Parent Voice 5

Sarah – Ex-Teacher and Unschooling Mum

Sarah is a mum of two children, aged 12 and 13 who are home educated. She has chosen to take the ‘unschooling’ approach.

She had a gut instinct that school wouldn’t be a good fit for either of her children. Having been a primary school teacher, she felt passionately that we start the teaching of academics too young in the UK.

Sarah wanted her children to come to things like reading and writing when they were developmentally ready and willing.

She also felt strongly that her children would benefit from free movement in the outdoors in their early years, rather than being “tied to a desk”.

What does ‘unschooling’ mean to you?

Essentially it means that education is consent based and curiosity led. Our children decide what, how and with whom they learn.

Learning in our family is a partnership; as parents, we give them all the help and support they need by ensuring they have access to a range of resources, and people to model a variety of skills and knowledge.

What ‘unschooling’ looks like in our family has evolved over time. In their early years they played non-stop and they would wake up each morning and just carry on where they’d left off the previous day. Our days were filled with painting, teddies, cooking, swimming and running around the woods with friends. We also spent huge chunks of each day sharing books together.

Our days look quite different now.  The beauty of unschooling is that you can adapt and change things as your children grow. Each child has very differing preferences for how they learn best and I love the opportunity that unschooling gives us to really personalise their education.

My 13-year old likes her learning to be quite structured these days and has chosen to start studying a few GCSEs. She is doing this in a variety of ways to suit her particular learning needs and with a self-chosen goal in mind. Unlike in school, it isn’t all-consuming. She also has a weekend job and continues with a wide variety of interests outside of her more structured studies.

My 12-year old continues to learn best by experiencing all aspects of life in a hands-on and immersive way.

Both children attend a variety of home education groups, some of which we have been attending for many years. They have gained many long-term friendships. They also play out in our locality and have made solid friendships with local children.

Have your children ever been to school?

Yes, my daughter tried school in Year 6 at the age of ten for 5 months. There were pro’s and con’s but overall it was a disappointing experience for her, and she chose to continue being home educated.

Are there any misconceptions about unschooling and home education that you would like to challenge?

There are lots of misconceptions about an ‘unschooling’ ethos specifically, mainly that it equals ‘passive parenting’. This could not be further from the truth since it requires a higher level of interaction and connection with children, but in a supportive rather than controlling role.

Unschooling is not freedom to do whatever you want; instead it means respecting the personal boundaries of those around you. It guides you to listen to your gut instinct and find inner order rather than being outwardly controlled by any random authority. Family principles and values take the place of arbitrary rules, and love and caring are central aims.

For home educators in general, the obvious myth is that of ‘poor socialisation’. Where we live, there is a huge home education network, with a multitude of groups to attend with other families. We are also immersed in our community and wider family, so opportunities for socialisation are just an organic part of a healthy, connected lifestyle. It is also a more natural way to socialise, because in school, you are forced into the company of lots of other people all day, every day.

In your opinion what are the main challenges of our current school system?

I think an education system should be a place where any child can thrive and feel supported, otherwise it’s not fit for purpose. The rising number of home educators is an indicator of a system which is not inclusive; a system which appears to be alienating many of our more neuro-diverse and creative children.

I believe that our education system in the UK is overly dominated by the acquisition of very narrow academic knowledge. It side-lines creative thinking, problem solving and real-life skills. It is focused on learning in a competitive environment, pitting each child against the other and disregarding their mental health.

We desperately need an educational model that fosters a love and connection with nature; children need lots of free time in wild spaces. School is essentially a lot of time indoors, sitting at a desk, but it’s not who we are as humans. We are an integral part of nature, and, currently, our schooling system intensifies our alienation from it. I find that very sad.

The UK education system is a post-code lottery too. The difference between schools in various areas is quite stark.

What are state schools doing well?

I believe we have many passionate and skilled teachers and I would love to see them supported better, not just with more funding, but more autonomy.

What changes would you need to see before you considered school as an option?

I asked my children this question, as (hypothetically) they would be the most affected:

‘L’ aged 13, said:

Less hours, including a later start to the day…being able to choose lessons to go to…3-4 days a week maximum.”

‘T’ aged 12, said:

“More playtimes or being able to play when you want. Also, I would want to be able to eat and drink when I wanted to.”

Overall, we would want more flexibility and choice, and personally I would want the school to have a much more nurtured environment with a whole-school democratic decision-making style where the children had their voice and rights respected.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Home educating is just life; there will be fantastic times and there will be challenges, but the key is that you are supporting each other and facing any difficulties as a team. Trusting your child and indeed the process itself is vital. Just keep being open-minded and flexible and most of all, observe your child, because that’s where many of the answers will lie, rather than in other people’s opinions.