We don't need no education - at least not as we know it!

“We don't need no education

We don't need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the class room

Teachers leave those kids alone

(yells) Hey, teachers! Leave those kids alone!

All in all, it's just a

Nother brick in the wall”

(Pink Floyd)

It’s been a challenging autumn thus far; it was perhaps inevitable really as the change in season from Summer to Autumn has brought with it some pretty intense moon cycles. Not only that but Autumn always brings with it new beginnings, which affects so many of us as our routines change to accommodate the new school and University terms.  I don’t know about you but there is a smell in the air in early September that still catches me from time to time and reminds me of that feeling of getting ready to go back to school again.

For many years I also used to get this in late September too with the arrival of the University term and it used to throw me a bit.  School I loved but University was a little more challenging for me as I used to get really homesick and would miss my family and friends and our life on Guernsey. For a few years afterwards, I’d smell that smell and find myself feeling a little anxious – it was a relief when I got over this and the smell of Autumn meant nothing more than exactly that – a change in season, all negative associations gone.

This September was an interesting one for us as Elijah was booked to begin pre-school, which would not only bring with it a change in routine for all of us, but would herald the beginning of integration into the main stream conforming world of education and all that entails. I can’t say I have ever been comfortable with the idea of him going to pre-school, not only does he still seem so little but he has lots of fun in his existing daily schedule and I wasn’t convinced that pre-school was going to add any value to his current life experiences, at least not in a positive way.

Needless to say I held off for as long as I could (he will be turning 3 in November) but I was very aware that most of the toddlers we have mixed with through baby yoga and playgroup etc. were either already in pre-school or due to start this September too. It’s been a popular subject for a while now, most conversations with other mothers involve a question about pre-school so you could say that I felt some societal pressure to ensure he was signed up for one before all spaces got filled.  It’s been a huge lesson in that actually, the doing things just because others expect it of you and tell you it’s the right thing to do even though your innate wisdom as a mother tells you otherwise.  Bad Emma, I should know better!

So we signed Elijah up at a lovely pre-school recommended to us, and with a heavy heart we awaited D-day and the new chapter in all our lives.  We weren’t the only ones with heavy hearts though and while some of these heavy hearts were also to do with pre-school, I have a work colleague and some friends who were also experiencing heavy hearts on account of their children heading off to University for the first time, right at the other end of the educational system.

We laughed about the different experiences us mother’s experience (this separation and togetherness is complex indeed) what with toddlers not wanting you to leave them at pre-school and clinging on for dear life, and on the other side, University students desperate for you to leave them so that they can get on with their new lives apart from you as you try to cling on to them instead! I remember this only too well from my own experience as my own family had to adjust to life without me back in the day.

My poor Mum was bereft and even the cat was sad on account of the fact (or so the vet said) that I had died as my Mum stripped my bed and did all my washing immediately I left, so there was no smell of me left for the cat to expect me to return – it was a lesson learned quickly, thereafter my bedding remained unwashed every time I returned to Uni until the morning of my return! My brother was thrown amiss too by the changes, he’d lost not only his partner in crime but also his driver and was stuck surfing at Vazon unless he could get a list to the other surfing breaks with my parents! 

D-day finally arrived, Elijah’s new Tractor Ted rucksack was packed and the obligatory photo was taken before we all piled into the car and journeyed to the Pre-School together.  Even now thinking back makes me feel a little uncomfortable because I honestly don’t know what I was thinking.  There was my poor innocent little boy sitting in the back of the car completely unaware of what lay ahead of him while we tried to keep things jovial but were consumed by a sense of trepidation in the background. The truth is we hadn’t really considered the enormous change about to take place. 

Now we are absolutely not fans of parenting labels, we have never read a parenting book between us and certainly haven’t done any research on the supposed long term effects of various approaches, we’ve simply done what has felt right for us all, as a family, and checked into our innate wisdom along the way.  This is not to say that I am not aware that parenting styles exist – you have only to google, “how can I get my toddler to sleep?” to be bombarded with a variety of viewpoints on the best way to achieve this depending upon parenting approach, but we have never followed any of them for the sake of following any one them – the fact he still doesn’t sleep is probably proof of that!

