Have you heard about ‘democratic schools’?

Democratic schools aim to create immersive play opportunities that fit the child rather than force the child to fit conventional educational boundaries

Sligo Sudbury is a “democratic school” with a self-directed learning ethos. Established in 2018, the culture and ethos of the Sudbury model of education is grounded in the belief that children are intrinsically motivated to learn and to become competent members of society and can best accomplish this when provided with freedom in a supportive environment.

“We recognise the family as the primary and natural educator of the child, as does the Irish Constitution, and work together with parents for the benefit of the child,” says Gayle Nagle, founder and staff member of Sligo Sudbury, which is located just outside Sligo town, and caters for children from five-18 years.

Founding members Nagle and Maura Duignan share similar ideas about schooling and met through the homeschooling network. Nagle says she had the good fortune to be educated in a school whose ethos was founded on A S Neill’s Summerhill school in Suffolk which, when originally founded a hundred years ago, set out to create a school that fit the child rather than force the child to fit the educational boundaries of conventional schooling.

Duignan was already homeschooling her two sons and her interest in developing a new learning environment was piqued as she became more inspired by John Holt, an American author and educator, and a proponent of homeschooling (specifically the unschooling approach), and how he understood the methods in which encourage children to learn, as well as American psychology researcher and scholar Peter Gray’s understanding of the evolution of play.


“I had worked in the mainstream system as a primary schoolteacher and principal, and was looking for alternatives that were more child-centred and better suited to individuals and didn’t put such an onus on the child to fit the system,” says Nagle.

“We had both seen Peter Gray speak at the Unschooling conference in Galway and were greatly inspired by his research and his message that in order to develop optimally, children need unlimited immersive play opportunities and that, as young mammals, they are responsible and capable learners from infancy. Together we sought to establish an environment where these natural born learners could develop and thrive.”

The school culture is based on the fundamental principles of respect, freedom and responsibility.

“If we wish to see our young people grow into respectful, resourceful, resilient, healthy, compassionate, responsible and passionate adults, we must create a rich environment that is imbued with these values and gives ample opportunity to practise these life skills,” says Nagle. “We trust that children’s innate curiosity leads them to learn what they need to know, and we understand that freedom is a requirement for authentic learning and integrated development.”

Collective decisions are made in Sligo Sudbury and with this authority over their educational choices, students claim an ownership of the school community that reflects the needs of each child on a conscientious and respectful level while focusing their learning. Children arrive to school between 8.30am and 10.30am, and leave between 2.30pm and 4.30pm. In that time, they are free to move about the school buildings and outdoor spaces. There are no assigned spaces and no assigned lesson times.

“We offer an opportunity for students to follow their own interests and learning paths in an environment that is free from an externally imposed curriculum,” says Nagle. “Our school is co-governed by all of the members, so students and staff together make decisions that affect the community. In this way, our students have a genuine experience of what is set out in the UN Convention as a children’s right, the right to have a say in matters that affect them. The underpinning philosophy and practices of our school mean that children can grow in an environment that is collaborative and supportive rather than competitive.”

Nagle enforces the understanding that the children of a democratic-style school are not measured against each other or against an arbitrary external measurement or yardstick. “They are not expected to develop along a certain trajectory,” she says. “They are seen for who they are and supported with whatever their own personal needs are. Staff are present to maintain a safe environment and to establish relationships with the children and through these relationships staff can offer mentorship and guidance to the students in all areas of their development from goal setting to navigating social dynamics. This schooling alternative offers individuals of all learner and personality types to flourish and thrive. It is inherently inclusive.”

Wicklow Democratic school began its life as the first Sudbury school in Ireland which was founded in 2016 by a group of concerned parents and educators. Now, a democratic school, their learning community is enthused by parents, staff and, most importantly, children who are encouraged to follow their passions.

“Parents saw that their children were not thriving,” says Rachel Kuhn, a facilitator at Wicklow Democratic School in Rathnew. “They noticed their child change in mainstream school. They might have gone from being someone who was really curious and happy around the house and then became kind of despondent and unhappy and angry even.”

Mainstream schooling and democratic schooling are based off of two different and somewhat opposing approaches to learning. Kuhn explains that “in a mainstream school learning would come from more of a theory based in behaviour and is more of a didactic approach based on rewards and punishments to incentivise children to learn the material through grading. In a democratic school, learning comes from a constructivist approach, which is more about seeing where the student currently is and building on where they’re at.”

This approach looks at the entry points in engaging a child with their learning rather than fitting the child around the structure of mainstream lessons. For example, if a child is interested in how to make investments, their math learning is based around those particular interests engaging the child in their education, advocating for their interests, goals and authority.

“It’s more of an ongoing dialogue between the learner and the educator,” says Kuhn. “With this approach to learning, every child is accommodated for. Democratic schooling is based on fitting the education to the student and that includes whether they thrive with a lot of structure or with a lot of flexibility.”

The day-to-day learning is not without structure. School gatherings, devoted time for announcements, time to discuss issues, submit proposals, the dedicated clean-up time at the end of the day and a timetable of activities, focus the week. The difference is students choose what they want to learn and create a curriculum and timetable with their peers and facilitators. They are involved in their learning as they learn from each other with students of all ages mixing together.

“There was a report by the Youth Parliament a few years ago that said having a say in school was the issue that was most affecting young people in Ireland,” says Kuhn. “People are realising that young people spend so much time in school, and if it’s not serving them, then that that creates long-term effects.”

Every child is unique and, for that reason, Nagle believes parents should be open to alternative schooling options while considering the most suitable educational environment for their child.

“As a school we are working to increase awareness about self-directed democratic education,” says Nagle. “We are co-founders of the national organisation Democratic Education Ireland which is working towards sharing the vision and progressing the movement of Democratic Education in Ireland. We were the second school to open in Ireland after Wicklow Democratic School and there are now four schools in operation around the country and there will be two more schools opening in September.

“We look forward to a time in the not-too-distant future when parents and students alike are aware of and consider this developmentally integrative and holistic option for themselves and their families.”

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family