Democratic education

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Democratic education is the teaching of children in an environment where they are considered equal to their teachers and treated accordingly. One of the most famous examples of such schools is Summerhill ( founded by A.S. Neill after he visited The Little Commonwealth of which Homer Lane was the Superintendent. The Little Commonwealth was a co-educational community in Dorset taking children from a few months old up to 19, those who were over 13 years of age were sent to the school because they were classed as being delinquent (Mintz 1996).

Democratic educational schools work on the principle that teachers and students should be treated as equals and that they should have an equal share in the taking of the majority of decisions within the school (in Summerhill the exceptions to this rule were matters of budgeting, bedroom arrangements and the hiring and firing of teachers).

Democratic education argues that children and teachers should both have democratic governance of the school therefore the students and teachers take decisions during a weekly decision-taking meeting. Teachers and students are all given 1 vote each and no vote carries more weight than any other. A different person chairs the meeting each time it is held, and is appointed by the previous week’s chairperson. The success of the meetings depends greatly upon the presence and strength of the chairperson. The communities at the schools are considered to be a continuing part of the education of the children. In line with this view, the school as a whole deals with punishments and other discipline.

The system of education is also founded on the idea that children should have freedom of choice in what activities they attend. Classes are therefore optional with children having the choice to play, hang out or attend the class of their choosing during the school day. To a degree, classes are organised in terms of the age group attending, however, some classes are open to anyone who is interested in attending from any age group.

The system of education is based on the writings of John Dewey and has been strongly influenced by Homer Lane and A.S. Neill. However, the system stresses that it does not accept an “uncritical acceptance of any supposedly superior guide living or dead” (Gribble 2005).

There are currently 183 democratic educational schools spread out over Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Lesotho, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States (

Critics of the system argue that this relaxed form of education puts its students at a disadvantage when they enter the world of work (Smith 1999). They argue that the children are unprepared for the challenges of the real world and will feel handicapped when competing against children who have been forced to learn in a more classical education structure (Smith 1999). A.S. Neill and students who have attended Summerhill School refute this claim (Smith 1999).

It is difficult for this style of education to be properly compared to other techniques due to the small size of the schools in which it is practised. It is questionable if Democratic Education would work on a bigger scale or without a strong central figure such as Neill to keep the system on track (Smith 1999).


Gribble, David (2005) Network of Democratic Educational schools, IDEN website, (Visited 19-July-05).

Smith, Mark K. (1999) Education for Democracy, infed website, (Visited 19-July-05).

Mintz, Jerry (1996) Democratic School Governance, The Education Revolution website, (Visited 19-July-05).

Summerhill School (2004) The most well known example of democratic schooling. (Visited 19-July-05)

Useful Links

Democratic Schools
A list of worldwide democratic schools. (Visited 19-July-05)

Education and American democracy
A more detailed look at the opinions and teachings of John Dewey with regard to Democratic Education. (Visited 19-July-05)

Infed website
Informal education homepage aimed at encouraging teachers and other educators to look at different ways of working and to develop relationships between different education styles. (Visited 19-July-05)

Learn Peace
A union based peace pledge project which gives a more detailed view of democratic education and some of the philosophies and beliefs that the technique is based on as well as a more in depth history of the system. (Visited 19-July-05)

Phoenix education trust
A small national charity that aims to support education in which children are trusted, respected and involved in the decision-making. (Visited 24-August-05)

The Education Revolution website
A reference point for democratic schools. (Visited 19-July-05)

See the International Democratic Education Network (IDEN) website for more info at IDEN were previously known as WREN - the Worldwide Real Education Network.