You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2007.

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J’arrive en fin a trouver le temps de poster un blog sur cette ecole merveilleuse visitee il y a 3 semaines. Nos trouvons bien difficile de maintenir le rythme entre les trajets, les visites, les interviews, les prises de notes… Ecrire regulierement au milieu de tout ca est bien difficile! Nous allons essayer d’etre un peu plus disciplines et d’ecrire plus regulierement.

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Paideia est une île de et en résistance… D’ailleurs c’est exactement à cela qu’elle ressemble : une maison jaune entourée d’un jardin asséché et de quelques arbres, se tenant fièrement au milieu d’un océan de ronds points à demi terminés et de chemins boueux creusés par des tractopelles. Il y a encore à peine un an, Paideia était au milieu d’un immense champ d’oliviers… Mais l’avancée urbanistique de la ville a, comme d’habitude, fait fi des arbres centenaires pour faire place à un énième développement d’appartements. Mais si cette situation géographique insolite exaspère et attriste les « Paideiens », elle ne les arrêtera certainement pas. Après tout, l’école est le fruit d’une bataille permanente depuis 1978 ; elle a tenu bon face à tous les obstacles mis sur sa route, quelques véhicules industriels ne risquent pas de la faire plier. L’endurance de Paideia n’a rien d’étonnant lorsque l’on rencontre Pepita, l’une des fondatrices de l’école libertaire : sous les cheveux rouge feux de cette femme petite et costaude, la ténacité du regard vous fait vite penser qu’il doit être plus facile de déplacer des montagnes que de la faire dévier du but qu’elle s’est donné.

Il faut dire que ce but là a dû en nécessiter de l’obstination ! Une école anarchiste, gérée par les élèves eux-mêmes, où l’une valeurs fondamentales est le refus de toute autorité n’a certainement pas été simple ni à mettre en place, ni surtout à pérenniser. Et pourtant 29 ans après sa création Paideia est bien là avec ses 60 élèves et ses 10 professeurs, démontrant à tous les cyniques qu’il est possible, avec beaucoup de patience et de conviction d’appliquer les principes anarchistes à l’éducation des enfants sans mener au chaos. Bien au contraire.

Paideia est le concept antique grec faisant référence au processus de construction du caractère des citoyens. A l’école libre de Mérida, au sud ouest de l’Espagne, c’est ainsi que l’on considère l’éducation. Par là même, tout est basé sur 7 valeurs fondamentales : l’égalité, la solidarité, la justice, la liberté, la non-violence, la culture et le bonheur. Ce dernier est vu comme le plus important, car il est la somme de toutes les autres valeurs et l’objectif final de l’école. Mais comme nous l’a rappelé Pepita « le bonheur ce n’est pas avoir tout ce que l’on veut, c’est acquérir une vraie stabilité et maturité émotionelle ».

Ces valeurs, on les retrouve souvent brandies même dans les contextes les plus conservateurs, les projets les plus réactionnaires.

A Paideia, pas question de jouer avec les mots, de galvauder ces notions à la base de toute éducation réellement émancipatrice. Et c’est pourquoi tout le fonctionnement de l’école et ses pratiques en sont le reflet.

Ainsi le cœur du fonctionnement de l’école, comme tout groupe anarchiste qui se respecte, est l’assemblée : organe de démocratie directe où tous participent aux débats, où les décisions sont prises collectivement sans hiérarchie mais dans le respect de chacun. Ainsi à Paideia tout est décidé par assemblée, qu’elles soient au niveau de l’école entière ou par groupe d’âge : l’emploi du temps, les matières à étudier, les menus, les résolutions de conflits. Ces assemblées sont animées par les élèves eux-mêmes, à tour de rôle. Nous avons assisté à plusieurs d’entre elles, et la maturité de ces enfants, capables d’exposer leurs idées et leurs émotions, de raisonner, de faire part de leurs désaccords, de s’écouter les uns les autres et surtout d’émettre des propositions pour toujours trouver une solution acceptable par tous, n’a jamais cessé de nous ébahir.

