‘CONVERSATIONS FOR CHANGE’: Interview on democratic education with Rachel Roberts

‘Conversations for Change’ explores the relationship between Art, Politics and Education in terms of creating moments of potential and possibility for change. Possibility is, in this context, a condition that leads to thinking differently or imagining things otherwise than they are. ‘Conversations for Change’ creates discursive spaces in which to ask the questions: Is it time for change? What change is required? What is to be done? By whom and when? How can thought, imagination and language become action for change?

The following question was explored through a ‘Conversation for Change’ with:
Rachel Roberts: Director – Phoenix Education Trust
Location: London - 2013

‘What is a democratic education and what is its capacity for learning and social transformation?’

The interview was carried out by Deborah Mills as part of research on the democratic school

© Deborah Mills
Email: conversations7 at aol.com


A conversation with Rachel Roberts - Director
Phoenix Education Trust
London - 2013

Q: As an introduction to our conversation, what would be your definition of democratic education?

My definition of democratic education would be that it has two strands, or two pillars, which support it. One pillar is about self-directed learning and the other is about the decision making processes in which the whole school community have a say. Democratic education is about schools in which every member of the community has a genuine say about how the school is run and about what is affecting them. The students also have a say in guiding their learning.
At the Phoenix Education Trust, we say that democratic education involves a culture of respecting difference and promoting tolerance, so that the community can work collaboratively in collective decision making to meet their own needs. Learning, behaviour and interaction are all rooted in equality and respect so that the foundations of the whole school are based on these basic principles. The democratic processes of decision making are not enough when they stand on their own. Democratic education must be about a culture of respect and understanding between the people involved in a school.
In terms of the learning process, it is about responding to the fact that it is relatively well proven in terms of child development, and that children learn by following their own interests and following their own motivation. So a learning environment is developed in which children are able to follow their own interests and therefore, gain the most from their learning experiences.

Q: Looking at alternative educational models such as Summerhill for example, which do you think has the greater focus in their ethos - child-led learning, or the development of the learning community based on equality and respect?

In my experience of different democratic schools that are quite far on the radical end of the spectrum – in order for them to be successful, it is about finding a balance between self-directed learning and a culture of equality and respect. I think there are a lot of schools which very much operate around the child-led learning approach. Such as the broader ‘Free School’ movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s in North America , or the German model, where you find Montessori and other ‘Free’ schools operating within state funded education through freiertraegershaft. Then there are Sudbury Schools, inspired by Sudbury Valley School, founded in Massachusetts in 1968, these schools can be found across the globe and lay strong emphasis on full democratic governance. While these schools are about child-led learning - the whole constitution of the school is the most important factor.
My understanding of Summerhill, and I am not an expert, is that they have a school meeting in which the vast majority of the decisions about the school are made, but they do not have within the school meeting the ultimate vote on topics maybe around specific high level expenditure, or staff recruitment . The decision making for these things is not necessarily held in that meeting. The freedom of the children, however, to do what they want and learn in the way that works best for them and learn what they want to learn, is paramount and genuinely practised.
For me, the point of balance is that if there is the right environment of respect, then you don’t necessarily need the formal decision making processes to be as rigorous, because it is an intrinsic part of the school culture that the students will always be listened to in terms of their views and they will always feel they can have a say about anything that they want to talk about. It is more as though these structures are safety measures.

Q: How does democratic education involve a critical pedagogy and do you think this is a key part of democratic learning?

In this context, the term critical pedagogy, would be defined as teaching and learning which encourages the children to think for themselves and to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills as opposed to the transmission of knowledge.
I think yes, absolutely critical pedagogy is an important part of democratic education. On an intrinsic level, the entire way that the school is run is about the students actively thinking for themselves, assessing what is around them and reviewing and evaluating that and resolving issues as they arise. I think that in a lot of democratic schools, the students, for example, have a say about school rules and behaviour management. I think that is a strong example of how they engage with critical pedagogy, because they are thinking ‘this is our community; this is how we want it to work, how do we make it work and how do we regulate that and make it work for everyone?’ When an issue comes up in the context of when someone does break a rule, critical pedagogy comes in, because everyone wants to hear everyone else’s view as to how to resolve the conflict. The community are analysing the conflict by asking - how this has come about, what could we have done differently, how we can change things and how we can resolve the issues together? I believe this is critical pedagogy in action.

