Archive for February, 2008

Anarchist Free School in Spain

Posted in Uncategorized on February 11, 2008 by trapese

 

work in progress

In a normal school if you don’t follow orders you are in trouble, in Paidiea if you are told what to do it means you are not free, and to be not free is to be in trouble”

In September 2007 as part of the Journeys through Utopia project ( http://www.utopia.eu.by John and Isa) I visited Paidiea an anarchist free school situated on the outskirts of Merida, a Spanish city in Extremdaura, the south of Spain.  The four of us who went there would all subscribe to ‘anarchism’ if not calling ourselves anarchists then at least pursuing an anarchist ideas in how we live and work. We knew very little- other than hearsay from people that had visited before and reading the texts and interviews on the website which are vague and talked about educating children to be non- violent and co-operative, to challenge authority, to be actively critical of the world around them. It sounded intriguing but as we sat around our butter nut risotto in the camp-site, the first night before we pondered and wondered on how on earth you could teach kids that!

The reason for writing this article is that the visit to Paidiea affected me profoundly and I believe all four of us as a group. Education and how we educate has always been something that I have thought vitally important but nothing quite prepared me for the very visual demonstration of educating kids along anarchist ideals and teaching them to be free.

 

It is by all intents a normal school, kids arrive on the school bus at 10,they leave on the school bus at 6 and the school has normal holidays. But the schools very nature means it is something quite exceptional. The school, which started in 1979 has very clear ideals and philosophies about education. It views ‘state’ education as something constructed by the bourgeoisie and therefore a socio-political issue. It aims to break the cycle reinforced on children from a young age to not assume the principal of authority and in rejecting it replace it with responsible freedom, equality and justice. It aims to establish an ethic of solidarity and mutual aid and confront discrimination, competitiveness and the idea of ‘confessional based education’. Paidieas philosophy revolves around the idea that an education should be based on every child receiving the same opportunities- to the extent that private tutoring and after school classes are not permitted. Education should facilitate the immersion into society of the kid in a way that they can criticise the world around them and change it and perhaps most importantly, education should be based on pleasure, happiness,tolerance and dialogue.

 

Our first visit to Paidiea was to meet the educators and talk about what we wanted to do, we entered the smoky staff room-to a table of smiling and warm people-and began to bombard them with questions we had. They smiled even more, wait and see they said, we can’t answer that you’ll have to ask the critures ( the affectionate Spanish term for kids translates as creatures) just come in the morning before the bus arrives, you’ll see. Feeling like it was the first day of school at 9.30 the next morning we arrived.

 

Typically the school day starts with collective work, something that everyone does. It can mean anything from folding the drying up cloths, to raking the leaves outside, to painting a room or an outhouse. The first day we went to the school we stood in the foyer slightly unsure about where to place ourselves when all of a sudden rakes and broom managed by their 6 year old wielders started moving in all directions. Collective cleaning moves swiftly into breakfast, which is put out by the ‘kitchen’ group that day who are also in the process of making lunch. Food is an important part of the school. Each week a different group decides on the menu for the following week. It can be what ever they want really but they know it has to contain the right balance of proteins and carbohydrates. The group that decides the menu then also trundles of to look around the fridges and store cupboards to work out what they need to buy. It is their responsibility to go to the shop ( with an adult) and buy the necessary food.

The group that prepares the food changes every day with one of the kids from the older age group ‘coordinating’ the others in how much and what to cut. Great pride is taken in the work that they do, each napkin when setting the table is carefully folded, each vegetable cut with care and consideration. And like many things in Paidiea there is an adult in the background in case something happens or to advise and ask questions, but during my time working in the kitchen they like me were also chopping the vegetables.

Whilst the cooking group are cooking, breakfast gives way to the tallers (workshops) There are no bells or clocks in the school ( apart from in the kitchen, and that’s because the food is important) people just seem to move to place to place without anyone telling them to do it. As with everything the kids choose which talleres they want to do from a list that is given to them at the beginning of each term. In their groups, which are divided by age they have a meeting and discuss what they would like to do and then they take a vote. The diversity of the tallers on offer is huge- from English, Spanish, gender and sex, global economy, cross stitching and much more.

