Why we decided on a life without school

I can’t remember the exact moment I realised we weren’t going to utilise school. Probably because it happened gradually. But when you already question the norm in other areas of your life, it just ends up trickling into other decisions.

When I became surer in my own mind that we would home educate, I purposefully flirted casually with the possibility out loud, just to get people used to the idea. Eventually, our eldest reached ‘school age’ and from then it became official that we were ‘homeschooling’, although we were much more interested in unschooling.

We found most of our friends and family interested in our decision and showing support, knowing we made the best decisions for our children and family as well as we knew how.

In the beginning, you start with what you don’t want. You start to list the things you want to avoid because you have yet to experience all the good that is life without school. So you go with what you know about school, and this is the list I came up with that led us to keep our children with us at home, learning through life, on their own terms (in another post, I’ll write about all the reasons we wanted to unschool and all the amazing things we love about it). Here are the top 6 reasons we didn’t want to send our children to school:

1. Loss of autonomy

We began our parenting careers with a respectful and peaceful parenting philosophy. There are many people writing about this (for example see Parenting for a peaceful world by Robin Grille or the Parent Allies website for online resources). We see our children as our partners and our family as a team. We don’t do rewards or punishments, coercion or shaming. Our children were brought up knowing that their bodies and minds were their own. Unfortunately, schools depart from this philosophy in many ways. Most obviously, children are mandated to attend school. They don’t have much choice in the matter, whether by their parents’ or the government’s ruling, children are forced to attend school. This doesn’t particularly instill a sense of autonomy over one’s life if 13 years of it are under the control of others. Underneath this overarching sense of control are smaller but regular practices of control that reinforce the view that children are not entitled to their own bodies, their own sense of self. For instance, being told when they can eat, play or rest; requiring permission to use the toilet; segregation into age groups; requirements about the clothes they must wear and other things to do with the body – hair, skin, jewelry. The main project of a school is to force (usually) hundreds of children to follow the orders of a small handful of adults.

2. Subordination

Linked closely with the practice of removing autonomy from children, schools position children in subordination to adults. This means there is no sense of equality in the adult-child relationship but rather it is hierarchical and the child is at the bottom. Practices in schools that reinforce subordination is the belief that children are not capable of learning without adult instruction and supervision; that children can’t make decisions about what they learn and how best they might do that; that children must show respect to elders by using titles and last names of adults; and that children must always seek the permission of adults to perform almost any task at all.

3. Separation

We are fond of spending time with our children. Our children are fond of spending time with us. Schooling would mean a large proportion of my children’s week is spent away from their family. It wasn’t always like this. In fact, schools are a mere blip on the timeline of history. Apart from the last couple hundred years, for millennia before that, children lived and learned with their family, their community. There have been lots of poorly thought out ideas throughout the course of history and we think school is one of them.

4. Loss of intrinsic tendency and motivation to learn

Children do very well in their early years to learn all sorts of things by themselves, purely through their own intrinsic motivation to learn, understand the world, make sense of things. Most of the time, we don’t really question the early years and children’s capacity to grow their knowledge and skills, coordination and abilities. It just happens because we let them live and learn. But once they become school age, that sense of wonder and freedom that we cherish for children in their early years becomes less important. We believe that at five or six, children suddenly become unable to learn on their own. It’s quite weird when you think about it. So schools actually teach children that they aren’t capable of learning unless an adult is with them, telling them what to learn. And schools teach children that the only real place that they learn is at school or at home doing homework. Schools do a very good job at telling parents that children must be taught by qualified experts in order for learning to occur. And once all this convincing seeps into the minds of children, they begin to lose their sense of self, their sense of what they are interested in, what they love, how the world works… They start to wait to be told by someone who knows better than them. And their love of learning, that came so naturally in their early years, is quashed. Sir Ken Robinson gives a poignant TED talk on this topic titled Do schools kill creativity?

5. School-culture socialisation

I always find it amusing that the number one concern many people have about home education is that children will miss out on socialisation. Yet, I reckon bullying hits the media headlines every week and is a constant concern of schools and parents. Even in a school without a particularly bad bullying problem, children are forced into segregated age-groups. They are told when and where they can ‘play’ (morning tea and lunchtime). Then for the remainder of the day they are not allowed to socialise (i.e. stop talking, stop mucking around, stop stop stop). It actually isn’t that social to force people into situations and expect they get on, let alone make friends. And to pressure children into making friends with age-level peers is an odd notion to me, after I have witnessed my children make and keep friends with children and adults across a wide range of ages.

6. Other forms of discrimination

This one will vary from school to school but I get the sense that many of the public primary schools in our area wouldn’t have a particularly strong focus on social justice and anti-bias in their curriculum. What I mean by this is situating the teaching of all key learning areas within a frame of anti-bias (see Red Ruby Scarlet, The anti-bias approach in early childhood). Anti-bias is acknowledging the range of ways humans discriminate against other living creatures and otherwise, and finding ways to counter, stand up to and remove bias in pursuit of equity and equality. This is important to me as a feminist. Unfortunately, underpinning the curriculum with an anti-bias approach is not very common in schools. Not surprisingly, discrimination of all kinds occur in education institutions. These discriminations occur in a range of ways, from the institutional practices, to interactions between adults and children and between peers, to the perspectives and beliefs a teacher brings when they interpret knowledge to share with children.

For example, discriminations in institutional practices can be seen in the ways children are subordinated to adults, as I’ve already outlined in the points above. Schools are generally biased against children and through their practices, they enact childism (a term used by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl in her book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children). Interactions between peers can often be fueled by discrimination, yet these occurrences are often labeled ‘bullying’ which I believe to be an apolitical attempt to hide the deeper reasons children pick on other children. Even the teaching of curriculum can be biased, such as how a teacher chooses to teach children about Australia’s black history or whether studies of historical figures equally depict both men and women. The organisation of the children in schools is often done in biased ways such as segregating boys and girls, as so many schools do, in various ways from uniforms to standing in line. So this final point is about wanting to avoid both institutional practices of bias and discrimination, as well as a curriculum that may not be delivered through an anti-bias frame.

So there you have it, my top 6 reasons we decided not to utilise schools. My next post will focus on all the good and great things about unschooling.

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