So what is the purpose of education?

"After a year, in the fall of 2013, I wanted to investigate the possibility of working towards being Minister of Education."  Simone Haenen told her story at the World Forum for Democracy 2016.

Margarete Hentze Simone Haenen
15 November 2016

So, what’s my story? In my traditional public primary school, I was doing fine, getting good grades. I was a ‘good’ learner, always trying hard to give all the right answers, but, socially, I wasn’t really part of the group and I got bullied sometimes.

My younger brother got really stuck in school. He was a ‘bad’ learner and couldn’t fit in with the pre-set curriculum, resulting in a lot of pressure, tests, labels, and extra work. This caused a lot of stress at home, because he was angry a lot. He had really low self-esteem and got depressed and even had suicidal thoughts by the age of 11. However, he had a lot of friends, was super funny, and very creative  –  a really great guy with a lot of talents. Teachers told me, if you do this, you will succeed in life  –  but am I not the one who really knows what I need?

While he was struggling at the primary school, I was doing okay in the first years of high school; but, if I look back, I was never really motivated and I reduced myself to being one of the herd, desperately trying to fit in and at the same time trying to be noticed.

I didn’t have many friends and I still got bullied, usually by kids calling me fat. I secretly liked the ‘nerds’ at school, but I so desperately wanted to fit in with the popular kids that I mostly spent time with them. I regretted this afterwards, but what do you do as a young, insecure girl? My grades were fine and so I held on to that.

When the moment came and my brother needed to go to high school, the school he really wanted to go to  – one with extra theatre classes  –  rejected him on the grounds of being ‘too stupid.’ That’s what they told my parents in the conversation they had: but the official letter said that they thought biking 30 minutes would be too far for my brother. After this, my parents were done with the traditional school system. They started looking for alternatives in the Netherlands and they found a democratic school in Soest.

Happier brother

The democratic school concept was pretty new in the Netherlands, but the idea of real freedom, responsibility and equality for children really appealed to my parents and my brother; and, in other countries, this concept had been successful for almost a century, even though not many people knew about it. I was very relieved to have a week off, but my brother said, “No, I don’t want an autumn break! I want to go to school!” I was shocked.

After one trial week, my brother, my parents, and the school community said ‘yes’ and he went there after the summer break. I suddenly had a happier brother, which was new for me! So I obviously started thinking about my own school. For instance, I got 100 short assignments of homework for German, but I already spoke and wrote German, so what was the purpose of this homework?

I asked my teacher and she said you have to do it anyway, because you get a grade for it and the grade counts towards your final report: so, if you want a good grade, you have to do it.

I started thinking about the purpose of my education. Why do I have to do these things? Is it about me learning things or about me following the curriculum? Who decides what’s good for me? What do I need to learn to succeed in life? Teachers told me, if you do this, you will succeed in life  –  but am I not the one who really knows what I need? The fall break came and I was very relieved to have a week off; but my brother said, “No, I don’t want a fall break! I want to go to school!” I was shocked to hear these words coming from his mouth. That was the moment I decided I wanted to go too.

Following my own interests

Some people, especially some of the ‘friends’ I had at high school, thought I was crazy: “You can choose what you want to do all day?” “You can decide on the rules?” “You will never get anywhere, you will just play!” “But you are doing so well, why would you throw away your future?” and “Isn’t it for kids with special needs?” “This cannot be real education.” But I had no doubt. This was what I needed, and if it was working so incredibly well for my brother, I was sure it would work for me, too. I was so excited to finally pursue my own interests. I had always thought that the smaller kids were stupid, teachers were my boss, people working in jobs were super cool, and people who owned big companies were unreachable gods.

The first week I was in the school, I was sitting on a couch in the hallway, when I heard some music coming from a room nearby. I thought, is this a CD? But no, I heard them talking and playing  –  it was a band! I was scared that somebody would see me enjoying the music. That wouldn’t be cool! So every time someone passed through the hallway, I pretended not to listen.

I really couldn’t believe that people would make music during school hours. This moment was the start of a journey that really opened my eyes and freed me from the limiting convictions I had. I learnt to live and create together with people of all ages.

While in public school I always thought that the smaller kids were stupid, teachers were my boss, people working in jobs were super cool, and people who owned big companies were unreachable gods, now I realized — they were all people with normal lives who you could learn from, talk to, and who were actually very reachable. In school, the younger kids would help me a lot with so many things: giving me a hug when needed and giving very simple, easy solutions to my many problems that seemed so complicated. Fun is not enough any more.

