Two weeks at Sudbury Valley School

Photo © Sudbury Valley School (from their Facebook page).

This article is long overdue. I’ve been wanting to write for many months but it was never the right time. It wasn’t properly digested I guess. But now things are moving again, I’m finally getting myself out there again after receding in my bubble for a while, and I’m done processing. So here it comes.

Last year was about the most intense year in my life. Having fallen in absolute love and awe with the ideas and returns on experience of the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, my wife Susan and I had decided to open our own Sudbury-inspired school. There was no such school in our region (Wallonia aka French-speaking Belgium), and nothing else was good enough anymore. We had spent a couple of months in a similarly inspired school in Ghent (about 100km from our home) but still we felt it needed to be done. And we did it. The school was a success for a while but we needed help as our cofounder gave up early on in the school year and carrying a school on our four shoulders alone was something we didn’t see growing into a healthy school or a healthy us, long-term wise. It worked fine for a year though but then we had to make the hard decision to close. Now we don’t know what’s in store for the future. But one of the things we did after closing is we got to finally visit Sudbury Valley School itself. And now all we want is to find a way to get there.

If you’ve never heard about Sudbury Valley School (SVS), please go read up on their website. It’s full of interesting resources, both philosophical (what framework to think about the school) and practical (reflections on past and present experiences). To keep it (way too) short, SVS is a school that functions as a micro-society that is integrated within the larger society. It’s a beautiful, safe and free (as in speech, not as in beer) place for kids of all ages to grow, experiment, play, explore, converse… The place is run like a well-functioning modern American democracy, yet on a smaller scale which implies somewhat more directness in its execution. It implies the same things we came to expect from a democracy and somehow not to expect from a school: division of powers, protection of individual rights, due process, transparency. It’s not a bubble: it’s the world as it is.

I had studied the school as deeply and intently as I could but from a distance. I had practiced to the best of my abilities what I had learned in the school we founded. But spending two weeks there with my seven year-old daughter attending (and staying with a wonderful family with three kids attending and a supplementary staff member) still shook me to my core.

The first thing that struck me was the naturel of it all. Nothing in that school was forced, everything grew organically, with the contribution of several generations of brilliant people. Like history or evolution, it’s not linear, it’s a lot of trial and error, it’s about daring to question, it’s about accepting change while protecting what you fought for. You feel that naturel in every (inter)action at the school. I saw it also in how quick my daughter felt at home. She still talks about it today, 8 months later, and wants to go back.

I think the main thing I learned is something I thought I already understood but didn’t really. SVS is a culture. And that makes it something you cannot replicate. That doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from it for schooling in general but I believe you can’t have another SVS. Nor would it makes sense to have one. As I wrote above, the school is integrated in society, not setting itself apart from it. That means it’s deeply rooted in its geography – hence the choice of naming it after the region in which it’s implemented and not by some concept name. The school is the place, the people in it and the before who used to be in it. Like any culture is. This is something crucial that I had thought about a lot before visiting, but that only really dawned on me when we were there and could see it in practice. Then it suddenly seems obvious.

Now I could speak of the formal stuff like how professionally the School Meeting and the Judicial Committee are run, but a lot has already been written about that – including by me – so I’m not going to waste time on this. Check out the books. But the nuance and the warmth are more difficult to talk about and to describe. Unlike at virtually any other school, children at SVS are treated as equally valuable people as adults. Never have I seen any infantilization there. But the staff is attentive. I saw people dropping everything to ask a 5 year-old entering the room if everything was OK. Every single staff member I saw had a way of talking to the kids like what they do, what they think, who they are matters. Not like progressive girafe well-meaning bullshit, but true, heartfelt and deeply respectful. But they’re also not everywhere and one can simply spend one’s time with friends without adult engagement when one doesn’t want it. Healthy.

I could write a lot more I guess and maybe I will. But this is what comes up for now as I fondly reminisce about our two weeks at SVS. I’d like to thank everyone there for welcoming us and I hope to see you soon again. We are in fact concretely trying to come over in a more permanent way – though that might take a while.

See you later,


PS: Congrats on your 50 years anniversary!

1 Comment to “Two weeks at Sudbury Valley School”

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Merci pour votre témoignage.
Il aurait même pu être + long. N’hésitez pas si vous avez encore à raconter !

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