December 26, 2010
As soon as you walk through the rickety front gate, you can tell Currambena is no ordinary school. A chicken pecks the bark-covered earth, unfazed as dozens of excited children aged from three to 12 arrive for the school day in their well-worn play clothes. The older kids give the younger ones shoulder-rides around the gardens. One little girl sits on a picnic table, munching on a gherkin, beside her friend who's come dressed as a cat. There's not a mobile phone or processed lunch-box filler in sight.
There's no morning bell to signal the start of the school day, either. Children simply gravitate towards classrooms when 'inside time' begins. Some stay digging in the vegie patch and if, for some reason, a child wants to spend the day doing maths in the tree fort, so be it. There are no room numbers or official grades, no tests, no lining up, no homework.
Welcome to democratic schooling, an educational movement that, although not new, appears to be gathering momentum in a world where children are shunted ever earlier towards standardised testing, ranking and grading.
"We follow the curriculum; we have to stay certified with the Board of Studies," says Karen Brien, a school parent who helps out in the office. "We just do it in a way that looks nothing like a 'normal' school. We create self-directed learners."
Here and there, classrooms and fences have been decorated with peace signs, handprints, flags and collages. On one wall, a notice entitled 'Rat Agreements' details the policies regarding the handling of the school pet.
"It looks chaotic from the outside," concedes school mum Danielle Osborne, whose four children, Annabelle, 18, Miles, 14, Rupert, 9, and Jasper, 5, are Currambena students past, present and future. "But the children here are so empowered. There's a lot of thought behind everything we do. The teachers are flexible and understanding - they find a place for everybody."
Currambena was founded in the Sydney suburb of Lane Cove by a group of parents and education academics more than 40 years ago. Every Friday since, the student body (now fully enrolled at 82 primary students, as well as 45 pint-size preschoolers) gathers for a meeting.
It's the beating heart of the school, where everyone has a voice, votes are cast and the teachers (with whom the children are on first-name terms) and students workshop any issues. (Today's hot topic is whether handball is too exclusive a game to fit in with the school's ethos.) It's not just for show; the students do make the rules - sorry, the agreements. "Sometimes the decisions they make are horrible," laughs Osborne. "But we step back and let them work it out. Invariably, after a few weeks, they'll revisit their policies and decide if they're not working. It's fascinating to watch. The kids are so protective of their school, they can be quite tough on each other about consequences."
It's that confidence and inclusion that draws parents to Currambena. Many are ex-students, including Rachel Turner, who's enrolled her daughters, Annabel, 8, and Rose, 4. "My memories are idyllic," she says. "It was a lovely education. It puts trust in the kids and makes them live up to those expectations.
I admire new parents who send their children here, because without their own experiences to go by, it's definitely a leap of faith."
She's right. For a start, if children aren't forced to sit in class and finish their maths, how do parents know whether they'll bother at all? Turner recalls how it worked for her: "I took school very seriously and was incredibly involved in it. I was never tempted to shirk, because learning was fun.
"As long as teachers know the children are participating - that nobody is being left behind - the kids have the freedom to do what they need," she adds. "Teachers make sure everyone is reading and writing, of course, but if a child is consumed in one activity, why shouldn't they be allowed to continue it?"
The system seems to work in terms of output - the school boasts many successful alumni, including artists, lawyers, architects and magistrates, which may surprise those startled by the absence of exams.
"It's important to me that my children do well academically, because I want them to have every choice in life," says Osborne.
"But children can become obsessed with competition, which demolishes self-esteem.
"And," she adds with wry smile, "the no homework thing is fantastic. My goodness, it leads to family harmony!"
Susan Hunt, a former student whose son, Matthew, 4, is in preschool, agrees: "You can get academics anywhere, but the nurturing, respect and social-emotional side that focuses on each child as an individual is so valuable."
To Hunt, this free-range school is the perfect antidote to the more confined, urban nature of modern childhood, in which helicopter parenting is the norm. "Things have changed a lot since we were kids playing outside," she says. "Children are on much shorter leashes these days and we're supposed to watch them like hawks. Here, they're free and they can be - it's safe."
It's a compelling argument when you consider that a recent study in the UK found 64 per cent of children played outside less than once a week, 21 per cent had never been on a farm and 20 per cent had never climbed a tree. Nearly half the parents surveyed believed children shouldn't play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14.
Currambena isn't the only school of its kind in Australia. As well as its sister school, Kinma, in Sydney's Terrey Hills, there's the well-known Brisbane Independent School, and Melbourne's Preshil has been running for nearly 80 years.
To varying degrees, they all owe something to the UK's controversial Summerhill, the earliest known democratic school, founded in 1921.
"The idea behind democratic education was that children were born good and free, but society screwed them up," explains Dr Jennifer Bleazby, a specialist in democratic education at Monash University. "Summerhill was based on the idea that education should be about creating happy individuals, and the best way to do that is to let people be free."
Like many academics, Bleazby has concerns about the movement. "I question how democratic it really is," she admits. "If democracy, in educational terms, is about providing students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to participate in society, a child who opts out of learning may reduce their future autonomy and life choices as an adult. And how democratic is that?"
Some developmental psychologists argue that primary-school children aren't mature enough to make decisions in their own best interest. "There's a school of thought that says children may not be capable of reasoning and making good decisions about their own education," says Bleazby.
Preshil's principal, Marilyn Smith, has heard it all before. "There's a public perception of a lack of discipline, but perhaps people have a certain idea about what children should look like when they're working - military discipline and rows of desks facing a blackboard aren't necessarily the right way. People may not have seen how engaged children are when you give them the opportunity to choose how their learning takes place."
Smith insists the school has a strong focus on learning and hard work, but a child's work is play, especially in the younger years. "Learning through play, creating imaginative activities, promoting a child's sense of wonder - that's what we're about."
Unlike Currambena, Preshil does have exams. "Testing can be useful, but we use it in a way that doesn't cut across self-esteem," says Smith, who agrees that competition is often damaging to children.
So, could democratic education ever become mainstream? Bleazby says that, in many ways, it already has. "A lot of accepted practices in the state system - child-centered learning, even student representative councils - come from the movement. We've veered away from the idea that education is just about delivering content and getting students to remember facts. The idea that we must teach them to think for themselves is accepted now."
Turner credits her time at Currambena with making her the person she is. "It still impacts the way I think. I have the usual insecurities, but it's given me an outlook that the world is in my hands. If I want something to happen, I make it happen."
Even if, for the current students, that means an entire morning spent doing maths in a tree.