But that aside, if I was forced to define our parenting approach, I guess you could say it is gentle and slightly along the attachment parenting lines, but unintentionally so! This means that in practice we have fairly much co-slept from day one with no sleep training (any attempt to get him in his bed for the whole night fails miserably, he always ends up in ours at some point during the evening), extended breast-feeding until he was 2 (and the only reason I stopped was due to IVF treatment), lots of carrying (the pushchair has sat fairly empty this whole time) and lots of one –to-one attention simply because our schedules and extended family allow this.

We are lucky in this regard, we have flexible jobs so that we can manage childcare with more ease than most, and more importantly we have free childcare courtesy of my parents who are fortunate to have a small holding and lots of outdoor space so Elijah gets to do a lot of outdoor play – not only that but all three grandparents are ex-teachers so there is a degree of learning that comes from them simply because that’s how they’ve lived their lives; educating!

Thus Elijah has never been left with anyone other than me, E, my parents or E’s Mum. No one has ever put him to bed other than one of the 5 of us. This is not unusual as such, just that expecting him to just fit into an alien environment with children and adults he doesn’t know was a little, hmm, naïve of us I guess. In fact, it was plain right stupid and I gave myself a bit of a hard time about it for a while, although I appreciate that everything happens for a reason now that we’re coming through the other side of it!

That first morning Elijah ran straight into the pre-school distracted by all the toys as we said our goodbyes and left him to it figuring that we’d gotten away with it all very lightly as other children were dropped off crying. However, when we came to pick him up 3 hours later he was very upset, in shock if anything actually.  Let me just make the point that this was not the fault of the pre-school, they were great and were doing all they could to ease the situation, there is a recognised settling in period and I hold my hat off to the staff for trying to manage this.

He sat sobbing in his car seat all the way back to my parent’s house clinging onto my bra straps as I sat beside him cuddling him as best I could with him sitting in his car seat.  The bra strap thing started when he was breastfeeding, its like his comfort blanket and I always know he is out of sorts when he starts reaching for them! He carried on this way for a little while longer back at my parents’ house before he eventually bounced back to his normal self thankfully.

During that first session he had stubbed his toe on account of not wearing his shoes outside. We live in a shoe-free house and he is not a fan of shoes at the best of times and has spent most of the summer barefoot, we’re all totally comfortable with this as it is better for his physical development (or so we feel), and its up to him essentially, it’s his body wisdom.  He also doesn’t like to wear jumpers unless absolutely essential as he is rather warm blooded and we all honour this.  

Still, I realised as we picked him up that second day crying again and wearing his shoes and jumper that here he was beginning societal conditioning before he’s even reached the age of 3.  I totally understand the pre-school’s need to do this as they have health and safety regulations they need to follow, but I guess perhaps it just served as a reminder of the world we live in, not only from a health and safety perspective, but in terms of how, from such a young age, we have our own innate wisdom knocked out of us because we are told that to be a fully functioning member of society we absolutely must do certain things – like wear shoes and jumpers when we go outside to play.

The next week he was rather sombre in the morning and it was an effort to get him to eat anything.  He complained that he missed Mummy and didn’t want to go to school, and he started to get tearful in the car on the way to the pre-school.  At the pre-school itself he got very upset and I felt sorry for the poor ladies trying to comfort him (and the other children) as he would take one look at them and howl into my chest.  To say it was heart-breaking leaving him is an understatement and I know I was not alone – there were other mothers looking equally upset in the carpark.

The pre-school staff were kind enough to send me texts each morning, although sadly on this third session it seemed he was struggling to settle, albeit that they didn’t think it warranted my early collection of him, there were just tears on and off all morning. Suffice it to say he was upset when I collected him and I felt dreadful because something just wasn’t feeling right about all this regardless of the fact all the other mother’s I talked to about it said it was normal and you just have to go with it, it can take weeks to settle them in apparently.

The trouble was, he was worse the following session, the tears started upon waking and he cried his way to the pre-school and howled on entering to the extent that I actually wondered if I should take him back home with me.  The ladies were busy comforting other children and as lovely as they are and as much as they tried to make it easier for me to leave him, it just felt so counter intuitive to leave him distressed and howling with – essentially – a complete stranger while I returned home to an empty house and my parents sat around awaiting for his return at lunchtime.

