The Dilemma – Democracy or Not?

I have set out some of my thoughts on the matter of democracy in schools as a thought provoking read rather than a conclusive study. Over the last few months of Master’s research I have been pondering the role of democracy in schools. As UK citizens we live in a democratic country and have therefore grown up to believe in freedom of speech and freedom of choice. This is something which has become ingrained is us through the media, politics and our own perspectives. Democracy has therefore become a human right in the UK, both morally and through the law. But does democracy actually exist in the school setting, and if not, why not? The majority of Western high schools still tell students how to behave, when to attend, what to study and what punishments they will receive for what the school deems ‘misconduct.’ This is why I have come to question whether this is really democracy or quite the opposite, perhaps more authoritarian, and this has set me wondering why.

There are some who argue that the reason children should be ‘seen and not heard’ is because children need to be controlled by adults until they mature – and this does seem logical. However, the rise of inter-school tutoring, peer mediation and student councils have shown that children – when working in unison – can achieve great things in a school setting. Rather than based on maturity, there are those like myself that suggest that control might have been historically intentional. Why? Quite simply, a system which rears children at a young age to respect authority, follow instructions and accept punishments is very useful when these children become adults and enter society. With acceptance of authority ingrained since youth, the system can produce educated citizens who are productive in society, yet have grown up submissive to authority. Is this intentional or indirect? It is down this chain of thought that I, concisely, now attempt to clarify some of my research and provide some academic theory based on the work of some of the primary theorists who share this view.

Marx, Engels, Althusser and Friere – The Marxist Viewpoint and Beyond

For starters I am not a Marxist, but Karl Marx did tackle the idea of a deeper sense of ideological control by defining the ability of the ruling class to control the working class not through force, but through ideas. In fact, Marx and Engels (1845) established that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas.’ Therefore, the ideals of those in charge are the accepted ideals – and become common practice. In the Communist Manifesto (1948) it is set out that all history is evidence of a class struggle of exploitation where the worker (proletariat) produces, under orders, for the benefit of those in power (bourgeoisie), who give the orders. The workers do not question this because they are controlled, as mentioned, not through force, but through the social ideals of ‘this is how it is, this is how it’s always been.’ Acceptance of the ruling ideals is key here.

Bringing Marxist views into line with the schools is simple. A teacher stands before a class and teaches material which cannot be questioned, changed or debated by those receiving the education. This teacher (or the school) is equivalent to someone in control – our bourgeoisie. A student sits facing the board, digesting the words of the teacher while being expected to comply and not cause problems – here is our worker. Does the student question it? No – this is how we have come to understand schooling. This is the ideology ingrained in all of us of ‘how it always has been.’ Students then leave school into employment and enter a manager/employee or owner/worker relationship – Marx’s analogy continues. Is this acceptable to the maturing youth, to fall in line with the system? Will they submit to this relationship? Very much so, as it’s a relationship which has been embedded since school, of the teacher/student or control/controlled relationship. The questions I ask are – is this intentional? Is this willing compliance the greater plan?

Althusser (1970) may have attempted to answer this. He called schools ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ – that is, the perfect vehicle through which the government can impose its ideals. The goal of a school, using Althusser’s theory, is to teach students to eventually become productive forces of labour without knowledge of this hidden agenda. But are teachers to blame? Althusser didn’t think so, simply referring to them as unwittingly playing their part in the process, asking ‘how many do not even begin to suspect the ‘work’ the system forces them to do?’ (Athusser; 1970, p. 157). It would seem to Althusser that if there is a ‘plan,’ then it originates from a higher source. It’s fair to say that Marxists believe ideology is important for the ruling class to shape individuals’ actions without them being conscious of the fact (Cuff et. al.; 2006) as ‘a mistaken interpretation of how the world actually is,’ (Williams; 1992, p. 27).

One analogy which I find interesting is that of Paulo Freire. Freire (1970) compares education to a banking system in which students are like bank accounts, simply there to receive ‘deposits’ in the form of information, citing that the expectation of a school is to ‘fill’ the students; ‘the more meekly the ‘receptacles’ are at being ‘filled’ then the better students they are,’ (Freire; 1970, p. 53). Again, there is the belief that students are expected to be educated and accept their position and conform to school-imposed standard of behaviour. His book is actually a really good read for those who like the more extreme view of the power of suppression within schools.

Freire’s comparison of education and the banking system is echoed in the work of Bowles and Gintis in ‘Schooling in Capitalist America’ (1976) in which the internal workings of the school were compared to the workings of a capitalist company – the principal or head master represents the managing director, teachers are the line management and students represent the workforce. The theories represented in the book describe the school as an extension of division of labour, where students within school are split into ability levels (or ‘sets’ as we commonly call them) and this defines the jobs they will get when they leave school, all the while learning in an environment which replicates the workplace. So we compartmentalised by allowing the higher sets take more challenges while lower sets are restricted by our limitations. ‘I am in bottom set, so I’m not exactly going to be a lawyer or doctor, am I?’ Is this the child speaking, or is this society guiding the workforce? Again – is this the plan? Are we allowing students to actually choose their destinies, or producing a workforce as we want them?

I have presented the above viewpoints rather one-sidedly and to the contrary, many would argue that children need these control mechanisms to guide them. Without them, children would run amok and learn rather unconstructively, they say. Certainly, if you can imagine giving the average PS4-playing child a choice between algebra or Call of Duty, much playing and not enough learning would certainly be done. So there does, evidently, need to be some measure of control. So what do the theorists propose?

