Wicklow Sudbury Promotional Videos

Wicklow Sudbury School is an experiment in Irish education. The first  curriculum ‘free school’ in the country. A school where students spend all day long, pursuing their real interests. The Sudbury Valley model, pioneered in Massachusetts in the late 1960s, puts children in charge of directing their own education. A few years ago I organised some events along these lines in Dublin. Learning and teaching as self directed fun. Those experiences, and my time volunteering at Exchange Dublin – the democratically organised art space in Temple Bar forcibly shut down by Dublin City Council in 2014 – have shown me the power of learning as play. The  importance of genuine ‘third spaces’, where people can explore through play to offer the kind of deep personal enrichment that bureaucratic curricula and educational measures cannot hope to define, let alone measure. These spaces are so rare in our contemporary societies, where every inch is commodified and defined, every intervention tailored, every creative work moulded and marketed to a constructed audience, that they can seem fantastical. They are spaces that literally remind us what it means to be human. Connection, creativity, love in action.

Last year I made a radio documentary, following a year in the life of the school – exploring in a small way the opportunities for more libertine forms of education in Ireland in general. This year, as I moved out of radio and into video production, I offered to head back to the school, to help with their crowd funding campaign. I spent a day at Wicklow Sudbury, shooting interviews and capturing the decidedly unconventional educational environment. I combined short interviews with three staff and five students with footage of the learning through play that makes this place unique. The end results are a ten minute mini-documentary and a two minute promotional video. Unlike the documentary this campaign is decidedly partisan. I’ve worked as hard as I can to convey the enthusiasm of staff and students for this new kind of education. 

Hopefully these videos capture a little about what makes this school so different. This really is a place where kids can be themselves. A place to develop the kind of diverse talents that our rigid bureaucratic education system cannot accept, let alone promote. These kids are passionate, creative, and above all independently minded. They give me hope for a future less rigid, heartless and polarised than the present. This is the kind of place that any misunderstood, creative kid might have imagined into existence. It’s the sort of place that makes having kids worth considering. It’s that revolutionary. If you’re interested in learning more, Wicklow Sudbury staff frequently offer talks about setting up your own community school, and you can find information about these, and if you’d like donate towards the school (which naturally receives no government funding), at their website

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The Free School – Upcoming Newstalk Documentary

Students at Wicklow Sudbury. Image courtesy Wicklow Sudbury



Download: The Free School Trailer

Think back, what were your least favourite parts of school? Maybe math, maybe physics, maybe you just hated gym. Now imagine a school where you didn’t have to do anything you didn’t want to. A school with no exams, no homework, no classes, not even any teachers. What if I were to tell you that not only does that school exist, it’s right here in Dublin, in a regular semi-d near the cold unfinished boom era monstrosity of the Sandyford industrial estate. This documentary explores a year in the life of Ireland’s most unconventional school, ‘Wicklow Sudbury’. This radical form of schooling has been running in the United States for almost fifty years, but can it work here? We follow the first few months of the fledgling school. Listeners will meet students, staff and parents, and explore what they found lacking in conventional education. In the process we’ll see just what Irish education can learn from The Free School.

Wicklow Sudbury School is an experiment in alternative education, attempting to apply the principles of ‘free schooling’ and ‘unschooling’ in the Irish context. The first ever term has recently begun, and right now the school consists of eighteen students of all ages, learning together.

Free or democratic schools are organised around the principle that students should take a lead in deciding their own educational path. These schools take a radical approach to encouraging free thinking and agency in their students. Free schools offer an alternative to mainstream education. They share an emphasis on child-centered learning: Seeing the learner as an active participant who choses his or her own course of study.

For many Wicklow Sudbury students the mainstream educational system has been a failure. They or their parents haven’t found the education they’re looking for in standardised classes and subject based classes. Instead they’ve chosen a school with no classes, no subject, no homework and no teachers. We follow their first few months in the school and learn how radical education works in Ireland in practice.