Q: What would you say are the learning and societal benefits of democratic education and do you think this form of learning has the potential for social transformation?

I think that one element is that in a democratic school you learn in everyday practice how to participate in democracy and you are then more likely to want to go out into the world and participate in the democracy that you are part of. This is because you experience the impact of democracy in your everyday life and find out what using your voice can actually achieve. When you go out into the world with the view that ‘I have a right to use my voice and if I use my voice I will be listened to’– therefore you go out and use it and this has immense potential in terms of social transformation.
Another element is around the experience of how you are learning, the fact that you are identifying areas that you are interested in and what needs to be done in order to learn in those areas and developing your skills according to that. In this way you are learning how you learn best. You are learning how to learn, you are learning how to respond to information around you and develop your learning based on that.
Again, I think if you look at the society that we live in now, we are unable to predict what the future reality will be for children who are currently starting school. In fifteen years time, when these children are going out into the world, we don’t know what society will look like and we don’t know what work will look like either. We are thinking about jobs that do not exist yet and talking about resources and tools that we cannot comprehend. Therefore, rather than children learning set information that they can recite – if they can learn the experience of how do I learn, how do I engage in something, how do I follow that interest and how do I follow my natural curiosity and gain skills that I need in any context as I identify them- then children are equipped to be flexible, to be adaptable, to learn new skills to change jobs and to use new resources.
So I think it is very much about creating the citizens that we are going to need in the future. I also wanted to say something around social trust. I think that because you are a member of a community in a democratic school where trust breeds trust, respect breeds respect and responsibility breeds responsibility, the individuals in that school experience that at a genuine level, they have incredible high levels of social trust. Again that is absolutely crucial when it comes to social transformation. If you are looking at people going out into the world actually believing that you can trust other people, you can talk to them honestly, you can resolve problems together, you can work together to meet everyone’s needs, then you are sending people out into the world with an ethos that can facilitate a very positive social future.

Q: Is there research evidence that demonstrates that democratic education is successful and if so, in what terms? Would this be achieving grades, preparation for life and work or perhaps developing a critical citizenry?

This is a really interesting question and it highlights a gap in terms of what we need to know. There is research and there is a network that is facilitated by Cambridge University which is called the Student Voice and Participation Research Group. I attended their conference recently. They are a gathering of international researchers who look at student voice and democratic education. A lot of the research that does exist is either anecdotal or narrative based. It uses a lot of qualitative methods, because to really measure the depth of what is going on in student participation, it involves working closely with small groups.
The Inspiring Schools ‘Impact and Outcomes – Taking up the Challenge of Pupil Participation’, which was funded by Carnegie and Esmee Fairbairn in 2006 is a great example of case studies which illustrate the value of participatory education in a broad range of schools. However, I would still say there is a need for a study which works with a larger group and is able to say, here is a large group and here is the impact. So you have schools like the Sudbury Valley School which did research on its Alumni and produced a publication about that, which does show graduates going into diverse careers and being high achievers as well as being street sweepers and what have you. But again in terms of research into that, there is a concern about what democratic education is about, which is the individual feeling ok about who they are and making the world work for them. So by saying this person is a street sweeper rather than a top lawyer, it is not necessarily a relevant reflection of the objective of democratic education. It is about buying into a concept that for education to be successful, it has to be giving equal rights to get to the top – rather than allowing people to achieve what they want to achieve in their lives and to live how they want to live and to achieve happiness and wellbeing.
There is an interesting project at the moment by Derry Hannam, who used to work for Ofsted as an inspector and then also worked for Summerhill in the case against Ofsted that allowed Summerhill to remain open. He taught in state schools in England in the 70’s and ran experiments in his classroom using judicial committees of students who decided how the classroom would run and how they would deal with behaviour issues. Recently, through social media, he has been able to get back in touch with the Alumni – people have contacted him through facebook and other social media, saying that their experience of democratic education in his classroom has had significant impact on their lives. Derry Hannam is working with people from his classes to write a book about how they feel the impact of having experienced democratic education has affected their lives, careers etc. They had such vivid memories of it and are contacting him 30 years later to talk about the impact and also to say thank you to him. I think this book would make a strong case for democratic education.
To come back to your point about achieving grades, it would be useful to actually have the data that said yes, this works and people do achieve grades, but again I feel that is quite challenging, because that is not necessarily the objective of democratic education, but I think that is the gap and this is the research that needs to happen. I have seen slow education as a concept. It is about allowing children to work at an appropriate pace in a creative way. It is about children being able to move around in the classroom and they learn each day with tasks that they are able to set for themselves, or they order the way in which they do them. They have a lot more freedom in the classroom and still achieve the National Curriculum targets. What I have seen which is quite powerful, is where they say, ‘our SATS results went up when we started practicing slow education’,
So I think in terms of the research that needs to happen, we need to look at the schools which are operating in that way and what happens to their results. It would be an interesting and very useful piece of research to have.
I would still want there to be a qualifier, however, saying that is not the objective of democratic education, but it is actually an effect of it and if it isn’t an effect of it, we need to go somewhere else, but I think that we need to find that out. The other research that definitely needs to happen is something looking at the longitudinal aspect of what happens to graduates from democratic schools. I think it is fascinating what Derry Hannam has done with his classroom and Alumni and I think there must be potential to do that on a wider scale.

