A List of the 5 Democratic Schools in New Zealand, Aotearoa

the forest school

The Forest School


605 Hibiscus Coast Highway
Hatfields Beach

” The Forest School instills a love of learning through play, discovery and curiosity in the natural world, fostering a connection with and love for the environment.

We provide opportunities for children to take supported risks so that they build resilience and confidence in their abilities.

Children are taught how to think, not what to think and are encouraged to be imaginative people who are great at problem solving.

We believe that these important life skills empower children to become happy and relatable people who are confident to ask the big questions:

Who am I? What am I capable of? Where do I fit? What is my purpose?

We help children figure out what they like, what they’re good at and understand that they have enormous potential. We help them find their reason to learn.

Finding the answers to these big questions is the fundamental purpose of education.

Children then feel confident about who they are and who they can be in this world (The Forest School website)”

* One day school (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) 9am – 3pm
* 5 day Holiday Programmes 9am – 3pm
* Follows New Zealand State Primary School Term

5 – 12 years





Awataha Marae
58 Akoranga Drive

“Ako is a provisionally registered, full primary school that provides tamariki between 5-11 years with a learning space, as an alternative to traditional schools. Ako is play-based, child-led, passion-driven, and outdoor-centered.

Our philosophy is based on leading-edge research from the areas of brain development, creativity, child psychology and parenting. Ako provides children with an education ideal for their brain development and overall health and well-being (Ako website).”

Monday – Friday 10am – 3 pm.
These times follow the Finnish system of 5 hours of learning per day.
A teacher is there from 9am if you need to drop your child then.
Follows New Zealand State Primary School Term

5 – 11 years


ao tawhiti.jpg

Ao Tawhiti School


Years 0 to 6 – Discovery Campus
90 McMahon Drive
Christchurch 8025

Years 7 to 13 – Unlimited Campus
Wairarapa Block
University of Canterbury
Cnr Parkstone Ave & Oak Drive
Christchurch 8041

“Every student at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery develops an Individual Education Plan. This plan forms the basis of how and what they will learn. The IEP is usually set and reviewed at an Individual Education Meeting (IEM). The IEM allows the student, their family, and their homebase learning advisor, to share their thoughts, challenges and goals. These could be short term or long term. This meeting is not simply a course selection meeting. The meeting takes a holistic approach to finding the best way to let you follow your passions, your interests and your needs.

The New Zealand Curriculum informs everything we do at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery. It is woven into all of our offered courses as well as built into our student’s personal inquiries and projects.

All of our students are tracked against the NZC, their own personal learning outcomes, as well as NCEA. Students do not have to follow prescribed assessment routes at our school. Instead students can work at whichever level of the curriculum that best serves their current needs. Our desire to have all students take an active part their learning, also provides regular opportunities for our students to assess themselves against their own outcomes. All of this information is used to help create the best learning plan for you. You don’t need to prove yourself at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery before you can do it, and we’ll never treat you like a year level. We recognise that every student has different strengths and weaknesses, and use this information to make a programme that is uniquely yours.

From Y1 to Y13 you can expect to find learning advisors “teaching” courses. Many people have a view that a personalised programme cannot include structured classes – and are often surprised to see that we have them. These courses provide our students the opportunity to work with learning advisors working in the areas they are genuinely passionate about. Our LAs are able to plan programmes of learning that help students connect with their subject area. You’ll find that our programmes are as different as the LAs who plan and deliver them. This provides our students with a range of ways to access the curriculum. All of our courses run in 5 week (half term) blocks. This allows our students the chance to make a change without fear of reprisal for having started mid term or mid year. With that said, most of our senior students tend to take a course for the entire year. Our structures are flexible enough to allow our LAs to respond to student requests for courses. If there is enough interest you may be able to get something onto the schedule that isn’t there yet.

Our students are encouraged to develop and engage with their own learning programmes. Our students do not have to follow the class route to obtain their qualifications or aspirations. If you’re passionate about something, willing to make a plan and have the persistence to follow wherever your learning will take you, then you can make it happen. In the past students have created their own learning opportunities by developing their own businesses, building a personal inquiry, teaching other students a skill, or doing what they love all day every day. There are no limits to what you could do at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery. It’s all your time as long as it’s learning time (Ao Tawhiti’s website).”