 

At the school the kids can’t sit the national Spanish exam when they reach 16 and have to leave to pursue their education in a normal school. And clearly one of the first questions about a school such as this is how do the kids manage academically. The answer, that we received from a variety of different people- including ex pupils, educators and kids currently attending the school is that whilst they may not have all the facts and figures stored in the heads they are totally capable of self-learning and motivating themselves to learn. So when they have to leave Paidiea to study and sit the exams they are frequently much better equipped to manage the curriculum then other pupils from the state school because they have always taken responsibility for their own education.

 

Responsibility is a key aspect of Paidiea and is transmitted in a number of different ways, a central aspect of which are the Commitment Sheets. Each kid at the beginning of the term fills out a commitment sheet. The sheet outlines what they hope to achieve during the term but is also based on feedback and comments from their fellow students. They contain things like- a commitment to be more respectful to other students, to show more solidarity and help each other more. To study three history books and work in the kitchen. During a meeting with the class group everybody tells everyone else what is on their commitment sheet, the only people they are accountable to is each other. In Paidiea everything is discussed and decided on in meetings-the organ of the collective as they call it. If somebody has not complied with a commitment other people in a meeting are expected to tell them why, in the same way everybody is expected help each other achieve their commitments.

 

Paidiea does not accept kids over the age of nine years old. Years of experience working with children has led the educators to the conclusion that by the age of 9 kids are often already too affected by the system and that it is not good for them to start to introduce these concepts of freedom when they have become to affected by authoritarianism. If at a later stage in life an adult decides to set about ‘liberating’ their mind then it is different because it is something that has been consciously chosen. It is a deeply sad thing, but during our visit we saw an incident which reinforced a little what they were saying about violence being something that is embedded in children.

A six year old boy that had recently joined the school, bit another six year old boy. An emergency ‘problem’ meeting was called and the group got together the biter and bittee, found a chairperson and began the meeting. That in itself was incredible,the spontaneous nature of the meeting, the use of dialogue to sort out the problem and the confidence and speed with which the kids went about resolving the issue, rather than calling for a teacher to come and sort it out. During the meeting various proposals were made about how to resolve the situation, some argued the case for not allowing the biter to play in their group for a few days, others said he has only just joined the school and needed more time to adapt. Afterwards we reflected on the incident with an adult that had come to listen to the meeting and also help the new kid ( who had done the biting) as it was is first problem of that kind. Its quite normal she said, when they come from the state school they are used to using violence to solve their problems and then someone just shouts for the teacher, they don’t have to confront what they have done. When we asked the rest of the kids how they felt the meeting had gone one girl said badly, because the biter kept interrupting everyone, did not let the others speak- and that’s not how meetings should be. They were 6 years old and showed a level of responsibility,respect and maturity far beyond their 6 years. Of they then all went to carry on with their bread dough moulding playing and giggling like normal 6 year olds.

 

Paidiea has two buildings – one for kids the age 18 months to 5 years and the other for kids from 5 years to 16 when they leave to do the certificate. It was the second day before we managed to get to the school for the little ones- we were so engaged in what was going on in the other school. I, personally had just assumed that as they were so little there probably was not much anarchist education going on. Once again, as frequently happened during our visit to Paidiea my pre conceived notions were turned upside down on their head. ‘Of course we have meetings’ exclaimed one of the educators, we could even take minutes, but it would probably take a long time’ but what do they discuss I asked a little flabbergasted by the news that these toddling around creatures could pull of a meeting. ‘whether they want to do plasticine, play in the sand pit’ . And that’s where Paidiea is so simple, teaching kids anarchist values is not rocket science. Its about asking them what they want to do and developing a collective process to be able to facilitate that. What do you do when the fight over the toys, we ask. Dialogue, say the educators – you just talk about sharing, about caring and respecting other people.

