Kids at school? Protect their rights and nurture their curiosity

10 September, 2014

It is Back To School week. The week that, for a third of my life, filled me with the uneasy combination of dread and excitement. Dread because I hated almost every single element of school, excitement because I usually had a new pair of shoes I wanted to show off. (Although, never did own those magical treads from Clarkes that came with a key on the bottom to unlock the world of fairy princesses. NEGLECTED.)

How has Back to School week been for you? Are you wholly happy with it? Brilliant – head off and read about playing in the wild, if so, it’s about eating dirt basically grows your brain and stuff. If you aren’t fully stoked about your kids at school then read on.

I have in mind here people who question the education system but desire to be a part of it. Or parents who are Unschoolers in heart and spirit but who can’t, for whatever reason, keep kids at home.

I thought it would be good to have a discussion about how families can protect their school-attending children’s rights, curiosity and autonomy. I really believe there are ways of attending school without being institutionalised – but we need to be deliberate about it.Back to school for unschoolers at heart!

(A little musical interlude about my own motivation for this post, to the tune of The Hills Are Alive With the Sound Of Music: My heart is inspired by the world of unschooling! I didn’t like school and I don’t think my girls will go! But we have seen some great Forest Schools, so potentially we might create something like that! I really love it when kids get together, they do amazing things, driven by their innate curiosity. You’ll get, as you read on, that I am fairly cynical about schools. BUT, my husband is a teacher by trade, a really, really amazing one and I do believe there are schools out there that respect the rights of children and allow the child to lead in their own learning. I think they are just few and fair between. Sort of stopped singing about half way through that, got a bit serious pants, sorry.)

Stick up for your kids
My friend unschools most of her children, but her eldest attends the local primary. One day her school jumper had gone missing so the mum wrote a note and sent it in with her kid. But the teacher still wasn’t happy and forced her to wear a real raggedy, lost property jumper. Understandably my friend was pretty upset and rang up the principal and talked it through. She spoke specifically about her child’s rights and body autonomy and they had a really important discussion about how children are PEOPLE. Don’t be afraid of picking up the blower and defending your child. No one wants to be a pain in the arse but parents can change the culture of a school by reminding teacher’s that their students are human and have the accompanying rights.

Actually, be a pain in the arse. I mean, an INFLUENCER
Oh Lord, I know. Life is too busy. It is too hard to try and impact a school. But if there is anyway you can drop something in order to try and take on a new role as an influencer of your kid’s school DO IT! Take a thing you are really passionate about, say, encouraging schools to prioritise creativity and then try and work with the staff to change things. Have a screening at lunchtime – great Ted Talk about creativity and the education system here.  Or perhaps you want to challenge all the superflous rules – send the Head articles about the schools in NZ that thrived when the rules were taken away.  Be a pain in the arse, a good one. (Oops, sounds a bit rude.)

Ask questions and give feedback
Take the opportunity at Parent’s evening to ask questions about autonomy and human rights. If your children aren’t at school yet ask these questions at the open day. Reader, Emma, on my Facebook page says Trust your gut when you visit, and look for approachable, committed teachers.” (Also, read this fantastic post about reception class and induction and the rights of the child.) Things I would want to know are whether children are always allowed to visit the toilet (or “drop their darlings at the launderette” as Ramona has begun to say) whenever they need it. Questions like these also inform the culture of a school.  And when something great and rights-respecting happens give the school a whole heap of encouragement.

Encourage your kids to question everything
Bonnie, an unschooler at heart on Twitter says “My goal with my kids is to teach them to question EVERYTHING!! We are focused on advertising atm. Who, what, why etc..”
(Read more on Bonnie’s blog about the importance of asking questions.)
It would be SUCH a shame, in order to minimise cognitive dissonance, to shut down discourse with kids about some of the , erm, interesting practices at school. What is the point of tests? Do they work? Why did the teacher keep everyone back? Why do I have to come from home from school and spend two more hours on school work? The questions might shed understanding on some of the things that happen, but it will also help your children have a healthy perspective on authority. Ideally they might be able to keep their heads down at school without accepting the code of compliancy into their spirits! There is also a chance that asking these questions could resolve some issues. Over on my Facebook page Deb says My boys do not have to do homework unless they choose as I believe school hours are long enough and they need time to do activities of their choosing. The school has been ok with this. Interestingly the boys are at a similar level to their peers without any of the formal schooling behind them.” – AMAZING! 

