What’s The Alternative?

Words: Emma Howarth

While the rest of us were charging around the house hollering “shoes”, “teeth” and “we’re going to be late…again” at 7.30am this morning, Louise Gibbens was enjoying a slow start at home in Kent with her two boys, Archie, 10, and Jody, six. After breakfast, Archie and Jody won’t rush to school in the rain, sit still in assembly or take a spelling test – because they don’t go to school. Gibbens (who posts about their life on Instagram as @loopygibbens) is part of a growing movement of parents who have taken the bold move to step away from mainstream schooling and teach their children at home.

“Archie attended a very small local primary school for two years, but it soon became obvious that learning in a busy classroom environment wasn’t working,” she says. “Structured teaching, for him, doesn’t lead to learning. His brother has never been to school. We gave him the choice and he chose to stay at home.”

For the Gibbens’ children, a typical day’s learning might include playing at home on their bikes, an art project or building with Lego. On other days, they might take a trip to the beach or attend a home educators’ group, a forest school session or a ceramics workshop. They don’t sit down to the type of kitchen table lessons that spring to mind when you think of home-schooling, in fact, they don’t sit down to formal lessons at all.

“Our approach quickly changed from home-schooling to unschooling,” says Gibbens. “Archie has some quite specific learning difficulties and an unusual cognitive profile. He reads at an almost adult level but doesn’t seem to retain anything when it is ‘formally taught’. Unschooling puts him in charge; it’s all about trusting that children will learn what they need to through their own interests and passions.”

Gibbens is not alone in her decision to take her children’s education into her own hands. In December 2015, the BBC reported a 65 per cent increase over six years in children recorded as home educated, amounting to some 37,000 children across the UK. This is, of course, still a fairly small percentage of the total school-age population, but because parents do not have a legal obligation to inform the authorities of their decision to home school (children who start school and are subsequently withdrawn are recorded as home educated but many never start in the first place), these figures are likely to be an underestimate.

Jessica Amey, who blogs about her family at Along Came Cherry, has never sent her children to school: “My eldest, Cherry, is very creative and mainstream schooling doesn’t really cater for that. I avoid using the term unschooling, but our kids are very much in control of what they want to learn and when. The beauty of home-schooling is you can tailor things to work best for your family.”

It’s not difficult to see the appeal in allowing your child to learn at their own pace and in a way that suits them, but reasons for home-schooling are as varied as the families who choose to do it. For some it’s a lifestyle choice or a stop-gap while they wait for a place at their preferred local authority school, for others it’s simply the best way to cater for their child’s specific learning needs. One reason for opting out of the mainstream, however, and mentioned by nearly every parent we interviewed, was testing. New SATs, requiring children in Year 2 and Year 6 to take attainment tests, were introduced in state primary schools in 2016, raising questions for many parents about mounting pressures on children.

Of course, abandoning the idea of school completely isn’t right for every parent on a mission to depressurise childhood. For many, choosing an independent primary school with an alternative, self-directed education ethos – Montessori, Steiner or a school with a democratic philosophy, such as Devon’s Sands or Suffolk’s famous Summerhill – proves the ideal solution. Many families, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, chose a Montessori nursery setting for their children, so continuing with this method at primary level doesn’t feel like such a bold leap. Others make the decision to switch after a period of schooling elsewhere doesn’t work out as planned. Some, like Tilda Swinton, become so committed to the education choice they’ve made that they take matters into their own hands when options run out. When Swinton’s 14-year-old twins reached the final year of their Steiner school in the Scottish Highlands, she wanted them to continue learning in that environment so much she was moved to co-found the Drumduan Upper School.

Yorkshire-based independent midwife Deborah Rhodes decided against the local primary for her son right from the start, choosing instead a small Montessori school with a focus on hands-on learning, time outdoors and play. “I want him to learn at his own rate and in his own time,” she says. “I just don’t think there’s enough room for individuality in a mainstream setting.”

The idea that young children learn best through play is an accepted cornerstone of early years education across the state and independent sectors – a philosophy that delegates at the National Union of Teachers conference in 2015 called to extend to the age of seven in classrooms. Many schools in the independent sector, even those without specific ‘alternative’ pedagogies, have taken this advice on board and made changes to the way lessons are taught to infant school children.

“Families who are interested in alternative education tend to gravitate to the independent sector,” says Neil Roskilly, CEO of the Independent Schools Association. “In fact, interest in alternative education has risen so much that many schools which would have been regarded as alternative 20 years ago are now considered mainstream today.”

Despite this, home and alternative schooling remain relatively niche in the UK, especially when compared to the US, where home education, in particular, is much more commonplace. For Australian-born Kirsten Rickert, who lives in Maine with her until-recently home-schooled girls, Maya, 10 and Elle, eight, stepping out of mainstream education was a massive relief. “I know that sounds extreme,” she says. “But I felt strongly that I wanted to be more progressive.” Rickert home-educated her girls for two years, all documented on her blog, Magnesium Blue, and Instagram (@mayaclimbstrees), before deciding to move them to a Steiner school. She says: “Their days at school are full of singing, music, games and craft, as well as maths, reading and writing. The seasons are celebrated. Mealtimes are calm. They are artistic nature lovers and we knew this school would nurture that.”

It might look and sound idyllic, but what are the downsides to choosing this type of education? And what if you don’t have the time to home-school or the money to pay private school fees?

Maddy Longhurst was thrilled when a state-funded Steiner school, the Steiner Academy in Bristol, opened in her area. It’s one of four such schools currently in operation in the UK; there are also four Montessori schools within the state sector. For Longhurst, moving her daughter, Martha, 11, out of mainstream education has been a success: “The change in her was instant. She’s much happier now. I wanted to increase her love of learning and for her to be somewhere where she could take her time to master skills and delve deep into subjects.”

For Longhurst, there have been no negatives, but others, particularly those who’ve chosen home education, admit that the path they’ve taken isn’t always rosy. Gibbens admits to staying up late in the evening just to get a small amount of child-free time. “It’s hard to get time to myself,” she says. “It puts me firmly in the role of stay-at-home mother, only able to take on jobs that fit around the children, while my husband works ridiculous hours to financially support our decision. Plus, our home is never tidy. But I’d still choose home education, regardless of all that.”

The children of the parents we interviewed have ambitions for the future as varied and whimsical as any their age – artists, dog walkers, gymnasts, blacksmiths and Minions – but what if they want to go to university? Could a decision to school your child an an alternative setting impact on their future opportunities? Gibbens is already looking at the best ways to help her eldest son achieve his higher education goals, while Roskilly thinks choosing a school with an alternative ethos might even have some advantages. “The outcomes for children attending alternative schools in the private sector are hugely positive,” he says. “Universities value the freedom of academic thought that these children often possess. Many go on to enjoy fabulous careers in diverse fields, bringing innovation and alternative thinking that is valued by the world-leading and values- driven companies that employ them.”

Every child is different and so is every family but, if the inquisitive minds created by these parents are anything to go by, there’s a lot to be said for being brave enough to choose the road less travelled.

Images: Louise Gibbens

An Alternative Approach

Home-school

By law, all children must receive a full-time education from the age of five, but this does not have to take place in a school or follow the national curriculum. It is completely legal in the UK to educate your child at home and there’s no obligation to inform any authority of your intention to do so (if you remove your child from school to home-school, however, you will need to deregister them).

Unschooling

Home education but without using any formal lesson structure. This method allows children to follow their own interests and learn from the world around them. Flexi-school A halfway house between home-school and regular school in which parents – at the discretion of their child’s headteacher – arrange to educate at home part-time.

Montessori

Maria Montessori’s holistic approach focuses on a child’s innate desire to learn and their ability to absorb information (particularly before the age of six) when given the freedom to do so at their own pace. Children learn by choosing, trying and doing things themselves and are given the autonomy to concentrate on tasks uninterrupted. Many facets of this method have been adopted by mainstream state and independent schools.

Steiner

Rudolf Steiner’s educational philosophy is founded on a child-centric, unhurried and creative approach that caters for physical, intellectual, emotional and developmental needs in an unpressurised environment. Children don’t start formal lessons until the age of six and natural materials are favoured. Steiner’s philosophy, which he called anthroposophy, is not without its controversies (his work contains some suspect statements on health and race) but schools employing his methods today tend universally to acknowledge that these are inappropriate in a modern context.

Other Alternative Schools

There are numerous other schools with alternative approaches in the UK. Summerhill and Sands School (mentioned in this feature) both follow a democratic method, while the New Forest Small School and Park School go for a small-scale approach, be that in population or class size.

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