As I’ve tried to stress, none of this was the fault of the pre-school, absolutely none.  It is a popular and happy place, only that my son was not enjoying it.  He was crying when I collected him and while one of the ladies had been kind enough to show me a photo she had taken of Elijah playing on his own and not crying, this almost made me feel worse because he was on his own and he can be on his own at home – one of the reasons I felt pressured to put him to pre-school was to encourage the social interaction which everyone tells me is so essential to his development.

The fact he was not thriving with the new arrangements, however, became apparent over the weekend. The mere mention of the word ‘school’ set his bottom lip trembling and the tears would quickly follow as he told me and my parents (E was away) that he didn’t want to go to school. He started grinding his teeth which he had never done previously.  He also became ridiculously clingy and was very restless at night, difficult to settle and insistent on sleeping with me but requiring “big cuddles” on an hourly basis. He wasn’t even sure about being left with his grandparents, simply because he needed the extra reassurance that I would return for him.

It was a little traumatic for all of us to witness the change in him like this, he was usually such a happy go lucky and cheeky little monkey and now all of sudden he was anxious and clingy, and a little sad really. I guess in his eyes we’d abandoned him and he really didn’t understand the reason for this. We had hoped that by putting him into pre-school he would thrive but he seemed to be wilting instead and while, yes, it was early days, there was something telling me that this was not right.

So I spent that weekend doing lots of online research on pre-schools and schooling generally and my parents and I discussed the matter at length. As previously mentioned, my parents are both ex-teachers, my Dad having headed up a local Guernsey primary school before he left education to pursue an alterative – and less exhausting – career. He remains very passionate about education, and had come across an article on “unschooling” which even he had found interesting and did make him question his perspective on education, especially now witnessing the effect of pre-school on Elijah.

I have to say that I found the article on unschooling very interesting too as it gave me a name for something that has been on my mind for a while now.  While I have looked into home schooling and joined on occasion the local home schooling community, there is something about this that doesn’t resonate quite so much with me.  It has been explained that all unschooling is home schooling but not all home schooling is unschooling because while home schooler children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers have almost total autonomy over their days.

But what does this mean in practice?  Well Earl Stevens, whose children are “unschooled”, writes the following: “Our son has never had an academic lesson, has never been told to read or to learn mathematics, science, or history. Nobody has told him about phonics. He has never taken a test or been asked to study or memorize anything. When people ask, "What do you do?" My answer is that we follow our interests - and our interests inevitably lead to science, literature, history, mathematics, music - all the things that have interested people before anybody thought of them as "subjects".

A large component of unschooling is grounded in doing real things, not because we hope they will be good for us, but because they are intrinsically fascinating. There is an energy that comes from this that you can't buy with a curriculum. Children do real things all day long, and in a trusting and supportive home environment, "doing real things" invariably brings about healthy mental development and valuable knowledge. It is natural for children to read, write, play with numbers, learn about society, find out about the past, think, wonder and do all those things that society so unsuccessfully attempts to force upon them in the context of schooling.”

I have to say that I recognise some truth in this. We too follow our interests, me with yoga, E with gardening and Elijah with tractors and together we learn.  I have learned so much from E about nature since I met him and have developed a complete love of being outdoors at every opportunity, I can even name a few trees!  From me he has developed a love of sea swimming and even learnt stuff about yoga, crystals, healing and angels (whether he’s wanted to or not!)! From Elijah we have learned an enormous amount about tractors and diggers and farming; where once a tractor was a tractor, now it’s a Massey Ferguson or a New Holland and we know about telehandlers and combines let alone about harvesting the maize and what happens on farms!

With my parents Elijah learns a lot about growing and working outside, my Mum cooks and paints with him and reads to him, my Dad plays with him at length, both lost in the moment of their imaginary world, making incredible train tracks that stretch through the living room and beyond, and spending hours on their electric/petrol fuelled tractors out on the land. This summer we’ve spent hours on the beach playing and collecting shells, and also identifying the type of sand we need to make the optimum sandcastle, let alone the rather impressive tractors that my Dad now specialises in.

With his grandma he sings and sits plonking at the piano, they spend time watering all her hundreds of potted plants in the garden and they go to the Model Yacht Pond and identify the boats – he knows them better than I do! They go out on the bus and into town. When out with Daddy and Grandma together there are regular visits to garden centres and to the parks, let alone shopping and going to the Bank and all that stuff that teaches them a little about how life works.

