Ask any parent what they want for their child and the answer is almost always the same: to be healthy and happy. This is what most families strive to achieve in the home environment. However, a huge part of our children’s life is not spent at home, but at school. Many modern-day parents feel that mainstream schooling, with its imposed curriculum and traditional teaching methods, does not really allow children to develop their full potential and thereby be truly happy.
A growing awareness of this dissonance between the kind of society we aspire to and the way we are educating our children has spawned the creation of numerous alternative schooling methods, one of the most inspiring of which is provided by the Sudbury schools.
Sudbury schools are based on three essential principles: Freedom, responsibility and democratic decision-making. The first Sudbury school was established in 1968 in the USA. Its founding members firmly believed that learning is a natural by-product of all human activity and that as such, it is an individual process which should be self-initiated and self-motivated. To this end, in a Sudbury school, students are effectively given the responsibility for their own education. There are no traditional classes and no academic expectations. The schools are run by direct democracy, with students and staff alike having an equal say in all school decisions.
The first anglophone Sudbury School in Paris, in the 13th arrondissement, opened its doors last year and welcomes students from the ages of 5 to 19. Its popularity has already led staff to anticipate the need to move to larger premises where they could host up to 50 students. Though it has the same academic term dates and operates a 5-day school week from 8:30am to 5pm, any similarity to a traditional State school ends there. There are no morning assemblies, no roll-calls, and no imposed study activities. Students decide for themselves how they want to invest their time at the school.
Finn Dickman, one of the founding members of Sudbury School Paris, explains: «A revolutionary insight of Sudbury Valley School, the school that inspired us, is that if you trust children and leave them to their own devices they are more than able to take care of themselves. They never lack ideas or creativity or the desire to do things. We see them as their own best educators. We don’t establish a hierarchy of subjects or things to learn. If something makes sense to them to learn, they will pick it up. It is from the environment and the adult that they will be inspired to learn more.» There is no ‘teaching’ of any subjects as such, not even those traditionally considered as essential prerequisites to a general education. «Well, when you start defining certain fields of study as absolutely essential, why stop at Maths, English or French?» argues Finn, «What about computer science? More and more people are saying we should integrate emotional well-being and meditation and things like that. Why not? Why not sewing? Why not cooking? How do you actually define which of these skills is more essential than the others?»
Students of all ages decide for themselves the subjects that interest them and are then free to pursue that interest as far as they wish. Time is not a limiting factor. Clearly not all subjects can be catered for within the school itself, so there is also a budget for external tuition when necessary, for example for learning to play a musical instrument or taking an online training course.
With such freedom of choice, many parents would worry that their offspring would simply spend every day playing video games. This is a valid concern and one which team member Alice Schan is used to hearing: «It’s a controversial subject and we have discussions with parents about this. It’s all about the child’s freedom. Interestingly, on this subject, a speaker at the Eudec conference this year explained that all children want to be a hero. That’s why they spend so much time on video games. In school they are always compared and judged. If you want to be a hero at school, basically you have to be the first in the class for all the subjects, all the time, which is impossible. Also, you are judged at home because your parents often project some of their own wishes onto you. Even if they don’t say it, they send a message which implies ‘I would love you more if you were more like this, or more like that.’ Video games are a way to escape all of this and to be a hero.»
Finn adds, «The fact that for many children, their freedom has been restricted for so many years, obviously when they first get a taste of it at the school they want it all. So there is necessarily a transition phase; a time during which literally all they will do is play, but they eventually outgrow that. They outgrow the notion that effort is not rewarding. Actually, we don’t see it as just play, we see it as intensive focus. Basically, the focus that you can develop in one area, if your interest shifts to something else, well you’ve still got that focus, and you can just shift it to something else and dive into that.» This has led to some students learning to code and to create their own games.
The school democratically decides its own rules, which in Sudbury Paris include individuals being responsible for tidying up after themselves and for economizing electricity. During the daily judicial committee meetings (which may be chaired by students or staff), any transgressions of these rules are discussed openly. Everyone is free to express themselves, and to defend their actions or opinions on any subject that may arise. Even sanctions are debated and agreed upon democratically. These ‘JC’ sessions are an important aspect of Sudbury schooling as they introduce students to an understanding of others’ opinions, which is of course, an important part of living in any society. Finn acknowledges that being held accountable for their actions in these meetings can be daunting for students initially, «But to be able to learn to be heard, to express yourself, to be factual rather than emotional, to learn that people might offend you or do things that are unpleasant but that they don’t necessarily mean to be, teaches students to deal with this and to take a more mature stance.» It certainly encourages the students to be articulate and capable of a coherent debate. As Alice says, «When you have a lot of freedom and a lot of time, relationships with people become a lot easier, because you take time to listen to other people and to be heard yourself. It removes the frustration many feel in more constrained environments.»
Since Sudbury schools are independent of the national curriculum, there are no set examinations or diplomas for students to attain during their time at the school. «Here, in this context, students can choose the qualification they want to take themselves.» says Finn. «A’ levels, GCSEs, the Bac, the international Bac… There’s no limitation. The whole idea of this school is that your education is in your hands and that you’re free to do what you want with it, but it’s your responsibility. That’s the bottom line.» So students study for the qualifications they want in the timeframe that they want.
With such a unique and open approach to education, it is important to ensure that both parents and students fully understand the Sudbury school ethos before any new enrolment, so the team always arranges for an initial interview with the family. «We try to make sure that the student who wishes to join really understands the approach and is fully on board, because although the freedom might seem very appealing, the responsibility is less obvious.» says Finn, «We try to make sure that there are no false expectations, that they understand the role of the adults in the school, and that they are here because they want to take their education into their own hands. Of course during an interview it’s all very theoretical. That’s why we also have a trial period, which allows them to experience the school for two weeks, to check that it does meet their expectations. At the end of the two weeks we have a final interview with the member to find out how they found the experience, how their understanding of the school has evolved and to generally make sure they’re a good fit.»
Parents should also be aware that there are no written school reports: «Parents are encouraged to be coherent with the choices they make for their child. Part of that is respecting the child’s privacy. If your child wants to tell you about their day they will. If they don’t, no one else will do it instead of them. We do however have meetings with parents whenever they are requested. If they need to talk about something challenging, we can have as many meetings as they wish and there are regular parent-staff meetings. It’s a hyper social environment. We build a relationship of trust, goodwill and respect. When people don’t feel judged or pressured, they tend to relax and be themselves.»
Parents of students currently attending the school have already described how they have witnessed their children, who were previously bored, frustrated or unhappy in traditional schools, become more assertive, more open and simply much happier since they have been attending Sudbury School Paris.
For more information about this inspiring school, you can meet members of the team at the ‘Which school is right for my child?’ school fair, organised by AAWE at 65 Quai d’Orsay, 75007 Paris on Saturday 3rd February from 3:00 to 5:30pm, or check out the school website