What If We Freed Ourselves of School?

Free Schools (Skools) [sic]

“An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary, or an oppressor”

-Lerone Bennett

(African American Quotations, Newman, 2000)

Philosophical theories abound when the topic of education is posed. Public policy and legislation over the years is certainly an offspring of the myriad points of view and stances that are made with regards to the way in which our nation’s children are taught. At the heart of the matter is (or should be) the quality of education for children, but many times, the real issue is lost. For many detractors of the current educational system, the issue is more than the quality of education, but also the societal construct with which it is a part. As a result, many forms of alternative education have become more popular. Enter the “free school”, a form of schooling that runs totally counter to the way in which children are traditionally schooled.


Free schools, (or free skool, a deliberate pronunciation to further distance the model from the traditional form) are a form of education that seeks to foster values more congruent with the demands of society—a form of education that does not conform to the traditional model.  For example, free school students do not follow a lesson plan designed by the teacher; rather the learning is directed by the students’ interests. For instance, it is not out of the ordinary (in fact quite common) for a student to simply sit and watch other students play and learn—all day if necessary. According to the Free School, that activity holds equal merit to those who spend their day moving from interest to interest. Additionally, the Free School adopts a fully democratic environment, where students are the majority and hold voting power on every conceivable issue, from classmate complaints to the performance of the teachers or “staff members” as they are called.

Free School Philosophy

According to Ron Miller of The Alternate Education Resource Organization (AERO), the reason for the departure from the traditional format is rooted in a rejection of the model of education that seeks to normalize society and remove individuality for the purposes of gaining a resilient populace. “According to this model, the purpose of schooling was to overcome cultural diversity and personal uniqueness in order to mold a loyal citizenry and an effective workforce for the growing industrial system. Education aimed primarily to discipline the developing energies of young people for the sake of political and social uniformity as well as the success of the emerging corporate economy. In the early twentieth century, these goals were concisely expressed by the term ‘social efficiency,’ which was often used by educational leaders.”

Additionally, the center of the free school philosophy is the denunciation of the stratified, authoritarian manner with which children are subjected to in the conventional method, creating an unhealthy atmosphere for children, as described by Miller. “Many people are attracted to alternative schools and home education because they feel that this agenda of ‘social efficiency’ does not allow for such values as individuality, creativity, democratic community life and spiritual development.” Moreover, this environment does not allow for children to grow and develop in their own way. By subjecting students to a regiment of standardization, children are not able to accurately display true proficiency, growth, and maturity as Miller notes. “The roots of many twentieth century alternative school movements go back to three European philosopher/educators: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel. In his 1762 book Emile, Rousseau argued that education should follow the child's natural growth rather than the demands of society, which, he claimed, tend to thwart all that is organic, natural and spiritual. This emphasis on the innate development of human nature became the primary philosophical basis for many alternative movements in education”, (Miller, 2006).

My children, Saige and Amira playing and learning in the woods near our home.

My children, Saige and Amira playing and learning in the woods near our home.

Free School Beginnings

The philosophy of a democratic school environment has its beginnings in the early 1900s in Spain, where Francisco Ferrer, an anarchist, started a school based on the precepts of what is now known as the free school. Escuela Moderna, or Modern School, was established in 1902 to address the dwindling literacy rates of children in Spain. Ferrer’s opinions related to public formal education was no secret—his views on education and government in general, cost him his life in 1909, when he was captured in an anti-military revolt and executed. "Governments have ever been known to hold a high hand over the education of the people. They know, better than anyone else, that their power is based almost entirely on the school. Hence, they monopolize it more and more", (Ferrer). Ferrer’s Modern School provided the framework for the contemporary free schools that are in place today.

Free Schools Today

While the Free School movement in the United States can be traced back to the Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna in the early 1900s, the contemporary U.S. model of the Free School began with the Summerhill School, a democratic free school in London, England founded by A.S. Neill, an educationalist and writer who advocated for a more open method of education for children. Founded in 1921, the Summerhill School became a model for many of the free schools in operation today. According to the school’s website, the center of the mission is the self-development of its students. “Summerhill School is a progressive, co-educational, residential school, founded by A. S. Neill in 1921; in his own words, it is a 'free school' though this does not mean, alas, that it is state funded. The freedom Neill was referring to was the personal freedom of the children in his charge. Summerhill is first and foremost a place where children can discover who they are and where their interests lie in the safety of a self-governing, democratic community”, (www.summerhillschool.co.uk, 2004). In the United States, the Free School movement shares the same philosophy.

            Offspring of Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna and Neill’s Summerhill School, the Free Schools (and Skools) in the United States hold the same philosophies of their older counterparts; namely the establishment of a school community where the children self-govern and self-direct; where educators are simply facilitators to that end; and places emphasis not on the student’s ability to regurgitate information, but rather on the holistic experience that learning should endow, as well as the importance of responsibility and self-governance. 

