A democratic governance allows all those involved in the school to be invested in its success. A democratic school environment protects the rights of all individuals in the school, fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility and empowers students to cultivate their leadership, problem-solving, and initiative.
Is it legal?
Yes. Wicklow Democratic School is a registered Independent School. Our school is in the remit of TUSLA, not the Department of Education, so students are registered with TUSLA when they join our school. We are also inspected by TUSLA and they have been very approving of our school’s education model, since it prioritises the well-being of children and young people. Since we are not in the remit of the Department of Education, we are not eligible for any State funding. For a fuller explanation of the Irish legal landscape see this page.
What is the age range of students?
We currently accept students between the ages of 6 to 18. Students younger than 6 may be considered in exceptional circumstances.
Our intention is to extend this to younger children over time.
What are the attendance requirements/Can you attend part time?
School is open from 9:00am to 4:30pm, except for Wednesdays when the school closes at 1:30pm. Students are required to be in school for the core hours of 10:00am to 3:00pm, five days per week.
Each student receives 17 duvet days (these are separate from sick days, more like mental health days) which they can avail of on any day they choose as long as their guardian notifies the school.
There is some flexibility within these rules. Some students have arrangements to take a rest day mid-week. Others attend courses or work experience on certain days. Some students, usually younger children, may arrive later or leave earlier to help them maintain good energy levels.
We aim to strike a balance between the school’s need to have a consistent community and individual student’s needs for space, time or to pursue interests outside the physical campus.
Is there homework?
The only homework that is given is self-assigned.
Is there a curriculum?
There is no set curriculum in the school and we do not teach the state curriculum. However, twice every academic year, we come together to democratically co-create our own tailor-made curriculum. Staff and students brainstorm activities that they would like to see offered on a regular basis for the term to come. They then vote for which activities will be added to the timetable. None of these activities are compulsory; they have all been requested and the timetable is kept deliberately minimalist to allow for a wide array of other, more spontaneous activities.
We have found that the co-created curriculum (CCC) allows us to do more of the things we love in a more easily organised way, giving people a sense of routine and clarity without interfering with their spontaneity.
The CCC is subject to change twice a year, and the community is free to reduce or expand its scope, and indeed, to do away with it entirely.
What are Check-Ins and what is their purpose?
Each student is linked with a staff member who acts as their Connection Person. Students have regular one-to-one check-ins with their Connection Person. These are opportunities to, as the name implies, check in with how the student is doing in a holistic sense. Common topics include mental health, additional supports the student would like from the school, as well as goal-setting and reviewing.
What if they just sit around all day/What if students get bored?
Depending on how many years your child has been in a traditional school setting, they may go through a period of de-schooling when they first arrive at our school. This may include long periods of what might appear to be doing nothing at all. We, however, see this as a valuable and necessary transition time as students acclimatise to a very different decision making environment, social life and the fact that what they do is now up to them. This is a form of decompressing from the stress many students have experienced in mainstream and is quite important.
Your child may also be testing the adults around them to see if they are serious about not interfering with their choices. All of this is completely normal, and parents should be prepared to accept this as part of the process before enrolling their child.
Furthermore, even for students who do not go through a deschooling process, there will be inevitable moments, and periods, of boredom. These are also very important. This explained quite well by another Democratic School, The Open School:
“Yes. Eventually a student is going to get bored of doing the things they’re used to doing. They might get frustrated with you or with the school for not pleasing them, and you might be worried that they’re wasting their time. Unfortunately, while we may be able to think of 1,000 things to keep them busy, we can’t manufacture passion.
Boredom is an essential part of the educational process. Because boredom is unpleasant, it motivates students to search for things to do, to get creative, and to discover their interests. Deprived of this developmentally crucial process, children will not be able to achieve the self-knowledge they will need to chart their own course through life. Our job is not to keep them entertained, but to make sure that they are in control of their own experience and to make sure that they know they are responsible for it.”
What if my child just wants to play all day?
“The highest form of research is essentially play.” ~ N. V. Scarfe, education researcher
Play is exactly what your child should be doing! There is a reason that nature has endowed children with an intense need to play in their earliest years of development, at a time when they are learning more and faster than at any other point in later life. Not only do children make meaning and construct models of the world through play, they also practice their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional skills.
