July 08, 2015
FED up with Australia’s school system, Brisbane mother-of-four Rachael Clark did something many would consider unthinkable. She pulled her kids out of the classroom for good.
Instead, she decided to unschool them, meaning they don’t have any structured lessons on anything — they simply experience the day-to-day world however they want.
Left to their own devices, they are allowed to follow their interests and passions “in a more natural way.”
“It’s about giving them control over their learning, and allowing them to do what they love,” Ms Clark tells news.com.au of her radical approach to education.
“We feel like we’ve carved out a secret life.”
The experiment began three years ago. But has it worked?
Ms Clark and husband George removed their eldest daughter Jemima, who has Aspergers, at the age of 11, feeling she was struggling to cope in traditional schooling.
Not long after, daughter Milli, now 11, also stopped going. The Clarks’ second youngest, William, now 7, has never attended and there are no plans to send two-and-a-half year-old Alexander.
Ms Clark says she couldn’t be happier with the progress they’ve made since ditching the classroom. The three eldest are proficient readers and the children love to be outdoors, feeding their passion for geology and archeology.
“Since I’ve pulled her out of school, she’s been great,” Ms Clark says of Jemima, now 14, who used to complained of being “bored”.
“She does university level courses online.”
The Clarks believe Australian schools are getting it wrong in their one-size-fits-all approach to children’s learning.
“If you don’t tick the box, we can’t help you,” she said of the school’s attitude towards her children before she removed them,” Ms Clark says.
“They want the kids to conform to the mould and for those who don’t, it’s like trying to push a square peg through a round hole.”
It is a sentiment articulated so pointedly by one 15-year-old schoolgirl that it left her teacher in tears and divided her New Zealand home town last week.
Year 10 student Anela Pritchard used a school speech to skewer educators for teaching “irrelevant information” and fixating on “essays, worksheets and endless amount of study”.
“In high school, we should be learning about the real world, how to pay my taxes, apply for jobs, mortgage my house, buy a car, things that we will actually use in the future,” she said. “Do I honestly need to know what a= 1+rn to the 2nd power is?”
The term unschooling was coined by American educator John Holt and is used interchangeably with natural learning, interest-driven learning and child-driven learning. It differs to home schooling in that there is no structure, and no formal assessment.
It’s a method that a growing number of Australian parents are taking up.
However opponents of the approach fear that unschooling could leave children without basic skills in certain areas and render them ill-equipped for the structured nature of the workplace.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and the co-author of the Review of the Australian Curriculum. He believes there should be diversity in the approach to schooling, but says when it comes to homeschooling and unschooling, “there must be accountability to ensure it’s in the best interest of the child.”
He warns there is a certain danger when homeschooling deprives children of the ability to socialise.
The Clarks regularly meet with a group of like-minded families to ensure their kids have social contact.
When they’re at home, the kids pursue their own curiosity and seek out mum when they need a helping hand.
“The other day they asked about the word ‘there/their’ so I got out the blackboard and we went through it,” she said.
While Ms Clark used to allocate a certain number of hours a day to teach predetermined topics, she now allows her children to learn naturally.
Dr Donnelly worries that parents “might not have the expertise or knowledge to provide adequate teaching across broad subjects.”
But for Ms Clark, unschooling is about “getting them on their path.” Which is a function she believes tradition schools do not adequately perform for every child.
Three years on, she believes the Australian schooling system “failed” her family.
It’s not just parents who are becoming disenchanted. Dr David Loader has spent a lifetime in education and is critical of the direction Australian schools are taking.
“We have schools designed for the past, not the future,” the former principal of Melbourne’s prestigious Wesley College told news.com.au.
“For far too many young people school is not relevant; it is boring and can reduce their self-confidence.”
He believes a large part of the problem is the “political considerations” built into the curriculum, such as an expressed desire to achieve a particular PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) ranking.
“Unfortunately, the current government focus on assessment means that the students exiting from schools all have the same skills, rather than a diversity of skills,” he said.
He believes the schooling system has “a lack of respect for learning and a narrow view of knowledge.”
He is certainly not alone in his view that education needs to be more adaptive. One of the recommendations to come out of the national curriculum review, co-authored by Dr Donnelly, was the need for schools and communities to have a greater ability to shape the curriculum at a local level.
“To de-clutter and simplify in order to allow for greater innovation,” Dr Donnelly said.
State governments are very sceptical of the approach of unschooling taken by the likes of the Clarks.
In response to the growing trend, a 2014 NSW Parliamentary inquiry raised concerns that some parents use the “pretence of unschooling” to shun education.
“Children who are unschooled may not achieve even basic levels of literacy and numeracy. The application of unschooling may constitute educational neglect,” the inquiry’s report concluded.
“Letting children skate across whatever topic takes at their momentary fancy will leave many with debilitating deficits in essential skills and poorly developed self-control,” the committee’s deputy chair, Dr John Kaye said at the time.
But the Clarks are accustomed to the criticism.
“Some people get it,” Ms Clark says, adding “the in-laws were less supportive”.
While the family got zero pushback from the school when removing their children, that is not always the case and a concern for other parents thinking of following in Clarks’ footsteps. Ms Clark has set up a Facebook page to advise other families, where she documents regular excursions to museums and the bush.
But when they return home, and if they’re are in the mood to learn, it’s whatever they want.