I was living in Melbourne when my eldest child turned 5, and we faced the Big Decision about education. We considered a variety of options- schools, both state and private, as well as home education, and we talked to many people and visited many schools in the process of deciding. Through this time, I asked myself “What do I really want for Emma?”

We decided to send her to school, as she was (and still is) very sociable, and she was also keen to have this experience. In choosing Emma’s school (Preshil, a well-established alternative school in Kew), I relied on two general principals, which became the criteria for all of our subsequent educational choices. I wanted her to have a teacher who would treat her as we did; with respect and love, and I wanted her to choose, from her own instincts, what was right for her.

Now 12, Emma has chosen a variety of educational experiences, from home educating to a state school, and two alternative schools as well. Our younger children Zoe (10) and Jacob (8) have also chosen to go to school- and Maia (3) is looking forward to her turn next year. We have been blessed to also find a school in Brisbane (where we relocated in 1997) that has also treated our children with respect and love, and which they look forward to attending every single day. Even better, this school- Brisbane Independent School, affectionately known as BIS- is a democratic school; part of a world-wide movement in alternative education, and committed to promoting values such as equality, tolerance, freedom and social responsibility.

Democratic education also fundamentally recognizes children as equals in the educational process, and gives them the freedom to choose how they learn. At BIS, this includes things like deciding where they learn (eg on a blanket under a tree), their style of learning (eg Zoe’s project on the history of dolls included making many dolls), their times of learning (time is generally open, and children can follow their own rhythms of work, play, rest and eating) and, as a core right, gives the children the right to decide, usually through voting, on matters of organization and discipline.

It is often the latter which shocks most people, who ask, “How can children discipline themselves?” When children are involved in deciding, for example, the consequences of misdemeanors, they not only more likely to follow the rules that they have set, but also will accept the ‘consequences’ which are often creative- and sometimes more strict than teachers or parents would set! In this way, children are respected as well as empowered through their school experiences.

If we have been educated (or brought up) with very authoritative values, it can be hard to believe, but our children are innately moral and trustworthy, and will thrive when we offer them our trust and faith. This is true for ‘schoolwork’ too- children are naturally eager learners, and will almost always do the ‘work’ that they have chosen with joy and pleasure.

BIS has some other qualities that I value highly for my children. It has a semi-rural setting, with lots of grass and open space, a pen of chooks, and a huge tree as the ‘jungle gym’. BIS is also a community of families with shared values who look out for each other’s children. And because BIS runs on parent power, we get to know each other very well, through such things as working bees, community barbeques and school camps.

BIS has had the motto “We learn through living” and this includes a healthy respect for the value of play. The younger children, who start half-time at age 4, have a rich and unstructured environment which becomes more structured, according to their needs, as they get older. My son Jacob is about to ‘cross over’ to the older class, because he has become an ‘independent and self-responsible learner’, and is keen for greater challenges (apart from getting through his math book in record time!).
I recently had the pleasure of revisiting my question, during a ceremony for Emma, who is now a young woman. My answer surprised me. Above all, I wished her freedom- the liberty to be herself, to ‘follow her own star’, wherever it’s unique and beautiful light will take her. I believe that we have given her (and her siblings) a good foundation through our respect and love, and, outside of the family, through choosing democratic education.