Regional Consultation for the UN Study on Violence Against Children
. 5 - 7 July 2005 Ljubljana, Slovenia  
Europe and Central Asia






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School pupils, agents of democracy in their schools


After a long period as mere passive subjects of education, pupils have now become agents in their own schooling. Their participation helps them to learn about democracy and to become responsible and active citizens.

Dr Karlheinz Dürr, head of the European section of the Institute for Civic Education of the State of Baden-Württemberg (Germany), concludes his study of schools as communities for democratic learning by expressing his belief that people are not predestined by nature to become good democrats, and children do not automatically become good citizens. Democracy has to be learned, a process which is possible, in his view.

A wide-ranging debate is going on worldwide, not just in Europe, about the education system in modern democratic societies, its teaching and learning methods and its role in the training of future citizens capable of asserting their own rights and of playing an active part in society.

Concern about this, in a world of globalisation and developing new technologies, is expressed by the highest international bodies. The European Union's Amsterdam Treaty, for instance, sets as one of its own targets that of developing "active citizenship", by encouraging not only formal citizenship, but also active participation by all. In this respect, the European Commission emphasises that “action in the field of education, training and youth offers a privileged vehicle for the promotion of active participation in Europe’s rich diversity of cultures…”.

Restricted for too long to a historical and theoretical study of forms of government, the teaching of democracy must benefit from this new approach. While there does now seem to be a consensus about the need to learn democracy, the role of the school is still a subject of discussion. Many people say that too much is expected of the education system alone, for it cannot by itself provide full training for future citizens as well as performing its conventional teaching function.

Today's school system is overburdened with tasks no longer carried out by other agencies, such as churches or youth organisations. Furthermore, some parents have abdicated their role in social education, preferring to rely solely on the school system. The debate clearly shows the need for a clear definition of the school's role. While this is vitally important for all societies, it is even more crucial for the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe which are members of the Council of Europe. The shift from an authoritarian system to democracy remains a critical stage both for the nations concerned and for their young people.

The holding of this debate on the school's place in the learning of democracy must not, however, conceal the general agreement reached about the substance of the issue. This represents a radical change to the practices which came down to us from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Children, who once tended to be passive pupils, have become agents of their own education, playing a part in the life of their class and holding a constructive and open dialogue with their teachers.

One of the earliest examples came from Summerhill, a British school which opened as early as 1921. Its pupils were the first to be allowed to have their say, not only about the way in which their schooling was organised, but also about the life of the school. At the time, Summerhill was criticised for its lax approach, although the school had more than 200 rules, far more than most conventional schools. The difference was that these rules had been drawn up by mutual consent between the children and the teaching staff.

This innovative approach has subsequently become an international standard thanks to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by all UN members except Somalia and the United States. Article 12 of the Convention states that children have a right to participate in the taking of decisions on all matters affecting them.

This principle is now complied with, to varying degrees, in all Council of Europe member states, with the exception of the Russian Federation, where no nationwide measures exist yet, although several regions have taken the initiative of developing this kind of approach. Contrasting situations exist in the countries of Europe, with some countries, such as Spain, enshrining the principle of pupil and parent participation in their constitutions. Greece has legislation on the subject, whereas other countries take the path of issuing circulars or recommendations.

The principle that children should participate democratically in decisions concerning them taken at their schools is now established. It is part of the training of future citizens aware of their rights and responsibilities and able to play an active role, both in their school life and in the future.


For more information:

Council of Europe
Cathie Burton
Press Officer
Council of Europe
Strasbourg , France
Tel.: +33 3 88 41 28 93. Mobile: +33 685 11 64 93