School Years 0 – 13
Monday – Friday 9am – 3pm
Follows New Zealand State Primary School Term

5 years till school leaving i.e. 17 years/18 years


Tamariki School


86 St Johns Street

“Our Special Character is officially defined as…

Providing an education along the lines of the principles developed by A.S. Neill, the essential elements of which are:

  • A value for emotional, physical, spiritual and social, as well as intellectual, development.
  • A value for group involvement.
  • A value for trust, co-operation and emotional health.
  • A respect for individual learning rates and patterns.

There are eight main areas of emphasis:

  1. Emotional and social growth are regarded as the base for cognitive development, and strategies which support these growths have priorities over all other activities. Tamariki operates in many ways more like an extended family, offering support and encouragement to all its members. It seeks homeliness and limits its numbers to sixty so that all members may know everyone else. Children mix freely irrespective of their age or gender.
  2. The school values and works to achieve close relationships between teachers and children, children and children, and parents and teachers. These are based on trust, and we accept that children may need to test the reliability of teachers before learning takes place. Teachers are expected to be emotionally nurturing of the children, willing to cuddle them and to accept as natural a child’s need for physical contact. Teachers are also expected to physically restrain and hold a child when appropriate.
  3. The children are deeply involved in creating and maintaining the social structures by which the school functions. This involves rule-making and dispute resolution through the mechanism of whole school and small meetings, which, when called take priority over all other activities. The school rejects punishments as a source of control or as a response to inappropriate behaviour.
  4. The child’s learning is to a very great extent under the child’s own control. In this way children can genuinely advance at their own pace in response to their unique developmental sequence. Attendance at classes is generally voluntary, and exceptions must be justified. Such justification would normally be that the child is afraid of taking the risk of failing and compulsion would be applied for a limited period mutually agreed, to carry the child over the risk period. Mistakes are regarded as important learning information and public grading is NEVER done. The child’s learning belongs to the child, therefore the child is responsible to itself for this learning—a teacher can assist and support, but is not responsible for the outcomes chosen by the child. No adult has the right to demand to see the child’s work and such access is always under the child’s control. There are no class stratifications until the child enters Year 7. Children always work at their individual level of competence.
  5. The children are encouraged at all times in all areas to compare their work and skills with their own previous achievements and their own goalsSelf-examination is constantly fostered, and the capacity to use a skill and to generalise from it, is taken as demonstrating possession of that skill. The focus of teaching strategies is to acknowledge and support what children do well, and use these strengths in areas of weakness. We reject norm-referenced tests and examinations as incompatible with our emphasis on the individual. However, private assessments are seen as being useful at times. Competition is not regarded as a desirable learning activity.
  6. Play is regarded as children’s work. By playing with ideas and objects they develop functioning cognitions about their world. The children may and do use all the materials in the school for their own purposes. We require an environment in which unstructured play freely occurs, with access to trees, sand, water, mud and junk materials. We also respect the child’s need at times to be still and quiet.
  7. The children have a very large measure of control over the environment and the adults in the school recognise the environment as a most important resource for children’s development in all areas. Accordingly, they will defer their need for an orderly and tidy environment to the child’s need to experience cause and effect; to experience why order and tidiness are desirable. The school values and fosters a child’s full and committed engagement in any activity and this engagement can be inhibited by a concern about mess, so we accept that mess may be created at times.
  8. Parents are welcome in the school, have unrestricted all-day access, and are not required to fill any particular role. In keeping with the school’s function as an extension of the family, pre-school siblings are welcome and enjoyed by the children (Tamariki website).”

