A school where pupils do what they like: It will fail... won’t it?

Should we open a school in Cork that lets pupils decide what to do with their time? So asks Ailin Quinlan
A school where pupils do what they like: It will fail... won’t it?

SCHOOL STRUCTURE: Children need to be told what time to arrive at and leave school, and what to study, says Áilín Quinlan

YEAH, what a great idea. Let’s open one in Cork city. Or not?

There’s this school that’s just opened its doors in Sligo. It lets its pupils, who are aged between five and 18 years, decide what to do with their time.

In this school, there is a system of ‘direct democracy’ which means there is no imposed curriculum for pupils who have responsibility for their own education.

In other words, if kids want to spend their day climbing trees they can do so.

If you’re the kind of parent who wants to ensure your kids are learning the three R’s, in order to be educationally well-placed enough to exploit the academic conveyor belt through second-level and into the college place of their choice, such a school might very well be your idea of a nightmare.

Students at the Sudbury School can also arrive in the morning any time they want between 8.30am and 10.30am. And if they feel like it, they can up sticks and leave school at any point between 2.30pm and 4.30pm.

Apparently, even though it’s very much a fee-paying initiative at nearly €4,000 smackers a year, The Sudbury School is proving popular.

It’s actually the second of its kind to open in this country. There’s a similar school in Wicklow, which was established three years ago.

The idea is that the students will be part of a democratic community and can engage, according to one of the founders who was interviewed for a newspaper article about the school, “in the natural process of experiential learning and to be part of a self-governed democratic community”.

Instead, students, Ms Gayle Nagle said, were free to explore their own learning pursuits and interests, in their own time, style and at their own pace — and the school, interestingly enough, is not subject to Department of Education inspections.

Children, Ms Nagle explained, could read all day if they wanted to.

Wow. Far be it from me to decry such high-minded educational principles — as a child, I’d have adored the opportunity to go to a place like that, had it existed, and had my parents been able to afford it. Because reading is exactly what I probably would have done — though little else.

Looking back, if I’d gone somewhere like that, I would quite possibly have sat in a corner and read a book all day.

As the eldest of six, with a crowd of younger siblings running around all the time yammering for attention, I wasn’t the most sociable of children. If I’d attended a school like this — an unlikely prospect given the cost of it per year and the number of siblings following me up the academic ladder — well, yaaay, hallelujah, I could have avoided maths, which I hated, and which made me utterly miserable, because I was useless at it.

The same for Irish grammar. And the same for all the other stuff that we did in mainstream school, because, well, teacher said we had to do it.

And while Ms Nagle has rightly said that we can’t live a day without using maths in some form, I think I’d have found a way to avoid it, believe me.

I honestly don’t know how it might have all turned out.

I suppose, on reaching my early teens, I’d have transferred to a mainstream second level school after spending years swanning into school at my self-determined arrival time to spend the day honing my own self-determined interests, which primarily centred around English, and writing short stories...

How on earth, I wonder now, would I have ever managed to prepare for the draconian entity that is the Leaving Cert? Especially given the fact that, for years, I’d essentially been allowed to do whatever I liked in terms of educating myself, and had never bothered with boring stuff like maths or Irish?

It’s argued by Ms Nagle that such students would thrive at third-level, having developed a “high internal motivation to study their already nurtured interest”.

Who am I to argue back? I suspect, however, given the way college places are distributed in this country, that you’d need more than the sum of your own nurtured interests to gain the points needed for the college course of your choice.

Generally, to make the grade, you kind of have to do stuff you don’t necessarily adore studying.

The other thing that would worry me a bit about all of this, is the feeling that while it certainly sounds idyllic, it may not prepare a child for the Big Bad World outside.

In the real world, life, for the most part, is often, sadly, not about spending your time doing exactly what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it.

All too often in the real world, we are forced to do things that we don’t feel like doing.

These things — we will call them tasks and responsibilities — can be onerous or even vaguely unpleasant. They’re certainly not all fun and games.

My recollection is that there’s a good bit of normal, healthy stress involved in getting on with mainstream school life in terms of doing things you have to do. But isn’t that supposed to be part of going through life?

Isn’t school supposed to be some form of preparation for the dog-eat-dog world out there?

And in the real world, when you eventually get hired to do a job, you can’t spend all day doing what your heart tells you. You can’t reasonably object to being told by your employer to do something that that you don’t want to do.

Nor can you object to being told NOT to do something you want to do, because, of course, your employer is paying you to do what he or she needs you to do.

Well, you can object — but you won’t stay long in the job.

We’ll have to see how the graduates of The Sudbury School get on as the years roll past. The proof of the pudding, as my granny always said, is in the eating.

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