I was 14 at the time and it was wonderful. Real freedom, responsibility, and equality. No coerced lessons, classes, tests, exams, etcetera. Of course, at first I tested if really nobody was telling me what to do: so I played, went outside, danced, gamed, and talked, talked, talked. This process of ‘unschooling’ was very important. If you are used to being told what to do all the time and suddenly nobody tells you what to do, you are going to experience real freedom. After some time  ­–  and this time is different for everyone, it might even be a year  – you usually reach a point of boredom. Fun is not enough any more.

And when no one gives you assignments to do, there is no other option than to start doing things more consciously yourself  – making choices about what you want to do with your time, what you think is important for you to do and learn. I started participating in the organization of the school. I was a Schoolmeeting secretary, part of the Judicial Committee, and setting up other committees for art and music  –  as well as practicing art and music. In every day, every smile, every minute, every word, every experience, there is learning. You can’t stop learning. You can’t stop growing.

Self-directed learning happens every day. This means that everything is possible and an unlimited number of learning situations can happen. All ‘subjects’, as we currently define them within traditional school, are available in the school community. It might surprise you, but most of the learning is invisible, in activities that don’t look like school: talking, being outside, organizing events, making music, building things, or sitting quietly in a corner. Learning is not something that you can turn off. In every day, every smile, every minute, every word, every experience, there is learning. You can’t stop learning. You can’t stop growing.

A democratic mini-society

In every society, you need some structure and some rules: how do you want to live together? So our school is very well organized. Responsibility for the organization and safety of the school community is in the DNA of these schools. The constitution of a democratic school is the Declaration of Human Rights itself. Students and staff members have an equal share of power in all decisions that concern the school. There is no autocratic school board or administration.

In the weekly Schoolmeeting, decisions are made about finance, who works at the school, who can visit, the rules, the rule keeping, excursions, etc. Every school meeting member can put a proposal on the agenda. Decisions are made only about the structure, the organization, and the rules  –  never about the content or curriculum: that responsibility lies with the students. Bullying was not allowed. We had created a good culture and people could give each other feedback.

The meeting is prepared and run by a chair and a secretary. Both are elected in a school meeting and both are usually students. A lot of corporations are founded in School-meeting to delegate certain tasks; like computer corp, music corp, PR corp, and so on. There are also various clerk roles, like cleaning clerk, administration clerk, and attendance clerk. As a clerk, you are responsible for a certain area of expertise and certain tasks. Every school meeting member can get elected as a clerk and we see that many students, like myself at the time, take on a clerkship for a certain period of time.

To keep our mini-society safe, we have a Judicial Committee (JC). This group of students and a staff members handle complaints about people breaking the rules. You can compare it to a court system. Every student and staff member can write a complaint about every student and staff member breaking rules.

The JC hears all the people involved, writes an objective, factual report on what happened and checks if indeed a school rule has been broken. If so, the person who broke the rule is charged and will be able to plead guilty or not guilty  –  a way of taking responsibility for your actions. The person will then be sanctioned with, for instance, a 15 minute cleaning task, or be prohibited from entering certain rooms for a day.

Due to our school’s organization, it was very clear who was responsible for what. Rules were usually respected and bullying was not allowed. We had created a good culture and people could give each other feedback.


Our non-hierarchical way of organizing made people feel like they mattered and their voices were heard. The community was their own. You know that kids are people too. And if people own their own lives, learning, and community, something special happens. They stay curious. They care for each other and the community. Things they can’t do become a challenge instead of something negative. Evaluation, inspiring and informally encouraging others, becomes ‘normal’. Because everyone has their own unique development, there is almost no competition and people will help each other.

Learning from each other happens daily. And because everyone has their own unique development, there is almost no competition and people will help each other, because not only the individual, but the community as a whole benefits from each person’s development of skills, talents, and values.

Starting a Sudbury school

After a year and a half, a school inspection decided our school was no school, because in the Netherlands, children have to go to a government-approved school and this school didn’t fit the criteria.

My dad was even prosecuted by the Dutch government because of his choice of school for us. This was a hard time, both at home and at school. My brother and I were both very happy and learning more than ever. I could not understand how the government could not see that. Because of the prosecution, a lot of people wanted to change the school to meet the inspection’s demands, like having a set of classes available and tracking the progress of the children.

There was also a smaller group that said: “No. Our concept is total freedom, equality, and responsibility. We should stick to that.” I was in the latter group. So, in October 2006, a separation was inevitable and we started a Sudbury school.