The Proposition – Dewey and the Democratic School

On one end of the spectrum is our current, traditional school which dictate the rules and curriculum to its students. On the other end is a completely democratic model. By this I am referring to the likes of UK’s Summerhill school in Devon or the USA’s Sudbury schools which are scattered across their country. In these models, students attend class if they want, dress how they like, use curses without punitive reproach, choose what they want to learn and even vote at school council meetings where teachers and children all have 1 vote each regardless of status. Summerhill School runs a community of ‘freedom, not license’ where members are free to do as they please, so long as they do not cause harm to property or others (Bailey; 2013). Neill claimed that self-government worked, that ‘You cannot have freedom unless children feel completely free to govern their own social life. Where there is a boss, there is no real freedom,’ (Neill; 1960, p. 74). My attention was drawn to Ian Mikardo High School in London last year (The Guardian; 2014) where there no uniforms, no detentions, no rules, no punishments and no forced curriculum. Again, this appears to be the other end of the spectrum. Either end has its advantages and disadvantages but is there a compromise to be reached?

It is in John Dewey (and his later supporters) that we find some measure of compromise. Dewey was one of the greatest writers on the topic of democratic classroom learning and dismissed a wholly authoritarian classroom. He felt that more democratic education was preferential to traditional education, which had become too content-driven and needed to be applicable to the interests of the child (Dewey ; 1902, Dewey; 1916). But he also made it clear that control of some kind was necessary and rejected the idea of completely democratic schools. It is within the school setting that Dewey encouraged educators to establish control with authority but to represent the interests of the group (the students). Through this control and careful planning of communal exercises, the individual learns to engage his own personality within the communal setting. After all, ‘guidance given the teacher to the exercise of the pupils’ intelligence is an aid to freedom, not a restriction upon it,’ (Dewey; 1938 p. 55).

Writers like Fletcher (2005) and Waterman (2006) have more recently proposed excellent solutions to allow more democracy to enter the classroom without compromising a control structure. Fletcher suggests that involving students as democratic partners strengthens their commitment to education, community and democracy. What this suggests is that empowering students to take control of their own learning through further involvement in the administration of the school can have long-lasting effects on the moral and drive of the children. Some of the ways this can be achieved are as follows:

  • Peer Mediation – Allowing students to act as mediators in conflict resolution instances. Students with a peer who listens to the grievances of two students and attempts to guide the two parties to a common resolution, rather than imposing arbitrary punishments. Teachers are used only if this breaks down or fails to achieve its aims.
  • Student Councils – Involving student representatives in management meetings with heads of school. Policies or innovations are discussed with these student representatives before they are brought into force. The representatives can field this to their peers, gain feedback and then bring this student feedback to final council meetings before innovations or changes are made within the school.
  • Peer Tutoring – Something I have seen work in my own school where excellent academic students tutor their peers on concepts which are challenging. This frees up teachers to concentrate on other areas, empowers the tutors and allows students to learn from their peers, gaining the experience of explanations in a form they might better understand one-to-one.
  • Curriculum Involvement – The national curriculum is discussed and fielded to a body of student representatives, who become vital in the planning of the next year’s curriculum, working closely alongside teachers to ensure their interests are considered in the planning of the year’s teaching.

This list above is non-exhaustive and Fletcher goes to many lengths to explain many ways in which students can become ‘partners in learning’ for the purposes of greater student involvement. I suggest anyone who is interested in seeing just how students can become partners in learning to read his case study, referenced below. It is certainly thought provoking. Suddenly, a feeling of Democracy in schools, similar to our own ‘real world’ democracy through local MP’s, seems more real if a ruling body (school) can hear from local politicians (student representatives working with teachers) to make decisions based on the will of the constituents (the student body), even on matters as trivial as the events on sports day or the cafeteria menu, or as serious as punishments or curriculum content. There is most definitely a compromise to be reached to see democracy instilled in the school learning system without having to turn the UK into a pit of free schools or overly chaotic democratic schools.

What exists now is an opportunity for greater student development and a better sense of democratic freedom in schools which may release us from the traditional authoritarian model of teaching and instil a larger sense of educational purpose to our future population. But whether greater democracy or firmer ideological control is the underlying governmental purpose for this civic institution only remains to be seen.


  • Althusser, L. 1970 ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, translated from French to English by Ben Brewster, found in Lenin and Philosophy  and Other Essays (1971), Monthly Review Press, p. 121-176. The source document can be viewed at
  • Bailey, R (2013) A.S. Neill. London: Bloombury
  • Bowles, S., and Gintis, H., 1976 Schooling in Capitalist America: Education Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. NY: Basic Books Inc.
  • Cuff, E. C., Sharrock, W. W., & Francis, D. W. 2006 Perspectives in Sociology fifth edition Routledge, Oxon, UK
  • Dewey, J. 1902 The Child and the Curriculum, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, republished in 2011 by Martino Publishing, CT, USA.
  • Dewey, J. 1916 Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education, Toronto: Free Press
  • Dewey, J. 1938 Experience and Education New York: Macmillan p. 1971 (published 1963).
  • Fletcher, A (2005) Meaningful Student Involvement: Guide to Students as Partners in School Change, available at
  • Marx, K (1845) the German ideology – full text available at—Marx—The-German-Ideology
  • Marx, K & Engels, F (1848) The Communist Manifesto – full text available at
  • Neill, A.S. 1960 Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing Hart Publishing Company, UK, reprinted by Pocket Books, NY December 1984.
  • The Guardian, 27 September 2014, available online at
  • Waterman, S, S. 2006 The Democratic Differentiated Classroom, Routledge, NY
  • Williams, R (1977), Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford