Sarah's Story

We are a family of 4 with two teenagers who have always been home educated. I am an ex-teacher and SENco. I’m the main ‘home educator’, although I’ve done lots of part-time jobs over the years, from childminding to tutoring, whilst my husband has always worked out of the house full-time. I did visit schools for my eldest but I just found them so uninspiring and couldn’t imagine her there. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she would have to leave a big and important part of herself at the school gates. It just felt all wrong.

“To raise a nature-bonded child is to raise a rebel, a dreamer, an innovator… someone who will walk their own verdant, winding path.” ~Nicolette Sowder

We began our home educating journey with a nature inspired, play-based ethos where learning was child-led and developmentally appropriate. Instead of school, our children played non-stop in those early years. I always think of them as these experts in play (as all children are naturally), and they would wake up each morning and just carry on where they’d left off the previous day. We spent a lot of time outdoors getting muddy and many hours snuggled up on the sofa reading books together. They learnt to read and write in a very natural and organic way. It was joyful.

I felt a change happen when my daughter hit about age 9. She wanted something different, but I struggled to understand how to support her. I guess we hit a road -block and this idea of school loomed large in her world - it was everywhere - in the books she read, in her wider family and deeply in-grained in society. She was very curious about school, and I think her trying it was inevitable. She enjoyed being home educated, but she’s very much her own person, and it was important to her to see what school was all about. We felt it was the right thing to do to support her curiosity in the way we always had done. I did have concerns, but mostly we just tried to embrace it with positivity and so she went to school for 5 months at the age of 10.

Overall it was a disappointing experience. One day they had a parent open day and I didn’t feel at all welcome. There was such a hostile atmosphere. The entire set-up felt so alien to the way we lived our lives at home. I had been away from teaching for almost a decade by then and, in all honesty, it shocked me. The school was run like a failing military boot-camp. Any last bit of faith I had in our education system was extinguished that day. My daughter felt the same, but she had a few boxes left to tick on her ‘school experience list’ so she stayed a while longer and then, one day, she decided that that was enough.

I think the school experience was a huge wake-up call and a realisation that we had as a family, departed a long way from the mainstream over the years in terms of values about how to treat children and what education is. I often think back to my 9 year old son’s words at the initial school visit where we were given the application form: ‘Don’t fill that out Mum, this isn’t the right place for L.’ Wise words indeed.

The home education landscape seems to have changed a lot in recent years and there is so much support and community for this alternative choice now. I don’t think my daughter would have tried school if we’d had the kinds of groups that exist now: the drop off forest schools and the democratic set-ups. 

After that short-lived ‘school experiment’ we were back doing things the way we’d always done them. But it was also around this time that I attended Sophie Christophy’s ‘Consent Based Education’ course after becoming very interested in children’s rights and the idea of consent in education. I will always be so grateful for Sophie’s course, it was like the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place. All the things I had been thinking but just couldn’t quite make complete sense of kind of clicked together. It was the first time I felt really validated in our choice to unschool.

‘The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. Learning happens as a side effect.’ - Joyce Fetterol. 

At home we follow an ‘unschooling’ ethos, which means that the learning is self-directed. Our children follow their own interests and we provide a stimulating and supportive environment, which may or may not include structure - that entirely depends on what each child feels they need, which changes over time. It’s fascinating to me, after all my years of studying education and teaching, that it’s my own children who have given me the most important lessons in how children learn.

Unschooling is so much more than education though, it is a lifestyle choice with consensual living at its centre, and on an even wider scale, it is active resistance against the dominant culture. Unschooling wasn’t what we set out to do as a family; our children led us here. We simply had to pay attention to what they were communicating to us about their needs. Personally I’ve had to work hard at breaking down a lot of long-held beliefs. In my mind, I liken it to a snake shedding skins, and it’s a process that is never really complete, but I’m at peace with the idea that I am always going to be walking this path of learning and growing alongside my children. 

‘Unschooling doesn’t mean doing away with any structure whatsoever: it means creating a structure based on the needs of actual people, instead of following a structure designed for the needs of an institution’-  Idzie Desmarais

Both our children have dabbled a little in more structured type learning as they have become older - they both see the need to consider certain GCSEs to get where they want to go. However, GCSE’s are pretty dull and often there is a big mismatch between their content and how the knowledge is applied in real life - English in particular is very outdated. My question is always around weighing up what they might ‘need’ versus how studying for GCSEs might actually mean forgoing a suitable education for a few years. It’s a complex conundrum, but the way we view it is, there is no hurry, we can take our time and also both children have always managed so far to acquire all the skills and knowledge they need for the next part of their journey, so we just keep talking and being open to what they feel is right for them in the moment. One of the things we’ve tried to do is see the child in front of us, not obsess about the future adult.

In non-covid times they both attend a variety of home ed groups, including a science group with another home ed family, an art class which my daughter travels to with a friend via public transport and a wonderful monthly social group that we have been attending for many years. My daughter has also been working at a stables for the last two years; she works two days a week teaching young children to ride and care for Shetland ponies and my son volunteers at our local community allotment.

 I suppose our biggest challenge apart from money, has been this clash of unschooling with the schooled mainstream world. We are and always have been very integrated with our local community and so it’s a problem we’ve never shied away from. We’ve had to hack the schooled world every day, and I do think at times that has been hard on my children if I’m honest. Unschooling in a schooled world requires you to be pretty bold and if your natural disposition is quite sensitive and non-confrontational, then it does take its toll. However we are lucky to have a really lovely home ed community around us, and I personally feel very hopeful seeing all of the very proactive unschoolers out there doing amazing community led projects. 

I think it’s so important to find your tribe, the people who really ‘get’ you and your choice to unschool. It’s been such a privilege to live and learn alongside my children all of these years - there are certainly no regrets; I’d do it all over again in a heart-beat.

Sarah is passionate about freeing young minds through self-directed learning, exploring the relationship between education, well-being and how we treat the earth.

Check out Sarah's blog Wildhearts.

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