Be an open critic
By being a critic I don’t mean being destructively critical, but I mean allowing a space in your home for honest analysis, alongside your children. Be upfront with them about school, apologise that for now school is part of your lives, figure out ways to feel comfortable with it, together. Let honesty an integral part of your conversation about school. Tackle some of the dodgy things about school but celebrate with your kids when the school initiates something awesome.

Stop teaching
Nurturing a child’s curiosity is directly related to us taking off our teach-y hat. They dont need us to correct them, to hand them info on a plate. We can be their partners in learning, to figure stuff out together. But the last thing they need is another teacher at home, using every opportunity to pass on some knowledge. There was a brilliant article in the Guardian on Saturday, an interview with Michael Rosen “Why curiosity is the key to life” … I liked this wee bit:
“Rosen recounts the story of David Attenborough finding an animal bone in the garden as a boy and taking it to his father, a GP, who pretended not to recognise it. Instead, they pored over zoology and anatomy books together: “They shared the excitement of discovery.””School? Protect your child's rights and nurture their curiosity

But then, you SHOULD see your home as an alternative education

Education is different from teaching right? We can let our homes be site of learning an altogether different set of values. Celebrate non-compliance. Nurture solitude. Question praise and reward. Dismantle competition.
The lovely Jessica wrote this on my Facebook page– originally from Geez mag “If regular school trains kids to succumb to authority and conform to the demands of the market (i.e. a good education leads to a high-paying job) then what does an alternative education look like? What manner of ed
ucation can help kids and grown ups criticize power structures and explore creativity that defies market values, honours personal autonomy and yet fosters affinities among groups?”

Consider part time schooling
And finally, on a very practical note, could Flexi-time be a real possibility for you. Your child splits time between school and home. They get more of your education and less of the schools, yet you still get to work.

I’ love this to be a start of discussion. Are you an unschooler-at-heart? How do you do it? Do visit my Facebook page where there has been some really cracking suggestions.

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  • Vicu 10 September, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    I think you forgot two things 😉
    Let your children witnesses you learning new things. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer to a question. My 10yr old loves watching me learn!
    Secondly, be proactive in making sure that your children experience how other cultures, people groups, socio-economic groups, generations experience life. A trip to a small Bush village in Botswana is something my boys both still talk about. The children in the village had never seen a white child, watching my then 5yr old experience that was quite something

  • Sonya Cisco 10 September, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    I am considering flexi-schooling, well, sort of – Syd is a mid-August birthday and as such is due to start school just 3 weeks after his 4th birthday next year- I think that is too young, but delaying entry for a year means he will miss reception which I think is an important year that smooths the transfer from home/pre-school into full time education and I would hate for him to miss that completely, but I do like the idea of building up his hours at school gradually rather than throwing him straight in full time – when my eldest started school ,(she is also an August born) she only went mornings until after Christmas, along with all other children whose birthdays were January onwards – such a shame they don’t seem to do this anymore, but I may well just implement it myself!

  • Jo 10 September, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    This is a GREAT post. I’m an unschooler in principle but don’t feel cut out for it at all. But, I’m ok with that. We have three children that love school (and pre-school for our youngest). It hasn’t been a straight forward process, especially as our middle child is autistic and our own school horror story was even featured on this blog but this is what we’ve done to make the journey work for us –
    We built up hours slowly.
    We don’t enforce homework. They only do it if they want to.
    We encourage and facilitate child-led activities. If they show an interest in something we embrace that and help them spend their time exploring that rather than making them sit and do arbitrary homework tasks.
    We’ve built up a good relationship with the school and their teachers. We have easy and regular communication.
    On top of this we’re also really fortunate that the kids go to a small, village school where all the children are known well. Were we still living in London, I have no idea how schooling would work for us!
    That’s my two pennies worth. Really interested in the discussion on this post.

