A free school, often intentionally spelled free skool, is a decentralized network in which skills, information, and knowledge are shared without hierarchy or the institutional environment of formal schooling. The open structure of a free school is intended to encourage self-reliance, critical consciousness, and personal development.
It is, at heart, non-institutional and non-authoritarian. Generally, it is a grassroots effort, a collection of individuals acting collectively and autonomously to create educational opportunities and skill-sharing within their communities.
Free schools often operate outside the market economy in favor of a gift economy. Nevertheless, the meaning of the "free" of free schools is not restricted to monetary cost, and can refer to an emphasis on free speech and open learning.
Free school tradition in Anarchist Spain
Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909) established "modern" or progressive schools in Spain in defiance of an educational system controlled by the church. Fiercely anti-clerical, he believed in "freedom in education," education free from the authority of church and state. Murray Bookchin wrote: "This period [1890s] was the heyday of libertarian schools and pedagogical projects in all areas of the country where Anarchists exercised some degree of influence. Perhaps the best-known effort in this field was Francisco Ferrer's Modern School (Escuela Moderna), a project which exercised a considerable influence on Catalan education and on experimental techniques of teaching generally." (Murray Bookchin, Anarchosyndicalism, The New Ferment)
Free schools in the UK
The most famous free school is Summerhill School, a boarding school in Suffolk which was founded in 1921 by the Scottish teacher A. S. Neill, whose ideas had been radicalized through teaching in conventional schools. Despite many travails with school-oriented government inspectors, Summerhill survives to this day with more pupils than ever. The school's website describes it thus:
"Summerhill School is a progressive, co-educational, residential school, founded by A. S. Neill in 1921; in his own words, it is a 'free school' though this does not mean, alas, that it is state funded. The freedom Neill was referring to was the personal freedom of the children in his charge. Summerhill is first and foremost a place where children can discover who they are and where their interests lie in the safety of a self-governing, democratic community.
"There are two features of the school which people usually single out as being particularly unusual. The first is that all lessons are optional. Teachers and classes are available at timetabled times, but the children can decide whether to attend or not. This gives them the freedom to make choices about their own lives and means that those children attending lessons are motivated to learn."
"The second particularly unusual feature of the school is the school meeting, at which the school Laws are made or changed. These laws are the rules of the school, made by majority vote in the community meetings; pupils and staff alike having equal votes."
Sands School, set just on the southern edge of Dartmoor and established in 1987, is also similar.
During the 1970s other short-lived free schools were established in the British inner cities.
Free schools in Australia
Preshil, established in Melbourne in the 1930's, is based on principles similar to that of Summerhill, although it is non residential, and classes are held at fixed times. It remains unaffiliated with any doctrinal or theological ideology, and is currently experiencing a resurgence for those seeking alternatives to the mainstream government and private schools . Students are involved in, and take responsibility for decisions about their curriculum, extra-curricular activities, and changes to the school environment. Since the 1970's Preshil has operated up to year 12.
The Village School in Croydon, Victoria is an independent, non-sectarian and non-denominational primary school having no specific affiliations with any other educational establishment or educational system.
Melbourne Community School was established in 1977 by a parents group seeking an independent small school alternative. Formerly known as the Malvern Community School, it now is located in East St Kilda.
Free schools in the US
Free schools have existed in the U.S. for many years, and their numbers increased with the hippie movement of the '70s. Many of the schools created in the '60s closed within the first 10 years, but there are a few notable exceptions. Today, free schools in the U.S. are again enjoying popularity as people become more educated about school choice concepts and look for alternatives to the public school system. The large number of new schools based on the Sudbury model, a type of free school based on the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, are a good example of this increased demand.
The Albany Free School was established in Albany, NY in 1969 and, unlike many similar U.S. schools of the time, still operates today. The Free School's founder, Mary Leue, corresponded with Summerhill founder A.S. Neill about her plan to take his experiment of radical freedoms to a different demographic: the inner city. Leue went on to create The Free School in Albany's urban south end with the idea of making these freedoms and democratic principles accessible to children of the poor.
