Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Education: school vs life

for some reason the laptop took the image backwards, as a mirror-image.

(still no shift button, apologies for the missing capitals)
a friend recently asked me to blog about education options for charlie, and my thoughts behind them.
i may or may not have mentioned here previously that home-schooling is an option being considered in our house. i don't want to get into the politics of it, the way home-schoolers are being persecuted in other countries by bully governments. i'm also dreading making another life choice that sets us apart from the norm, another one that i will maybe have to explain and defend to people who don't understand it.
so far each choice we've made has been viewed with suspicion and sometimes outright indignant rage by people who have followed conventional norms. i've had to deal with criticism on my choice to home birth, breastfeed, mutual weaning, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, baby-led weaning, non-vaccinating etc. in each case the critics haven't informed themselves on my options, just slammed them for being different and tried to shock me into seeing my option wasn't safe for my children, though biology, instinct and research tells me these are the right choices. my critics were from the medical profession as well as my personal life. i began my parenting journey so fired up about these discoveries and choices, and determined to change the world, to educate everyone i met. i have since learned people aren't interested in hearing about it, unless they are on this path themselves, so i now choose not to get into debates with people about my parenting journey. it truly feels like "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" and the path i'm on is just a valid and beautiful one as the more "mainstream" one, but anyway...

so home-schooling is an extension of this path, it's the next step on the journey of this amazing attachment and bond i have created and enjoyed with my son. he's 4 now, and would be starting school in september 2013. i'll make a list because i love lists, of all the reasons that he will not be starting school next september:

1. he doesn't want to. just like he's not ready to wean, to sleep separately, he's not ready to go into the care of someone else for x hours a day. he doesn't want to, he says he'd miss me. i'm respecting that and  until he asks to start school he will not go to school. i've presented it in all its fun, friendly and activity-laden glory, he still says no. fine.

2. i think 5 is too young to be sitting at a desk (yes they still do, no matter how well-intentioned the teacher and how progressive the school). it's unnatural. he needs to run, skip, hop, cavort and play. breathe fresh air etc. physically it's restrictive.

3. we all know schools and teachers are stretched with their resources, money, time, staff. how is he, as one in 28 kids, going to get the attention and care he needs from a frazzled teacher with a curriculum to follow?

4. bullying is rife in schools, exclusion, competition, all the negatives that come from a large group of kids, all trying to be top dog. i remember many instances from my own school days and i hate to think that my sensitive, intelligent son would have to toughen up, to stand up for himself against peer injustices, or to defend himself against a physical attack.

5. school negates individualism. it has to. it's a herd mentality, you must conform to fit in. i used to get so frustrated teaching drama to teens who couldn't tell you one like or dislike they had. either they had none, or they'd never thought about it, the idea of "free speech" that i tried to promote in my class was a tricky one. though i'd tell them there was no "right or wrong" answer, they were so slow to come out with their own ideas, when you'd hope they'd have been shouting each other down with their opinions. Maybe it was the socio-economic group I taught, the "politeness" factor, or whatever. in general they seemed scared to commit to one idea, or to "own" a side of a debate. it seemed that nobody had asked them of this before, and it's true that you don't learn critical debate until university, but it seemed that school had failed them in this area.

6. i dislike the methods used for reward and punishment in schools. it is probably necessary to have them, if you have 28 kids in your class, you need to keep control of them. the methods used today aren't so far from the "dunce's cap"of old. fear is the over-riding factor in the discipline used. the time-out chair, going to the principal's office, exclusion from activities, some primary schools even have detention for god's sake! it's archaic, and totally out of whack with our parenting philosophy, so why would i put my son into this situation?

7. i don't think there's anything he'll learn in junior or senior infants... that he could not learn at home. he already has picked up great literacy and numeracy skills by virtue of the exposure we are giving him to books, comics, games. this will continue as he gets older, and as his interest and need for skills increases.