    • Vic 13 September, 2014 at 12:45 am

      How do you manage the not always doing homework and,
      1. Pressure from school to complete or the child gets punished (i.e. has to stay in at lunchtime)
      2. Making sure that they respect their teacher when in school and part of a wider class environment?

      I only ask because I don’t make my boys do homework unless they want to, but now they are in yrs 6 and 3 respectively there is a definite pressure to conform and do their homework or there are consequences. Plus, I do think that it’s important when in school to be obedient and respectful to the teaching staff???? What do you think?

      • Kellie 6 September, 2016 at 7:44 pm

        I would arrange a time to talk their teachers and explain your position on homework and I’m sure you can come up with a solution.
        Often the requirement for homework does not come from the teacher but from the school or above.

        It is possible to question the rules while still being respectful. Teach them to follow all the advice Lucy gives above.

        Most of all remember teachers care deeply about their students and want the best for them but have to work within the confines of the school system.

  • Alex 10 September, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    I’m currently exploring the idea of unschooling (still time, boy is only 14 months) as, since I had him and see him develop, I cannot imagine him attending ‘normal’ school anymore. I feel, however, lost in a huge gap between two chairs (school vs unschooling) in case we’d figure that TOTAL unschooling wouldn’t work for us. Full-time school, especially the way it is run in the UK, now feels like horror to me, and it seemed that there was no middle ground. So thanks for this mind-opening post, and Jo’s inspiring comment! Hadn’t even believed flexi-school possible. Just shows the we need to really think outside the box (and outside that next box layer too) and dare to discuss our concerns and ideas with education professionals – and then try and put it into practice! It relieves me to know there is another option between two ‘extremes’, even though it might be tougher to realise in big cities…

    • Nicole 12 September, 2014 at 9:54 am

      Alex, homeschooling doesn’t have to follow one philosophy religiously. You can do a little bit of bookwork and a lot of project work or be mostly Charlette Mason and a little bit classical or do relaxed schooling instead of full on Unschooling. Each family finds their own groove.

    • Luschka 4 September, 2015 at 12:51 am

      In bigger cities it might be easier to realise since there should be other homeschoolers you can form communities with. Just head onto facebook and type in home education UK and you’ll find loads of options and you’re sure to find people in your area.

  • ThaliaKR 10 September, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    What a great resource, Lucy. Thank you.

    We are a few years off needing to bite the bullet on this one, but def fit the ‘unschoolers at heart’ model, whether or not we can make it work when the time comes.

    Amen to all you say!

  • Iona@redpeffer 11 September, 2014 at 12:25 am

    I can’t tell you how lovely it is to read this. I have felt totally alienated from the school system since my daughter started. I thought it was just me who felt like this. If I mention my feelings and thoughts, I’m usually met with blank looks or irritation and that I should just ‘get on with it’. And that’s not just from the school either.
    All the things you mention are what I want to do, or try to do. But it can feel quite isolating when all around you are telling you that you’re effectively ‘making a fuss’.
    My daughter doesn’t like school at all and I hate seeing her enthusiasm, creativity and individuality get worn away every day at school. Because that is what it feels like to me as a parent.
    I’ll just keep plugging away I suppose. My youngest starts next year-then I’ll have 2 to fight for 🙂

  • Roger Driver-Burgess 11 September, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Great stuff, as usual, Lucy.
    The very best preparation for school life is learning at home and in the community. Our kids have gone into local schools at around age 15 and have been able to maintain their integrity because they had such a broad experience of life outside of school first – they weren’t socialised to believe that school life was the only way and that the world outside of school was beyond them. And, yes, there are always times when we need to let our kids (and school staff) know that we stand behind them and will uphold their human rights. But we’ve also noticed that the school is far less likely to treat our kids like lesser human beings, because our kids just don’t act that way; they simply assume that adults are these other human beings with jobs that require them to do certain things. So teachers are more likely to treat them like responsible human beings, too.

