Anna Dusseau | 10th June 2020
I first read about the Sudbury School model in Peter Gray’s Free to Learn, which devotes an entire chapter to ‘lessons to be learned’ from this quite radical vision of education. Gray sent his own son to the Sudbury Valley School for the latter part of his education having felt – like so many of us do – that mainstream schooling was failing him. I was skeptical at first. Having taught in public schools and seen the problems first hand, I wasn’t convinced about a school pretending not to be a school. A ‘democratic society’? Okay then. But I was curious enough to read on. Here’s what the Sudbury School model is all about.
Sudbury Schools are now opening all over the world, from Kent to Kentucky, in a ‘free school’ movement that openly validates mixed age learning, free range activities, no uniform, no homework and no fixed curriculum or structure. So-called ‘Sudbury Schools’ are not part of an official brand, but identify their ethos with the original Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. This one is definitely not like school at all. With an entirely open campus – including a liberal free flow between the school and wider community for older students – and an egalitarian system in which students and staff are regarded as equals, it’s not hard to see how this particular place has drawn some negative press over the years. Journalists and mainstream parents don’t understand it, and why should they? It just doesn’t seem fair that these kids can swan around playing guitar and talking politics with mixed group of adults and children, and still end up at the same Ivy League university as their kid, who’s worked his ass off.
But none of the criticism seems to stand up against the facts regarding student wellbeing and progression from the school. In a study of Sudbury Valley graduates, which Gray conducted, 75 percent of the cohort selected went on to higher education; the vast majority claiming that there was ‘no problem’ adjusting to the schedule and workload. Moreover, 85% of respondents were clear that their time at the school had tangibly ‘benefitted them’ by making them self-motivated and confident engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds. We might well imagine that a Sudbury Valley student would be less anxious prior to a university or job interview, having been accustomed to democratically electing their own ‘teachers’ each academic year. It is not clear exactly how subsequent Sudbury Schools map onto this highly alternative model, but it’s safe to say that a bunch of schools like this in the world could really shake things up.
But in fact, things are already pretty shaken up. Throughout Europe, schoolchildren due to sit exams are facing the prospect of final grades based on a combination of professional judgement, mock exam papers and – where relevant – coursework. It’s a shocker and I really feel for these kids, because this has come so out the blue in the wake of the pandemic. But, stepping back from the obvious casualties at this stage, is this really so terrible as a way forward for our education system? Any teacher who ever set out in the hope of ‘changing lives’ and ‘cultivating a love’ for their subject knows the brutal disappointment, about a year in, when you realise schools operate just like any other business and have their own company slogan: recruitment, retention, results. Get rid of the distraction of exams altogether and you are left with teachers who can actually teach and students who are significantly less stressed, less competitive, more able to think and express themselves. I don’t see why not. Honestly.
I won’t be sending my children to school any time soon. But I still feel that now is a good time for the Sudbury Model to attract a bit of mainstream curb appeal. The world has, after all, been homeschooling for more than 3 months. The system itself has had to bend and, with it, our understanding of how our children learn has gone full circle, allowing parents an insight into their own children’s boredom and frustration with schoolwork, as well as – now – the total farce of examinations. Let’s come back to the basics here and assume that most children are naturally playful, curious, and able to direct their learning. If we don’t hold those beliefs about our own children, then who will? Not the kids themselves, that’s for sure. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all. So yeah, the Sudbury School model got to me. I hope it gives us all something to think about.