Il faut dire que l’apprentissage commence jeune : dès l’âge de 2 ans, les enfants décident des activités de la journée par assemblée. « Evidemment les plus petits ne participent pas vraiment. Mais ils apprennent vite que l’assemblée est un lieu où l’on s’assoit en cercle, où l’on est calme, où l’on écoute ceux parlent » nous expliquent Olivia tout en gardant un œil sur une fillette en équilibre précaire sur une balançoire. « C’est vous les instits qui animez les assemblées des petits j’imagine ? » « Non, ce sont les plus grands, ceux de 4 ans. Ils font ça très bien, très sérieusement » me répond elle comme si c’était la chose la plus évidente qui soit… Et tout à coup j’ai compris qu’à la base de cette éducation était surtout une foi profonde et fondamentale en la capacité des enfants (et des plus grands) pour l’autogestion. Que celle-ci n’est pas un don inné, certes, qu’elle s’acquiert lentement avec beaucoup de pratique. Mais n’est ce pas aussi le cas des relations hiérarchiques ? L’obéissance et l’autoritarisme ne sont pas innés non plus, ils s’acquièrent au fil des ans, au sein de la famille, à l’école, pour finir par être ressenti comme « naturels ».

« C’est aussi comme cela que l’on enseigne la non-violence » m’explique Olivia « par répétition : à chaque fois que l’on voit un enfant être violent avec un autre, on lui demande d’expliquer son geste, on met chacun en confiance pour qu’ils/elles exprime ses émotions, puis pour qu’ils/elles trouvent un moyen de discuter de leur différend ». Comme un fait exprès, ce même après midi, j’ai vu Marina, une brunette de 6 ans se retourner calmement vers Miguel qui venait de la taper dans le dos pendant 3 ou 4 bonnes minutes « Cela suffit maintenant. Ce n’est pas drôle du tout. Je suis sure que tu n’aimerais pas que je fasse la même chose, alors tu arrêtes ». Et Miguel d’obtempérer. Et je ne pouvais m’empêcher de penser à toutes ces cours d’écoles pleines de cris et de larmes, où les instituteurs semblent passer le clair de leur temps à devoir faire l’arbitre.

 

 

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En tout état de cause Paideia ne ressemble quasiment en rien à une école : à part quelques tableaux noirs dans certaines salles et des livres partout, pas de bureaux en rangs, pas d’horloges, pas de sonnerie pour rythmer la journée. L’emploi du temps est connu de tous et chacun semble vaquer d’une activité à l’autre sans besoin de rappel strident.

« En ce moment, on commence par la journée par des travaux collectifs, le groupe cuisine prépare le petit déjeuner, pendant que les autres balaient ou nettoient les classes. On petit déjeune à 11 heures, à 11heures et demi on a ateliers ou assemblée, temps libre de 14 à 15 heures pendant que les petits déjeunent, nous les plus grands déjeunons entre 15 et 16 heures, atelier encore à 16 heures, goûter à 17 heures, travaux collectifs et enfin on rentre chez nous à 18 heures », cet emploi du temps nous est livré d’une seule traite mais tout en sourire par Jara, 15 ans et, l’aînée de l’école, scolarisée à Paideia depuis l’âge de 2 ans. « On décide de l’emploi du temps par assemblée chaque trimestre, y compris l’heure du déjeuner » nous explique-t-elle. « On décide aussi de ce que l’on va étudier, après une analyse critique du trimestre précédent. Rien n’est jamais fixe ici, tout peut changer d’un trimestre à l’autre ! » Entourée d’une demi douzaine d’élèves approuvant sa version des faits, elle nous explique le fonctionnement des divers groupes de travail de l’école, qui sont révisables tous les mois : le groupe cuisine qui compte environ 8 élèves entre 6 et 15 ans, le groupe nettoyage qui lui est par groupe d’âge (il était mixe dans le passé mais les plus jeunes demandèrent par assemblées à être ensemble), le groupe travail manuel.

Le groupe cuisine est à l’œuvre, co-ordonnés par 2 adultes, et nous sommes époustouflés de voir ces enfants, dont certains si jeunes, participer complètement aux tâches d’épluchage, de découpage, etc. Sans aucun doute, de telles activités feraient s’évanouir tout inspecteur sanitaire ! Et pourtant, les adultes et les plus âgés supervisent les plus jeunes et assurent qu’il n’y ait aucun risque d’accident en leur montrant et en leur rappelant les règles de sécurité évidentes. « La solidarité aussi s’apprend et pour nous il est très important que les grands se sentent responsables des plus petits » nous dit Pepita. Et effectivement tout au long de la journée les exemples pleuvent : à la descente du bus, dans la cuisine, dans la cour de récréation, les enfants ne recherchent pas systématiquement un adulte pour les aider.

