It’s amazing the power of conversation. How an exchange of words can create something real and concrete, can lead to so many possibilities. It’s one of the most compelling catalysts we have for creating the world we want to live in. Having an honest and open conversation even with a stranger can mean something that was an idea in your head, or a longing in your heart, a desire for something Other, can begin to take form, and start to become a real possibility.
In late 2013, following many lively (read frustrated!) threads on various Facebook posts relating to education, myself and Martin Hodges in the UK set up a Fb group called Another Way, to create a place for these conversations. The uptake was astonishing. We discovered people really have a lot to say about this topic. People from all over the world. Today, it remains very active, with almost 300 members, and plenty of reading material and conversations for those who are looking for Another Way to educate their child.
About a year later, in January 2015 I received a message from Anthea Beattie Lang, who I had never met before, saying how great Another Way was but she would love to have these conversations with people in real life, more specifically people in her geographic area (which happened to be the same area as me) with a view to doing something about it. I set up another Facebook group called Wicklow Hedge School and overnight (literally in 24 hours) 88 people had joined (there is now 300+). The thing exploded. I could not believe it. Three weeks later we organised a public meeting in Common Ground, Bray, and totally underestimated how many would come. It was standing room only in the end, and all we managed to get done was share our stories about how we ended up there that night. There were people from all backgrounds, both as parents and as educators, homeschoolers, unschoolers, schoolers, and every combination of the above, and all with a story to tell. Wicklow Hedge School became a hub for people to meet and connect, and many different things came out of it, driven by the different needs and ideas of what education can or should be. Nature clubs, homeschooling groups, classes, meet ups, playdates – as many things as possible that were not school.
And the conversations continued.
Then, not much more than a year ago, after many such conversations around kitchen tables, in parks, at the beach, and actually quite a few in supermarket aisles, a small group of parents began to realise that we were all actually beginning to be quite serious about the idea of creating a new type of school in Ireland – myself, Ciara Brehony, along with Sonja Luescher Keogh, Mark Keogh, Carol Kim, Jackie Spillane, and Rick Mettler. As well as having very passionate conversations, we had been sharing with each other inspirational videos, TED Talks, and articles that showed us how other people were doing things in other countries, about this new-to-us concept of democratic schools.
As I said, we were all coming to this idea from quite diverse avenues. Some were homeschooling, some found themselves homeschooling without ever intending to but their children were not coping in school, some had children deeply unhappy in school but didn’t see an alternative as they were not prepared to homeschool, and some had children that were quite happy in school. I think it’s safe to say that we who became the start up committee of what is now Wicklow Sudbury School are a good representation of the kinds of parents who are excited by and interested in this possibility for their children – in other words, all kinds of families from all kinds of backgrounds, the common thread being a desire for something different for their children’s education, and indeed their children’s lives.
Very quickly we became a serious working group, meeting once a week, and allowing the conversation to deepen, really beginning to explore what this idea might look like in an Irish educational landscape that offers so little choice amidst a very clear, new, growing, and widely recognised, understanding of how vastly children’s learning needs differ.
Early on we decided to call ourselves Another Way Education (AWE) as it expressed so much about what we were trying to do, as well as having a wonderful acronym! We continued exploring democratic schools elsewhere, and three members signed up to do the Alternative Education Resource Organisation (AERO) school start up course, which provides practical help and advice, as well as valuable online support from other alternatives start-up schools.
In October of last year, I got in touch with Aaron Keohane who I’d been in touch with a year earlier when another group of people were having a similar conversation about setting up a democratic school. Aaron, an Irishman from Co. Cork, was at the time teaching in Summerhill democratic school in the UK, and shortly due to join L’ecole Dynamique, a new Sudbury school in Paris, and he offered support and advice in an advisory capacity.
In July 2015 we organised and ran a summer school for 16 children, in which we put into practice the basic principles of a democratic school, allowing the children to decide what they wanted to do, and holding meetings each day.
Continuing to talk with other people outside of the start up group we began to see that there is a widespread interest in the idea, in fact that has been one of the things that continues to encourage and amaze us, just how many people have been waiting for something like this to come along, as we have been told time and time again. So after almost a year meeting, we decided it was time to test the waters and see if people were interested on going on this journey with us. By this time Aaron was so excited by what we were doing that he decided to fly over and join us for our first public meeting in February 2016, to which an estimated 70+ people came along, and over the following few weeks we soon had almost fifty families fill in expressions of interest forms, which was confirmation of what we had known – Irish parents are ready for, indeed are looking for, something different, an education that recognises how the world has changed, and continues to change. An education that gives their children the skills to navigate this new world, and the confidence to trust themselves and know what they want to do. After the meeting Aaron asked would we consider him joining us, which we were delighted to agree with, and so he did, joining us via skype and email until the end of the school year in Paris, and his experience and deep involvement with democratic schools has been an invaluable addition to our group.
Around this time we collectively agreed that in all of our exploration of different models of democratic schools, we had all arrived at the same conclusion, that the Sudbury Valley model was the one we all felt most in tune with, that it made the most sense to us. And so, in April 2016, we officially became Wicklow Sudbury School.
We continue to meet every week, working away individually in between, emails and texts flying back and forth, skype and phone calls on an almost daily basis, gradually working through the various layers of the details of such a project – each question bringing a dozen more questions.
As I have discovered with previous projects I have worked on, as with any group, especially one working so intensely on a project that really has no precedent, and so requires every iota to be discovered or decided on, it is inevitable that the group would change and grow in different ways, and in mid May, Carol Kim stepped down from the committee
Over the last few months we have held public meetings every fortnight at which we would show videos from Sudbury Valley and other Sudbury schools, followed by discussion and conversation, alongside which we have begun the enrollment process with the first families. As the regular meetings began to form a solid core group of well informed parents whose families will go on to be the first members of our school community, new people also continued to come along each week. With that in mind we have now changed things around and have begun family meet-ups/picnics for those enrolled families, where the children can get to know one another and the adults can deepen the conversation, and at the same time also planning a number of introduction meetings during July and August for those interested but still relatively new to the concept.
While we are currently exploring a possible venue to start in September, we are also still searching the area for other potential places, and we would love to hear from anyone who may have an idea or contact that may be helpful.
Aaron will arrive in Ireland in July, and we look forward with great enthusiasm to bringing this dream that is Wicklow Sudbury School into reality in September 2016.