  • Robin Grille 11 September, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Ramifications everywhere! Can of worms, Lucy! Nice, compost worms, actually. You see, I live in Australia. But I don’t agree with any of the rules here. The school teachers that run this place are mean, they don’t let us pee when we want to. They make us learn all about coal mining, about cutting down World Heritage forests, about dumping rubbish all over the Barrier Reef, and about watching Masterchef and Australian Idol and all kinds of reality-TV shows where people are set up to compete against one another and get incredibly humiliated. I wish I could unAustralia myself, but for now I am trapped here. Some of us have decided to turn up to class, be critical of the principal (and his total lack of principle), ask lots of questions, and be pains in the arse. Be in the culture but not of it. Thank you for your inspiration.

  • Jess @ Along Came Cherry 11 September, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Great post and as I’m just about to go and look at a school for Cherry, perfect timing! I’ve been thinking over all the options over the last year and came so close to deciding to home-school at one point but then backed out. I am now looking at flexi-schooling but as I’m not sure whether my school of choice would be happy with that sending her full-time but to a small village school. I feel a bit happier about the fact she will be nearly 5 when starting as oppose to 4 but until I’ve looked around I’m still not sure what my feelings are about it. If she did start and struggled in any way or hated it then I would then definitely consider taking her out. These are great points though and I am going to be mentioning the one about homework, my mum told me about some parents in my brother’s school who just told the teachers from day one their kids wouldn’t be doing the homework and I feel much happier about a situation like that. School days are long enough already without the added pressure of coming home and doing even more work. I’m hoping for Cherry to spend that time doing something she really enjoys and wants to focus on and from what I’ve seen so far that will be doing something crafty and not more sums / writing. It’s such a hard decision though x

  • Sarah 17 September, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Ah, home education. I adore it. We HE’d for several years until children #2 and #3 decided to go back (or try it out – #3 had never been). Child #1 stayed home for another year before deciding to go back in year 6 right before SATs. (ugghhh)

    Child #2 has just been deregistered again, the system just wasn’t working for him. Child #3 adores school, but she is an extreme extrovert and is motivated by following all the rules (which makes my unschooler’s heart shudder but we talk about which rules are more important, etc. I do believe she would be horrified by the notion on NOT doing one’s homework). Now my summer-born Child #4 has started reception (but she never went to pre-school) and seems to be enjoying herself. If the changes to the national curriculum put her under too much pressure and she is struggling, she will come back home for sure. Child #5 is still a baby, but we will be flexible with her school arrangements. Additionally, Child #1 will be going to live in Spain for six months next year, and will therefore lose her school place. So when she returns, we might be home edding again. It is highly likely.

    So our journey through the school system is convoluted and is individual to each child’s needs. All of my children know that school is optional – learning is not! Child #3 seems most suited to a school environment, but even she is undecided about attending secondary school. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it; right now she is enjoying her flute lessons and choir practice all in school hours. She would be unhappy at home right now, but that might change!

  • Hazie Daisy 21 September, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Hi Lucy, I’ve just started reading your clog and am enthused by your writing. You have a lovely way of presenting your opinions without criticizing those who might disagree.
    I’m very sad to read the other comments on this page. So many people have had such a negative experience of conventional schooling.
    Here in West Wales, kids start school, half days the term after their third birthday ! However the good teachers do learning through play. As my friend grumpily told me, her daughter loves it. They recently returned early from a beach trip as she “really, really, REALLY wanted to go to school that day”. I wish all kids could say that.
    I don’t have kids yet, but I hope they enjoy school. My own education is definitely central to my current happiness. My work is intellectually challenging, enjoyable, worthwhile, and pays well. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but just wanted to share the other side.

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