23 September 2013

What's Wrong with School?

Every now and again, someone asks me this question - occasionally in a defensive way, assuming that I will have criticism for their choice to use the school system as part of the education of their own children (I don't - you're you and I'm me, there's no judgement-of-motives coming from this quarter). Sometimes the question is phrased in terms of what the ideal school would or could look like. Sometimes it's curiosity - if I don't send my kids to school, I must think there's something seriously wrong with the system, right?

The primary reason we initially chose not to send our own children to school had nothing to do with any ideas about school. We just saw what was already working so well, and could not bring ourselves to change things without good cause. That good cause didn't materialise for us, so we kept on learning as we were. Jenna was a thriving, curious, interested, articulate, intelligent, sociable little four year old, and we enjoyed having her around so much and being available for her on pretty near a one-to-one basis. Why switch that up for school runs and teaching, unless we could see a benefit for our child or our family in doing so?

It wasn't what we had to fear from school, or thought was bad or wrong with it. Only about the good things we saw already happening in an arrangement where one parent or the other could be available to facilitate full time education in the world outside of school. Mostly so far that has been me, with my husband as the main wage earner, simply because I have frequently been breastfeeding younger siblings. We're not unschoolers out of a hatred of schools and schooling. We're choosing to follow what is good and joyful and working for us.

As Jenna has grown up we have become more sure that school is just not the ideal environment for her, though I've mentioned the compromises often enough (eg that as an extreme extravert it's often tricky to meet her social needs - although I doubt that school would solve that challenge entirely either). Importantly, given the choice, she has rarely had any interest in school. Apart from a brief phase of asking lots of questions about it aged around four to five, she has always stated clearly that she likes being educated outside of school. (When adults quiz her, she tells them that she doesn't want to go to school, because nobody should have to ask *permission* to go to the toilet. I honestly didn't teach her that answer! It came from a certain passionate and unconventional school teacher we know.)

While I do believe that unschooling is a great way to support children to follow the educational path uniquely suited to them, and I do believe it could work for any child, I don't believe it would work for every family. There are plenty of loving, involved families, with literate parents, who would not or could not choose to unschool because they are balancing a different set of family needs to those I am responsible for. There are also those children for whom school is vitally necessary because they *don't* have parents who could or would provide a healthy environment for learning at home.

(In times when I have struggled with depression, I have considered seriously whether our home environment is offering advantages over a school environment or not. This includes talking the situation and our feelings about it over with people outside of the family - one of the hallmarks of depression being that it lies, and the introspection attempted whilst under its influence is rather flawed. I want to state very strongly that parenting when depressed is especially hard work, and home-ed is not the cause, nor the problem, and I'm very grateful to have friends and family around me who don't treat it as such.)

There have been times when it has been a struggle (financially, emotionally) to make that work, and times when I have considered using schools to make our lives balance differently. We have never been on a large income, in fact we have frequently lived on less than benefits. No matter how often I've revisited, we've always ended up adjusting things somehow to make our nest better and more comfortable for everyone rather than opting in to the school system.

Lot of schools are bringing in many things I strongly support, and am pleased to see. Some are using outdoor classrooms, training to offer options like forest schools, and finding other ways to take lessons out of the classroom more often. Some school models I really admire choose to use project-based models. I think for the children and families who need to use the services of public schools, there are some creative and wonderful options.

I know this is a terrible analogy (please forgive me, it will have to serve), but although I don't personally use formula, I want it to be as good as humanly possible, and for the people involved in producing it to genuinely care about and be interested in the people using it, not as a target market to push something on but as real people with needs beyond the minimum that can be given. I feel the same about school. I want the curriculum to be more varied and children and parents to be respected more. If you see me complain about something I see in or about schools, it's not a criticism of *all* schools, of schooled children, or of parents who have children in school. It's just a desire for life to be as good as it can be for every child, for every family. If I'm criticising anything, it's the government wheels that too often grind along the same old tracks.

For me, for our family, I'm happy to be learning the way that we are, and I'm confident that we're making thoughtful choices for good reasons - even if there are *always* compromises. If you feel the same way about your different choices, I'm happy to celebrate with you. :)


  1. Lovely post Sarah. Oscar will be starting primary school next year, and I am happy with my choice, but I am also flexible and if any serious problems arise we will consider the options again. I personally dont feel up to the job of home/un schooling because me health is very unpredictable, but I would consider it again if I felt Oscar was not doing well in mainstream education. I have a 50% success rate to go on with my older 2 children, my son did really great (he is 24 and now at university studying Sports Psychology), and my daughter was let down really badly (now 22 and on JSA after quite a few support for learning programmes came to nothing).

  2. An inspiring post - thank you xx

  3. Very interesting, thank you. I thought about HE with my eldest, but I *need* space away from my children to recharge and be a better parent out of school. F was not ready for school, and struggled (not least because she has poor eyesight) until she got glasses when she vastly improved. E on the other hand, needs school. She's very bright and needs more stimulation than I can give her at home. As they get older things may change, but I just try to do the best for my family at that moment in time :)

  4. It is always so interesting to read how people make the decision about their children's education it is as varied as how they actually do it day to day.

    My nephews attended a wonderful school where every subject is taught through projects if it was my local school I know I would jump at the chance of my children attending.

    Thought provoking post, thank you for sharing :)


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