Students at democratic schools spend a lot of time playing. A common misconception is that play is a mindless activity. It is not. Curiosity and play propel each other; they both involve exploration of the unknown. The means by which people advance is through investigation and manipulation of that which is not yet known. Play is key to children’s learning and understanding of their world.
What if someone wants to study something you don’t provide?
Of course we don’t have trained experts for every topic, but we live in a time where there are excellent online resources for almost any subject. When students require physical materials, these can be purchased out of the School Meeting Budget. Facilitators assist students in finding any resources or online classes they may require, and emphasise research literacy, encouraging students to consider the accuracy or otherwise of online sources of information. Learning to research critically and effectively is an important skill students learn at WDS.
We also draw on our broader community of parents and supporters, who often volunteer to give classes or workshops in their areas of expertise.
How is this a real education/preparation for the real world?
This type of question could equally be asked of the mainstream education system. Are rote learning, extrinsic motivation and obedience really the skills we want our children to have as preparation for the real world?
The ever-growing emphasis on academics and test scores in mainstream education prevents children from developing life skills like self-control, motivation, focus and resilience, which are far better predictors of long-term success and well-being than high grades (Parker-Pope, 2011).
In contrast, democratic schools facilitate students in learning skills that will not only benefit them in their future academics and careers, but will also help them to become more fulfilled, flourishing individuals. As you can read in our blog post about STEM in democratic schools, so-called soft skills like communicating and listening well, having empathy and being supportive of one’s colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem solver, and being able to make connections across complex ideas are becoming increasingly desirable in the modern workforce. And these are skills students learn when they direct their own education and have an equal voice in their school. They learn to motivate themselves, navigate interpersonal issues, and voice their opinions. They develop a sense of curiosity and un-learn the fear of failure.
Why don’t you have teachers? What is the role of staff?
The adults at Wicklow Democratic School chose not to call themselves teachers because everyone and everything is a potential teacher. We do, however, recognise our special role in the community. Some of us are generalists, some of us are specialists. We will all be elected for a three year period – there is no tenure – and what we’re elected for will be a combination of who we are and the value that we can bring to the community. Most of us will do some work in areas in which we have expertise. It’s just that that’s not necessarily how we’re going to be spending most of our time.
Staff members are ultimately responsible for the administration and smooth functioning of the school. On a day-to-day basis, staff members focus on holding the space in which children can be free within the boundaries of safety and respect. Although we will not direct students’ learning (unless they ask for specific instruction of that type in a particular area), we will certainly share our own interests, and we will always be available to help students if and when they ask.
How will students get exposed to new things?
Because our students can largely engage in whatever activity they want, when they want and are not restricted to age-based classrooms, they are exposed to all kinds of different skills, interests and ideas every day.
The succulent smell of a student cooking lasagne or baking cookies attracts inquiries and collaborators. Two students discussing the novel they’re reading prompts others to join in the conversation, and soon they’re all exchanging book recommendations. Outside, one student is building a ramp, and their friends see them and decide to join in. A staff member who is passionate about history starts to hold reenactments of historical events with dress up, props and drama, and more and more students come along for the ride. These are all real and recent examples of how our students get exposed to new interests.
We’ve had a club called Discovery Club, where everyone in attendance suggests a topic to explore and a randomizer is used to pick one that everyone researches for the week and presents on at the next session. Another, called Magically Non-Magical Wonders of the World, explores all of the incredible things that exist in our world that are just as awe-inspiring as anything in Hogwarts.
There are not many places where you could be exposed to such a dizzying array of new ideas, topics and perspectives on a daily basis, any of which may spark the fire of curiosity in a student.
How do you measure or evaluate progress with no exams?
There is nothing inherently wrong with measuring progress after setting a goal. But problems arise when this process becomes an end in itself and not simply a means to improve learning. As educational author Mike Crowley puts it:
“The noble aim is to find evidence that learning is happening. The most unfortunate outcome of this quest is that the process for gathering evidence begins to take precedence over learning itself. In fact, when this
process crosses a line of institutional priority, data collection is actually sometimes at the expense of learning.”
Research has shown that today’s overemphasis on standardised testing contributes to excessive anxiety in students, leading to symptoms like frequent panic attacks and vomiting.
Furthermore, data-driven companies like Google are realising that a job applicant’s test results tell them little to nothing about that person’s capacities. Standardised testing prevents teachers from teaching in a way that is adapted to different learning styles or unique contexts, even though we know curricula are more effective when they are adapted to the unique backgrounds of the students using them.
