Jan Gabbert


Pretty Cool System, Krätzä 


Pesta, Leonardo Wild


What Age can you Start being an Artist, Room 13


Sands School, Luke Flegg


The first of these DVDs describes democratic education in general, and the other four describe particular examples. Not only is each institution different, but also each film has been made from a different stand-point. Democratic Schools was made by a professional film-maker with the intention of presenting a concept to the general public. Pretty Cool System was made by young adults from Krätzä, the German children's rights group, with the aim of showing its subject, the Democratic School of Hadera, in Israel, as honestly as possible. Pesta is a professionally made account of an important school in a beautiful part of Ecuador, shortly before it closed. What Age can you Start Being an Artist? was made for Channel 4 television in the UK by a group of children from the Room 13 art studio at Caol Primary School in Scotland, proclaiming its success. Luke Flegg's film, Sands School, is the personal impression of an ex-pupil whose mother moved to Devon so that he could try the school, because the special schools he was being sent to only seemed to make his problems worse.

Democratic Schools has three strands: firstly, scenes from Naestved Friskole in Denmark, of which the most distinctive shows a six-year-old speaking confidently at a school meeting about the advisability of accepting a new child into the school, secondly, cartoons satirising the failings of bad traditional schools and, thirdly, a long series of interviews with staff and students at the 2005 International Democratic Education Conference in Berlin. The adults include such people as Zoë Readhead from Summerhill, in England, Mike Matisoo from Sudbury Valley in the USA and Meghan Carrico from Windsor House in Canada. This makes it inevitable that the editing should result in twice as many comments from staff as from students. They make many strong points about the importance of choice in learning, the development of intrinsic motivation, government by school meetings, and a rational attitude to exams. All agree that rules should be made by students and staff together, but there are different opinions about what should be done when rules are broken. The general emphasis is otherwise strictly on what democratic schools have in common, because their interesting differences would distract from the main purpose of the film.

Zoe Redhead of Summerhill, from 'Democratic Schools' Zoe Redhead of Summerhill, from Democratic Schools

The last comment is from Kim Edwards, a representative of the English Secondary Students Association, who says that though she had arrived at the conference with no idea of what democratic education meant, and then at first found the idea rather shocking, she now feels the arguments for it are 'sound, logical and obvious,' and says she would like to see more democratic methods introduced in the UK.

The cartoon sections may insult many traditional educators to the point where they cannot listen to the arguments, but newcomers who are not insulted will learn something of what Kim discovered. People who are already in sympathy with the ideas will find the insights stimulating.

A Pretty Cool System was made by the Krätzä children's rights group from Berlin, who were not interested in proselytising. Their purpose was to make an accurate picture of the Democratic School of Hadera, an all-age state school in Israel. They filmed all kinds of activity – playing, talking, rehearsing, dancing, classroom lessons, cooking, individual study in the library – and show it to be energetic, purposeful and productive, but they also show things going wrong, such as a vigorous argument at a school meeting between two adult members of staff who the student chair has some difficulty in silencing. Like Democratic Education it includes a large number of interviews, but in this case almost all of them are with current students or young people who have left the school fairly recently. The sum of their various comments gives a rich picture of the values the school imparts, and the effects these values have.

Independent Dance Rehearsals at Hadera, from 'A Pretty Cool System'Independent Dance Rehearsals at Hadera, from A Pretty Cool System

There are a few negative comments. One young woman, for instance, remembers an occasion when she felt she had been unfairly treated by a member of staff who persuaded her to change her mind purely by superior vocabulary and debating technique; a young man thinks the school day is too short, and that the school should be open for twenty-four hours so that it can also serve as a community centre; a former member of staff objects to the way all democratic school staff, not only at Hadera, disguise the amount of power they really hold. This readiness to criticise comes across as a virtue of the school, because the awareness of faults can lead to change; we hear, for instance, how it had been recognised that the old disciplinary committee was too cold and impersonal, and it had therefore been replaced by a system of mediation.

The fact that most of the discussion is with people who have actually experienced democratic education, rather than staff members who can only talk about it, differentiates the film clearly from the first one. It refers to many of the same themes, and re-emphasises many of the basic principles, but they are not presented as theory or as observed phenomena but as personal experience.

Pesta describes the school in Ecuador founded by Rebeca and Mauricio Wild in 1979 as a kindergarten for their son, which grew with him to include eventually a hundred and eighty children of all school ages. The Wilds' basic conviction is that children develop best free of pressure in a rich prepared environment. They compare the development of the child with the development of the embryo, which grows naturally according to its own laws, while at the same time interacting with its surroundings.

Young children with tools, from 'Pesta'Young children with tools, from Pesta

In the main part of the film there are three sections, showing the kinder-garten (where some children stay until they are seven or eight) and the primary and secondary parts of the school. From time to time Rebeca and Mauricio explain their ideas directly to the camera.

As yet the only two versions of the film are in German and Spanish, but there is a great deal to be learnt from the sheer visual information – about the children's quiet self-confidence, their tranquillity, their enjoyment, their purposefulness, the variety of their activities, the absence of pressure. When we see adults and children together, their heads are almost always on the same level. The children direct their own lives.