8. now to the popular "socialisation" issue. he does not need to know how to "hold his own" in a group of 28 peers. nor should he. that's a totally unnatural situation. life and work needs us to have skills to deal with all ages, all ranges of people, all manner of situations, and he gets this in our family life. he is out and about with us daily, talking to elderly neighbours, playdates with friends, interactions with cousins, shopkeepers, people who work in places we visit. he has learned to overcome his natural shyness and make conversation with adults. he makes instant friends and joins in with games in every playground, play area and play date. he is non-confrontational, is able to resolve conflict and avoid an argument if one is brewing. i've seen him distract a playmate from a potentially explosive situation by suggesting a different activity, more than once. it's a technique we've used with him from the start, based on reading the situation, and the non-verbal cues, and he does it instinctively.

9. a school-run every morning is a big commitment, time and energy-wise. the younger siblings would be sitting in the car for an hour twice a day, essentially. the early morning rush would be stressful and chaotic, and totally alien to our current rhythms. i used to see children so tired after school they could not participate in my after-school classes fully, and some kids had very little free time in the week. i feel children have to have physical and mental space to dream, to create, to rest and play. i think in general children do too many "activities", the parents bemoan the time spent ferrying them around, and who's actually winning here?

10. colouring! i detest colouring as an activity. i believe it is useless. it serves to keep kids busy, but i don't think they are learning anything, in fact i think it actively discourages creativity and instills a need for perfectionism (staying inside the lines) that adds stress to a young child. where's the blank pages, the  invention, the use of imagination? where's the mess, the discovery, the freedom to create? it can't exist in a class of 28 kids, it needs to be structured. i don't think art in schools breeds true creativity.

so far these reasons have been why i believe school would not best serve the needs of my son. now i'm going to list the reasons i love the idea of home-schooling:

1. i love the idea that charlie would be free to choose what area he's interested in learning about. so far in the last few months he's been really enjoying addition and subtraction, and has a great grasp of them using his fingers and mentally. he's started writing sums now too, thanks to a senior infants workbook i bought, and will pick it up from time to time. he is reading and writing simple words and yet we've never sat down to "learn" any of this.

2. many of the world's movers and shakers did so with very little or no formal education. think of the innovators, the artists, the musicians, the entrepreneurs. they all think outside the box. this is a kind of mentality that comes with freedom to dream, to experiment and to create with no fear of being graded, or having to come top of a class.

3. the natural world will be as close to him as the bricks-and-mortar world. i don't want him observing the changes of seasons out a window, or on a nature table. i want him out, eating the blackberries, smelling the flowers, finding the worms, feeling the rain.

4. life is short. a recent death in the family made me realise the pettiness of our society. here we are concerned with what labels we are wearing, what school our children will go to, how many holidays a year we can take. the vast majority of people in the world hav no such luxuries. they want their children to be healthy and to have their bellies full. life is precious, we are lucky. i want my son to live and breathe life, as he needs to live it, not according to the rules of some institution.

5. our family's rhythm is not a 9-5 one. it never has been. we don't work that way. at 10pm last night we were dancing to jedward in the living room, all four of us. if we had to begin each day at 7.30am we'd miss out on many a late-night session of reading, story-telling, dancing, games. barry's work is evening-based, so we all go to sleep later and wake later. it suits us. suiting us is essential, we all have to live this life, we are a team.

6. i have heard from many home-schooling families online, via blogs and groups, of the benefits to children, the confidence, the individuality, the freedom that home-schooling gives. this is so valuable, as nobody in my social circle home-schools. i know it works, just as attachment parenting works, i can check in with families further down the path than us, and not one of them regret it. in fact many say they wish they had had the courage to do it sooner.

7. school is always there. if charlie decides at 7 or 10 he'd like to go to school, we will facilitate that. he may join up fully, may do a day or two a week, or may take classes in a subject he enjoys that we cannot facilitate ourselves i.e. chemistry or woodwork.

8. i was quickly drawn to the idea of "unschooling" which sounds really scary and neglectful to the uninitiated. it's where you don't have a set curriculum, nor do you plan for a home-schooling time of day. you are not re-creating the classroom set-up at home, learning takes place in a more organic way. a child will learn through their activities: they may write their own book, learn measurements and maths through baking, learn a language through meeting fluent speakers in the language. as a parent you "strew their path" with resources, you encourage them to follow their interests and guide them gently into their education. it is truly "education", not "schooling". i believe this would suit us best, as the perverse nature of my 4 year old makes him shout "no!" any time i suggest we "learn" anything, he much prefers to pick up skills through play.