I absolutely know we are not alone, that is not my reason for sharing, more so just to explain that for us, we love doing and experiencing things, whether that be on Guernsey or on our travels off Island.  This way of living has provided me with an opportunity to witness how much children learn from just being – from playing essentially, not only on their own but with others, albeit that those persons are older than them! In many respects why would Elijah want to go to pre-school when he has his grandparent’s undivided attention and gets to do so much playing whether that be on their land, in the house or on the beach.

Of course the unschooling approach is not for everyone, and I’m not saying we’ll be doing this, more so that I can understand the reason that parents decide to offer this style of “education” to their children. It does massively go against the grain though, especially as we are so conditioned to believe that education has to be a certain way.  The truth is there are many different ways to educate children, it really should depend on the individual and what works best for them.

I am fascinated by the Finnish education system for example. For the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top Nation’s on the programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardised test given to 15-16 year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.  Yet here their education system is very different to ours in the UK.  The children do not start school until 7, and can attend voluntary play-based kindergartens prior to this where all they do, quite simply, is play. The idea is that children learn far more from play than being forced to learn in the more traditional sense, and by the age of 7 they are said to be like sponges, absolutely thirsty to learn.

Furthermore, there are no school inspectors or league tables, no examinations for any child under the age of 16, there is no private tuition industry and charging school fees is illegal. Teachers are all educated to master’s level and have autonomy, they are called by their first name and there are no school uniforms. There is no homework either, children are encouraged to get outside and play.

Not only that but I like the whole “equality” ethos behind the system where they support everyone and don’t waste anyone’s skills. Regardless of a person’s gender, background or social welfare status, everyone is given an equal chance to make the most of their schools. They really believe that for young people cooking, creative pursuits and sports are really important. They teach the meaning of life and community skills so that they recognise their role in the greater whole.

Essentially therefore, the Finnish have created a school system based on the concept that we are all one, that we all have a gift, a strength, a thing (whatever it may be) to offer to the world however different that may be, and they do their best to help children tap into this so that the whole community and indeed society can benefit – let alone helping to empower that individual and provide a way for them to express themselves, regardless of whether this is academic or non-academic.

This is at odds with our own education system here in the UK, which has a strong focus on testing and academic results.  Now please don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that this works for many – it worked for me for example, but there are lots of children who suffer as a result of this approach to educating, my brother being one such case. While I thrived with my Grammar School education and absolutely loved studying (I know, crazy), my brother “failed” his 11+ (despite having a higher IQ than me, but he had to contend with dyslexia) and has considered himself a bit of a failure academically ever since then.

The truth is his education at Les Beaucamps was far better than mine at the Grammar School in many respects.  I may have been able to pass exams, but I certainly couldn’t retain the knowledge and I left school with very few life skills - I went to University unable to cook and therefore feed myself, I had no idea how to work a washing machine and clean my clothes, I didn’t know how to change a light bulb or sort out bills, I had no idea how to budget or to manage my money, I couldn’t sew a button let alone darn a sock, it was a miracle really that I made it through those three years, it was certainly a massive shock for me.

My brother on the other hand had been better prepared.  He knew how to cook for a start and has been good at it ever since.  He also knew how to exist outside the academic bubble – to this day my best friend’s husband still jokes about the bubble I live in, because I missed out on so much life experience in my earlier years due to spending so many hours sitting in my room or a library studying – and was far more sociable and well rounded in his general knowledge, the fact he had a general knowledge was a step up from me!

Now you could argue that my parents should have better prepared me for the big wide world and perhaps they should have done, but I truly believe that school should have been doing this too. I’m not convinced there’s much advantage to answering questions and writing essays on Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” (I know, I’m sorry all your English literature lovers) when I couldn’t even feed myself at University.  And yes, I’m sure there must be some merit to learning how to make a pink fluffy seal in my first year of home economics, but the fact I can’t really sew a button indicates that perhaps we should have been focusing on the basic – and indeed important – stuff before trying our hand at something as, hmm, well, as interesting a seal then!

Actually the list goes on, because I’m not convinced that Algebra has ever really helped me in the real world, and to be honest it never helped me in school either, apart from making me feel very inadequate because I didn’t understand it or have any interest in studying it. Geography on the other hand, well that was a different matter, it was relevant to real life, it taught me about people and places and was very much alive, that’s probably the reason I went on to study it at University and have spent quite a lot of my adult life travelling and embracing different ways of life and culture. 

