of basic income. The enormous possibilities for learning created by the internet, and the bonkers dropout rate of online courses.

Years ago I volunteered at Seomra Spraoi, a consensus run communal space off Gardener St in Dublin. At the time, Seomra had a parent run Steiner playschool, where a group of volunteer parents put into practice the art driven principles of Waldorf Education. What they shared wasn’t any formal pedagogic education, but a real concern that their children should become rounded human beings.

Here’s the thing – we can all do this. Teaching doesn’t have to be a profession – in fact, I’d argue that (like political office) it should never be. Learning doesn’t have to be something you only do from age four to seventeen or twenty two. Anyone running a business or practicing a profession will tell you that the first couple of years at their job were far more informative than the dozen or more spent in the classroom.

No magic bullet is going to make our education system fit individual kids, rather than the amorphous mass of students. No curriculum (online or off) will erase individual differences, or inspire the way allowing a person to follow their innate interests and talents will. Learning and teaching need to become part of how we operate as people. It might be simple things like creating community education programmes, volunteering at libraries, or teaching as part of our businesses, studios and factories. It might involve working less, taking on less or no debt, and living a more modest life – accepting that we won’t own the latest consumer goods, but will have time to learn to teach and to create, in other words, to live. If we do these things – if we undermine the systems constructed to inhibit us, we’ll empower citizens capable of genuinely changing a system enabled by mediocrity.