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The real "Free Schools" don't call themselves schools

Since the Academies Act in 2010, almost 500 new 'free schools' have been established across the UK and Ireland. Although they don't have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own operational and HR policies. The students and the teachers do not report any new freedoms. Indeed, free schools are often less democratic and less inclusive. There are many other educators, parents, researchers and young people who have a different vision of freedom in education.

I first heard about really free schools, during a conversation with friends. They told me about a school where children were not divided according to any arbitrary age categories, where they learned what, where, when, how and with whom they wanted to. This was the Freie Schule Leipzig. I got on the next plane to Germany. When I stepped into the grounds the school I felt I'd come home. Children gathered around me with excitement, curiosity and bright eyes. 'Who are you? Where do you come from? You're English? We started an English class here because we want to speak the language and travel there together. You can come to that class if you like!' They didn't see me as an authority figure, but as another human being, someone to get to know and learn from. This is a natural learning relationship, based on trust, equality and a spirit of collaborative enquiry, with adults and children as partners in a process of discovery.

That is what I mean when I talk about freedom in education.

In the last few years there has been a boom in the emergence of alternative education models across Europe which offer students increased freedom and democratic involvement. it seems as though the idea is coming home. Although the England football squad were unable to bring the world cup home this summer, you can be assured that pioneering educators and passionate parents across the country are committed to establishing game-changing alternatives to conventional education here in England. Freedom to learn is coming home.

The Phoenix Education Trust is at the centre of a hub of innovative alternatives to school that provide greater freedom to children and young people, and provide them with an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and care. At the end of this article is a list of 17 established independent schools and learning communities, and there are at least ten more currently in the pipeline, due to open soon. All of them are governed according to true democratic values of freedom and equality.

The majority of new education start-ups do not call themselves schools. Their founders are keen to side-step conventional transmission models of education, with their dominant hierarchies and didactic mode of classroom instruction. Instead, they recognise that learning happens through living and they facilitate a form of education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the young people in their communities. 'Community' is an important concept for many of these projects, as they are governed by egalitarian modes of decision-making. They see see adults and children as equal partners in the learning process.

Many of these organisations do not call themselves schools at all. Many of them operate for 18 hours or less per week, meaning that they do not need to register as schools. They register as charities or childcare providers, avoiding academic-centric assessments, and often designing 'emergent curriculums' in response to the needs and interests of individual children. The Ofsted criteria for childcare provision offer a much more holistic framework, to which many of these learning communities are happy to subscribe.

There are several, more established, learning communities that have been modelling democratic and self-directed modes of education, which are registered as independent schools, such as Summerhill School (established in 1921) and Sands Schools (established in 1987). There is greater freedom in operating independently in this way. If more independent schools and learning communities showcase different ways of doing education then we may reach a tipping point that prompts a shift in government policy, so that all children can experience an education in which they are truly seen and heard.

These independent schools and learning communities are springing up across the UK, in yurts, on allotments, community centres and at the heart of council estates. They are dispersed geographically, serving some especially isolated communities, such as West Yorkshire, Manchester, Stroud, Bath, Suffolk, Sussex, Devon, Hertfordshire, Kent, West Wales, Wicklow and Sligo. With almost thirty of them established or in the process of starting up, we can feel optimistic that these sites of hope will bring about a transformation in education in the UK.

It is important that these pioneering projects should connect, collaborate and share ideas, expertise and resources. If we amplify our collective voice we can influence mainstream media narratives about the purpose and scope of education. We will be able to present a compelling case to commissioners, community members, local authorities and MPs, and ensure the sustainability and resilience of these flourishing innovations.

If you would like to learn more about learning communities across the UK, you can find contact details through the websites listed at the end of this article. Phoenix is also coordinating a network for people to offer and receive support from each other, so please do get in touch if you'd like to participate.

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List of independent schools and learning communities

Established settings

Summerhill School

Sands School

Park School

Self Managed Learning College

A Place to Grow

The Garden

The Greenhouse Project

The Cabin
Free We Grow

Wayfinder Project
Hebden Bridge School


Lewes New School

The Wooden House

Roots and Shoots

Stonebury Small School


In the pipeline

East Kent Sudbury School

Tipi Woods

Coed Cariad


West Wales Sudbury Community

Birmingham Intergenerational Learning Community
Curiouser & Co

Turtle Learning

Wayfinder Early Years project




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