But history and learning about the Peel government, yawn, yawn, yawn, and as for physics, well that was an utter turn off. The funny thing is I now spend quite a lot of my life working with energy so I have developed a keen interest in physics, well at least from a metaphysical perspective, and am quite sure that if I studied it now – and with relevance to the energy work particularly –I would be thoroughly engaged.

And that really is the ethos behind the unschooling.  The fact that you learn what you’re interested in when you’re ready to learn it rather than being forced to learn something just because someone has decided that that’s the curriculum. I recall an incident in chemistry that I shall never forget that supports a little this theory – I absolutely loathed chemistry too at school, I was useless at it to be honest, but there was one time that my brother and I got our hands on one of those home chemistry sets and we got really into it, learning through playing with it. 

We happened to be studying a similar thing in class and all of a sudden I was far more engaged than I’d ever been previously and for the first time ever I put my hand up to answer a question – and I got it right. The teacher was understandably surprised and that term I got a D2 for chemistry which made me laugh because I usually got a D4 (I only ever got Ds in chemistry, even physics I managed a C!) and it made me chuckle because while I was still useless at the subject, at least that term I started to put in a bit more effort, simply because I had the freedom to learn from my own mistakes as I played around with a chemistry set at home.

I think that the word “freedom” is the bit that stands out for me in terms of education – and indeed how I like to live my life generally, perhaps it’s a yogic thing!  And I like very much what Ben Hewitt writes about this when explaining the price his children pay to be unschooled “...perhaps the best answer I can give to the question of what price my children might pay is in the form of another question: What price do school-going children pay for their confinement? The physical toll is easy enough to quantify. Diabetes rates among school-age children are sky-high, and the percentage of 6-to-11-year-olds who qualify as obese has nearly tripled since 1980. And what do children do in school? Exactly. They sit.”,

But, in truth, what I most want for my boys can’t be charted or graphed. It can’t be measured, at least not by common metrics. There is no standardized test that will tell me if it has been achieved, and there is no specific curriculum that will lead to its realization.

This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose.

 I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural to them. I want for them the freedom to be children. And no one can teach them how to do that.”

Too often in life I can’t help thinking that we are forced to be and to live a way that isn’t natural to us, that doesn’t bring out the best in us.  I know first hand how this can be detrimental to our long term health and wellbeing, I suffered with depression for years until I finally managed to align my life a little closer with my inner truth and live in a way that felt more harmonious to my heart and soul.  I know that sounds awfully flaky to some, but there is a lot of truth in how we have been conditioned by our upbringing based on someone else’s concept of what they deemed right/wrong for us and how this later may negatively impact on the choices we make in our lives and how this then impacts on our general health and wellbeing.

For many economic success has been the motivator for life choices from pre-school through to University and onwards into careers whether those careers suit or not. I know an awful number of people who studied hard to get the good career to earn the good money, but who are essentially very unhappy. For many they have to work long hours to sustain their “success” and miss out on seeing their children growing up, or having any connection to themselves, to nature and/or the wider world we live in and compromise their health and wellbeing in the process. 

It is only when something goes wrong be that with their health, their relationships or perhaps the blessing of redundancy, that they “wake up” and consider that there may be another way of living and that economic success is not always the path to inner peace and happiness. While this may be hard to come to terms with initially, it is often the point where people suddenly find this renewed energy for life and their lives take on an entirely different direction that they may not have considered possible previously – some even start living the dreams that they gave up on years previously.

Still it takes all sorts and I appreciate that we all have different motivating factors for the choices we make in life.  For some they absolutely thrive in pre-school and the current UK/Guernsey educational system while for others there is an awful amount of struggling and unhappiness that comes with it. It is not for me to judge anyone else’s choices just as it is not for anyone else to judge our choice, we all make decisions based on what we believe works best for our individual children and for us as parents and families too.

I truly believe that there will be shifts in how we educate our children as more and more people begin to realise that there are options and that the current system is not working for everyone. In Guernsey we are certainly being forced to address this as we battle on with the 11+ issue. For us, for now at least, we are happy with the decision we have made to take Elijah out of pre-school and we’ll see where this takes us in the future, as long as he’s happy then that’s all that matters really.


Earl Stevens http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/earl_stevens.html

Ben Hewitt (http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/why-you-should-take-your-kids-out-of-school/)

Photography - courtesy of Rosemary Després