When you hear the word “school”, a whole list of associated words and themes come to mind. Teachers, classrooms, schedules, structure, strict rules, homework, tests and organisation being some examples. The Sudbury Model of Education though, encompasses absolutely none of these things. In a Sudbury school, students have complete responsibility for their own education, and it wholly endorses the concept of self-directed learning. This type of school is run by direct democracy, in which staff and students are treated as equals.
There are no strict schedules or rules that students must adhere to, and all ages are included, from very young children to teenagers.
Undeniably the Sudbury Model is a fascinating and innovative form of education, but how can such a school actually function? And do the students who attend such schools actually learn anything at all? To find the answers to such questions, you do not have to go far. In fact, Ireland has its own Sudbury school: Wicklow Sudbury School. Founded in 2013, Wicklow Sudbury School is the first of its kind in the country. I pay a visit to the Head of the school, Ciara Brehony, to get a sense of what the typical Sudbury school day consists of.
Visitors arriving to the small school in the equally small village of Kilpedder are instantly welcomed and made to feel comfortable. The school is located in a house, providing sufficient room to host all of the 17 students enrolled at Wicklow Sudbury School, and the five staff who are their to assist them. Upon arrival, it is immediately apparent just how happy and laid back all the students and staff members seem, as well as the wholesome, positive atmosphere of the house.
The students have their free reign of the house and do whatever they choose
The only major structural rule of the school is that each student must be present for at least five hours a day. The school opens at 8.30am and closes at 5pm. However, most students arrive at 10.30am, and any student arriving after that time is considered late.
The students have their free reign of the house and do whatever they choose. The younger students stick together, playing outside on the trampolines and swings. The older students often fill their days with a more diverse group of activities. Speaking to The University Times, Maya, a 15-year-old student, describes herself as “possibly the most productive person here”. “I’m always doing something”, she says. Maya came to Wicklow Sudbury from a normal school, and expresses that her experience has been incredibly positive. She dealt with anxiety in her regular school and has felt much better since starting at Wicklow Sudbury. “It’s a place to be happy, you’re not stressed all the time.” Like many of the students, Maya appreciates the freedom that she is afforded, allowing her to learn and study things that she finds interesting, such as learning Japanese, working on artwork and playing the guitar and ukulele.
Ed, 14 years of age, is also another very happy student at Wicklow Sudbury School. Like Maya, he is appreciative of the freedom he has after growing up hating primary school. He tells me that his day varies, depending on how he’s feeling. His passions include art and music and he loves Dungeons and Dragons, him being a Dungeon Master himself. He appreciates learning through other people via the conversations he has with them, and enjoys cooking. He has a very impressive head of dreadlocks, and looking back, I wish I had asked him how long it took to get them to the length that they are at now.
Since there are no classes, I ask Brehony what exactly the role of the staff is. She explains that the staff’s main job is to maintain a safe environment for the students. Sonja Luescher Keogh, another staff member, says that they “are supporting each student and providing what they need to achieve their goals”.
Liz O’Connor is another staff member at Wicklow Sudbury School. After foolishly mistaking her for a student, which she kindly laughs off, O’Connor describes herself as an “honorary student”. A University College Dublin (UCD) graduate, she started working at the school after the Christmas break last year. She is in charge of the “Law Book”, the book of rules that govern the school, as compiled by both the students and staff during their school meetings.
It’s a place to be happy, you’re not stressed all the time
O’Connor gives a tour of the school, which includes an art room, a music room, a study room and “the shack”, which she explains they intend on converting into a wood shop. With the brief tour out of the way, Brehony invites me to sit in on a school meeting, perhaps the most interesting part of the day.
During the school meeting, both students and staff propose ideas, as well as discuss issues within the school and how those issues can be resolved. When voting on an issue, students and staff members are treated as total equals. During the meeting, everyone discusses issues that concern them, with a designated student or staff member in charge of reading the “action list”. The issues include a proposal for a school sleepover, the situation regarding the tuning of the school’s piano, as well as preparation for the school’s open day. One student, Finn, makes a proposal – he suggests the implementation of a series of hand gestures in order to make school meetings more efficient and succinct or, in his own words, “niftier”. There’s a bit of a debate over this proposal. After Finn demonstrates the hand gestures, Ed says, “I’ve already forgotten them”, which earns a laugh.
After the school meeting concludes, I talk for a little bit with Brehony about what it was like establishing such a unique school. She tells me about how it was a huge undertaking, but everyone around her was very supportive overall. I question how anyone would learn anything without any sort of schedule or structure. I realise, though, that, as Brehony says, there is a “huge amount of invisible learning” that takes place.
In Wicklow Sudbury School, children are allowed to be children and learn naturally. For many, the whole concept of classroom learning is unnatural and a stifling, structured environment can hinder growth and overall happiness. While I managed to exit compulsory education relatively unscathed, part of me wishes a school like this existed for me when I was a child.
Not one student seemed unhappy in anyway. Students are allowed to focus on what they are actually interested in, instead of being forced to sit through lectures or classes on subjects that they couldn’t care less about. An attitude of mutual respect between the students and staff is central to everything, a sense of equality that few students ever truly experience when they go to school. A day at Wicklow Sudbury School can teach you a lot. Although, it remains to be seen whether the model can continue to grow and lay the basis for a happier education and learning experience for all.