Making learning upredictable….and democratic

Previous Blogs have said that curriculum – the purpose of schooling – should be designed to help young people develop their own sense of coherence in the world – what makes the world make sense to them, how to find their position in it, how to feel that they have agency and are not merely someone else’s message in a bottle.

To focus on ‘subjects’ is to miss the point and to be trapped at the level of fragments rather than ‘wholes’. I suggested two examples of curriculum that is raised above this level to help students develop that sense of coherence – of how to hold the mosaic of their lives together. and here I will talk about them – one at the margins of schooling, the other at its very heart. The former is Summerhill School, the second is the Primary Years Curriculum of the International Baccalaureate. We can think of both as curriculum for meeting children’s rights to self-determination.

Summerhill School was set up almost 100 years ago by A.S. Neill – it stands as a prominent example of a democratic school, free from authority and discipline. The easiest way to think of the school is as an antidote to the bleak, despairing message of the book Lord of the Flies. That book, both reflects and reinforces the corrosive view of young people as competitive, lost without authoritarian leadership, incapable of self-discipline, naturally inclined to aggression and, above all, irrational. Irrational, in the sense that the young people marooned on a desert island had no overarching sense of moral coherence in the world and no reason to be kind to others or collaborative. The kids became tribal, violent, punitive, worshipped a pig’s head and chased down the weakest. That book has possibly been even more prejudicial to young people than the authoritarian National Curriculum and its paraphernalia of control and punishment. [That it helped win for its author, William Golding, a Nobel literature prize is evidence of the caprice that is that award.]

[This account of Summerhill comes from work I did there many years ago – it may well have developed since then.]

At Summerhill School (ages 7 to 15) classes are voluntary and, in any event, only take place in the mornings. ‘Kids’ (what students call themselves) might spend months out of class. There is no discipline imposed by adults – in fact, once when I was there I observed the kids parliament fining a teacher for having borrowed a sound system without permission. He was fined a Mars Bar. Teachers (‘adults’) are not allowed to discipline kids or even try to persuade them to attend class. This is a boarding school and the older children put the young children to bed unsupervised. There has not been a single allegation of sexual impropriety – or bullying, for that matter – in the school’s history. What do the kids do all day? They build tree houses, walk the grounds talking, use their computers when the kids-imposed rules allow.

In 1999 Ofsted was sent in to inspect the school. Its draft report showed surprise and a somewhat reluctant affirmation. When it came to GCSEs the kids performed at around the national average – even though they will have attended a tiny fraction of the lessons all of our kids go to. This was intolerable to the then head of Osted, Chris Woodhead who made no secret of his desire for discipline and control and for school regimes against which Summerhill had been created. He sent the inspectors back in and they dutifully returned with a damning report – ‘kids do nothing all day long’, sort of thing – and recommended closure. I was one of a group of educational evaluators who supported the legal team’s expert witness at a judicial hearing that eventually saved the school and humiliated Ofsted.

No need to go in detail into the farce that proved to be the Ofsted inspection (clandestine stalking of kids in the woods; changing draft phrases such as ‘as many as…’ to ‘as few as…’; observing a lesson and rating it ‘Satisfactory’ – the lesson was in Japanese). It was as good an example as any of the charade that is an Ofsted inspection (more of that in a soon-to-come Blog!). But the allegation that hurt most and which was most threatening to  the school was that of routine indolence among the kids. Here is one of the kids talking:

“As much as it looks like people aren’t doing anything you’re always doing something – you’re always learning. And regardless of whether you’re in lessons you’re learning things about yourself about other people and your surroundings. The Inspectors said about the school, for instance, that we’re misusing it – using personal liberty just to be idle, lazy. What? I’ve never spent a second in this school not doing anything – I can’t just turn my head off….it’s impossible.”

And the learning turns out to be sophisticated – not just the frequent reference to social justice, to the responsibility of the individual to the collective – all lively topics. One teenage student talked of playing with a seven year-old and the joy of seeing the school through her eyes, recalling what it was like when she first came to the school – how big the trees and buildings seemed. There was a tangible sense of reflection on perspective and maturation.

So, there is no externally imposed discipline at Summerhill. Kids agree rules among themselves and they do not become tribal, recriminatory, worship pig’s heads or chase down the weakest. It is, in fact, a highly regulated environment with numerous rules, all agreed in the kids’ Meeting. The school retains its allegiance to Neill’s philosophy and to his faith in young people. His view of schooling was that you are ‘either for the child or against them’, there is no middle way. To close this piece, here is a paraphrase of a story recounted by A.S. Neill and saturated with how Summerhill runs.

Neill had suspended the kids’ parliament – an unusual and extreme event. He was working one night and came to him a young boy, “I’ve smashed some windows in the gym.” Neill asked why. “I don’t like despots”, he explained. Neill said that he did not, either, but that he had his reasons. The boy was unconvinced. “So what will you do now?” asked Neill. “Break another window.” Neill said something like, ‘we all have to do what we have to do’, though the boy reassured him that he would pay for the windows out of his pocket-money. The boy went off. A while later Neill talked to the boy to tell him that he had told the story at a seminar he gave in London, after which someone had approached him and gave him money to repair the windows, impressed with the series of events. “What a fool,” said the boy to Neill. “It wasn’t his responsibility, it was mine.”

There is no library at Summerhill. Neill thought that there was plenty of time for “book-learning” – at school you concentrate on the harder stuff – developing a sense of moral coherence and purpose. What, in the end, confounded Ofsted was that if you wanted to find curriculum and educational quality, the last place you would look is in the classroom.


The Primary Years Programme (PYP) of the International Baccalaureate has no instruction – it is based on young people doing their own research projects with the teacher acting as facilitator. Walk into a typical PYP classroom and you will find groups of young people working together to plan their research, to make sense of data, to craft a presentation. Yes, there are specialist classes in English and Maths, for example, but these have to find their place according to the research projects and experiences of the kids. Projects may take kids into the community where they will observe, do interviews, make experiments. The teachers are always there, but as a resource, not as an irrefutable source of knowledge.

At Summerhill, teachers/adults play a recessive role, they are there when classes need to be taught – but, for the most part, the important interactions are among the kids. In the PYP teachers play a prominent role as knowledge resources, ‘an’ authority, more than ‘in’ authority. This works mainly by the teachers concentrating their efforts, not on teaching knowledge to students, but creating conditions within which the young people will teach themselves and each other. This is a critical shift in teaching method, essential if young people are to discover their own theories of the world. The whole PP curriculum is based around a set of moral principles:

  • Who we are:
  • Where we are in place and time:
  • How we express ourselves:
  • How the world works:
  • How we organize ourselves:
  • Sharing the planet:

The first thing you will notice is that this shifts just what it is we think of when we talk of ‘achievement’. Rather than have ‘literacy’ as a goal, and within that learn how to express yourself in writing, here we have ‘self-expression’ as a goal within which we can look at different forms of literacy.

What follows is a brief insight into how this works – this is drawn from an evaluation of the PYP I conducted with a colleague in New Zealand. It is worth the effort to read this in full and carefully. – what you will see is a teacher giving the tools of thought and analysis to the kids.

Nicole has asked the kids to talk to each other about key concepts in their inquiry, and is also in the process of handing out a task that will help the kids to “put ideas down and write umbrella questions and subsidiary questions and how they link to the central idea and key concepts,” and wants them to sort their ideas under the headings of  “function” and “responsibility”. The kids have sorted themselves into groups – they are trying to figure out how to sort ideas into the columns of “function” and “responsibility” on the worksheet – they seem at a loss. Nicole gives an example of how “laws around going to war fall under ‘function’, and ‘how did the Treaty of Versailles impact the world?’ fits under ‘responsibility’”.  Two groups seem to be struggling through this exercise, and have not asked Nicole for any help yet. One boy is on his mini tablet, and if you crane your neck you glimpse a Wikipedia page about North Korea and Kim Jung Il – this boy looks up and sees you looking and tells you that he’s trying to figure out ‘why the North Korean leader rose to power.’ Nicole approaches his table, sits down and after looking over the groups’ worksheets, tells you that this is the first questioning activity of the year and she wants them to “focus on narrowing their ideas down as they keep the key concepts and central idea in their head.” She turns to another group. She’s good at sensing need and building their confidence- always encouraging them to come up with their own questions. 

This is not to say that these interactions cannot be found in all primary classrooms – of course they can. The point about this observation is that it happens throughout the school day, every day. It is more characteristic of the PYP than a teacher standing at the head of a class instructing – much less administering a test. Teachers do give tests to the kids – but these are not to rank students. A teacher will sit down with each individual student and discuss what the test says about their progress, working collaboratively with the child to work out where to concentrate effort.


Here, then, are two existing routes through to the kind of curriculum that is focused on making sense more than ticking off technical achievements. They both focus on the autonomy and individuality of the learner, but also on how that learner interacts and works with others. The PYP, especially, speaks to the role of the teacher as an intellectual, not someone who ‘delivers’ curriculum, but a professional who has to continually problem-solve, which has to understand the complexities of the learning environment which, by its nature, is in constant flux. In both settings knowledge is being discovered and shaped, not merely transferred, and in the shaping the students have to think of what knowledge means for themselves.

Lawrence Stenhouse, Britain’s most prominent curriculum thinker, made a startling and radical proposition, but one that was essential to free up the teacher to create these extraordinary learning conditions. This takes some close reading, too:

“Education as induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the student unpredictable.”


And with that statement the whole basis of the National Curriculum comes crashing down. It neutralises the idea that learning can be bureaucratised into Levels and Key Stages, that it can be tested against national norms and standards, that teaching itself can be standardised. It is possible to have an inspection system that responds to unpredictable learning, but it is far from what Ofsted does. Would we not want our own children’s learning to be unpredictable – i.e. irrepressible, personal, surprising, surpassing what is given? But if it is unpredictable, how can we test it? And if we cannot test it, how do we exert control over knowledge?

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