Cette indépendance par rapport aux adultes est primordiale. En effet l’un des objectifs est la liberté, comprise par les éducateurs comme capacité à prendre ses propres décisions en conscience des conséquences. Lors de notre première réunion avec les éducateurs, un soir après classe, l’une d’entre eux, Lali, nous explique qu’en ces semaines d’après rentrée les élèves sont soumis à être « mandado », c’est-à-dire « recevant les ordres ». « Après avoir passé deux mois dans leur famille, les grands parents, à regarder la télévision, ils sont de nouveau sous l’influence de ce système compétitif, consumériste, qui les met dans une mentalité de soumission. A leur retour ici ils sont sans arrêt à nous demander ce qu’ils doivent faire. Ils ne sont pas libres. Ils doivent réapprendre à ne plus avoir à demander. Etre mandado c’est ce réapprentissage : pour une certaine période (dont la fin est déterminée par une assemblée, qui est demandée soit par les éducateurs, soit par les élèves eux-mêmes) un enfant qui ne se montre pas capable d’autonomie doit faire ce qu’on lui dit. Comme c’est très pénible, il/elle réapprend vite. En ce moment, c’est l’école entière qui est mandado, ce qui est très rare ». Nos yeux s’arrondissent tandis que l’on digèrent l’information : ceci est une école où les élèves se font rappeler à l’ordre quand ils demandent trop la permission ! L’état de mandado est aussi appliqué lorsqu’un/e élève ne respecte son « compromiso » ou « engagement ». Chaque élève doit en effet s’engager à respecter rigoureusement un certain nombre de valeurs chaque trimestre ainsi qu’à rendre un nombre arrêté de rapports sur des sujets à étudier pendant le trimestre à venir. Si les engagements ne sont pas remplis, alors il/elle sera mandado… jusqu’à ce qu’une assemblée juge qu’il/elle a appris ce qu’il/elle devait et reprendre sa vie d’élève libre…

Afin de s’assurer que chacun prend ses responsabilités au sérieux, les enfants sont aussi répartis dans des commissions. Ainsi Chris, un jeune anglais arrivé 2 ans auparavant nous explique qu’il fait partie de la commission « solutions ». Son rôle est de rester alerte aux conflits et problèmes potentiels entre les ses camarades et proposer des solutions afin de les résoudre sans avoir recours à l’arbitrage adulte. « J’aime beaucoup ce rôle, c’est très important et on sent vraiment utile ».

De même les commissions « valeurs », constituées d’un élève de chaque groupe d’âge, ont pour but de faire rapport à chaque assemblée « Pas dans un esprit de dénonciation » nous explique Joana, une ancienne élève de Paideia, revenue visiter ses camarades et éducateurs, sa famille comme elle les décrit elle-même, « l’idée est de discuter collectivement et aussi pour chaque élève de savoir réfléchir sur ses propres actes et ses propres attitudes. Ce qui reste le cœur de tout ici, c’est le respect les uns des autres, et de soi-même. Moi j’ai l’impression que je me connais beaucoup mieux que la plupart de mes copines qui vont dans des écoles normales. »

Evidemment dans une telle école il n’y aucune d’obligation d’étudier ni d’examen, ou de notation quelconque. Chaque trimestre les élèves ont un face à face avec Pepita, pour ce qu’ils appellent “La Prueba Larga”, test durant elle évalue le développement de chaque enfant, tout autant au niveau des connaissances qu’au niveau maturité. Une série de tableaux et grilles d’évaluation est utilisée pendant l’entretien et les résultats sont ensuite discutés avec les autres éducateurs. Les progrès individuels sont ainsi suivis de très près par toute l’équipe pédagogique. Evidemment c’est en partie parce que Paideia est dans une sorte de limbes légales (pas vraiment reconnue officiellement mais tolérée) que les éducateurs ne sont pas tenus de suivre le programme national.

