who gets to decide?

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Who Gets to Decide? Social Transformation and the Free School Movement 

While many alternative schools, including Montessori schools, may afford students relative freedom compared to the mainstream, those considered part of the free school movement have adopted a much more libertarian approach, emphasizing freedom from coercion and participatory governance.  While these schools do not have a single ideological or theoretical base (Gribble, 1998), they tend to share belief that the mainstream school system is unfit to meet the needs of children and society, or is even harmful to them (Graubard, 1972; Greenberg, 1995; Gribble, 1998), along with an earnest faith in the innate developmental potential of children (Greenberg, 1995; Gribble, 1998; Neill, 1992).  

In general, free schools seek to remove artificial barriers to the natural development of children, and to provide children with opportunities for active control over their own learning and development (Graubard, 1972; Gribble, 1998).  This perspective resonates with the ideas of both Dewey (1916) and Montessori (1967a); however, the resulting educational approach is highly distinctive.

Another characteristic feature of free schools is that they tend to espouse democratic ideals (Graubard, 1972; Gribble, 1998).  Although these schools may have the appearance of anarchy, the literature explains this in terms of providing the necessary freedom for children to develop autonomously, as a requisite for effective democratic participation (Greenberg, 1995; Holt, 1974; Neill, 1992).  This character finds expression in the schools’ participatory governance, as well as their minimal reliance on adult authority and coercion.  

While this section discusses the free school movement in general, most of the examples are drawn from two of the longest running free schools, about which the most has been written—Summerhill School, established by A.S. Neill in 1921, and the Sudbury Valley School, established in 1968 by a small group including the prolific Dan Greenberg.  While Neill and Greenberg have distinct philosophies, their commonalities reflect the general ideals of the free school movement, namely, that a free, participatory, and non-coercive approach, will lead to an improved experience for children and overall improved developmental outcomes (Gribble, 1998).  Literature from Summerhill reflects these ideals.  "We feel that Summerhill pupils are better prepared for the outside world than most other young people. [They] are used to being in control of their own lives and making decision for themselves – just as all adults do” (Readhead, 2009, para. 1).  While the school literature also suggests that many alumni go on to complete degrees (Greenberg & Sadofsky, 1992) and succeed in professional careers (Greenberg, Sadofsky, & Lempka, 2005; Readhead, 2009), a counter-cultural attitude is also reflected, downplaying these conventional measures of educational success, instead focusing on the success of graduates in pursuing a life of fulfillment and satisfaction (see Greenberg, 1996; Greenberg, Sadofsky, & Lempka, 2005; Gribble, 1998).

Manifestations in School Practice

Teaching, learning, and curriculum.

One of the most striking features of the free school movement is minimalism with respect to formal structures for student learning.  While some free schools may offer or even schedule classes, most lack a pre-defined course structure (Gribble, 1998).  Most commonly, classes are provided in response to children’s request rather than adult initiative (Greenberg, 1995; Gribble, 1998).  

In terms of teaching, the emphasis is on guiding and supporting children in their own initiatives, rather than on course-based instruction (Graubard, 1972; Greenberg, 1995; Gribble, 1998).  Given the nature of this kind of programming, much of the pedagogical activity in free schools is shifted into an informal domain, and much of it is conducted by other students, rather than by adults.  Students in free schools learn subject matter, but much of that learning is incidental, and results from other activities which children are engaged in (Graubard, 1972; Greenberg, 2002; Neill, 1992).

Not surprisingly, children in free schools have limited external accountability, and examinations are few.  Some schools offer students the opportunity to write state graduation exams, and many choose to (Readhead, 2009), but these tend not to be compulsory.  The schools may also offer an alternative accountability mechanism in lieu of exams.  At the Sudbury Valley School, for instance, students wishing to receive a diploma must write and defend a thesis in front of their peers, outlining their learning, contributions, and achievements, and demonstrating that they are ready to become a productive member of the adult society (Gribble, 1998; Greenberg, 2002).   

School governance, and discipline.

