In 2001 and 2011, a competition called The School I’d Like was mounted in the UK and extensively covered by the Guardian newspaper.* In Germany, a project of similar magnitude is now being conducted for the first time. Is Britain ahead of Germany in terms of school democracy?

No, I don’t think so. Just by way of comparison, the 2001 competition in Great Britain was based, for example, on the debates on school privatization. It addressed the disastrous infrastructures at state schools, related social issues and an altogether ailing school system. The political agenda was quite different from that here in Germany, where, due to PISA, we are currently focusing on all-day schooling, learning outcomes, and pressure to get better grades. In this context, we’re also discussing what a suitable learning environment for children could look like. So a lot of it is what reform educators were discussing over a hundred years ago.

Schools of Tomorrow arose as part of the long-term project 100 Years of Now to explore the educational reforms. To what degree do educational approaches from back then still influence what is done in schools today?

To be honest, we’re not much further today than we were back then. Many of the educational reform ideas haven’t been implemented in the past hundred years. When they were formulated at the beginning of the 20th century, one of their aims was to address the social upheavals of that time in schools. This was mainly the Industrial Revolution, the effects of which were hardly discussed with students. Today, globalization and digitization are mere updates of the same topic. But even today, the schools hardly react to it enough.

How does that manifest at a practical level? What do the students want from their schools, for instance with regard to digitization?

At a certain age, especially after finishing elementary school, children would like to have far more possibilities for using digital media in school life. Many of them demanded more cell phone time and constant Wi-Fi access, simply because digitality has long been part of their everyday lives. They want devices that have all their teaching material stored on them. Days when they can follow lessons from home via video or digital class schedules administered in collaboration with teachers. In fact, money is being invested in digitization in schools in many federal states right now. The problem is that so far neither parents nor teachers have the extensive skills for dealing with digital media.

The majority of students seem to want not only more digitality but also an environment in which they can escape the stress and the fast pace of their everyday lives to some extent.

Interestingly, the demand for quiet learning environments is also not new at all. The idea of transforming classrooms into a kind of “school living room” already existed in the Jena Plan concept, which focused on independent work and collaborative learning between pupils, learning supervisors and parents in the 1920s. Among five- to ten-year-olds, the desire for similar scenarios is still very pronounced. Elementary school students especially don’t only want quiet rooms in which to read and relax but also proper sleeping quarters. A few older students would like to have more school psychologists available to coach them through the stresses of everyday life. Some want swimming pools and the opportunity to work in a school garden. And a surprising number of students wish to be jointly responsible for the school meals. So overall, the trend in the submissions is strongly leaning towards self-determined and community school life. I think that is mainly because many children in Germany today have to cope with an all-day system.

The pressure they are under on long school days comes from different sides: Parents and teachers as well as education policymakers seem to want to prepare children for their later professional life earlier and more efficiently. How did the students react to this with their suggestions?

I found it striking how many of the older students wished for more learning content relevant to daily life. For example, the subject of taxes came up at least twenty times. The desire for such content says a lot about the participants’ backgrounds: over seventy-five percent academic high school students and an above-average number of submissions from heavily urbanized areas. But it also describes the young people’s general adaptation mechanisms. It’s not just policymakers that urge schools to prepare students sufficiently for jobs and everyday life, but it’s also the kids themselves. I miss the rebellious element a little when I see teenagers wanting to integrate into the system. But of course that also has to do with a school system that still acts as a disciplining and production tool.

 But there’s a little glimmer of resistance in some of the suggestions on forms of learning, isn’t there?

Yes, definitely for the learning methods. The suggestions ranged from collaborative learning, via teacher-feedback sessions to underwater schools. There was a lot of very exciting content, too, for example, the desire for logic or first aid classes. Some things, on the other hand, seemed more backward looking to me, especially when it came to dealing with other cultures. The desire for “intercultural understanding” or “international learning” reminded me a little of the slogans of the 1980s and 1990s. But there were also very practical approaches on this topic which came from German schools abroad: German students from Barranquilla, for example, sent proposals for a school bus that would drive through the villages as a mobile learning opportunity. On the other hand, I wasn’t so convinced by the idea of combat drones flying over schools to guarantee safety.

 Some of the ideas are so realistic that they could be implemented immediately, at least at individual schools.

That’s true; one school even wants to include the architectural proposal of a student group in the construction of new buildings. And even on a small scale, more participation could work well: anti-bullying projects, vegetable gardens in schools, taking on more social responsibility in the school environment. Perhaps the most urgent wish of many participants, however, shows where the basic problems lie: Many students simply want clean toilets.

 What’s your assessment of the sustainability of the competition going forward?

I’m not sure about the political emanations. Many of the contents addressed by the students continue to be largely ignored in the media. And we still aren’t widely discussing how we can overcome a school system and everyday school life that are still shaped by the Prussian structures of the nineteenth century. We have to talk about that. About understanding hierarchies, children’s rights in the basic law and rigid systems which need to be fundamentally changed in order to allow students to really become co-determiners. This competition is definitely a start. Just being asked how they themselves imagine school could have lasting effects on many participants.

Translation: Faith Ann Gibson

* Editor’s comment: In 2001 and 2011, the British newspaper the Guardian published two “Children’s Manifestos” which emerged from two The School I’d Like competitions. The competitions were based on the forerunner Do you like your School? from the 1960s, which the Guardian also covered. The concept for the most recent competitions was adopted and developed by HKW with the kind permission of Dea Birkett.