9. i don't believe home-schooling/ child-led learning or whatever you want to call it is any more effort than traditional schooling. the effort of getting a child to and from school, uniform clean, books and lunch in bag, money for excursions, notes to sign, parent-teacher meetings and all the extras seems huge to me. whereas the idea of us following this type of relaxed life-style, visiting the library, bus into town to museums, workshops, meeting friends, sharing skills and interests with other families, it's something we already do, and i'd planned on doing anyway. it might be different if we lived rurally, but we have so many cultural resources on our doorstep to avail of, there is no big effort involved.

charlie just came up and i asked him why would he prefer to learn things at home:

"well, i don't really like it because, because, there's not much dvds there, and if i ever get thirsty in case i forget a drink i can't go home and get a drink , and well, so that's why i don't like school. ok i'm done.
well, because they don't have a big screen and activities in an activity box, ok that's it, i'm out."

it's not a definite decision, it's a big one we've been reading up on the last couple of years, and one we're still discussing. we'll make the decision year-by-year, and constantly re-evaluate it, to see what's the best option for charlie and our family.

i'm tempted to disable comments for this post, as i don't need to get into a debate with people, i'd just ask that if you feel threatened by any of my points above, remember this is my opinion. i am blunt, i'm racing against time to get this written before someone starts sucking on me. if it's not as diplomatic as it "should" be, i apologise. i'd love to have more grace in my writing, but i tend to write as i speak, and rarely go back and edit anything. please read the disclaimer on my blog if you have a real issue with me!

i hope this may have helped some of you who are considering what to do. there are some middle-ground educational options available, like steiner waldorf schools, montessori etc. one other factor which has been a great support for me is some primary-school teachers i know who have had children and practise attachment parenting are questioning the school system now too, with new eyes. their support is invaluable, and i know whatever they decide for their families, we hope to be part of their lives, sharing skills and knowledge as our children grow.

nee x


  1. "i hate to think that my sensitive, intelligent son would have to toughen up, to stand up for himself against peer injustices, or to defend himself against a physical attack"

    Just a thought that these might be good lessons to learn, that you may be depriving him of important developmental steps.

  2. thanks for your comment John. I get what you're saying, and unfortunately our society does necessitate those skills, to defend yourself physically and emotionally against attacks. However I really believe this is something that can be addressed at a later date, when he's older and has realised that the world is not all sunshine and roses. At the moment for him the world is magical, strangers are kind, and he is protected. I really need to protect him, and don't feel these lessons need learning anytime soon. I feel really sorry for young children that are in this situation, and would go so far to say that we as parents and society have failed these children who are being bullied. thanks for reading and commenting, it's good to hear from a male point of view!

  3. 100% wouldn't be for me at all but completely respect your opinion (isn't that big of me!!) and very interested it read your reasons. Just getting in touch to let you know there's a podcast up on iTunes under ray d'arcy re homeschooling that he did recently that might interest you.

    1. Thanks, I should listen to radio and tv a bit more, but it riles me up a bit, to hear opposing viewpoints from people who haven't researched things properly. I heard the home educators did themselves proud though. thanks for reading and leaving a respectfully opposing comment!

  4. Very interesting! I think you have plenty of time to start thinking about your son's education as 4 years is, in my opinion, way too young! Our family in Norway only started their kids in primary education at nearly 7 years of age.

    My son is in rang 1 / first class and if I could go through it again, I would have waited two more years to send him into a school situation. He is sensitive, very gentle and can drift off in to his own world.

    Now, saying all that, his school is excellent but the cuts in spending on education are becoming more evident and parents seem to be tasked with more and more follow up work, not just the normal homework. He is learning through Irish (fluent in it now) and is getting to grips quite easily with French too (not in a formal sense in school) as he loves the idea of speaking in different languages.