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It seems that I’m not writing blogs but trying to write the book on the go, which clearly is not sustainable. Blogs are daily diary entries not book chapters! So I promise any readers out there that I will try to write regularly and more briefly. I’m feeling a bit over stimulated by the amount of new experiences, new people and new ways of thinking about the world that we are encountering. Note books are filling up and we already have 40 hours of film, it’s beginning to feel a bit overwhelming to imagine what it will be like to return to London and try to turn all this material into something! What I need to do now is catch up to date …

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“It’s not like other schools, its more like a family.”
Letter from Paideai ex student, attached to wall.

There is so much more to write about the anarchist school. But it will mostly have to wait till we return, one thing worth mentioning now though was witnessing one of the spontaneous assemblies being convened by a group of six to seven year olds because the new boy, Pablo had bitten someone. Eleven children purposefully walked into the classroom and shepherded Pablo out into the main hall. Adriane a supremely confident 7 year old picked up piece of paper, drew two columns on it – one for stacking the speakers, the other for the proposals and began to facilitate. I have to pinch myself to believe this is really happening.

The kids lounged in a kind of messy circle, limbs falling onto and over each other. “Pablo bit me and so I called for an Assembly” says Miguel. Most of the kids seem totally relaxed, putting their hands up every now and then to speak and explain their version of events. Pablo is reacting very differently, he is tense, frustrated and fidgeting nervously. “Why did Miguel call for an assembly when I didn’t do anything” he shouts. He doesn’t wait for the facilitator to take his turn speaking, which is not suprising seeing as this is his first assembly (ever!) and that most of the other kids have been attending assemblies since they started the school at 18 months old.

Eventually one of the teachers, Laly, arrives, she had heard Pablo speaking out of turn and so decided to come and see if she could help out. What follows is a comical scene where the kids realise that you can tell who bit who by looking at the shape of the bite marks and relating it to the tooth pattern. Suddenly they are all biting their own arms to see what marks they leave. In the end it turns out that maybe Pablo never bit Miguel after all, as the bite marks don’t seem to match.

The children end the meeting by making proposals – one of the proposals is that Pablo is excluded from the community. This is the only form of punishment that Paideai has – to send someone outside of the community and isolate them from collective life. “I have another proposal” says Laly, “Pablo is new and has to learn to behave in a different way. How can he learn to be different without being in a group, his problem is not the group he is in, but himself. The group has to help him and he has to respect the group.” Adriane summurises the proposals, a vote is taken, the kids raise there hands, Adriane counts and notes the results. There is a unanimous decision to support the Laly’s proposal. “which one has won?” Pablo asks aggressively. I begin to feel sorry for this new boy who is clearly unable to embody the anarchist values of non-competitivity and non violence. “I cant believe that 12 people are meeting to sort your problem and that your not even concentrating.”responds Laly. “ But when I go to play with them” Pablo pleeds “they don’t let me play. ” “but you have to respect them, if they say no then you have to respect it.”

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Pablo has only been at the School for a few weeks, and this episode shows how hard it must be for children to adjust to the culture of Paideia. Pepa tells us that they no longer allow children over nine years old to enrole. By then they have become too moulded by capitalism, competivity and individualism “the system has structured the mind and it is impossible to be free” she tells us. She thinks that adults can begin the process of changing but it takes a long time, as we are all well aware. It challenges the very basis of our society of separation – the I and the them, subject versus object. Reaching a state of freedom requires us to seamlessly merge individual and collective responsibility. Until we are able to see the world as a seemless set of relationships, not objects but innumerable boundless subjects, we are not free.

On our last day at Paideia Josefa, who seems to be the theorist behind the school, and who has published numerous books about its pedagogy, tells us a story which sums up her understanding of the School. The children had been on a school trip. One of them had a stomach bug and suffered an awful attack of uncontrolable diarrhoea. She went into the toilets of a bar to get changed and emerged with her soiled clothes in a plastic bag, wearing only her underwear. When she arrived back to the park where her class mates were having a picnic, as an act of solidarity, they all took their clothes off and remained in their underwear for the entire day.

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“We are the ones who built all these palaces, these cities…we workers can replace them with newer more beautiful buildings. Ruins do no frighten us. The earth will be our inheritance, no doubt about that. Let the Bourgeoisie blow its world to smithereens before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world in our hearts and that world will go on growing. It is growing even as I speak…”

Buenaventura Durruti, (Spanish Anarchist who invented political bank robbing and used the proceeds to finance an anarchist school) Interviewed in the Toronto Daily Star, October 1936.

