Certain facets of the model separate it from other democratic schools and free schools, although there are evident similarities. One central defining aspect is the non-compulsory nature of the model and the equal, nonjudgmental treatment of all activities (within the bounds of school rules regarding behavior and conduct) which results in a great de-emphasis of classes and other activities normally emphasized for their educational value. This attitude stems from the basic belief of the educational model, that every individual learns what they need to know through life and that there is no need to try and design a curriculum that will prepare a young person for adult life. Another facet that often separates Sudbury model schools from other democratic schools is the limitation — or total absence — of parental involvement in the administration of Sudbury schools. Sudbury schools are run by a democratic School Meeting where the students and staff participate exclusively and equally. Lastly, Sudbury schools do not arbitrarily separate the students into age-groups, emphasizing free age-mixing as a powerful tool for learning and development in all ages.
Although there is currently no official doctrine or association governing a Sudbury school, many schools have independently and voluntarily adopted the title of Sudbury school. The schools maintain good communication with each other, and recognize a loose camaraderie.
All aspects of governing a Sudbury School are ultimately determined by the School Meeting. The weekly agenda may range from changes to the school's rules, to spending money within the budget, to hiring and firing staff. All members present receive an equal vote and most decisions are determined by a majority vote. Students and staff receive equal votes.
Several aspects of running a Sudbury School are often delegated to other parties so that School Meetings do not get bogged down with the minutiae of detail. These may include elected administrative clerks (who may be chosen from staff or students), committees of volunteers, also corporations and cooperatives formed by the School Meeting for a specific area of activity that a group is interested in organizing, such as sports, art or computers.
Usually, there is a set procedure to handle complaints, and most of the schools follow guidelines that respect the idea of due process of law. There will usually be rules requiring an investigation, a hearing, a trial, a sentence, and allowing for an appeal.
Most Sudbury schools have developed a law book that outlines the school's policies that have changed over time. All such laws are subject to School Meeting review, and cover such things as rules regarding safety, personal behavior, and school management.
Sudbury schools adduce age mixing is Sudbury model of democratic education's secret weapon. They affirm it vastly increases the learning power and teaching power at school and it creates a human environment that is vibrant and real. These schools are often compared to villages, where everyone mixes, everyone learns and teaches and models and helps and scolds — and shares in life.
Sudbury model democratic schools assert that there are many ways to study and learn. They argue that learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you; That is true of everyone. It's basic. The experience of Sudbury model democratic schools shows that there are many ways to learn without the intervention of teaching, to say, without the intervention of a teacher being imperative. In the case of reading for instance in the Sudbury model democratic schools some children learn from being read to, memorizing the stories and then ultimately reading them. Others learn from cereal boxes, others from games instructions, others from street signs. Some teach themselves letter sounds, others syllables, others whole words. In a similar form students learn all the subjects, techniques and skills in these schools.
The "teacher" in Sudbury model democratic schools is an adviser just when he is asked for. These schools adduce that there is an inner conflict in us between our wanting to do things for people, to impart our knowledge and to pass on our hard earned wisdom, and the realization that children and young have to do their learning under their own steam and at their own pace. Unfortunately, the more today's schools endeavor to give individual students guidance, the more they harm them. Children and young make vital decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even imagined. This would increase the likelihood of people growing up fulfilling their own unique educational needs.
The thesis of Sudbury model democratic schools is that the process of self direction, or blazing your own way, indeed of living your life rather than passing your time, is natural but not self evident to children growing up in our civilization. To reach that state of mind they need an environment that is like a family, on a larger scale than the nuclear family, but nonetheless supportive and safe. The staff, by being attentive and caring and at the same time not directive and coercive, gives the children the courage and the impetus to listen to their own inner selves. They know that the staff is competent as any adult to guide them, but their refusal to do so is a pedagogical tool actively used to teach them to listen only to themselves and not to others who, at best, know only half the facts about them.
The abstaining of staff in Sudbury model democratic schools from telling students what to do is not perceived by them as a lack of something, an emptiness. Rather it is the impetus for them to forge their own way not under the staff's guidance but under its caring and supportive concern.
Sudbury model democratic schools also adduce that the fact there is individual freedom and age mixing in the school allows for "social learning" and learning through play Both are the result of the free interaction of the members of the school: children, young and adults.
Classes and other planned activities are always voluntary and optional, and may be led by staff or students. Many students may choose never to take a class. The word "class," which is used within many Sudbury model communities, may be misleading — some advocates of the model hold that the term "spontaneous interest group" is more accurate. Often, areas of the school are designated for a particular use, such as an art room, a music room, or a library. Although most areas would normally be free for any students to use, some items or activities may require a student to have completed a certification process to demonstrate their ability to use the item safely. Most of the schools have several certifications, such as to use a sewing machine or wood-working equipment.
Sudbury model democratic schools claim that popularly-based authority can maintain order more effectively than dictatorial authority for governments and schools alike. They also claim that in a Sudbury model democratic school the preservation of public order is easier and more efficient than anywhere else. Primarily because rules and regulations are made by the community as a whole, thence the school atmosphere is one of persuasion and negotiation, rather than confrontation since there is no one to confront. Sudbury model democratic schools experience shows that a school that has good, clear laws, fairly and democratically passed by the entire school community, and a good judicial system for enforcing these laws, is a school in which community discipline prevails, and in which an increasingly sophisticated concept of law and order develops, against other schools today, where rules are arbitrary, authority is absolute, punishment is capricious, and due process of law is unknown.
They emphasize that much more important than the externals of order is the question of the sources of internal discipline: how does a person come to develop the inner strength and character that endows his life with order and coherence, an independent man appropriate to a free republic of co-equal citizens, capable of making decisions within a rational, self-consistent framework -- a person treating and being treated with respect.
Sudbury model democratic schools affirm that the hallmark of the independent man is the ability to bear responsibility and since there is no way of teaching or training another person for self-sufficiency, there is no technique for obtaining or transmitting these traits. Hence, the only way a person becomes responsible for himself is for him to be responsible for himself, with no reservation or qualifications.
Thence a Sudbury model democratic school is structured in such a manner that all the trappings of external support that shore up the weak, all the trappings of external authority that substitute for inner self-direction, all the trappings of external moral pressure that replace the inner moral development and all the well-meaning paraphernalia that enervates and often paralyzes the individual wills of students and teachers alike, are missing. Sudbury model democratic schools assert that in these schools the basic building block is the responsible individual, whose sense of life derives from his overcoming with his own strength the great obstacles, errors and temptations that are strewn in his path, and whose existence is given form by his own creative efforts.