An understandable fear people have about their children leaving formal education is that if they don’t do well at school, they won’t go far in life. Since school is really the only model that we all know well, and the model that the vast majority of us and our children pass through in order to reach the rest of life, it’s easy to understand the fear.
Doing well at school really means doing well academically. Not only that, but it means doing well academically at the subjects that are on the curriculum. It’s a narrow definition of success but one that certainly has some pay-offs. Get good grades at school, and you’re far more likely to go to university and then on to a well-paid job. Statistics invariably back up this idea that the better we do at school, the better we do at life. In fact, according to an article in yesterday’s Guardian, the schoolchildren most affected by the pandemic are likely to lose an average of £46,000 in lifetime earnings due to disruption in their schooling.
And so, the focus is on pushing children through this system that (sort of) paves a route to success. The onus is on the student to stay on track, and not fall behind and jeopardise their future. Studies show that children with lower reading skills, for example, do worse at subjects across the board. And so, within the confines of the system there is lots of evidence to support the case that it’s important to push early reading because it improves a child’s chances of success. I recently did a podcast with a mother who took her child out of school when he was seven. He was considered a slow reader, so his break times were spent in the corridor having extra reading tuition. Meetings were held, letters sent home, all in the quest to get this young child to keep up with his peers. Her son hated school, had frequent meltdowns when he got home and started to insist that he was stupid. The only possible answer from within the system was to put more pressure on the child to improve. Because if a child doesn’t do well, what will happen to them?
(It is worth pointing out that whilst the general rhetoric may be about helping every child succeed, in the UK at GCSE level, this is impossible. The grade boundaries are set so that two-thirds of each year’s cohort get a 4 or higher (pass) and one-third get a 3 or lower (fail). No matter how hard every child works, a third will fail).
We know what happens to children who don’t do well, because we saw those children when we were at school, or maybe we were one of those children. In my school (and I believe this is still the norm), for many subjects we were in different sets according to our ability in that subject. The high fliers were always in set one, the less brilliant but conscientious ones like myself tended to be in a mix of sets one and two. Then there were the children who were always in sets three, four, five or six. I never wondered how it felt to always be in set five or six. To have to turn up to a place every single day where you were always at the bottom of the pile. There’s no doubt that these children had countless skills, but in that system, with that curriculum, we were rated and sorted according to a precise criteria. If you were fabulous at something but it didn’t fit that criteria, then it’s highly possible that no one even knew you had that skill.
We can probably assume that being within a system that makes you feel unsuccessful, whilst ignoring the things you are good at, is not great for a child’s wellbeing. Perhaps, as an adult, it is similar to having a really ill-suited job, with the difference that no one is encouraging you to leave and find something more suitable. So when we worry about our children doing well at school, we are probably also worrying about the consequences of not doing well at school. Lost earnings, lost opportunities, bottom of the class, feeling stupid..
But, what happens if you take school completely out of the equation? Are you simultaneously saving your child from the consequences of doing badly whilst also depriving them of the possibility of doing well?
The thing about taking school out of the equation is that you also remove this fundamental idea of a child doing well or badly. Assuming that the child lives in a supportive and loving environment and that the family embraces learning beyond school (not school at home), everything changes. When you stop comparing and judging, you see that every child has the potential to do brilliantly, not just at school, but at life. The children who are naturally academic will seek out knowledge in the areas that light them up. If they need qualifications to follow their path, then they can be supported in that. A child who has the autonomy to set out their own path is a force to be reckoned with. Maybe they’ll take longer than their peers, or maybe not. It will no longer matter how fast they get to the next step, because the journey that is driven by passion and curiosity is intrinsically meaningful in itself. They can’t be ahead or behind themselves.
Many of my podcast guests are parents who, like myself, did well at school. We worked hard and followed that straight path to university. But a common thread is the regret that we never really knew what our passions were, that we were never encouraged (or had the time beyond school) to delve deep into things that were not needed on that straight path. Fitting in, following the rules, conforming—the lesson was that these were far more valuable than our own individuality. As the late Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his famous Ted talk, these may have been great lessons for the children of newly industrialised nations, but maybe not so much for those coming of age in the 21st century, where creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box thinking are highly prized.
I have no idea how my children would have fared at school. And I don’t know what their paths into the future will look like. A few years ago I might have worried about that, but not any more. The choices they make now are so aligned with who they are, and their interests run so deep, that I am confident that as the years roll by, they’ll continue to direct their paths with this confidence.
One has chosen to attend a self-directed learning centre, which they go to every afternoon. They and their peers choose freely what they take part in, with learning advisors there to help them when necessary. There are no exams and no hierarchy of subjects, decisions are taken democratically with the students’ full involvement, and any goals or expectations are set by the students themselves. Many of the children there have come from mainstream schools in which they were not doing well. Yet here, treated with respect and given autonomy over their own paths, they thrive.
Another of my children is diagnosed autistic with demand avoidance. Their way of being is highly likely to have gone against them within a mainstream system. Large classes, too much noise, and a lack of autonomy are all in direct opposition to the environment my child needs to thrive in. I can’t know for sure, but I can imagine that this might have manifested in a classroom as shyness, rebellion, overwhelm, or shutdown. Outside of that environment, they are engaged and passionate about many things. They consider themselves a lifelong learner and always have an impressive number of subjects on the go. This week, I have spoken to three adults who lead different activities and classes that my child takes part in. I have been told that they are shining, that they have an incredible memory, that they are a delight to teach, that they are creative, funny and disciplined. Could they really be doing better at school? I don’t think so.
Unsurprisingly, there are few studies into how unschoolers fare as adults. Peter Gray of Psychology Today has conducted some research into this and published the results of a study of 75 adult unschoolers. Of these, 83 percent had gone on to some form of higher education, and 44 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher or were currently full-time students in a bachelor’s programme. “The great majority of respondents who went on to college reported no difficulty doing the academic work. Indeed, most said they were at an academic advantage, primarily because of their high motivation and their high capacity for self-initiative, self-direction, and self-control.” There are obvious limits to the study, but there are interesting themes that run through the responses. Those that did not go to college or university intentionally chose different paths that they were happy with.
So, can your child do well in life if they don’t do have the opportunity to do well in school? Absolutely. From a purely academic point of view, they can still take exams and still go to college or university. But the real magic of unschooling lies in leaving aside the whole idea of doing well or doing badly. There are just children, each here with their own unique interests and passions, learning how to live in a way that is meaningful and coherent to them. I don’t think it can really get better than that.