School Years 1 – 8
Monday – Friday 9am – 3pm
Follows New Zealand State Primary School Term

5 – 12 years


Deep Green Bush School



“This is what sets us apart:

  • Social and Emotional Intelligence – Social and emotional intelligence is the foundation for all learning. Social and emotional intelligence cannot be taught in a classroom; it can only be nurtured through a healthy environment that humans are suited to: through freedom in nature, the freedom to socialise and play with youth of mixed ages, and the freedom to take risks. It results in youth who are confident, creative, empathetic, intrinsically motivated and who are able to cooperate with others. It is the key to living a satisfying and meaningful life.
  • Ecological Literacy After social and emotional intelligence, there is nothing more important than youth with ecological literacy.  It means knowing how to live in a way which sustains life.  It means knowing how to live within the Earth’s limits.  It means living based on the recognition that all life is interconnected and that humans are not superior to any other life form. Every sustainable society that has ever existed has been one based on ecological literacy – also known as traditional indigenous knowledge.
  • Fearless Intelligence  (i.e., genuine critical thinking) The DGBS is aimed at raising youth who will have a deep understanding of the world around them and will be able to think for themselves, without the insecurity of needing to “follow the herd”. They will be able to judge whether university is the right choice, and how to make the most of their one life. This is nurtured through our Talking Circles, Warrior Council, and modeled by staff.
  • Evolutionary Education – The DGBS is the form of education appropriate for our species. Most of us would readily admit that the African savannah is the species-appropriate place for an elephant or lion – rather than a zoo, just as we know that breastfeeding is the species appropriate and only healthy way to feed human babies, rather than factory-produced infant ‘formula’. In the same way, a classroom contradicts two million years of human evolution and thousands of years of indigenous cultures. The DGBS is based on evolution, not on what a handful of factory owners invented 150 years ago.

  • Academics when ready – Children will naturally be drawn to learning what is culturally important and relevant to their lives. The crucial point is to wait until a young person is ready, otherwise we risk disrupting their natural development and causing long-term damage. Since humans are not robots, we all are ready at different points in our lives. Parents must be patient and trust that their kids will be ready in their own time.  Once students are ready we will nurture their academic abilities, including in literacy and numeracy.


  • Maturity, Wisdom and Responsibility – The only meaningful and healthy form of education must be one that instills a sense of ecological responsibility and social responsibility. The essence of the DGBS is to raise youth who have a strong sense of what is healthy and what is not – and who are prepared to do something about it.
  • Free from Modern Technology – The DGBS is here to raise humans, not machines.  We are here to nurture intelligence, not weaken it.  The more we use machines, the more we turn into machines, and the more we dumb ourselves down.   Every time we use a computer, we weaken our emotional intelligence and weaken our humanity. Furthermore, no modern gadget is possible without mining, factories, toxic pollution, oil wars and the destruction of communities around the world. In order to make or defend modern technology, we first have to surrender all maturity, wisdom and responsibility. On the other hand, the DGBS fully promotes democratic and sustainable technologies. 
  • Democratic decision-making  If you want to live in a democracy, then youth must practice it.  At the DGBS youth learn the responsibility inherent in freedom and demonstrate how well people can manage themselves through democratic decision-making. Ourprocess is a bush adaptation of the Sudbury Valley School model – featuring a daily Talking Circle, a weekly Bush Council and Peacekeeping Circles when needed. The ultimate aim is for students to run the day-to-day operations of the school.
  • A Culture of Sustainability – Every sustainable society that has ever existed provided a cultural framework for guiding its members to ensure their health and vitality. The Culture of Sustainability is our curriculum document which re-affirms the wisdom and knowledge that is necessary for a healthy world for all children, future generations and all life on Earth (The Deep Bush School website).”
School Years 1 – 13
Monday – Friday

5 years – 17/18 years

“They (the students) catch on when someone acts Teachery.” – Joey (Deep Green Bush School).

What is a Democratic School?

As according to ‘Education Revolution‘…

“There is no monolithic definition of democratic education or democratic schools.

But what we mean here is “education in which young people have the freedom to organise their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults,” as quoted from AERO’s Directory of Democratic Education.

These schools and programs take many forms and include public and private alternatives and homeschool resource centres.”

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

— Sir Ken Robinson

Compiled by Emily with wild & grace


  1. Hi Emily, this is a really useful post. Do you know if there are any new democratic schools to add to this list since you wrote it? Thanks, Kristie

  2. Thanks Emily! Ah I’m familiar with both. I don’t think the Green School is actually democratic…..? But the Nelson School (Aroha Discovery) we will like be attending!

I love reading your comments, kia ora for taking the time to share your thoughts

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