In terms of the stated democratic ideals, one of the distinctive commonalities of free schools is the meaningful way in which they involve students in school management and governance.  While free schools may have the appearance of anarchy, most are highly organized, with sophisticated governance structures and elaborate procedures for addressing concerns.  While each school is managed in its own way, most have some type of regular school meeting attended by all, children and adults alike.  These meetings provide an opportunity to keep everyone abreast of school news, and to discuss governance issues (Graubard, 1972).  Typically these meetings are chaired by students, and follow a formal procedure.  Item are discussed and voted on without distinction between the authority of children or adults (Gribble, 1998; Neill, 1995).

In addition to regular meetings, most schools also have a number of other governance structures such as committees or councils, often with well-developed institutional structures of their own.  The schools may also have a number of policies that provide structure to student life.  At Summerhill, for example, “There is a regular framework to the day with mealtimes, getting-up times, bedtimes and lesson times (though the latter are optional).  There are also rules, and those who break rules may well be punished” (Gribble, 1998, p. 19).  However, the common theme among these schools is that the authority is emphatically not in the hands of adults (Greenberg, 1995; Neill, 1992).  While these schools may have hundreds of rules, changes to the rules, and enforcement of those rules, are in the hands of the collective, and overwhelmingly controlled by the children (Readhead, 2009).  

In addition to such formal procedures and institutionalized governance structures, it is clear that successful free schools also have their own well-developed informal structures.  The literature from longstanding free schools describes a distinct culture and identity to each, along with a variety of routines and traditions which may not be articulated in formal policy, but which contribute to the social cohesion and long-term viability of the school (see Greenberg, 1995; Gribble, 1998; Neill, 1995).  The extent of student involvement in school life creates a theoretically fluid structure, but an entrenched culture and broad-based democratic participation provide a sort of stability of their own.


The free school movement challenges basic assumptions about what schooling is and could be, and about the needs of children.  The fact that some free schools have been operating for many decades suggests that the basic approach can be viable.  And the fact that students from these schools have gone on to live happy lives, complete degrees, and succeed in professional life (Greenberg, Sadofsky, & Lempka, 2005) suggests that such an approach can fulfill the basic educational requirements of preparing students for these things.  Having demonstrated this basic potential, these schools push the boundaries of what can be considered “negotiable” in the school setting, and provoke new questions about the malleability of school forms and their tacit impacts on children.

Free schools also provoke a deeper question about the extent to which it is truly possible (let alone desirable) to free children from coercive forces.  The Summerhill and Sudbury examples illustrate that while adult coercion and authority has been all but eliminated, other socializing agents—formal and informal—have developed in their place.  School life necessarily involves imposing certain expectations on children and shaping their behaviour, even if only through peer pressure.  Consequences, whether peer-imposed, adult-imposed, or simply natural, are unavoidable.  Such forces are inescapable, and the open question is who should determine the nature of them.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction t the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.

Graubard, A. (1972). Free the children: Radical reform and the free school movement. Toronto: Random House.

Greenberg, D. (1995). Free at last: The Sudbury Valley School. Framingham MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.

Greenberg, D. (1996). Outcomes. Retrieved April 10, 2012 from http://www.educationfutures.org/outcomes.htm

Greenberg, D. & Sadofsky, M. (1992). Legacy of Trust. Framingham MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.

Greenberg, D., Sadofsky, M., & Lempka, J. (2005). The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Framingham MA: Sudbury Valley School Press. 

Greenberg, M. (2002). The view from inside. Framingham MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.

Gribble, D. (1998). Real education: Varieties of freedom. Bristol, UK: Libertarian Education.

Holt, J. (1974). Escape from childhood. Boston: E. P. Dutton.

Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling society. Saint Paul, MN: Marion Boyars.

Montessori, M. (1967a). The discovery of the child. New York: Ballantine Books.

Neill, A. S. (1992). Summerhill School: A new view of childhood. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Readhead, Z. (2009). Summerhill FAQ. Retrieved April 6, 2012 from http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/QAs-2009.pdf