This was a clear, proven, structured democratic school concept based on the Sudbury Valley School in the USA, pretty much like I described earlier. I was 16 at the time. Starting my own ideal school was a very interesting process. I learned. Did you know that there are hundreds of democratic schools across the globe, on every continent?

After three months, the school started and I was one of the first students. I had two wonderful years at my school. During these years, I started thinking about life after school a lot more. One of the things I did was to stay with a family from a democratic school in the USA and visit the school, called Fairhaven. The similarity between our school, that had just started, and Fairhaven School, founded in 1998, was astonishing. The atmosphere, the students, the staff, the way it was organized , all pretty much the same. But there were more students: our school only had ten and they had way over 100 students.

The number of students does matter for the richness of the learning environment, because every person has something else to add. But schools like this take time to grow, because the concept is so different for many people. By the way, did you know that there are hundreds of democratic schools across the globe, on every continent?

Problems in a traditional system

I liked travelling a lot. I also still liked music, started photography, and was actively participating in the school organization. I did a few courses on entrepreneurship and I was also interested in the government and education laws, because of our complicated relationship with school inspection and the Dutch Ministry of Education.

You must know that many democratic schools are having problems in their countries, not because children are not learning, but because governments (and parents) are not yet used to this way of learning and organizing. Laws, funding, and checks from school inspectors are created around what we think school looks like, what we are used to: a traditional system with a teacher, a class, a clear curriculum, tracking progress, coercion, comparison, achievements.

But this traditional way of exercising controls and checks through school inspection doesn’t fit our system, and doesn’t fit many other innovative schools’ systems.

Trust the democratic system


Pablo Picasso - Vision Geometrique aux Traits. Wikicommons/cea +.Some rights reserved.Concerning democratic schools, I can also understand that when you first hear about letting children do whatever they want all day long, the first objection that comes to mind is the risk of them growing up uneducated. We usually sense the danger that they may not acquire the essential tools to become effective adults in this society. I saw the opposite in my daily life at school as a student.

The second objection is that these kinds of school are only for the smart kids from highly educated parents who are already intrinsically motivated. I beg to differ. Over the last 50 years, so many children from so many different backgrounds have been enrolled in democratic schools around the world and have done really well. The most important thing is trusting your child and trusting the democratic system. Then, anything is possible.

The most important thing is trusting your child and trusting the democratic system. Then, anything is possible. In general, there is a lot of diversity in the way democratic schools operate. Some of them have a timetable of optional lessons; others, like the one I founded, don’t have any curriculum, timetables, age groups, or teachers, nor any a priori expectation of what children should be doing. And even in this very radical free style of democratic school, the track records of the alumni are splendid.

The Sudbury Valley School, which has been doing this for 50 years now, has obtained stellar results with its alumni. More than 80 per cent of them go to university, and not only are they usually satisfied with their professional life, but they’re also reliable friends, good parents, engaged citizens, and they hold high standards in terms of ethics and social justice.

When I left school

I was 18 when I left school. I wrote a thesis on, “How I prepared myself to be an effective adult in society” and was awarded the school diploma. I decided not to have a “high school” diploma, because I believe a diploma is a means to go to university and I didn’t yet have that ambition. I also discovered that there are more ways to get to the places you want to be in life. By the way, many of my fellow students chose to get a high school diploma to get into college or university, or started working in a job right after school, like me.

When I was 18, I worked full time in a restaurant as the workfloor manager. At the same time, I did a part-time two-year photography course and started singing a lot. After two years, I started my own photography and singing business, alongside starting a small business that rented out rooms for workshops. I got enough money out of my businesses to work part-time in the restaurant. I kept doing short courses in other subjects and sometimes gave presentations about my education history and worked as a substitute staff member in my old Sudbury school.

In the summer of 2012, I decided to quit the restaurant and start a job in healthcare with disabled children, because I really wanted to get to know this field. I worked there part-time as a night watch and learnt a lot. In all of these jobs, I learned that I can fit into many different organizations, both really free ones and the really hierarchical, because my purpose and my drive is more important than the sometimes annoying hierarchy.

Operation Education

In the fall of 2012, a woman called Claire Boonstra gave a TED talk in the Netherlands. She said school should be about value and talents instead of status and achievements. I immediately felt the need to get back into changing the face of education – and so I did. I met her and right now I am still working with her.

