1. What is IDEC? Background

The International Democratic Education Conference is a gathering of people associated with democratic education from many countries around the world. Since 1993 the conference has taken place every year in a different country, most recently in Japan, Israel, New Zealand and the USA. In 2004 the IDEC took place in India. (See

What is democratic education?

There is no strict definition, but it is basically to be recognised by

  1. all students being able to decide independently what and how they will learn and
  2. students and staff making the school rules in a school meeting which holds to the principle, "One person, one vote."

The rules extend both to interpersonal daily life together and to the management of the school. To ensure that the rules are kept most schools have set up some kind of judicial committee that consists of students and staff.

When schools like this claim the name "democratic" that may seem arrogant, and other schools may sense that they are being criticised for being undemocratic. The fact is that democratic schools are committed to human rights and the principles of individual decision-making and group participation, and they also show a clear democratic structure. It is impossible to claim that this is true of typical traditional schools, above all in Germany, however harsh that may sound.

There are democratic schools in many countries around the world. The most famous of these is Summerhill, which was founded in the 1920s, but Sudbury schools have also been working with great success for over 35 years. They have taken their name from the Sudbury Valley School in the USA. There are now Sudbury Schools in several European countries. And there are also many more sites of democratic education which clearly differentiate themselves from ordinary schools in the way they operate. Most students from these places acquire a lot of knowledge that they will need later, but they also develop a sense of responsibility for the community, and they learn to make decisions for their own lives and to work for goals they have chosen for themselves. Equal rights are an integral part of their lives. And almost all of them are pleased with their time at school.

For that reason democratic education is a challenge to the school system in many countries. Politicians and educationalists can be inspired by the methods and structures of these places. For students they offer a great hope that the frequently experienced and almost legendary discontent with school may be eliminated.

Democratic education overcomes the much deplored division of life into free time and school time, learning and playing, theory and practice. Because students in democratic organisations are neither compelled to learn specific things at a specific time, nor under prescribed conditions, and because they therefore decide for themselves what they want to achieve, the process of learning is intensive and effective. The organisations offer space and opportunity. How these are used and to what extent the students draw on the town or the village, the local environment, is not prescribed. Freedom and responsibility, those noble aims of the educational system in many countries, are practised in democratic schools from the very beginning. The distinctions which are so strongly emphasised, particularly in Germany, between "out of school youth work" and "school" melt away quite naturally in a democratic setting.

IDECs differ completely from most other educational conferences in that a large proportion of the participants will be school students; they take part in the preparation as well as the conduct of the gathering and they also put the principles of their schools into practice as they do so.

We are expecting 300 - 400 participants from many different countries around the world.

The 2005 IDEC in Berlin, the first in Europe for many years, is an opportunity and a stimulus for a discussion of education not only in Germany but also for the rest of Europe.

The emphasis of an IDEC is decided by the current hosts. The hosts of the 2005 IDEC in Berlin introduce their aims in the next section.

2. What do we want to achieve with the IDEC in Berlin / aims

We want our IDEC to have an effect on both the democratic education movement and on the outside world.

For the democratic education movement:

The participating exponents of democratic education exchange experiences with each other, they discuss their ideas and their problems. They present methods and examples. They give information about the various requirements in their countries. They form co-operative groups and ask questions and learn from the answers; for this purpose they also invite in experts from neighbouring specialisms such as learning research and communications science. Naturally there is a particularly large amount to be learnt from people with many years of experience and indefatigable commitment, from the people who have made these schools what they are. And we will naturally expect the most important suggestions about weaknesses and opportunities for improvement to come from the young students who are taking part. Their opinions and suggestions are among the most valuable kinds of feedback from their places of education.

For the outside world:

We would like to give the interested public the opportunity to learn about democratic education. We would like to win over politicians and other authorities to support democratic education. We want democratic schools to find acceptance and support. They should be given the chance - particularly in Germany - to exist alongside other schools and have the same rights. Pluralism as a fundamental condition of democracy and the basic right to the free development of the individual must also be valid in the world of education. We hope to make waves in the specialist and mass media.

We know that democratic education will be met with a lot of scepticism. Doubts do not only arise from the vague suspicion that children can't learn enough if they aren't forced to learn. People also express doubts as to whether these schools can work with children who come from less financially privileged classes or who don't come from intellectual homes. Many people also find it difficult to imagine how students can acquire standard exam results, something which they believe to be necessary. What happens to students who have to change to a conventional school because they have moved house or for some other external reason?

It is the explicit purpose of the hosts to take these and other reservations seriously, and together with all participants to give or to look for answers to them. We know that in spite of years of experience and success in individual schools for a long time not every difficulty has been overcome, not every question has been answered.

3. What will happen? Schedule, content, activities

The 2005 IDEC in Berlin will have two large sections (A and B) connected with each other, and corresponding to the two principal aims:

A - Democratic Education Conference

The students and staff from democratic schools and other organisations will live, discuss and work together for about a week (from Saturday to Sunday) at a conference site.

In order to achieve the greatest possible variety, we will set up only a frame of a programme, some keynote speakers, themes, workshops, etc., just as a foundation.

The internal conference we will leave mostly in the hands of the participants, who will be able to follow the principles of "open schedule", i.e. without a fixed timetable. This process of the fluid creation of the programme has proved its value in previous IDECs. Everyone can put forward their own ideas, questions or suggestions at the general meeting the previous day and put their own offerings or requests for information into the timetable, which starts almost empty. In this way it is possible to react briskly to discussions or to repeat or continue particular workshops.

You can also delight us by bringing films, exhibitions, plays, prepared talks, music, workshops and anything else that seems to you to be likely to be of interest to this gathering. The only important thing is that you advertise your activity on the big notice-board - when and where the event is taking place, and who is responsible for it. There are no previous arrangements and no censorship; every contribution is welcomed.

We, the hosts, intend to offer a list of provocative questions to stimulate participation, without losing sight of the central themes:

Here is a small taster:

We see the character of the conference as something like a big market-place where there is one central square and a lot of small stalls. A lively exchange takes place, there are hot debates, and at the same time one sees here and there people of different ages relaxing or playing together harmoniously. We want to create space for activities which are intellectually stimulating and varied for children and adults alike, and in this connection group-dynamic games and excursions should not be in short supply.

The icing on the cake is the offer of a many-faceted opportunity to get to know Berlin. A lot of attention is given to individual interests and therefore not too much will be decided beforehand. Those who would like to enjoy more expensive cultural events should tell us well beforehand so that we can consider it and arrange theatre tickets or whatever it may be.

B - Public Meeting

For two days in the middle of the week we are planning to open the conference to interested people from all parts of society. The representatives of the democratic schools that are present will prepare themselves especially for this part of the IDEC and in parallel workshops, poster exhibitions and lectures will convey and discuss the full breadth of their theories and experience.

For this period we are expecting politicians with responsibility for education, so that we can open a dialogue about democratic education in Germany, which has not taken place for a long time.

We will also send separate invitations to the public meeting. We are hoping to arouse critical response and comprehensive reporting in the press.

This public meeting of limited length corresponds to our second objective (see point 2).

Anyone who is interested can begin to prepare for the conference in advance with the help of this text and some others which can be found on the list of our web-links. The detailed programme will be developed shortly.

4. Who do we want to reach? Target groups

The Berlin IDEC will be looking towards three groups of people.