It is evident that mainstream education systems are testing too much, for the wrong reasons, and based on overly-homogenised, and in some cases poorly researched, curricula.
At WDS we rely on two primary forms of ongoing assessment:
- Self-reflection: In check-ins with staff, students are invited to reflect on how things are going for them in a holistic way. This often includes discussing how they are progressing on goals they set for themselves in earlier check-ins, and those goals are not limited to the academic sphere. They could just as easily be about forming more meaningful connections with people around them, or being more compassionate, or getting better at skating, or singing or any other activity they feel is relevant to their life.
- Outcomes: If you cook a meal and it burns – there’s your evaluation. If you do an equation and the answer is wrong – there’s your evaluation. It’s much less formal than mainstream education, but we believe that the evidence supports a less-is-more approach to assessment.
How is conflict handled in the school?
Our Restorative Cafe (RC) is where we resolve conflict and repair harm that has taken place. RC Clerks, who may be staff or students, use skills from Non-Violent Communication and Restorative Practices to facilitate healthy relationships. Anyone can fill out an invitation form to invite someone to come and have a conversation at the RC.
Can they go to college? What about the Leaving Cert?
Facilitators work with students to craft the optimal plan for them after they leave WDS. If students decide to pursue a university education, there are a number of possible routes outlined below.
Many homeschoolers do their Leaving Cert without going to a mainstream school, and likewise, our students can prepare for their Leaving Cert without being taught the state curriculum, self-directing their study with support from staff. Another option would be to attend Wicklow Democratic School until the age of seventeen and then attend a traditional school or a grind school in the year leading up to the Leaving Cert exam.
A levels are another option and involve much less work for an equivalent qualification. These can be done online, and our staff will assist in choosing a good provider, as well as offering support with course work.
Some of our students have done Open University courses during their time at the school.
The most common path our students avail of are Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) accredited courses. These are typically one-year courses that can serve as pathways to university and also as useful qualifications in their own right.
There are a wide variety of QQIs available, and staff members will help students find QQI courses that will make them eligible for their desired university courses. QQIs come in level 4, 5 and 6 (level 5 is the equivalent of the Leaving Cert). Our students are usually able to start with the level 5 course, although this is at the course provider’s discretion, and in some cases a level 4 qualification may be required first.
What do students do after they graduate Wicklow Democratic School?
Students graduating from our school are able to pursue any path they choose. Many of our graduates have undertaken QQI courses with the goal of attending university, while others choose to work or travel. In the years leading up to graduating, staff members discuss what students want to do when they leave WDS and help to get them on that path, which may include researching courses or training programmes, helping students decide if they want to take exams and which exams to take, or supporting students through application processes.
Does the school have fees?
Yes. Wicklow Democratic School is a self-funded, not for profit organisation which receives no state money. For this reason we will need to charge fees for the running and upkeep of the school and to ensure a rich environment. See fees
It is important for us that the school is accessible. With this in mind, we have created a nuanced grant system. Our ambition is that democratic school can one day be an option for every child in Ireland, regardless of income.
Do you accept children with autism or other special needs?
As part of our enrolment process, we determine on a case-by-case basis whether we think a student will be able to thrive in WDS. We will always be honest and open about what supports we can or cannot adequately provide.
Unfortunately, unlike mainstream schools who have SNAs funded by the state, our school does not currently have the resources to work with students who experience severe difficulties in learning independently or who need ongoing one-to-one assistance. However, we will always engage in honest discussion with families and do our best to find a way for any child who wants to attend to be able to do so.
What if my partner or co-parent doesn’t want this for our child?
This situation can work, but it is not ideal. If a child’s parent or guardian is not supportive of their education, it can undermine the child’s learning process. For instance, if a child is being coerced into taking maths lessons outside of school, then they are not getting the full experience of self-directing their learning. It would be preferable for parents to be supportive of this type of education before the child is enrolled in our school.
I want this for my child, but they are on the fence?
If a child is on the fence about joining a democratic school, then they are not ready to be enrolled. Enrolling a child in our school without their enthusiastic support would go against the values of respect and autonomy that are foundational to our school community. This does not mean the child isn’t suitable for a democratic school, but it does mean that the child may need more time to think about what kind of educational environment they want.