Talk given by Derry Hannam at the opening of the EUDEC 2008 conference, Leipzig, Germany

Derry Hannam

July 2008, University of Leipzig, Germany.

It is a great privilege and pleasure to have the task of welcoming all the new faces who are joining this already successful conference for the next two days. Please do not feel that you are in anyway second class citizens - an entirely new programme exists for the two days that you are with us. It is really great that after 15 years of IDEC we now have a EUDEC thanks to the hard work of Leslie and her colleagues.

Many of you are not personally involved in democratic schools at the present time, and that is equally true of some of us who are already here.

I should perhaps briefly define what in my opinion is a fully democratic school. It is one in which all people of whatever age have an equal vote in decisions concerning the day-to-day management of the school and where there is absolutely no compulsion or coercion for students to attend any particular learning activity or lesson. There can be many variations within these criteria but they are probably at the core.

I guess that we are all keen to learn more about how such unusual schools can work whether we are homeschoolers, students, parents, researchers, teachers, administrators, inspectors or people hoping to start a new school.

I am sure that many of you will share my purpose for example, which has been and still is to introduce more democracy into our traditionally authoritarian state/public school systems. My own work is in the UK and Europe as a whole through the Council of Europe (COE) and the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU).

I don’t know if the word serendipity translates into German (perhaps Jung’s ‘synchronicity’ comes close) – it means the way in which things sometimes appear to happen by chance but later turn out to be truly significant events. Just by chance while I was waiting to go to university to study to be a teacher I got a job in a very democratic group therapy psychiatric unit for young people. There were no uniforms or white coats for staff and all the people in the unit addressed each other by their first names from the most senior psychiatrist to the youngest patient. The ‘treatment’ or perhaps I could say ‘education’ basically involved living together and making decisions in democratic community meetings twice a day. Sometimes visiting doctors would say ‘this is crazy – we cannot discern who are staff and who are patients.’ I used to say to them ‘In that case do you think that you might be in the wrong job?’

I learned that we are all unhappy and confused at times in our lives and then we need help. At other times we are stronger and can help others. I had a parallel approach when I went to university to become a teacher. I thought that we all, whatever age, sometimes need to be learners and at other times can be guides or teachers. So when I was forced to go to psychology lectures about Pavlov and his dogs and Skinner and his rats. I asked ‘what has this got to do with children growing and learning?’ The lecturer became a little tired of this arrogant student who asked too many questions and I was allowed to leave the official course and to construct my own ‘alternative’. In the college library I discovered a whole section of books, some very dusty having not been opened for years, by Dewey, Tolstoy, Lane, Wills, Boeke, Russell, Bruner, Vygotsky, and, somewhat prophetically, A.S. Neill.

Their arguments for a democratic approach to learning and schooling made total sense to me, and my somewhat depressed spirit began to soar into the sky again. From the start as a teacher I introduced democratic methods as much as I could even if the overall situation was authoritarian. It was always possible to change something and it always worked! Gradually I become responsible for larger parts of schools and it just went on working. At times I can honestly say that every child was participating democratically and taking responsibility for something however small. Of course on a spectrum with a truly democratic school like Hadera or Summerhill or Sudbury Valley at one end and a traditional authoritarian school at the other we had probably moved quite a bit less than half way – but we had moved!

At this time in the 1970’s and 1980’s we were a handful of principals and deputy principals in England who were regarded by our colleagues as being slightly mad. This I am glad to say is no longer the case in England or in many other parts of Europe though some, such as the Scandinavian nations, are still well ahead of us of course.

On retiring from school in 1992 I became a school inspector – a career which came to an interesting and sudden end when I worked for Summerhill and against my inspector colleagues during the time when the chief inspector tried to close the school in 1999. It was my best work as an inspector and as you probably know we were successful – but that is another story which no doubt you will hear from Zoe Readhead tomorrow.