Our foundation, Operation Education, has been building and supporting an online community, organizing campaigns and live events. We’ve built a big network of educators, students, politicians, business owners, etcetera. We are working with a lot of volunteers and many interesting projects have emerged.

After a year, in the fall of 2013, I wanted to investigate the possibility of working towards being Minister of Education  – my way of learning more about politics and how our government works was by becoming a local politician.

A city council member

In March 2014, I was elected as a city council member of my town for a local party. As a local politician, I want to inspire other people in my community and achieve a way of governing where they have a real say, to bridge the disconnect between community and government.

The first time I attended a council meeting I was surprised. The procedure of the meeting and of decision-making looked a lot like the way we did it at school in our school meeting  – a chair, secretary, raising hands, motions, amendments, discussing every subject. But there were also differences. Decision-making takes ages, because governments are afraid of making any mistakes. So they spend a huge amount of money on risk management, reports, research. Risk management instead of exploring.

So what was my experience in local government, compared to the democratic system I knew? I was surprised that our local government really wanted civilians to participate, but was not able to get these people to participate. And this still poses difficulties. Language is a big thing: government language is so often very technical and about the details. The written plans are long, and people who are not working in city hall don’t understand most of it. A lot of people feel no ownership. There is a big gap. How to bridge this gap?

But I also notice that most civilians are not very interested in what happens in their local government. I have asked myself why. After brainstorming and talking to people from my town, I can think of a few reasons. People don’t know how, or don’t feel the need, to participate. People say that it won’t matter what they think about plans because ‘the government will do what it always does’. Some people have had bad experiences with participatory projects from their local government: they were disappointed about their role or the end result. I think a lot of people can’t feel like they’re part of a democracy because they don’t have any idea what it means and because they feel no ownership. There is a big gap. How to bridge this gap?

What is the purpose of our democratic system?

I also question the political process. How democratic is the system we have now? A lot is still decided through back room politics. Sometimes party politics takes over the purpose of a proposal. Ideas you propose as a party are great, but will not be approved because they will ‘score points’ for your party (yes, I am in an opposition party). What is the purpose of our democratic system? What is the purpose of our politics? What is the purpose of our policies and proposals? Maybe we should also critically look at the way we organize our countries if we want a more democratic, equal, and inclusive society.

I believe implementing democratic governance in schools is highly effective for students to learn the skills of the citizen in a modern democracy. We can’t learn these skills by being taught the theory of democracy in an autocratic environment: people become responsible citizens by directly practicing democratic decision-making in the real world. Democratic governance is right now the most coherent tool to serve a purpose and a set of values we collectively believe in. It is a tool to justify the existence of a community, be it a school or a whole nation. Do we practice what we preach?

To what purpose?

We are all decision-makers when it comes to education; but we  – as parents, teachers, school managers, students, politicians, entrepreneurs  –  choose education out of habit. Many feel the need for innovation due to a rapidly changing world: new subjects, new teaching methods, IPads, new books. We talk about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ within the context of education as we know it, but we don’t actively question the purpose. Ask fundamental questions: does this system fit our current needs? What if every person, school, and government were to make a more conscious choice, based on their answers to these questions? What if we could hit reset? Would education and schools look the same as they do now?

One of my purposes today is to challenge you to start asking these questions. Asking questions is a very effective way to start a dialogue about our habits. I have discovered most people are open to discussing their views on education.

In the Netherlands, we are starting to see this dialogue in more and more public schools, in the media, and in government. The purpose of this discussion is not to find one common answer: I’m sure there won’t be a one-solution-fits-all. This is why I talk about my democratic education and the Sudbury model as a solution and not the solution. It gives people the freedom to truly decide what they think is important, without prejudice, so that they are open to other perspectives and new ideas.

What is the purpose of education?

So, back to the beginning. What is the purpose of education? How do we live together? What do we want our communities to look like? I believe the skills that make us humans will become more important than ever. For instance, empathy, emotions, creativity, and a certain kind of logic are irreplaceable. We need an environment where these skills can flourish, to the benefit of the individual as well as society.

So, why not have a collaborative school instead of a competitive one? Why not support biodiversity? Why not facilitate young people to take responsibility for themselves, their community, and their environment? Why not have a school that is a democracy instead of teaching democracy in an autocratic environment? Every human being matters and has value. Equality in society starts with equality in education.


Iryna Sabor and Simone Haenen at the Democratic Citizenship Education Lab, WFD2016.

openDemocracy is at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a youth newsroom. More here.

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