Broadcaster: Newstalk 106 – 108fm
When: Sunday 12th November at 8AM, repeated at 10PM on Saturday 18th November.
Online: Podcast or soundcloud.

Free Schools or No Schools

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Serious question: Why are we so comfortable with imprisoning children for 12 – 14 years? It seems the answer is we’ve constructed an economic system that requires both parents to work, for most of each weekday. Schools act in loco parentis, helping to tame children in preparation for an adulthood of service to industry. They take in creative, artistic, anarchic individuals and release obedient, ambitious conformists. But there is another way.

BBC News recently ran a great retrospective on the free schools of the 1970’s. Free schools, also known as ‘democratic schools‘ serve a caretaker role, without indoctrinating learned helplessness, conditioning obedience, and training respect for unearned authority. What the article doesn’t mention is that free schools, despite having almost disappeared from the UK, are far from extinct. In the United States Sudbury Valley Schools are an increasingly popular alternative, offering a playground for learning, rather than a cage for ‘education’.

Beyond Sudbury, ‘unskooling‘ (a secular equivalent of ‘home schooling’) is a growing movement in the US, as parents (wealthy enough to have the the choice) remove their children from an increasingly unequal, militarised public school system.

Here’s the thing. We pay lip service to entrepreneurship and ‘life long learning’, but if we really want a society of empowered creative individuals, we can’t expect it to emerge from a cookie cutter approach to ‘training’. People learn, dogs are trained.

A kind of amnesia occurs in parents, who forget just how stifling and uninspiring most of their time spent in school actually was. It’s precisely because the majority of school is spent ‘keeping the head down’, trying to placate capricious teachers, and stressing over exam results, that we remember the teachers who went against the grain and genuinely inspired us.

So what can well intentioned parents and educators actually do? After all, we need an income to survive, and fewer of us than ever have access to the extended alloparenting arrangements that our ancestors enjoyed. The answer isn’t simple or easy – but it’s clear. The twentieth century, 9 – 5 employee / business arrangement doesn’t work. It doesn’t allow us to be citizens invested in our communities. It incentivises employees not to rock the boat, as financial institutions mismanage and outright steal vast quantities of global wealth. It trains us to defer to higher authorities, even when they display no real concern for our best interests.

All these issues are connected: the revolution in robotics that will put most manufacturing and service industry workers out of a job in the next twenty five years. The increasing inequality of the globalised economy, concentrating ever more of our wealth in the hands of a tiny group of literally jet-setting plutocrats. The economic necessity of basic income. The enormous possibilities for learning created by the internet, and the bonkers dropout rate of online courses.

Years ago I volunteered at Seomra Spraoi, a consensus run communal space off Gardener St in Dublin. At the time, Seomra had a parent run Steiner playschool, where a group of volunteer parents put into practice the art driven principles of Waldorf Education. What they shared wasn’t any formal pedagogic education, but a real concern that their children should become rounded human beings.

Here’s the thing – we can all do this. Teaching doesn’t have to be a profession – in fact, I’d argue that (like political office) it should never be. Learning doesn’t have to be something you only do from age four to seventeen or twenty two. Anyone running a business or practicing a profession will tell you that the first couple of years at their job were far more informative than the dozen or more spent in the classroom.

No magic bullet is going to make our education system fit individual kids, rather than the amorphous mass of students. No curriculum (online or off) will erase individual differences, or inspire the way allowing a person to follow their innate interests and talents will. Learning and teaching need to become part of how we operate as people. It might be simple things like creating community education programmes, volunteering at libraries, or teaching as part of our businesses, studios and factories. It might involve working less, taking on less or no debt, and living a more modest life – accepting that we won’t own the latest consumer goods, but will have time to learn to teach and to create, in other words, to live. If we do these things – if we undermine the systems constructed to inhibit us, we’ll empower citizens capable of genuinely changing a system enabled by mediocrity.