Merida is literally built on ruins, one of the Roman empires most important cities, it sits in the dry south west edge of the Iberian peninsula. Many of it’s modern buildings rise up out of exposed ruins, sometimes incorporating them into their own structures. Smooth concrete and glass juxtaposed against ancient rough brown rubble. Next to the pink signs pointing to the tourist office are similar signposts for the temple of Diana, the past underpins the present here on every corner. The Roman empire collapsed due to military and ecological overstretch, the day we arrive every flag in the city is at half mast. Two Spanish soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Empires rarely learn lessons from the each other.

For 29 years this city has hosted what must be one of the world’s longest running Anarchist Schools – Paideia. Named after the Ancient Athenian’s concept of character-building, something which was seen to be the key educational process of Athenian direct democracy, the school is an extraordinary laboratory of radical citizenship. If Utopias are places which challenge us to close the gap between what is done and the impossible, then our three days visiting Paideia certainly did this. This world turned upside down, a school without bells, where the children are in charge and where the curriculum is centred around anarchist values, taught us more about freedom than anything we had ever experienced.

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“ Be careful with the present that you create because it should look like the future that you dream”

Mujeres Creando ( Bolivian Anarcho Feminist street art group). Quoted on the walls of the primary kids class room.

Located in an old two storey pastel yellow farm house on what was once the edges of the city, Paideia used to be surrounded by lush green olive groves as far as the eye could see. This year every single tree was bulldozed and the school now sits in a sea of churned up mud and partially built roads. Once a free school in the countryside it is now a encircled oasis stuck in the middle of the hell of urban sprawl. Enormous bulldozers roam around its edges, sending noisy vibrations up through the walls and stone floors. Next year it will be surrounded by 1500 identical new suburban homes, another speculative Spanish development whose corporate motto is proudly presented on billboards above the Somme like devastation “We are making the future”.

Term has only just started when we arrive. Our first meeting is in the evening with the eight members of staff, who are with the 58 students from 10am till 6pm and then do admin till 9pm. Despite the long days they greet us with great warmth and numerous kisses and we sit down at a large round table surrounded by shelves of books and piles of files. Kim and Carlos, friends from the permaculture collective Escanda in Asturias, have come to help us translate. Kim set up the radical popular education collective Trapeze, which toured Europe during the lead up to many of the large anti capitalist summit mobilisations. Carlos, now working on Escanda’s plans for a community owned wind farm, used to teach immigrants Spanish in a squatted neighbourhood education centre in Madrid. They have always wanted to visit this mythical educational establishment. Last night in the Campsite we admitted to each other that we were all a bit anxious about visiting the school. In fact it felt very much like the first day of school, a very old memory for us but something we recognise by the butterflies and apprehension in our stomachs. Despite its long history, few people get the privilege of visiting Paideia, why we have been allowed we are unsure, although the fact that it calls itself a Utopia in many of its publications probably helps.

Pepa, heavily built in her early 60’s is one of the founders of the school. Despite her bright red dyed hair she looks like the most normal school teacher possible, as do the other seven women and one guy who sit around the table with us. She explains to us that the first few weeks of term after summer are always different from the normal way the school runs. “Returning from the summer holidays is always a problem” she says “ for two months the kids live with their parents and their grandparents, who start to do everything for them and they loose their autonomy.” At the core of the schools philosophy is autonomy and self management, every aspect of the school is run via assemblies from deciding the lunchtime menu to the timetable, personal conflicts to what academic subjects to take, everything is discussed and decided collectively without hierarchy and imposition from the staff. The students from the age of 18 months to 16 years self manage the school together, they cook, clean and make decisions on how it is run.

In Paideia one of the many things I learnt was that being free is fundamentally about taking individual responsibility and being able to collaborate fluidly in a collective community. “When they come back they forget how to do things.. how to cut carrots, what needs doing etc. Their minds aren’t free when they have to ask what to do,” Pepa explains. “They are free when they know what they want…its easier to be told what to do than being free, and you pass on your responsibility to others.” As a result the school is under what is known as Mandado – which means to be ordered or demanded. To describe this as a kind of collective punishment, would be wrong. In the three days spent there we never heard anyone shouting or raising their voices. What it is, is more of a temporary learning culture that is imposed by the staff. Seeing as the students are no longer able take the initiative to do things themselves without asking the authority figures what to do, they are mandadod – told what to do by the teachers.

