The decision to take my daughter out of school was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever made, one that I spent over a year researching to help underpin my understanding and ensure it was the right thing to do.
I’m a big fan of Ken Robinson and his Ted talks, especially the one about How schools kill creativity, I read Peter Grays Free to Learn book in which he talks about the origins of play and how as a result of children’s lack of free play, childhood depression has risen. He offers an alternative to the current education system and highlights that “The human brain has evolved to develop and be educated in an atmosphere of freedom and trust, and that self-education through play and exploration, requires enormous amounts of unscheduled time – time to do whatever one wants to do, without pressure, judgement, or intrusion from authority figures. That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, experience and overcome boredom, learn from one’s own mistakes, and develop passions” (Peter Gray) The Sudbury Valley model of education is one where children are given the freedom to educate themselves, “they believe strongly that children learn best on their own initiative, through their own self-chosen and self-directed means, and that the best way to help children learn is to leave them alone except when a child asks for help or advice. And even then, they believe, the help or advice should be limited to what has been requested, not more.” ( )
This is something that resonated with me a great deal as we follow the child led approach within our nursery and have seen the difference this has made to the children. This got me thinking that if it works so well for young children why should it not for older. I look at our current education system and how tested our children are and I looked at the emotional well-being of my own child and questioned what it was doing to her. We would have tears and tantrums most mornings, and trying to get us both ready and out of the house was very stressful. I would finish work in the evening and we would come home, sit down and do homework, most of which I couldn’t help her with. This would lead to more tears and a panic about going into school with homework not done, because if it wasn’t done she would have to stay in at playtime. This made me feel like I was stupid and I’m not, I’m very educated but only in the things I am passionate about, maths is not one of them.
This made me reflect on my own education, I left school with no qualifications and no self esteem as a result of my time in school. It was not until I left that I figured out that I am not an auditory learner, I cannot sit at a desk and take things in, I cannot sit an exam because I struggle under that kind of pressure, for me to learn it has to be experiential. All my college and university courses have been a combination of classroom based learning and then going into settings to put theory and practice together. It was only in my 30’s when I went to university that I was able to find what I was truly passionate about and create a company that allowed me to live my passion everyday. I do not want my daughter to be in her 30’s before she found hers.So I watched where her passions lay outside of school, computers is one of them, singing dance and acting are the other things she enjoys, she likes to be creative with make up and watches many tutorials on how to do them, none of which are harnessed in school. So at the end of 2014 I began to look at the possibility of pulling her out of school so that she didn’t have to go through the pressure of SAT’s, I wanted to give her her last year of childhood to enjoy being a child.
So with the support of my family and many home-schooling parents at my nursery I made the brave decision to withdraw her from school. This decision however made me extremely anxious, I had many a sleepless nights over whether or not I would be able to manage both running a company and home schooling my child. It is the leap into the unknown, it is going against a system that the majority thinks is the right way to do things. On the day I took her de registration letter into school I was fearful at what the headteacher would say, she rang me later to say she had just received my letter and what sad news. I explained my reasons, that it was not the school but the system. I was not prepared for what she said next. She told me that she thought she was truly blessed to be given such a wonderful opportunity and if I ever needed a key stage 3 teacher, her husband is also so disillusioned with the system. That was the confirmation I needed to ensure I was doing the right thing.
Initially it was a challenge whilst I found a routine for us both, I am very fortunate to have staff I trust explicitly to run my company in my absence. We don’t open Mondays so we have that time together to do things together, what has been nice is that instead of just visiting places that we have been to before, we have really taken the time to read all the information and I have been able to extend her knowledge and mine in the process. She also does dance on a Monday night.
She then wrote about this in her English journal as a news story. Her task was to write a news article and use columns, headings, a byline, direct speech, reported speech and a photo with captions, a fact and an opinion. This was the first time she had been enthusiastic about writing since she left school.
We went to the museum and looked at what is happening to the planet and what we can do to help, we talked about the impact humans are having on the planet and what it is doing to nature and wildlife. This was a very deep conversation we had and one which made her quite upset and fearful about what is happening. So we talked about a few things that we can do to help and the small things we could do to help like recycle and always turning electrical items off when they are not being used and looking after nature.
We’ve been back a few times as each visit we have concentrated on one or two floors, this has definitely helped me as a mum as I have felt like the two of us are really learning together; which has allowed for deeper more meaningful conversations. Whenever she came out of school and I’d ask what she had learnt that day, she replied “Nothing, just boring literacy and numeracy”.
Tuesday she has been learning about business and how to attend to the needs of my clients, like asking who would like teas and coffees, making tally charts, boiling the water on a Kelly kettle,making the drinks and handing them out. She was always very shy around adults, so I wanted to enable her to grow in this area. She has also spent time in the nursery with the children and has proven to be a natural with them, the children gravitate towards her and she has grown in confidence, especially reading stories to them. On a Wednesday morning one of my nursery mums who used to be a teacher, teaches her English and keeps her knowledge up to date.
Wednesday nights she does Musical Theatre at Edge Hill so she can pursue her passion of singing and acting. Thursday she goes to another home educated mum who helps discuss PSE, she may do craft work but mainly she creates her movies on her iMac. This has been the biggest progression for her, she can now edit, animate, script and use green screen so that she can create her own movies. To help her develop her ICT skills I found her a week long course during half term that was specifically for making a movie production based around online safety, we have also found out that she can access free courses at the apple store in town. To help develop her cooking skills she created her own youtube channel and has started uploading her own PKU cookery videos, she’s been reading the instructions and measuring out her ingredients and baking her own food. In a few weeks business will take me to Sweden to look at the Outdoor Kindergartens over there, I had worried about whether such an opportunity would be possible, but because she is not in school, she is going to spend the week with my Spanish friends and learn how to speak the language. An opportunity she wouldn’t get if she was in school.
Sudbury Valley stated that children learn best on their own initiative, through their own self-chosen and self-directed means and watching my own daughters journey has underpinned my beliefs in how children should learn. Our journey has not been without challenge, but what I have got in return is a child I have never known. There were times when I did not enjoy being a mum because our family home was a place of stress and unhappiness. I hadn’t realised how much her school life had impacted on our mental health and wellbeing, and our relationship as mother and daughter. We have been removed from a system, one that you do not realise has such a tight control around your whole life. I remember watching Downton Abbey a few years ago in which Maggie Smith said “A weekend, what is a weekend”, this is exactly what our life is like now, I don’t work all week to get to the weekend and spend time with her, each day flows into the next. I actually enjoy working weekends now because I don’t feel like I’m missing out with her, she spends the week with me and sometimes goes to her dads at the weekend. Our relationship has changed dramatically, we don’t argue anywhere near as much as we did, she is calm, happy, relaxed and has grown a lot in confidence.
I was asked at the beginning of our journey if I would have done it earlier, but it was too early to say. It’s only circumstances that have now allowed for all of this to fall into place, it wouldn’t have been possible before. But knowing now what I do and seeing the difference it has made to her, I may have perhaps made different decisions. We are led to believe that school is the only way that children will learn or get any kind of an education, this is not true. I am not saying that children should not be in school, the current system does work for many, but for the children who are left behind, who think they are failures because they do not do well in tests, for the children who are drugged because they cannot sit still, for the children who like myself need experiential hands on learning, this system does not work.
“The answer is not to standardise education, but to personalise and customise it to the needs of each child and community. There is no alternative. There never was. Education is not a linear process of preparation for the future: it is about cultivating the talents and sensibilities through which we can live our best lives in the present and create the best futures for us all”. (Ken Robinson)