It might sound like a no-fee education solution, but the term “free school” has a meaning all its own. Free schooling is an alternative form of education where students direct their own learning. They can decide what to study in classes, or elect not to attend class at all. Free schools also typically rely on democratic votes of students and staff to make major decisions.
Origins in Progressive Education
Peaking in the 1960s, free schooling can be traced back to progressive education ideas of the early 20th century. It took inspiration from schools like anarchist Francisco Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna in Spain, which eliminated grades, exams, punishments, and rewards. Another influence was the Harkness method, named for philanthropist Edward Harkness, who envisioned a classroom “where boys could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method.”
Perhaps the biggest influence on the 1960’s free school movement was Scottish writer Alexander Sutherland Neill. In 1921, Neill opened the free school Summerhill in Germany, later moving it to England.
“[Lessons] are not important, it’s living that’s important,” Neill said of Summerhill, “and if people are free to live without being molded in character by a teacher or parents, they have a chance to become balanced, sincere people.” At Summerhill, students of all ages gathered in an assembly to vote on things like bedtimes or disputes between students. Outside of these meetings, students were not forced to attend classes.
Inspired by Summerhill, free schooling organizations began forming in America, including the American Summerhill Society in 1961 and the New Schools Exchange in 1969. While the free school movement had no official structure or leadership, organizations like these served as sources of information for educators wishing to adopt the model.
A Swift Decline
While the free school movement thrived in the ’60s, the following decade saw it buckle under heavy scrutiny and internal conflict. Different wings of the movement had different core philosophies. One believed in utopian withdrawal from society, while the other sought to engender political engagement in students. As a result, proponents of free schooling were often at odds with one another.
On top of this, concerns arose around the accessibility of free schooling to the non-wealthy. Contrary to what the movement’s name may have implied, free schools often relied on steep tuition prices to operate. Researcher Jonathan Kozol, whose writings had been foundational to the free school movement, eventually came to condemn it for favoring the white middle class. According to HuffPo, Kozol once referred to free schools in the late 1960s and early ’70s as “a sandbox for the children of the SS guards at Auschwitz.” These criticisms, combined with the rising conservatism of the 1970s and the Nixon administration’s strict education policies, effectively ended the movement in the US by the 1980s.
Free Schooling Lives On
However, recent years have seen a small re-emergence of the movement. In 2004, high school assistant principal Alan Berger founded the Brooklyn Free School, still operating in New York City today. The school favors the mixed-age democratic approach used by Summerville, as well as non-mandatory class attendance.
“Kids going out with an education like this will be more creative, more inventive, and more adaptive and flexible, which is going to be a big thing when the economy changes,” Berger told the New York Times in 2006. “People with standard credentials figure, ‘I’m set.’ But what happens when your job is outsourced and you have to figure out what to do next?”
Meanwhile, the Summerville school remains open in Suffolk England, a “self-governing school in which the adults and children have equal status,” according to the school’s website.
What Is a Free School? — Sources
Aeon – “The school where children make the rules and learn what they want to learn”
Historical Dictionary of American Education – “Free School Movement”
HuffPo – “At Brooklyn Free School, A Movement Reborn With Liberty And No Testing For All”
New York Times – “NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: PARK SLOPE; One Man’s Solution To the Educational Rat Race”
Summerhill – Official website
ThoughtCo – “Progressive Education: How Children Learn”