I later tried to explain this on the phone to my twelve year old son Jack in London, whose secondary School motto “ Serve and Obey” is blazen across a large heraldic stone crest above the entrance. “In the anarchist school you are in trouble if you ask a teacher permission to do something rather than just getting on and doing it yourself” His confused silence displayed the counter intuitive leap that we all had to do when we realised what this really meant. In most schools if you don’t do what you are told you are in the wrong. Here you are in the wrong if you are expecting to be told what to do.

The Mandado remains until the students decide to call for an assembly where they will discuss collectively whether they have returned to state of freedom and responsibility or not, if they all vote for its lifting then its lifted. “They need to re- find their anarchist values” concludes Pepa. “It doesn’t take long. If they want to be free they have to fight for it.”

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“There is not in the world a truer object of pity that a child terrified at every glance, and watching with anxious uncertainty the caprices of a pedagogue.”

William Godwin (the first great philosopher of anarchism and happiness whose An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice had an enormous impact in late 18th century Britain) An Account of the Seminary that will be Opened on Monday the Fourth Day of August, at Epsom in Surrey, for the Instruction of Twelve Pupils, 1783.

The school bus arrives, a long sleek brand new white coach. Children pour out. The older ones hold hands with the little ones guiding them down the steps and into the school grounds where they all pat the two lounging school dogs and are kissed by the waiting teachers. I have painful memories of taking my son to nursery, seeing so many children crying as they are pushed through the institutions doors. Here there seem to be no tears, just smiles and some nonchalant skipping. The smaller children, 18 months to 5 years old, peel off to the kindergarten annex, we stay with the older ones in the main building.

The first thing that happens when they arrive is that the cooking group, seven kids in mixed ages from 5 till sixteen, go into the kitchen put on white aprons and start preparing the day’s meals. Outside some kids are swinging on the trapeze attached to an old crooked Cyprus tree and others are sweeping with brooms that are nearly twice as tall as them. No one seems to tell them what to do, it just happens. This is perhaps one of the most lasting impressions, despite the state of Mandado, there is a constant flow and movement of energised children through the building getting on with things without being shouted at or managed by the terrorising shrill of a teacher or a school bell.

In the kitchen I can feel myself tense up as I witness five year olds wielding large knives, diligently cutting up tomatoes and stirring huge boiling catering size silver cauldrons. I hear myself wondering whether this is safe and soon realise how indoctrinated I have become by the control culture of health and safety that dominates modern institutional life.

Six year old Manu starts to swat the flies in the dining room next door. It’s walls are plastered with quotes including the first self styled Anarchists Joseph Proudhon’s famous tirade: “to be governed.. is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censured, commanded…” Which when read in this context suddenly becomes a pretty good description of traditional schooling. “We eat lots of different dishes here. It’s the best food in the world” Manu tells us between swipes. I can’t really believe that school dinners could ever rise above gruel status. “Is it the best school in the world?” I ask as I help fold up napkins. “Yes of course” he declares, his wide brown face grinning as he wields the tea towel.

“Come on its time to work” calls Carlos from the kitchen. Although he is only seven, and not the official coordinator of the cooking group, who is thirteen year old Arai, Carlos is able to see what needs doing and can gently wheel in Manu from enjoying fly slaughter. Three other kids, who can’t be older than nine, are going around the entire school with a pen and paper, asking everyone how many fried eggs they want with lunch.

A group from the nursery arrive with a teacher, a five year old and two three year olds set the tables for 23 people ( the nursery kids eat lunch first). They are so small they can hardly reach up to the cutlery draws. Ernesto, the older child, explains in a helpful manner to Kim who towers above him, that she should only carry one plate at a time because otherwise it can be dangerous. The culture of help here is incredible, whether its Ernesto telling thirty five year old Kim about plate carrying or the older kids doing up the younger children’s shoe laces, its permeates everything at Paideia. As I watch this all unfold, I have a moment where I wish I could teleport every person who has ever told me that anarchism is chaos into this exquisite example of self organisation – by children!