Grassroots Free School in Tallahassee, Florida has enjoyed a long and successful history. Founded by Pat Seery, the school still operates today. In the 1970s, the school operated out of the club house of an abandoned, 40-acre golf club. Grassroots was sculpted very closely from the Summerhill school. The school was a favorite not only of hippies, but of liberal-thinking families that had grown tired of Southern paternalism. Also, the Natural Bridge School in Tallahassee held many of the same principles, and was a frequent high-school extension of the Grassroots experience.
Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado is a more recently developed free school, only about 30 years old.
Free skool movement
Beyond schools that offer democratic reforms to the educational system, radical experiments in non-hierarchical education with anarchist roots have given rise to temporal and permanent free schools. They are often termed "free skools" to distinguish them from what supporters view as an oppressive and institutional educational industry. Temporal free skools offering skill-shares and training have become a regular part of large radical gatherings and actions. More permanent skools in cities large and small have popped up across North America offering a wide range of workshops, classes, and skill-shares.
Free Skool Santa Cruz in California is perhaps typical of a new batch of free schools that are explicitly rooted in an anarchist tradition of collectivism, autonomy, and self-reliance, and feature informal, non-authoritarian learning outside of the monetary economy. From the Free Skool Santa Cruz website: "More than just an opportunity to learn, we see Free Skool as a direct challenge to dominant institutions and hierarchical relationships. Part of creating a new world is resistance to the old one, to the relentless commodification of everything, including learning and the way we relate to each other."
These are on-going, informal learning networks, that focus on skill-sharing among adults as well as children. The boundaries between students, teachers, and organizers are consciously blurred, with some free skools claiming, "we are all teachers, and we are all students." Free skool "classes" are often autonomous workshops held in informal settings in homes, cafes, and community centers. Free skools typically offer a monthly or quarterly-produced free skool calendar.
These types of anti-authoritarian schools include free skools in Portland, Olympia, Berkeley, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.
Currently active free schools in North America
- Alpha Alternative School in Toronto
- Alternative Schools Advisory Council - Ottawa, Ontario
- Anarchist U in Toronto
- The Beach School in Toronto
- Ã‰cole P.E.A.C.E. near MontrÃ©al
- Fairfield School in Wolfville, Nova Scotia
- FreeSchool Vancouver, Vancouver
- Guelph Free School, Guelph, Ontario
- Indigo Sudbury in Edmonton, Alberta
- The Purple Thistle Center in Vancouver
- RÃ‰PAQ (RÃ©seau des Ã©coles publiques alternatives du QuÃ©bec)
- Windsor House School in North Vancouver, British Columbia
- Albany Free School, New York, USA
- Ashland FreeSkool, Oregon, USA
- Barrington Collective Freeskool, Berkeley, California, USA (on hiatus)
- Brooklyn Free School, New York, USA
- Free Skool Santa Cruz, California, USA
- Missoula Free School, Montana, USA
- Olympia Community Free School, Washington, USA
- Portland Freeskool, Oregon, USA
- Prescott Freeskool, Arizona, USA
- Second Foundation School, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
- Teddy McArdle Free School, Little Falls, New Jersey, USA
- Modern School of Stelton, Edison, New Jersey
- WoGAN FreeSkool, Worcester, Massachusetts
- The Houston Real School aka Dragon Valley, Houston, Texas
- The Village Free School, Portland, Oregon USA
- Wildcat Community Free School, Richmond, California
A map of the locations of free schools in the United States can be seen here:
- Free to Learn - a radical experiment in education(documentary)
Currently active free schools in the UK
Currently active free schools in Australia
- Preshil, Vic
- Village School, Vic
- Melbourne Community School, Vic
- Fitzroy Community School, Vic
- Lynall Hall Community School, Vic
- Candlebark, Vic
- Berengarra, Vic
- Kinma, NSW
- Currambena, NSW
- Independent Schools Council Australia
- Alternative Education Resource Organization
- ABC Radio National prgram on Progressive Schools in Australia