Democratic schools: critically exploring their significance for education policy

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Education and Professional Studies


'Democratic schools', though diverse, share the foundational belief that schools should be places in which young people (and teachers) are democratically empowered to determine a wide range of factors affecting school life, and in which there is largely equal decision-making power between pupils and staff. There are over 250 democratic schools around the world; the oldest and perhaps most famous example being A.S. Neill's Summerhill (est. 1921). Yet, despite their long history, democratic schools are subject to surprisingly little contemporary public or academic debate. While there is a rich canon of literature exploring the philosophical justifications for and connotations of various interpretations of democratic education, there is little research which incorporates in-depth case studies of real-life democratic schools.

Yet democratic schools are of great relevance to contemporary policy challenges. Modern democracy is in troubled waters: far-Right movements across Europe and north America threaten fundamental democratic ideals, while the so-called 'democratic state' faces critical appraisal, as growing numbers question whether the neoliberal economic structures underpinning most modern democracies are compatible with the principles of freedom and social justice that democracy supposedly upholds. In such a contested sociopolitical context, the exploration of any educational philosophy claiming to better equip the next generation of citizens to protect and/or re-imagine democratic governance takes on critical significance. Meanwhile, it is widely believed that the UK's mainstream school system is in urgent need of review: a multitude of studies suggests that the system is failing not only to promote democratic engagement but also to fulfil other fundamental educational outcomes such as basic skill acquisition, 'life-worthy' knowledge, mental well-being and creativity. Existing research indicates a powerful role for student 'voice' and choice in improving such educational outcomes, yet many of these studies also indicate that most mainstream schools are structurally ill-suited to promoting student voice and choice in a substantive way. It is possible that democratic schools - because democratic participation is at the heart of both their structure and pedagogy - may offer a more effective means of embedding student voice and choice in school life.

Given the potential contribution of democratic school practice to the policy challenges above, this study aims to contribute to reintroducing democratic schools into the mainstream education debate. The study will draw on fieldwork in 8 - 10 democratic schools around the world, involving both observation and direct interviews with children and staff. It will be led by three core questions:

1. What is the point of democratic schools - that is, what 'ends' of education do they seek to fulfil and should we value those ends? Given that democracy itself is a contested term and that, in contrast to education movements like Steiner, democratic schools lack a core doctrinal text, how different schools interpret democracy is highly varied. The proposed research would seek to critically examine how different democratic schools interpret the promotion of 'democratic engagement' as well as how they see its interaction with other educational outcomes.
2. How and to what extent do democratic schools achieve their stated ends? The proposed research would use in-depth case studies to explore what might be considered to be 'best practice' in democratic schools as well as criticisms of their approaches.
3. Can democratic school principles and practice work in the mainstream system? If it is concluded that democratic schools do have something valuable to offer to education policy debates, then the proposed research would aim to build the beginnings of a framework for transferring their best practice to a mainstream, state-funded context.


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Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2102962 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2018 30/03/2023 Freya Aquarone