    Art, drama, music is a big part of his learning. He, at six years old, is developing a love of poetry and is composing his own in Irish and English. That is not due (sadly!) to his parents but to a great teacher who is also a music/drama teacher. He also loves and is gifted at art and is being encouraged in that and given the space to develop it. The colouring in is often a tool to help children with concentration issues to sit and complete a task but some kids detest it (as do parents!)

    Above all my son sees school as fun, a great place to go and where everyone is respectful of each other - teachers are not addressed as Miss or Sir and they all seem to dress up a lot (yeah, I have great fun helping to create costumes!!) and do crazy, fun stuff to help the learning. His teacher was in a tutu one morning...just because! My son loves to daydream and staff are aware of this and try to tailor tasks to suit his personal way of learning which is visual (a lot of writing/drawing!)

    So I am glad that he is in the school that he is but looking back, I would be in no rush again to send him and would have taken a more relaxed approach, home schooling for a while. My second child on the other hand is already in montessori and is 'made' for school, she suits that structure, sucks it all in and will be 'miss popular'...which will bring its own challenges I am sure (oh, can't wait!)

    1. thanks Colette for your detailed comment, it's great to hear your children are benefitting from the school system. it really boils down to personalities, and some kids are suited to school and some are not. i definitely had a hard time making friends in school, though i doubt i'd have been better off at home, it's a tricky one, and for each family to decide.
      thanks for reading and commenting x

  5. not for me either but totally see your reasons why and agree with a lot of them. im interested to see if you know of how this type of schooling fares against the more traditional type in terms of future career/college choices etc?
    however i do think a lot of people blindly send their kids to school without really paricipating in their schooling if you know what i mean.

    1. i know any home-schooled children are able to sit state exams, and have no problem getting into higher education, in fact they seem to complete their academic work in a shorter time-frame, as they are going at their own pace. i myself spent 7 years in college, 4 years at a traditional university degree, and ended up working for myself, in an area i didn't need qualifications per se, just experience and talent. i'm hoping my children will follow their passions, and I'm very confident that home-schooling will provide more opportunities than it precludes.

      in regards to people blindly sending their children to school, yes, unfortunately some see it as a day-care situation, and don't really question what's going on, nor get involved enough with their children and the school. some parents just don't have the time or head-space i suppose.
      thanks for your comment

  6. Hi Niamh!

    I'm enjoying getting to know you through this blog. Isn't it cool that we can live on two different continents and yet, through our shared interests, connect with one another? I love that!

    I just thought I'd help balance your comment section a little by letting you know how great I think it is that you're willing to learn about the many options out there for educating your children.

    As a former teacher, I struggled with the many drawbacks of traditional, as an unschooling mom, I celebrate the benefits of this way of life every day!

    I wish you all the best as you continue to walk your path with courage and confidence!

    Take good care,

    1. I'm star-struck that you left me such a great comment, thanks Nicole! I taught for many years at primary and secondary level, as a substitute and resource teacher, and yes, the drawbacks made me bite my tongue on more than one occasion. it's an archaic system that benefits nobody at this stage, not the students, not the teachers.
      only yesterday a neighbour came by looking for sponsorship money to buy batteries for the illuminated whiteboards in the classrooms. each battery costs 300 euro apparently, and the kids are having to raise money privately to fund this. at what point do we do away with the money-wasting gadgets and spend the money where it's really needed? the mind boggles. just another occasion where the school don't see the wood for the trees.
      thanks again, and i'll be checking in on your blog again soon

  7. Very thought-provoking entry Niamh! I wish I was brave enough to go down the home-schooling route but reckon I would have a major job convincing my partner - about me giving up work too when things are so tight :( what does your other half think about the decision?

