Innovative practice - Power to the people

6th July 2012 at 01:00
Here's a brave idea: why not turn your school into an independent republic with a pupil-led government?

The background

Juan Carlos Navarrete (pictured) saw that many pupils were turned off by traditional teaching techniques, where they were expected to sit quietly while being bombarded by facts.

Navarrete, head and founder of Colegio Cardenal de Cracovia in Santiago, Chile, realised that his teachers' lessons could often be boring, and that they moved from one subject to another without investing in either their pupils or the quality of their own teaching.

So he decided to try to energise and engage pupils with an agile, dynamic and interactive curriculum, and at the same time create a caring environment where everyone could discover their own potential and feel like they belonged to the school.

The project

Navarrete held a referendum for pupils, parents, and teachers on whether Colegio Cardenal de Cracovia should become an "independent republic". It passed with 87 per cent of the vote.

So the school was reorganised as "Karol World", named after the late Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), who was cardinal of Krakow before becoming pontiff.

It has a political constitution, directly elected president, a cabinet and a range of government departments run by pupils, including a department of health and a department of education.

Pupils vote to elect a president and candidates must fulfil certain criteria, such as good school attendance, in order to run for office. The constitution puts an emphasis on people, stressing freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination. Classes represent smaller communities within the republic, each with its own administration and departments, within which pupils are elected to fulfil various roles as ministers and representatives.

The symbolic ministry of justice, court and police force are run jointly by staff and pupils, with "trials" held to decide sanctions for bad behaviour. There is even a school bank and a currency that can be exchanged for rewards as an incentive for pupils.

The sense of nationhood is enhanced by other aspects, such as national symbols and colours (everything from desks and folders to artwork is purple), national holidays, such as Karolween instead of Halloween, and independent media, including a popular radio show.

Evidence that it works?

The school environment has totally changed. Pupils report that they feel listened to and that their opinions are taken into account thanks to the improved communication with staff.

In 2008 Chile's leading newspaper, El Mercurio, highlighted the school as one of 50 "exemplars of education". In 2011 it was recognised by the Chilean education organisation Educacion 2020 as one of the country's leaders of innovation in education. It has also been highlighted as an example of best practice by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"When we are able to create a different environment, with strong and caring relationships, we start to see happy students, children who did not dream before but now they are projecting themselves," Navarrete says. "Each student has to discover their own potential and be happy."

The school was also highlighted by the UK's Innovation Unit as one of its 10 schools for the 21st century (

The project

Approach: Running a school as a republic

Leader: Headteacher Juan Carlos Navarrete

The school

Name: Colegio Cardenal de Cracovia

Location: Santiago, Chile

Pupils: 926

Age range: 4-11

Intake: The school serves an area of high deprivation with high rates of unemployment and drug problems.

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