LEARNING SPECIAL EDITION
How to make an informed choice about education writes Naomi Fisher
FROM THE MOMENT A BABY IS born, we make choices on their behalf. Cloth or disposable, sling or buggy, co-sleeping or crib – never have we had so much power over someone else’s life experiences. And whilst there’s a bewildering array of experts telling us which choices are the ‘right’ ones, the diversity of parenting styles I see around me suggests that any claim to have the definitive answer is likely to be suspect. By the time it gets to education, a few short years later, the choices are far less diverse. School is seen as inevitable, with many not even realising that there are other ways to receive an education. Even when parents do choose, it tends to be between different types of schools all of which accept core assumptions such as the need for age-based classes and a standardised curriculum, whether it be based on the National Curriculum, Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner.
Making different choices However, a few parents make the radical choice to not ‘school’ their kids at all. Not only do they not send them to school, they don’t teach them at home either. How and why do they decide this? This choice is something which Rebecca English (Queensland University of Technology) has made the focus of her research. Her interviews with parents indicate that their educational choices are tied closely to their philosophy of parenting. They believe that unschooling is the best option for their child, just as strongly as parents who send their children to elite schools believe that this is the best option for them.
Where unschooling parents were
ʻTrusting ourselves and our children is fundamental to this philosophy, something that schools undermine with their focus on grades and assessmentsʼ
different to other parents was that their choice was based on theory. The research that most parents do into education involves visiting schools, checking the league tables and perhaps reading about different types of schools. Unschooling parents were the only research participants who asked if English had read any educational and parenting theorists (mostly citing Holt, Illich, Kohn, Liedloff, Bowlby & Ainsworth and Sears) and who referred to these as some of the reasons why they had made their choices.
English explained to me, “My hypothesis is always that you can’t understand a school (or home education) choice without understanding what parents believe good mothers (and, research says it’s principally mothers) do and how they educate.”
For most parents, good parenting involves supporting your child through school and helping them with their homework. What happens to someone’s understanding of good parenting which leads them to diverge so much from the mainstream as to choose unschooling?
English’s research gives us some clues. She explained how, of the unschooling parents she talked to, “Many of them are ‘damaged’ by unhappy childhoods and suffered dreadful school experiences/memories. Many of those experiences were as a student but also as a teacher. I met a lot of lapsed teachers on my journey and heard the sentence, ‘after what I saw, I couldn’t do that to my child,’ more times than I could count”.
From Packing Books to Trusting Children Pat Farenga knows the exact moment when things changed for him. After college, he trained to be an English teacher, but was initially unable to get a job. He ended up working at Holt Associates, where he packed books for John Holt, author of many seminal books on unschooling. One evening in the office he met Holt himself.
“Holt looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to be? You don’t want to be packing books here for the rest of your life’. I said I wanted to be a teacher. And he asked why? I told him I liked working with children. He said, ‘You’re not going to work with children, you’re going to work on children.’ I got offended, what do you mean, it’s a respected profession!” Pat Farenga never did start teaching. Holt recommended that he read some books, he did. He also reflected on his own experiences of education, the good and the bad. By the time his three daughters came along, he had convinced his initially sceptical wife and they unschooled them. He has spent his career talking and writing about unschooling. He told me how he thinks we are pressured into thinking we need school, teaching and specialisation – and that we need to pay for it.
“School creates these hierarchies that we all buy into. Now it’s computer science and STEM, it’s become this idea of specialisation that has really taken a hold on us, particularly in the last 15 years with technological advances in our society. The system says it takes four years to learn computer science and that’s nonsense, some people learn really quickly and others don’t, they need more than four years. So the system hasn’t changed. In fact they’ve made it more rigid, and we’re feeling that pressure… We have this situation where we push and shame people into choosing the >
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2019 thegreenparent.co.uk