The Wilds expound their theories. In the kindergarten, where the children stay till they are seven, eight or nine, the children internalise information through sensory-motor contact with the environment, and learn to make decisions. At the primary stage, which lasts till thirteen, fourteen or fifteen, they investigate rules and strategies and find out what it means to belong to a group and yet to develop individuality. Knowledge is still the result of concrete experience. Adolescents in the secondary stage are concerned with the question, “Who am I?”, and are ready to work with adults and form their own groups for further learning. The film shows thirty-eight of the secondary students on a 6000 kilometre bicycle ride through the north of South America, up to 3000 metres and down to the coast, a journey of real hardship and danger which they had planned for themselves.

The spectacle of children living and learning without pressure in an environment structured on such a basis is extremely persuasive.

In the rest of the film inability to understand the commentary is a greater disadvantage. We see the training of staff and parents at the Pesta, then hear how the school closed in July 2005 because of economic pressure and social change and lastly learn about the Wild's new venture in alternative economy. This involves work in remote villages encouraging co-operation, developing a bartering system, making use of natural resources and, of course, setting up small schools.

What Age can you Start Being an Artist? was made at Room 13, the art studio in the local state primary school at Caol, near Fort William, in Scotland. The studio is unique in that the children do all the work that everywhere else is done by adults: they have their own bank account, they buy the materials for the studio, they do their own book-keeping, they cope with post and emails and they raise the money themselves to pay an artist-in-residence who they appoint to work with them.

Lindsey Martin explains her work at Room 13Lindsey Martin explains her work at Room 13

Children are allowed to go to Room 13 as soon as their classwork is up-to-date, or, in the case of the eleven- and twelve-year-olds, whenever they choose. Once there they are free to choose what they will do. A number of the young artists present and discuss their own work in the film, and the standard is astonishing.

The directors are Ami Cameron and Rosie Flannigan, both eleven years old, and they also do the voice-overs. At the beginning and the end Danielle Souness, aged twelve, the chair of the Management Group, reads from an essay about her own understanding of Room 13. It is from her that we first hear the question, 'At what age can you start being an artist?'

The naturalness with which the children accept their responsibilities is shown at a Management Group meeting where Danielle announces that NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) has given them a grant of £200,000 to extend their work into other schools. There is pleasure, of course, but no surprise or excitement.

We learn that the children have spoken at important meetings and exhibited at the famous Tate Modern in London, and we see them being welcomed to London by the director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, being interviewed for television and having their work praised by Anthony Gormley, the sculptor. In spite of all this acclaim it is obvious that the film has been made by unpretentious children, self-confident but not cocky, playful and happy but also, as some of their comments on their own work show, seriously thoughtful.

The DVD also includes an impressive account of Room 13s that have developed elsewhere, including in Soweto, under the title Where are they now?

Luke FleggSands School was made by Luke Flegg, a former student. It is a personal impression, punctuated by his own reflections, spoken, appropriately, into a mirror. It tells briefly of his distress during his years in increasingly repressive special schools for disruptive and eventually even aggressive children, and at length of his relief at finding Sands, where he was treated as a person and allowed to develop his own interests. The near-professional quality of this film is evidence of his success.

Scene from 'Sands School'
Scene from Sands School

The informality of Sands is one of his delights – a water-fight has a prominent place near the beginning – and there is little about work in the classrooms. However, the long sequence in a school meeting shows how the relaxed atmosphere is no barrier to serious discussion, and the solving of real problems and the taking of real decisions evokes real responsibility.

Luke emphasises the aspects of the school that are important to him, in particular the tolerant and affectionate relationship between students and staff. He says how important it was for him to feel that he was working for himself, and not merely to please teachers.

He also goes out of his way to draw attention to things that go wrong. A student who he has asked to be as negative as possible about the school meeting, reads out a list of criticisms. The system of Useful Work, by which everyone is supposed to help clear up at the end of school, is filmed on a particularly unco-operative evening.

Luke also asks Sean Bellamy, one of the original founders of the school, whether some students might be achieving less than their potential, and Sean agrees that they may be. 'In terms of their academics,' he adds, 'but I don't think many people leave not having achieved what they could socially and emotionally. As long as we don't actually close doors for college for them, then that's more important than whether they achieve a maximum in terms of their academic potential.'

Luke's own story shows that for some students this emotional and social development has to come before much academic achievement of any kind. And the process is, as his film makes clear, thoroughly enjoyable.

Democratic Schools, Jan Gabbert, Germany 2005 / 30 minutes / €10.00 from http://en.democratic-schools.com/order/ or, in the USA, http://www.educationrevolution.org/demdocumentary.html

Pretty Cool System, Krätzä , Germany 2004 / 40 minutes / €10.00 from http://en.democratic-schools.com/order/

Pesta, Leonardo Wild, Ecuador 2006 / 1 hour and 20 minutes / €29.90

What Age can you Start being an Artist?, Room 13 , UK 2004 /30 minutes / £12 from http://www.room13scotland.com/

Sands School, Luke Flegg, UK 2006 / 21 minutes / £7 from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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