ERA School - a personal view of an alternative school FINAL EDIT COMPLETE





Tom Deamer


Two hundred years ago Rousseau said 'Put the problems before your scholar and let him solve them himself. Let him know nothing because you have told him but because he has learned it himself…. If you ever substitute authority for reason he will cease to reason, he will be a mere plaything of other people's thoughts. Undoubtedly the notions of things acquired for oneself are much more convincing than those acquired from the teaching of others'.


Two hundred years later Carl Rogers in Freedom to Learn wrote 'I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. Such self-discovered learning, truth which has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience cannot be directly communicated to another.'


Two hundred years later teachers still teach — giving by rote at second hand a set of values which pupils do not come to feel as their own, failing to educate them to be fully human. Schools grade and hand out punishments in the form of marks, when surely by now they know that punishment diminishes a person's ability to govern himself properly. Schools still aim to teach a body of knowledge, to make good citizens and to fit children to earn a living while the adult world needs people who have not so much the value of obedience as the capacity for judgment. 

 But what if a school believes that the aim of education is to enhance a person's ability to think, to help him find enduring purposes and to provide him with opportunities to develop socially responsible sets of values for his own guidance, to understand his own learning and valuing processes— what happens then? 


And further what if that school believes that the teacher, like any artist, can perform adequately only if he feels himself to be a real individual directed by his own creative inner impulses and not dominated and fettered by an outside authority? 


What happens when a group of parents believe that a child best develops in an atmosphere of freedom, trust and love, knowing that a child's play is his way of exploring and experimenting while he builds up relations with others and himself, that play is a learning activity?


And what if a school has faith that a child in freedom will grow into a responsible adult, quite capable of high quality academic work or producing beautiful pottery—proudly being himself whatever he does?


Suddenly such a school as ERA will appear. ERA comes from Education Reform Association which was formed in 1969 by a group of people dissatisfied by the Victorian secondary schools. They hoped to reform education, and one way to do it was to start their own school a lighthouse to show the way. It took great faith, ingenuity and dedication to begin the school, and even more to keep it going in its early years. It is now in its fourth year, growing up like any adolescent, in fits and starts, sometimes in ecstacy, and sometimes in depression. 


Like any of the modern wave of progressive schools it came about mainly as a reaction to the existing systems, though leavened by a great deal of positive faith in freedom to learn. 

Like most of these schools it faces many problems and paradoxes— such dilemmas as trying to be a 'free school' on one hand and to face the barriers of external examinations on the other.

While the school is no longer experimental like the Summerhills, Preshils and others who experimented a long time ago, for every teacher who comes to it, it is a daily experiment, for there are none of the easy structures and lines of authority common to most schools. All day teachers spend their time in person to person encounters and to do this successfully they must be very real people. The strain is great.


It is very difficult to leave children alone to develop their own sets of values, to make their own discoveries to invent the wheel over and over again without interfering. But we must do it or fail the children. 


It is difficult for teachers and parents to watch pupils try to work out the limits of freedom without adding structures; to watch them swing all day on the long lazy rope swings without becoming anxious about their academic progress; difficult for the teachers, difficult for the parents and difficult for the pupils themselves.


For they don't exist in isolation separate from the wide world; they know what their peers in other schools are doing. Such however is the pressure of society that they so often fail themselves and come to believe that progress in mathematics is actually progress in becoming fully human — they so easily forget how much of living they are learning in the ERA way.


For ERA is about the business of becoming a real person, living at ease with himself and his fellow men. It is about the business of becoming a viable learning community of students, teachers and parents, where teachers are learners and learners are teachers. It is a difficult place to operate because administrative theories have not caught up with the realities of ERA.

The school tries to be democratic, with pupils and teachers making the rules, and parents, pupils and teachers making the policies.

It is often highly inefficient, and possibly many of its clients haven't used their time to the best advantage. There is lots of noise, freedom is abused and peoples' rights trampled on. That sounds just like life itself.


But the ERA community is tackling those problems, winning here and losing there, but the frog in the well going slowly ahead.  One problem of progressive schools is that they are so often on the defensive, and in trying to protect the clear essence of their being fail to move ahead, to develop and progress toward more effective ways of coping with a changing world.


The attackers are many: external examinations, the parental fears that their child will not be able to get a job or pass Higher School Certificate, the anxiety of teachers that they are not teaching, the worry of pupils that others know so much more than they do.

It is time for ERA-like schools to get out and say this is where real learning is going on, this is where real people are coming from—don't worry Employer, you will get a real person from this school, someone with judgment.

For we have ceased just to teach, but instead provide a rich learning environment where pupils, given time and trust will learn in their own way, and at their own pace, the things they want to learn which have meaning to them.

It is happening at ERA: and that is what makes an alternative school so essential in the present day. It is proof that there are alternatives to the school system whether you like them or not just as there are alternatives in government, in ways of life.

These alternatives must be fostered so that the institutions, state or private, will always have to look over their shoulders and face the relentless change. 


Elitist though ERA may be (though its fees are not as high as many schools) it is, along with many others of like kind, both private and publicly run, a sign and a symbol that believing in the worth of the individual is a good reason for making a school and believing that the individual must be allowed to be entirely himself, not the plaything of business, the family, the school, the state, however different he may be.’


You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts

You may house their bodies but not their souls

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams'

Kahlil Gibran


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