    1. hi, thanks for your comment.
      i'm delighted i provoked so many thoughts, it seems to have struck a chord with many!
      the money issue will always be there, we've re-jigged our lifestyle and cut back on holidays etc with me staying at home now, and i don't really notice a huge difference to be honest. you cut your cloth to fit, or whatever the saying is. we can live on very little, and have no problem with it. no "keeping up with the jones's" here!
      my husband is the "we" that I refer to in the above post, we are a team, and all our decisions are made jointly, after research and discussion. just like the home-births, the co-sleeping, etc, you have to be a team, and can't do it alone. the one decision i made (to "E.C" our second son) was a decision I made alone, did for a year alone, and then dropped with no regrets, as my husband wasn't on board with it. it's no big loss, and i'm a little relieved to be honest.
      so, talk it out, and if you need to get "brave" join our home-education in Ireland facebook group or HEN for more info!
      THanks for your comment

  8. I have been worrying about sending my lad to a school without a religious ethos, no good schools in my area apart from one catholic one... but your post has rocked my world and opened my mind. I would love to homeschool and will look into it now, I'm only worried about giving up my career and if I can be patient enough all day with him but at least I now have another option. Thank you for being so open and honest and whatever you end up doing it will be well considered and not just because it was done before...

    1. I'm delighted my post made you see there are other options out there. nothing has to be a permanent decision, you can take it year by year, or term by term if you so wish. the patience needed is no more than the usual patience a parent needs, you're not going to be sitting with your son poring over books for 5 hours a day, that's not how home-edding works!
      Thanks a million for your comment, it's made my day to hear how you feel about my post x

  9. Really great post Niamh. I am terrified of sending my sons to school to for all the reasons you mentioned plus I hated school and was crippled with shyness despite having loving/ AP parents. I would hate to think of my babies going through that. I am looking into different schooling options but to be honest never seriosuly considered unschooling as an option as I work too (myself & hubbie work opposite and share the childcare) but it is definatly something I will consider more seriosuly. my oldest is only 2 now so i have a bit more time but will be keeping an eye on your experiences :-) Thanks again for such an honest blog post.
    Ellie x

    1. Hi Ellie,
      There is a huge range of involvement that parents can have, from a traditional "schooling" type of home-school, complete with curriculum to follow, to radical unschooling (look that one up, i don't want to do it a disservice by describing it wrong). I love the idea of child-led learning, who better than the child to dictate his interests?
      Read everything, and start discussing now, it's never too early, and it helps you with the "pre-school" learning stages too, language, counting etc, everything will benefit. Thanks for your lovely comment x

  10. "i hate to think that my sensitive, intelligent son would have to toughen up, to stand up for himself against peer injustices, or to defend himself against a physical attack"
    Hi Niamh-I am a home educator-it makes me sad to read that John thinks these lessons are important developmental steps that can be learned from other childrens or adults meaness. The Home educated children I've met have a strong sense of injustice precisely because they have not been over exposed to it. They are tough too in a positive sense-they stick up for themselves and their friends and do not tolerate meaness because they have not learned to put up with it. Love your post Ciara Webster

    1. Thanks a million for your comment Ciara, it's great to hear how Home edded kids develop in such a positive way. Recently Charlie was around a group of children where the ringleader was very bossy and rude to the others, Charlie included. He was totally oblivious to her manipulations, I think because he hasn't been exposed to them, so didn't realise he was "supposed to" give in. It was like he had a force field around him. When I think of how I would have been intimidated in a similar situation as a kid I see the huge differences, and I'm delighted we're developing his sense of self this young. Thanks for your comment xx

  11. Hiiiii, your post makes a lot of sense to me. I have an issue on my mind though... for a kid to be unschooled, it means that one of the caregivers really needs to stop working, or really cut back, and that is generally mums. It doesn't have to be, but the reality is that it is, what with the baby needing mum more than they need dad in the early years, women earning less than men, and other issues, if anyone cuts back, the woman will. This is also at odds with my belief that women and men should have more egalitarian roles in society and that the world would be a better place if more women were leaders (as opposed to a ridiculous 10% tops) and were making major decisions in our society. In an ideal world (Continuum Concept style) our children would accompany us throughout the early years of their lives until they are ready to be more independent, they would come to work with us, play outside, help with various tasks, learn at their own pace. But we don't live in a logistically simple society, and my desire to facilitate my kid's unschooling is at odds with my desire to make a difference to the world at a professional level, for which i need my career. Not looking for a specific answer, just sharing a thought. We live in Ireland and our son is a year and a half now.


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