At around the time of the Summerhill case the new UK Labour government decided to introduce Education for Democratic Citizenship into the English national curriculum. At this time I was involved with the Council of Europe project of the same name in which we had agreed at a large conference in Strasbourg in 1997 that democracy should actually be practised in the schools of Europe and not just talked about in lessons if it was to have any chance of being successful. Again serendipity or synchronicity was at work for me as at around this time I was asked to speak at a conference where the other speaker was the citizenship adviser to the minister, Bernard Crick, who was setting out his proposals for the new curriculum subject. I was able to say to him that if you just teach about democracy without actually practising it in the every day life of the school then you will be wasting your time. There is much evidence for this from failed Civics courses all around the world. He agreed. But he said that he had a problem. He had asked the English ministry of education for information about any state schools that were experimenting with democratic methods. They didn’t have any – but fortunately I had unofficially been collecting just this information in my work as an inspector. There were a handful of schools that were doing exactly what he was looking for and they became the case studies – or ‘pink boxes’ – in his final report to the minister which is known in the UK as the ‘Crick Report.’

As a result the minister was persuaded to include a legal requirement for all secondary schools under state control to create opportunities for students to actually participate in some real decision making. Then coming up to the next election in 2001 he panicked in the face of criticism from the chief inspector and the right-wing press that all this would be a waste of precious lesson time. As a result I was asked for hard evidence that this was not the case. I didn’t have anything quantitative – but from my visits to schools that were already trying some democracy I had formulated the hypothesis that its practice might be associated with better motivation and more willingness on the part of less academic students to at least try to learn something in lessons that they otherwise found intrinsically boring and irrelevant and at which they feared that they were doomed to fail. I had formed this impression from observing lessons, talking with students and teachers, and studying examination results in these ‘more than usually’ democratic schools.

To my surprise at the minister’s request I was given a research budget and a very short-time scale to go out and test my hypothesis. I found twenty schools that I called ‘more than usually participative’ and twelve agreed to take part in my research. I explored in detail every way in which they created opportunities for the students to participate in democratic decision making in and out of lessons. I looked at the examination results for more academic and the less academic students. I also looked at attendance and exclusion figures. My hypothesis proved to have some substance. The examination results for students in the twelve more democratic schools were better than the national average results for students in all schools in similar socio-economic environments. This was especially true for the less academic students – but also to a lesser degree for the more academic. The exclusion figures for kids thrown out of the schools for violent behaviour were also encouraging. The more democratic schools appeared to have less violence and bullying – the usual causes of exclusion. The attendance figures also appeared positive but were harder to interpret. I have to say that despite my work against them in the Summerhill case Ofsted were very helpful with data and statistical analysis from their vast Orwellian data base on school ‘performance.’ (The report that I wrote for the minister in 2001 is on-line with the embarrassing short-hand title of ‘Hannam Report.’ You can google for it.)

It was a small study – only 12 of 3500 state controlled secondary schools - and I only ever claimed an ‘association’ between democratic participation and better schools. Much more work would have to be done to establish the causal pathways though you do not have to be a genius to guess what some of them might be! Anyway, in 2001 it gave the minister the courage to challenge his critics with ‘we have some evidence that democratic participation actually improves results so where is your evidence that it does not?’ Of course they didn’t have any. Our right wing press does not waste its time with anything as unnecessary as ‘evidence!’

The work had some effect to the point that now we who argue with politicians and policy makers in England for more democratic schools are no longer a ‘mad minority’. Our views have become almost normal in the rhetoric of schools policy making if not in the everyday life of most schools. I was amused to hear the schools minister, Adonis, recently state that ‘there is growing evidence that student voice (or school democracy) leads to better examination results, attendance and behaviour.’ His speech writers are obviously not researchers – but it was nice to hear him making the claim even though in truth more evidence is required. (His own daughter is an active member of her primary school student’s council and this may be a strong pressure on him at bedtime. Great!!)

However, I should not be using this opening talk to advertise my workshops on the importance of research in our venture to let the light of democracy into our schools – though the work needs to be done and much can be done by school students themselves as part of their own democratic participation.

Right across Europe the rhetoric is beginning to go our way. Now we have to ensure that the reality keeps up with it. We must not fall into the elitist trap of believing that because a minority of perhaps already advantaged young people are participating then that is enough. It may in reality be a factor in why others are not participating! We need to be thinking about all our school students – and may I suggest especially those who come from less advantaged backgrounds where they see the adults around them experiencing powerlessness and alienation every day.

In conclusion I would like to say that in my view it is absolutely crucial that the bridges that are being built between those of us who are trying to change public school systems and those of us who are working in already fully democratic schools are strengthened and multiplied for the benefit of all young people.

I am sure that we will make the next two days an important contribution to this process.

Thank you.