 

The meetings in this building are a little more chaotic admittedly as people fall over each other and play like lion cubs, none the less there is a 4 year old chair person, hands are raised,points are taken and decisions made. Shortly before lunch the oldest of the little ones go over to the main building where the dining hall is to lay the table for lunch. I went along to help them. Another aspect of the education at Paidiia is teaching the kids self-autonomy- being able to dress themselves, lay tables, tie shoe laces, cut bread etc. What’s amazing is how the kids find there ways of doing things. In the dining hall there are big, heavy yellow chairs. They’ll never be able to move them, I thought to myself. But sure enough the sound of scraping chairs filled the room as the 5 little 4 year olds started putting them at the table. Next I was instructed by my 4 year old co-ordinator to put out the plates, I took a stack of 20 and start laying them. No, no he looked shocked and started putting the plates back in the cupboard again. You can only take 1 plate at a time,otherwise it is too dangerous and you might drop them. Nodding in agreement I began the tedious job of putting one plate out at a time- all the while amazed by the fact my co-ordinator was four and was able to explain to me why I shouldn’t be doing something.

 

There is a ‘punishment system’ in Paidiea but you are unlikely to ever hear an adult shouting at a kid. If someone does something wrong- i.e. does not adhere to the values of the school by repeatedly being violent they can be ‘mandado.’ Essentially this means they have to ask to do something and wait to be told to do it. If they want to go outside and play after lunch they have to ask permission. Otherwise, normally you can just do what you want, when you want as long as you adhere to the values of the school and your personal commitments that you have made. The adults and the kids that we spoke to about this maintain that it is an extremely effective form of individual and collective empowerment on the basis that everyone wants to be free. That it is an innate desire within all of us to make our own decisions and follow them through. To be mandado is frustrating and disempowering so the kid works hard to ‘un’ mandado themselves. In the worse case scenario people can be sent ‘outside’ of the community. Meaning that they have to do everything on their own- eat, study,learn and play. Again this is effective because of the feelings of isolation that it brings in someone and the desire they have to be part of the group. In the same way that a person is put into one of these two forms of punishment, someone can get out of either of these punishments by coming to a meeting and saying that they feel that they have had time to reflect on their behaviour and they understand why they were either mandado or put outside of the community.

With great joy two of the ex students of the school told us of the time that the adults of the school were sent outside of the community. A couple of adults frustrated at a meeting which had involved a lot of shouting and disruption walked out of the meeting. In the school you can walk out of which ever class or activity you want- but you can’t just walk out of the meeting without asking permission to the chair. The kids took a decision and the adults were sent out of the school. They took to playing cards and doing nothing and the school went ahead as usual, the older kids took the role of the adults overseeing the corrections of books and other tasks that the adults filled. After a week the assembly asked the adults to return on the grounds of the fact the students where not able to fill their roles effectively and realised how much hard work they did.

 

In our final meeting with the adults to thank them for allowing us into the school we asked them what happened to the pupils after they left. One of the adults exclaimed gleefully that as of yet no- one had got married, joined the army, become a banker or a priest. Almost all of the students had gone on into work that involved ‘helping’ people be it through pedagogy, psychology or social work. Many of them were active in trade unions such as the CNT ( Spanish anarchist trade union) or in their local attenus ( community cultural and social centres.)

We asked two very articulate and intelligent ex students if they would describe themselves as anarchists. “No” they said, “we understand what anarchism is, we understand what it is to be free but there are still many things we have to learn and experiences before we could call ourselves anarchists.”

This comment humbled me, I thought about myself and all the people I know who define themselves as anarchists but who still are constrained by the intense social conditioning we have experienced. Who, whilst understanding the theories of autonomy, empowerment, equality and solidarity, respect and freedom cannot actually realise it in their day to day lives.

 

Our educational systems have a great deal to answer for, perhaps more that we realised. If we are to be free, then we need to be responsible, if we are to be responsible we need to be intrinsically aware of ourselves and of others, of the individual and the collective. We need to be able to be non-judgemental, resolve through dialogue and teach each others with respect. When we learn through education to be competitive, results driven, to accept without question authority then our own freedom and choice is greatly weakened

Paidiea is an incredible example, not just of a free school or radical education but of a place where anarchism in its truest sense is living,breathing and creating. .

kim.trapese@gmail.com


Work in progress…..

 

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