Two girls making a model

By Danny Whitehouse

The European Democratic Education Community Gathering, August 2014

Based on my route calculations, this should be it. Møllegade 26: Det Freie Gymnasium, the Free High School of Copenhagen. I clutch the rain-soaked google map from my adventure-khaki shorts, and double-check. Confounded by years of spray-paint tagging, political slogans and promotional posters for raves that have past and extinguished, there is a small sign fluttering in the breeze above the entrance to the compound, which assures me this is indeed the school, or has been a school at some point. With my guard up, and a rucksack, turtle-shell shield, I step through the brick passageway leading to the main building, expecting a dog to come snarling, or perhaps some gang to leap from the shadows.

Instead, following the sweet smells of curry and fresh bread baking, I am greeted by a young woman, carrying catering trays, and grinning. "I'm looking for the EUDEC conference," I tell her. She introduces herself; Lager (at least this was the phonetic metaphor she used), an ex-student of Det Freie, part of a team of graduates volunteering behind-the-scenes… cooking, cleaning, carrying, and even guarding the building throughout each night. Lager gives me very precise directions to the registration point, in what will become the new site of the school. One of the landmarks I should look out for is Hans Cristian Andersen's gravestone, in a cemetery which simultaneously functions as a park and recreation ground.

After registering, and receiving my EUDEC bag and bamboo cup, I find some floor space in one of the school's drama studios, which I will occupy for the rest of the conference. The sleeping arrangements feel a little like a refugee camp, with roll-mats and sleeping-bags laid out in lines. I consider that many teachers in Democratic Schools probably feel a bit like asylum-seekers in the land of education, driven away from mainstream settings by their desire to have and facilitate freedom-states.

The atmosphere in the canteen on this first evening is jubilant. I am a relative newcomer to the fray, but I recognise a few students and teachers from schools I have visited in the past. A number of brief conversations reveal a diversity of motivations to attend this gathering. Some are here primarily to see old friends, and enjoy the social atmosphere; others are on a quest to obtain advice on how to start a school of their own; several people have come wanting to discover how they might incorporate some of the principles into mainstream settings, and one or two are on fact-finding missions to inform their research dissertations. I am here to meet like-minded people, to develop my own ideas about alternative modes of education, and to collect submissions for an anthology of creative writing that I am compiling in association with the Phoenix Education Trust. Partly to this end, and partly to stimulate fun discussions, I place post-it notes on every dining table in the room, asking what 'freedom tastes like'? My favourite responses are: 'freedom tastes like… clouds' and the explanations of a four-or-five year-old girl, translated for me by her mother, that freedom, to her, tastes something like the glittery bunting above the serving hatch.

In the canteen, as in the courtyard, barely a single brick in the wall is left unpainted. Over the forty years of it existence, generations of students have made their marks, and the effect now is a little overwhelming, like a thousand voices competing to be heard. A portrait of Micky Mouse is positioned beside a statement about Obama; just a little absurd! One man I eat with describes his schooling experience in rural Ireland, and I picture St. Brigid's of Finnegan's Wake. His mother was a conventional teacher and he chuckles mischievously, imagining her reaction to seeing this place. "It's unlike any conference I've been to before," he jokes.

This really is nothing like a conventional conference. It is better described as a gathering, a coming-together of like-minded friends. The factor that overwhelmingly distinguishes it from other conferences is the freedom from formality. People are invited and expected to behave naturally, as they are, and each individual's autonomy and subjective perspective is respected. The atmosphere is so free from hostility and competitive professional ego-centrism, which pervades many conferences. Rather, interaction feels devoid of judgement, and absent is the attitude of convincing others to conform to your way of thinking. Six year olds and sixty year olds enter dialogues that feel authentic and satisfactory to both parties. Indeed, it is the unique and particular equality of interaction amongst attendees that most inspires me.
The AGM forms the focus of the first two days, and because I am leaving early, and am keen to collect text for the anthology, I prioritise running creative writing workshops, rather than attending the AGM, which I gather is primarily concerned with logistical aspects of running the organisation, rather than ideologies. I do spend an hour or two hearing a reflective report on the past year of activity, and an outline of what EUDEC hopes to achieve in the coming year. I am impressed by the reflexive approach of the committee, in overcoming challenges and realistically assessing what is achievable. The plan for this year looks manageable and the elected objectives appear to be carefully considered and worthwhile.

Outside of the AGM, there are many classrooms available to attendees. There are no pre-booked speakers or imposed subjects for debate. The schedule evolves as attendees instigate seminars and workshops based on specific issues that interest them, posting these on the activities pin-board. This open-space ethos means that informal conversations turn into collaboratively planned workshops and people have wide-ranging choices about what presentations and discussions they attend. These are principle features of the democratic pedagogy, but they are surely transferable within any environment of social exchange. This is the 'European Democratic Education Community', and by the end of the conference, the word 'democratic' seems to me less pivotal than the word 'community'. Democracy is the system or framework that binds this collective of individuals and institutions, but the system is less important, in my opinion, than the mode of communication that it elicits, which is respectful and facilitative of each person's self-directed learning and subjective world view.

My creative writing workshops go well, and run well over the allotted times, with children and adults working to their own levels, and supporting each other. Perhaps the most successful activity that I instigated, however, had nothing to do with writing; it was the construction of a 'Perfect School', using only marshmallows and spaghetti as building materials. I started piecing together a reception area for the school, and then darted away to attend a workshop about NVC. I have facilitated this sticky activity with school children of different ages in English State Schools, and find it a useful way to engage young people in team-work and problem solving. When I returned to the canteen, to check on the progress of the Marshmallow School, I was awed to discover a gigantic piece of futuristic architecture, almost three tables wide, much more elaborate than any I have seen made before by students of state schools. This feels to me like an apt demonstration of the power of democratic education in supporting the development of students to become cooperative, creative and resourceful builders of a new world.