            One of the older Free Schools in the U.S., the Sudbury School in Framingham, Massachusetts, enlists the same philosophies that are used at Summerhill; self-development, accountability, and self-governance. Sudbury’s philosophy, so widely used that it was given its own name, the Sudbury Model is based on freedom at every level. As its website explains, the school places the child at the center. “The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility”, (www.sudval.org, 2007).

Amira exploring terracing and erosion by taking responsible risk.

Amira exploring terracing and erosion by taking responsible risk.

Does It Work?

            For many who have never been exposed to the Free School method, the obvious question is, is it effective? What is the true value of this method of learning? Can students who attend Free Schools succeed or even function in a society that performs very differently? The answer, according to Mimsy Sadofsky of Sudbury Valley School, is a resounding yes.

Mimsy Sadofsky of the Sudbury Valley School, a Free School in Framingham, Massachusetts, speaks of the liberating atmosphere and its intrinsic value for the development of students. “I...think the whole idea of the governance of the school means that they have to constantly examine ethical issues and that's another thing I think kids who go to school here cannot possibly avoid learning. Once you've gotten past those things, then it can be anything – it can be physics, it can be art, it can be music, it can be all those things – it can be whatever you're passionate about or excited about or whatever you happen to be accidentally exposed to, which happens a lot too”, (Sadofsky, www.sudval.org, 2000). In the school, students control every aspect of their day, even the fate of the staff members. Sadofsky on staff elections: “…the polls are open all day and are manned by students who have been elected to do that. There are big paper ballots on which you're asked several questions about each potential staff member, sort of evaluating their work – like, ‘How well does this person do the job of helping to run the school?’ or, ‘Do you feel this person does a good job of working with kids?’ There are three major questions and then you get to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for each person. If you vote yes, you indicate the number of days you wish that person would be there the next year. Based on the outcome of this election, the School Meeting – which is a weekly meeting of students and staff, with one person, one vote – hires the staff.” One would argue that, this is all well and good, but will the child be able to pass the SAT and go on to college? And while Sadofsky contends that, should the child desire to attend college, he or she will devote the time necessary to pass the SAT, the goal of Sudbury is not to create college bound kids. “[Sudbury] is not a college-centered school and a lot of kids who do end up going to college don't go directly to college when they leave here. They may leave saying, "I'm probably going to go to college someday," or they may leave saying, "I'm going to travel next year, or work next year and save money, and then I'll go to college." Or they say, "Look, I've got a great job in the computer industry," or "I know what I want to do, and I know how to work on what I want to do, and I don't need college. College has nothing to offer me." So we don't make any value judgments about people making those decisions about their lives. Sometimes I think that the people who are the most concentrated and the most brilliant are the ones that are least likely to go to college”, (Sadofsky, www.sudval.org, 2000). An intriguing statement; counterintuitive to what is being taught in our nation’s conventional school systems. 


The process is as important as the actions. This is the concept that I take away from my research on the Free School Model. The process of including students in every possible aspect of the learning day is vital; students need to be empowered and feel a level of autonomy that no other environment (outside of the real world) can provide. The Free School’s aim is to foster that empowerment. Moreover, creating an atmosphere of self-directed learning through the innate curiosity of the child is also crucial. The Free School’s libertarian philosophy, rooted in the anarchist philosophy of Francisco Ferrer, and perfected by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School, puts the child at the center of learning. And finally, the Free School movement promotes accountability; the student, free of encumbrances and authoritarian control, fosters an intrinsic understanding of the consequences of his or her actions, and, as a result of the free environment, conducts themselves in a respectful manner. Indeed, this way of learning is quite unique, even odd considering the history of the traditional school system dating back to the early 1800s. But given the current debate surrounding our education system, there is no doubt room at the table for a different approach to education.

Amira enjoying the fruits of her labor in the chicken coop. Curiosity plus activity equals knowledge.

Amira enjoying the fruits of her labor in the chicken coop. Curiosity plus activity equals knowledge.

Works Cited

Newman, R. (2000). African American quotations. New York, NY: The Oryx Press

Miller, R (2006). A brief history of alternative education. Retrieved May 26, 2007, from Alternative Education Research Organization Web site: http://www.educationrevolution.org/history.html

Ferrer, F. (n.d.). Francisco ferrer quote. Retrieved May 26, 2007, from Liberty-Tree Web site: http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quote/Francisco_ferrer_quote_3fe1

(2004). Introduction to summerhill. Retrieved May 27, 2007, from A.s. neill’s summerhill school Web site: http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/pages/index.html

Sadofsky, M. (2000). About us: faqs. Retrieved May 27, 2007, from Sudbury Valley school Web site: http://www.sudval.org/01_abou_09.html