Q: It would be interesting to know more about your own personal experience of democratic education and how has this has influenced your career?

When I came to a democratic school at the age of 13 I had become very unconfident and very disaffected – I wasn’t speaking or participating in anything and I was incredibly anxious because of the pressure of tests and achieving what I should be achieving and for me the very immediate experience as a teenager of democratic education was a huge sense of relief, along with a huge sense of empowerment.
I felt able to participate because I was able to participate in a way that worked for me, so I became very quickly active within the school community and took on roles of responsibility and led activities and initiated ideas, so it gave me a space to feel able to achieve and to do things and it also allowed me to develop a more diverse range of skills and interests, because I wasn’t being told that something was more important than something else. It was just as important that I was writing lots of poems and talking about poetry as it was that I was doing experiments in science as it was that I was spending time on the climbing wall and climbing every single day and that I was creating art work as well as learning about maths. It was all there and it was all equal and for me. That meant it gave me an attitude that I will just look at wherever I am and will take what I can from wherever I am, embracing the idea that I am learning from where I am and I see the value in whatever it is that I am experiencing.
I think it has also given me the confidence to learn new skills and to continue learning. It took away the idea that by now you should be this good or not bother. Life is about learning and you are always learning and I think the big example for that was learning a foreign language. I really struggled with language learning and when I went to Secondary school, I didn’t take the language GCSE, because I didn’t need to take one and I didn’t learn a language, I thought that is probably that for me and languages. But 8 years later I moved to Germany, without speaking a word of German, I just thought I will go somewhere new and see what happens and within 6 months I had basic fluency in German. I really didn’t need to learn it in school. I needed to learn in school that if I am in a context and want to learn something I can and I will and I went with that approach. I could have gone to Germany and thought I don’t want to learn the language and I could have come back to England, but because I got there and thought I want to know what people are saying, that capacity was there for me. I think that is something I have taken on, you can learn and it is never too late to be learning something new. I think that keeps me going in the whole of my career - the enjoyment of continued learning.

Q: It is stated on the Phoenix Education Trust Website that:
‘We promote education in which all members of the school community have a voice and real power in decision making’
Can you explain how this works in practice in the school learning environment?

