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Sudbury schools: everything but an education?

by Bruno Van de Casteele

February 16, 2014

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Donate My wife recently suggested me this topic for my blog post. She had read in a "women's magazine" about a mother who sent her kids to a Sudbury school here in Belgium. Sudbury is rather new over here, but a couple of schools exist elsewhere in Europe and in the States (where it originated).

The principle, if I understand correctly, is a sort of "free" or "democratic" school. There are no teachers and principals, only "staff". There is no teaching plan, but the pupils learn and research the topics they themselves want to learn. And to decide what they will learn or even how the school is run (including hiring of new staff members), multiple "committees" exist where everyone (pupils and teachers) has 1 vote. Parents have little or no say in the management of the school, unless they participate as volunteers.

Luckily I only have two eyebrows, because there would have been a lot of "raising" going on ... Now to be fair there seems to be a couple of good things about this model. Pupils learn to be responsible and autonomous. The mixing of age-groups (there are no classes) can have positive effects for both older and younger pupils. And direct democracy sure seems tempting...

But let's not get carried away. I watched a video on the Dutch Sudbury School, and such a committee meeting sounded a lot like an extremely boring board meeting. They even started by voting on the minutes of meeting of last time ... We all will have our fair share of such meetings in adult life, do we really need to bother our kids with it? Also, direct democracy might work in smaller groups, but doesn't scale up to larger groups or a bigger school. That's why we have representative democracy, of which I am a big proponent on philosophical grounds.

And there is more. Remember that there are no predefined courses. The students decide what they want to do. I'm guessing they might have some interesting experiences, but I'm also guessing they won't have a lot of advanced mathematics or a coherent course on history. Or at least, there is no guarantee they will touch these matters, let alone finish them. Which is precisely the problem. It might work, but it doesn't bring all of the kids up to a certain level and risks missing out on basic scientific facts. That, to me is, a big problem with this system.I think therefore you can call itan "elitist" system.

And elitist is also the price. Schools in my country (and in general around Europe) are subsidized, and parents pay only a small amount or nothing at all. There are however a couple of conditions for a school to receive these subsidies (and a salary for the teachers). They must adhere to a teaching plan with objectives to attain by all pupils, and must allow inspections. These schools don't follow such a plan, so as a result the parent explained they have to pay 200 euros a month (at least) to the school. Furthermore, as the pupils don't meet the goals set out in the learning plans, the kids at 18 do not receive graduation. If they want to continue, they have to pass state exams first to conclude their secondary education. Basically, in my opinion it costs a lot, there is no guarantee that basic (scientific) facts get learned, and in the end there is no diploma which you need to advance in real life.

But does it work?The Wikipedia page (to which I linked above) used to link to a couple of internal documents showing that 80% of students passed graduate school (in the US) later on. That is not bad, and I'm even inclined to believe that. Because I think there are two effects here at work: one an elitist factor, where only better-off people (upper middle class) will sent their kids, and secondly an implicitself-selection by the parents. The fact that it "works", is then not because of the school system but because of the pupils and their context at home. Apart from those internal documents, there hasn't been a lot of research done, which is odd given the claimed 40-year history of the school system.

The internet contains several anecdotical evidence about parents really liking the system. Again, that might also be a biased feedback (as parents leaving might not speak out), and it still is not valid proof. The best anecdote I found in the magazine article my wife gave me. The mother was really happy how her 4-year old son is curious, likes to look for the letters of his name everywhere and is really good in explaining things. That, of course, is because it's the character of her son, and not the school system! My oldest son did exactly the same at the same age, and he went to one of those "old-fashioned" schools. I also paid a lot less, and I'm confident he will get a decent education and learn about all the things he needs to learn. So in short, I would recommend staying away from any Sudbury School. It's not based on woo principles, but it isn't an education either.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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