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A tall skinny sixteen year old, her freckled heart shaped face framed by enormous jangling hooped earrings, bounds up to us. Everyone kisses and she introduces herself in a deepish voice as Jara. “This is the time for collective work” she tells us, her long fingers gesticulating with complete confidence “cooking, cleaning etc. Let me explain our timetable to you. “ She leads us a notice board in the main entrance hall. Most of the notices are written in children’s hand writing, list of working groups and various timetables. Sepia postcards of the Barcelona CNT anarchist run tram system and telephone exchange from the 1936 revolution are pinned beside colourful lists of workshop groups decorated with crayon drawings.

“After the collective work we have breakfast. From 11.30 to 1pm we either have a general assembly or attend a workshop, after that we have free time. Then it’s lunch at three and some more collective work till four, then an hour and a quarter long workshop and finally afternoon tea…” Jara realises that she is dominating the conversation and turns to Manuel a shy class mate of hers. She encourages him to continue the explanation. It feels rare to see such sensitivity to group dynamics and sense of solidarity from a teenager.

“How are the timetables decided?” I ask. “ By assembly ” he replies. “Before each term starts we analyze how the last term went, decide what subjects we want to study in the workshops and how the timetable should be sorted. We also work out the working groups there”

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The central organ of the school are the assemblies, but what runs it on an everyday level are the working groups and committees, all made up of kids. Besides the cooking and cleaning groups, there are committees that observe the running of the school. Chris, a blonde very English looking student from Yorkshire, who moved to Merida two years ago when he was ten, tells me that he is in the “Solution makers” committee a job he really enjoys. “ I have to be on the look out for problems and conflicts that arise” he tell me “ and if there is a problem I go and try to help out, if we can’t find a solution there and then, we call an assembly” He explains that there are also ‘values committees’ whose role is to study and asses what lies at the very heart of this school, the anarchist values. At the very heart of what is being learnt and practiced at Paidea is not abstract knowledge, not dates, facts, history, arithmetic – but a set of profound human values. These values underpin everything that happens – they are the curriculum. Instead of the three R’s of traditional education are 7 anarchist values: Solidarity, Justice, Equality, Freedom, Non-violence, Culture and above all happiness.

The values committees are made up of a student from each age group and rotate every two weeks. There are four age groups in the upper school and each has as a self assigned name and their own classroom – 5-7 ‘cool group’, 7-8 ‘tornado’, 9-11 ‘group one’ and 12 – 15 ‘group two’. The ‘values committees’ rotate every two weeks and feedback to the general assembly.

Chris is in the middle of a history workshop. They don’t have lessons, we are told these sound too religious and ejecting religion from schooling is key in a country where the church was the right hand of the fascist dictatorship. What workshop subjects they want to do are decided in the general assembly at the beginning of term where the whole school reflects on how last term went . The staff might suggest a series of 10 workshops, and the class collectively decides five that they want to do. ‘Group one’ Chri’s group has chosen to do History, English, Global Economy, Grammar and Art.

In the workshops you don’t have a teacher standing infront of a blackboard facing rows of desks. Every class room has all the school tables pushed together to make a large central table around which the students sit. They get on with their own work, getting up to find a book, writing notes, occasionally throwing a rubber at a class mate. A teacher, although they are never called teachers, mostly they are called by their first name or “the adults”, wanders into the class every now and then to help out and look through the work they are doing from books.

Each students sets themselves a commitment to do a certain amount of projects each term. They also commit to what is called “Intellectual work.” This is a totally self decided project, on any subject that they want. They all fill in and sign a complex Commitment sheet at at the beginning of term, each deciding their personal commitments, ranging from how many projects and work books they are going to complete to how they are going to keep to the anarchist values, what collective work they will do to and what they commit to on an affective level. At the end of the term they collectively assess each others commitments.

Chris is doing work on the Roman Empire. At the end of the fortnight he will stand up infront of his class and present it to them. There wont be any marking, the only formal assessment is that each term they do ‘la Prueba Larga” a test that is done one to one with Pepa and involves everything from motor coordination to general knowledge. There is no mark, it is just a way for the staff to assess the development. In fact there seems to be reams of complex observation tables and forms that the staff fill in on a regular basis as ways to access the students progress.