The first steps in practice are around defining together what it is you are looking at, or what it is you are wanting to address. I actually heard about a good example of a school recently, who are a co-operative school who decided they wanted to have a student leadership structure. The people who decided were the parents, teachers and students, all agreeing that student leadership is important for our school. The students were given complete autonomy to conduct research amongst the student population, decide what system should be put in place in their school from analysing the results and then implementing the system. I thought it was a good example of the difference between an imposed structure and a structure that has come from the school community.
We are talking about having a genuine say and real power in decision making. Another example is around when students are having a say in terms of the recruitment of staff in schools, which is something that traditionally schools don’t practise. Increasingly, mainstream schools are using it and sometimes the students can ask someone a few questions and then give a view about it, but you can also take it through to the level where the students are actually holding an interview, where the students are showing people around on an official visit and suggesting whether they should be invited to a second interview. There was an interesting example at a college where they were advertising for a new Vice Principal. There is an adult panel who do one interview and the student interview panel, who are unsupervised by the staff and carry out a student interview with the applicant and all of the people who were involved in the interview process come together and discuss what they thought and decide together in terms of what decision should be made. They had one case where the students were very unsure about the applicants and they felt able to say, ‘if we don’t think that any of them are suitable, what we do?’ The adults said, ‘if you don’t think any of them are suitable then we will have to re-advertise for the position’. That is taking it that level further to the level of real decision making power.
To me that is the proof, that a large state secondary school is able to be conducted in that way. It comes down to having an environment in which there really is mutual trust and respect. I think there is a need to get away from fear around this concept. It is easy to imagine, when you imagine a democratic school, that there could be mayhem around decision making with people whimsically making decisions because they can and you have complete chaos and irresponsible decisions being made. What this misses is the fact that if you have a genuine democratic environment, people don’t have the need to do that. People don’t go off and make crazy and wild decisions because why would they? They want their school to be a good environment that works for them, so they don’t want to do something negative.
Of course young people push boundaries and test things, but it comes back to the fact that responsibility breeds responsibility and the more responsibility you give, the more people are able to fulfil it. That is how young people achieve the expectations that are put on them. So if you expect young people can responsibly decide about a behaviour management policy in the school, then they most probably can. You do need to support them in that process, but if you are genuinely involving them in that process you are also talking to them and they will honestly be saying what they need in order to be able to participate in this effectively, because what people want is for their voice to be heard and they want to be able to make their voice heard in an effective way.

Q: Can you talk more about a model of democratic education that is working successfully in the UK at the moment and comment on what makes it a successful model?

People are interested in democratic education in terms of what it is possible to do within the state system, or a democratic school that can take the concept as far as they want to. If someone is saying they would like to see what democratic education can be like in all its colours, as it were, then I would recommend that they would either visit Sands School, or get in touch with Summerhill. Those would be the places within the UK you can see the most whole school practice of democratic education demonstrated. In terms of places where I think you can see impressive democratic practice within the state system, there is a school called Bealings, which is near to Summerhill. They have developed their practice and have fulfilled the requirements to be a state primary school. They have also worked closely with Summerhill to look at how they can take directly from that model and be as democratic as possible. I have not personally visited this school. Another example would be the Wroxham School in Potters Bar, which would be good one to look at.

Q: Moving on and thinking more broadly and internationally - can you comment on the model of democratic education developed by Yacov Hecht in Israel and the vision he presents for Educational Cities? Do you think this model could work in the UK?

I know that there are groups of people who want to try and start something like that in the UK and I am very interested in the co-operative schools movement because their ethos is fundamentally parallel to a democratic education ethos and what they are doing is responding to the academy agenda by saying ‘ok - if we are going to have schools being run according to personal agenda, they can be co-operative schools and be run by the school community and the different stakeholders’. The first co-operative school was launched in 2008 and there are now 550 in total and that has grown so significantly that I think it shows the real potential there may be in this country if you can just find a model that fits and works well enough within the structures that exist. Members of the co-operative schools are also other organisations and people in the community and it has the potential to reach out to the community.

Q: Do you think this would be a valuable area for research regarding the development of democratic education as an alternative model of schooling?

Yes, it could be quite interesting. The democratic cities model is about having the buy in from your Major or people in the city to say ‘we want to make this happen here’ and also making it happen in one leap - let us start 10 schools in this borough or area in order to make a real impact.

Q: Returning to the work of the Phoenix Education Trust, how do you seek to promote democratic education in schools?

