Self-governing in a Free Democratic School

Have you ever wondered what happens when democracy is applied to a school? How does a school operate when children are part of the decision-making process? When kids have a voice in the process, does it turn out to be anarchy?

Jakub Václavovič from the Donum Felix school tells us more about the practicality of a school democracy.

A free and democratic school has rules, a decision-making process, and procedures like any other school. Yet these are different from what most of us, who attended a ‘regular’ school are accustomed to.

In a regular school, principals and teachers create the rules, make the decisions and take responsibility for running the school. In more progressive schools, a parliament is created which has an influence on the day-to-day school life. In a free democratic school all the members, both pupils, and staff create the rules. The responsibility for running the organization is shared. Voting takes place for many reasons, such as accepting visitors, new pupils, teachers and even influencing the usage of money. And for sure this doesn’t cover all the diverse topics that are discussed and decided about.

In Sudbury schools (the model of free and democratic schools originating in the USA) even the salaries, hiring or firing of staff members is the responsibility of the school members.

In our community, making decisions starts with a discussion of what we might want to change. These conversations and the resulting actions take place at the school meeting which takes place every Monday and Thursday morning.

An agenda is drafted with input from all parties. The meetings are conducted in a circle so that everyone can see one another and communicate directly. The symbolism of the circle also reflects equal rights and responsibilities of all school members.

A moderator is chosen at the beginning of every meeting keeping the discussion effective, and ensuring that everyone who wants to voice their perspective has a chance.

In most group meetings decisions are made using a majority vote. However, majority votes are not always the most harmonious way to reach a decision.

Thus we have created a method of voting that is based on sociocracy. In our system, the voting is not ‘for’ or ‘against’ a proposal. Instead, a consensus is created by having a two-hand voting system. One hand means that there is some resistance towards the proposal, but it could still be acceptable. Raising two hands means one has a strong opposition towards the proposal and cannot accept it.

The aim is to try to understand the needs and improve the proposal so that it reflects the needs of all people and is acceptable to everyone. Sometimes it happens that a proposal goes through, even against one-handed opposition. It can never go through if two hands are raised. The goal of the process is to obtain consent. It is not sufficient to only oppose some proposal, members are expected to express their opposition and present an alternative proposal.

And what about the rules?
Rules are categorized as Basic Rules, Safety Rules, Visitors rules, Room Rules, Cleaning Rules and more. Every time a new rule is accepted, it becomes part of the book of rules and is put onto a board so everyone has a chance to notice it.

Both children and adults are responsible for the school atmosphere and everyone is expected to act upon the rules we all co-create. If the rules are broken, there are several ways to react. Usually, a reminder is enough if it is not a serious misdemeanor.

If children are not able to solve the situation themselves, they are encouraged to find someone (either a schoolmate or staff member) who could help with mediation. The Committee for protection of rights in the school has the task to solve complicated violation of the rules. It has 5 members (two adults and children of various age) and its goal is to help with the process of finding a solution and to learn from it.

Is this Anarchy? If by anarchy we mean chaos, the answer is no. The community has a structure, all members participate and rules are enforced. This is Democracy.

This article has been kindly contributed by Jakub Václavovič, Staff member, ZŠ Donum Felix, Kladno.