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The Rise and Fall of Freedom in Education in the 1960s and ‘70s

A new book shows how one public school survived forces against freedom.

Artwood Press, cover publicly available
Source: Artwood Press, cover publicly available

In 1968, a government-appointed committee in Ontario, Canada, published a glossy book-length report entitled Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario. The report was the product of three years of research by a committee of establishment figures from various walks of life, headed by Emmett Hall, who was Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and Lloyd Dennis, a school principal. The report was called the Hall-Dennis Report, after the co-chairs. I learned about it recently from a new book, by Deb O’Rourke, titled Can This Be school? Fifty Years of Democracy at ALPHA, about which I will say more shortly.

The Hall-Dennis Report and Founding of ALPHA

The Hall-Dennis report was highly critical of existing, conventional schooling, as illustrated by the following passage from it (quoted by O’Rourke, pp 60-61):

“Basically, the school’s learning experiences are imposed, involuntary, structured. The pupil becomes a captive audience from the day of entry. His hours are regulated; his movements in the building and within the classroom are controlled; his right to speak out freely is curtailed. He is subject to countless restrictions about the days to attend, hours to fill, when to talk, where to sit, length of teaching periods, and countless other rules.”

Wow. This, from a committee headed by a Canadian Supreme Court justice! As I noted in a review of O’Rourke’s book (published in the journal Other Education, here), I can’t help but wonder if Justice Hall ever considered that coercive schooling, as practiced in essentially all public schools, might be declared unconstitutional for its violation of human rights. (I have often thought that someone or some organization should take public schooling to court on those grounds, but that’s another essay.)

The report went on to outline a set of truly radical recommendations for changes in schools, which, if instituted, would turn them upside down, making children rulers of their own learning rather than subjects of authoritarian command. The recommendations included (from O’Rourke, pp. 61-62) elimination of “lock-step systems of organizing pupils, such as grades, streams, programs, etc.”; removal of “barriers based on age, freeing children to engage any subject on any level where it interested them;” and abandoning “the use of class standing, percentage marks, and letter grades in favor of parent and pupil counseling as a method of reporting individual progress.”

This report, along with the general spirit of support for revolutionary change that characterized the 1960s and early ‘70s in North America, spurred the founding, in 1972, of ALPHA, a public elementary school in Toronto that was completely in keeping with the Hall-Dennis recommendations. The Toronto and Ontario school authorities clearly backed this new school, which could be seen as a test run for a new conception of public schooling that might lead ultimately to system-wide change.

The Social-Political Winds that Made ALPHA Possible

The period from 1960 to the early ‘70s was for many in North America a time of revolt against the status quo. Anti-war, civil rights, anti-greed, pro-environment, and back-to-nature movements were in full swing. One part of this was a movement for the liberation of children from coercive schooling.

A major trigger for the children’s liberation movement was A.S. Neill’s book Summerhill, a collection of essays about his boarding school in England, where students were not forced to take classes, were not evaluated academically, and were largely free to take charge of their own activities. The book hit an American audience at just the right time, when the social climate was ready for it.

Within a decade of its publication, the book had sold over three million copies and was reported to be assigned reading in approximately 600 university courses (Miller, 2002). You couldn’t be a student working for an education degree without knowing about Summerhill and spending at least some time thinking about how to free children to learn in their own natural ways. The period from 1960 and 1972 was also a period when Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, and others published powerful, convincing books about the harm of coercive schooling and the benefits of freedom for children. Freedom was in the air.

In response to all this, little “free schools,” as they were called, began sprouting up throughout North America. These were schools that allowed children to play and explore in their own chosen ways, with no imposed curriculum or testing. By 1971, 320 such schools were listed in the New Schools Directory (Hausman, 1998), and nobody knows how many others there were that weren't listed. During those years, even some public schools began experimenting with freedom in education, opening alternative schools and “schools within schools” that allowed students far greater control of their own education than had been available before. This was the climate in which the Hall-Dennis Report occurred and in which ALPHA was founded.

The Winds Changed, from Freedom to the Opposite, yet ALPHA Survived

The free-school movement, as a movement, was short-lived. By 1980 most of the private free schools and experimental public schools were gone (I explain exceptions in my review of O’Rourke’s book). The schools failed for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with quality of education. They failed as institutions because they were financially unstable (in the case of the private schools), did not establish clear decision-making procedures, and founders and parents often disagreed in ways that resulted in irresolvable conflicts (Gray, 2017).

Moreover, and more significant, the movement supporting them died out as the social and political winds changed at the end of the 1970s, blowing back in a conservative, authoritarian direction. From about 1980 until today, public schools have become ever more autocratic, ever more restrictive of children’s freedom, ever more wasteful of children’s time (here). Public school policies now are driven by concern for test scores, not by concern for children’s happiness or even by concern for education in any true sense of the meaning of education.

O’Rourke’s book tells the story of how ALPHA has managed to survive and remain strong despite the shift in winds. It has had to compromise some, to meet the demands of the Toronto and Ontario education bureaucracies, but, by constant fighting against new restrictions it has managed to remain a school where students have a strong voice in creating and enforcing school rules and are far freer to choose their own educational paths than is true in other public schools.

If you are interested in improving children’s schooling experiences, I strongly recommend O’Rourke’s book. It is not just a story about a single public school in Toronto. It is a story about societal changes over the past fifty years that have worked against freedom, especially for children in school.


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Hausman, T. (1998) A history of the free school movement. Thesis, Department of Education, Brown University.

Gray, P. (2017). Self-directed education—unschooling and democratic schooling. In G. Noblit (Ed.), Oxford research encyclopedia of education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, R. (2002). Free schools, free people: Education and democracy after the 1960s. Albany: State University of NY Press.

O’Rourke, D. (2022). Can this be school? Fifty years of democracy at ALPHA. Atword Press.