What we do in the schools often involves training for the school about how to improve their student voice practice or how to have more democratic processes in place. We have different training packages that are around confidence and communication, campaigning, peer training, citizen juries, and decision making processes. What we do is tailor the training to the school needs, so for example school wanted to have their students involved in the recruitment process and wanted to know ‘how can we have a system here in which pupils can be involved in the process and genuinely be influencing the process and be doing that responsibly and effectively?’. So the Trust went in and offered training to help them develop the skills and the structure in order to put that practice into place.
Another element we are currently working on with schools is student teacher feedback - how you can use resources in lessons in school in order to give the teachers constructive and appropriate feedback, because students are in many ways the experts in being taught. They know what works and what doesn’t work and often the way they express that isn’t that helpful for the teachers, so it is about working with the students and the teachers to look at how to develop systems that will work effectively.
We are doing a peer effect project at the moment which is working with 7 schools across the country. In each school we have done a workshop with a core group of 30 students – workshops on confidence and communication skills. In some schools there has been a different emphasis on leadership skills, in others maybe more on having a say in your classroom – it has been about meeting the needs of the different groups. This has been followed up by workshops on campaigning skills in which students have identified a topic they want to campaign about and learnt how to put together a campaign. We have then provided on-going support for them to run their campaigns which have been on a range of things- one group decided to raise awareness about animal cruelty. They designed posters, held bake sales and have raised money within the school for the campaign. We had some children who wanted to raise awareness about discrimination and have written a rap about it –they can put that into presentations and tell people about what they are doing. We have had poems about the importance of student voice and wanting to take this out into the community. The third stage of the project is that we are training those students in peer training skills so that they are able to go out into neighbouring schools and pass on the skills that they have developed. At the core of what it is about is that the students can develop their work in directions which they choose for themselves.

Q: What are some of the current projects being developed by the Trust and what is the long term vision for the work?

In terms of the training context, it is about the fact that our workshops are very much run on a democratic education ethos, so although you may be in a school where it is not very democratic, you can come in and have workshops with us. You can share your views as there is a lot of discussion and you are welcome to share your views and experience through open dialogue. If you think back to Derry Hannam’s students coming back and talking about the impact democratic education had on their lives, I think the more we can reach out and provide young people with the opportunity to experience that kind of interaction, the more valuable that is.
We have also just developed and piloted ‘Questions for Change’ – this is an online consultation tool. There are different versions for parents, teachers, students and governors. It asks questions about things like student-teacher feedback, the effectiveness of the school council, student participation in governor meetings, consultations and decision making, amongst other areas. Schools can complete this and get a multi-perspective report on where their school is in terms of democratic practice. We then provide a follow up consultation and report which can help the school progress on their democratic education journey.
For the Trust, I would hope that we would have an impact in the sense that there is a need to be connecting all the people who are working to promote democratic education. We are about to launch a new Directory which will be an online map in which individual schools, teachers and organisations who are practising democratic education in some way will be able to position themselves and connect. We have a lot of people who are doing really good work and there are elements of democratic practice going in classrooms around the country and most people don’t know about it and even the people practising don’t know about each other.
What I would like is for the Trust to become is a hub where you can find out what democratic education is about, since it is a term people don’t really know, and then choosing if you are defining yourself as practising democratic education. So, the vision is for Phoenix to become that hub of information, knowledge and exchange around democratic education and to be helping the schools on their journeys towards this.

Q: Do you think the current Free School movement presents an opportunity for the further development of democratic education in the UK?

I think it presents a window of opportunity. It gives potential for people to be opening up new democratic schools which are not fee paying and taking that notion of democratic education in those schools further than they previously have been able to do without being an independent school. So I think it is an exciting time and window of opportunity. I also think that the opportunity it provides has immense potential.

Do you have any other comments you would like to make to conclude our conversation about democratic education?

I think only in terms of what the Phoenix Education Trust is aiming to develop, which is to become a space where you belong if you are practising any element on the spectrum of democratic education. If you are doing any of these things, you are practising democratic education and if you are practising it, then get connected with people. In this way the concept and ethos is able to build. You may be doing one piece of democratic practice in your classroom. For example, a teacher may do circle time, but for the last few minutes of circle time a student takes a turn at chairing the discussion and during that time, even the teacher is in the position of asking to participate. This is one small thing that the teacher is doing in the classroom. I want the Trust to gather these moments of practice. Adding up all these small moments, all things become possible and can be combined to achieve a democratic approach.
That is why it is important to talk about democratic education, because if you talk about a democratic school, that has to operate as a whole on a democratic ethos. If you are talking about democratic education, however, you are talking about any element of education which engages democratic practice.

Please contribute to the conversation by emailing your thoughts and comments to:
‘Conversations for Change’ – email: conversations7 at aol.com

For more information about the Phoenix Education Trust, please visit:

© Deborah Mills