Deschooling: Regress to Progress


“School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat.”

Ivan Illich

My son stopped hugging me around the time he began Nursery School. More noticeably than with my daughter, this was a process that destroyed my middle boy. He would begin to show signs of anxiety the night before and stay up way beyond bedtime, probing me with questions about how long he would have to stay before I would come to pick him up. In the morning, not infrequently, breakfast would remain untouched and he would make his body go floppy, so that it was difficult to wrestle his t-shirt on; the polo top with the little corporate emblem that made me think, if he wore it, that he might feel this was where he belonged. Some mornings he would just appear subdued, during the school run, and then the 10 minutes onward to the Nursery School. Other days were a physical fight which left me emotionally wiped out for the rest of the day. Who knows what he was feeling. To be clear, he attended nursery school 3 mornings a week for just over 3 months before we withdrew him, along with his older sister, to home educate. No doubt, if I had ‘persevered’ with Nursery School, he would eventually have stopped crying and ‘got the message’. Instead, we waited for him to unwind and, about 6 months later, he asked me to carry him on a walk one day, because he felt tired. The last time I did this he was 3 years old. It did cross my mind to point this out to him (“How old are you, my love? I think you can walk!”) but instead I scooped him up, my long-legged boy, and held him close. I realised that this was what he needed; a hug with no agenda. The last time I held him like this, I realised with a pang, was to whisper a quick consolation in his ear before tearing his fists from my jumper and passing him, howling, to his key worker. No wonder it took him 6 months.

A friend told me, a while back, that the longer you spend homeschooling your kids, the further and more rapidly you drift away from mainstream ideology. I don’t disagree. Another way of looking at it, though, is that every day and every week you spend home educating represents further Deschooling; a process which, in fact, doesn’t represent a fixed time period at all, but rather a way of being. It isn’t always easy. Plenty of painful and uncomfortable feelings come bubbling to the surface – often unexpectedly – for parents as well as children. Part of the journey into homeschooling (or whatever you want to call it) is coming to terms with your own school experience and feelings, as an adult, about having been ‘schooled’. Schooling is apparent every time we lower our heads to pass a policeman, or deliver a deferential performance to our line manager, or smile through our tears at the Reception teacher who tells us briskly: “Just go; they’ll be fine.” It is a muzzle for the human, sentient animal. And most of us have been schooled for 15 hard years or longer, not 3 months. It take’s a lifetime to work through. Yesterday, I did an interview for the release of my first book and was asked: “What have you discovered about yourself from the writing process?” I rolled my eyes, wondering where to begin. But then I found I had it, on the tip of my tongue. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ve always hated school, hated authority figures, and had a deep need to push back against that stuff,” I said. “I always thought, deep down, that I was a trouble maker, but my research for this book has made me understand myself better. I am learning to accept myself again and to realise that its not me, it’s the system.” The interviewer blinked. “I am deschooling,” I said simply.

One thing you might observe if you choose to quit the school system, is that you collect more stuff. Your home has a different function now, and it shows. It is no longer a blank canvas – cushions plumped and kettle on – waiting for your children to come home from school. Now, real learning and growing are taking place here every day. So the kitchen might be covered in jigsaw pieces for an entire week, as they grapple with a giant floor puzzle. Tables and chairs become obscured by a foliage of books and maps and half-written letters to real or imaginary people. There must be a scrabble game happening somewhere, because letters keep appearing under rugs, in pockets, wrapped up in the baby’s tight fist. When we believe that learning is happening somewhere else – at school – many of us allow our homes to become impoverished as a result, displaying attractive artwork and wiped surfaces, but no trace of the magnificent human minds that are being cultivated. Home education changes that and brings about, for the majority of families I have now worked with, a transformation best described as Enriching Your Environment. I believe that this is intimately connected with deschooling. As we withdraw our investment in an external institution, so we renew our investment in our own families and communities. From tree planting to volunteering to painting a mural on the bathroom wall, home educating families do things like this because it’s where their focus lies. It is a shift in perspective that my kids have taken to like fish to water; my husband and I shuffle along, still shackled, trying to keep up. And that’s a painful but important realisation in itself – that we mustn’t dream of showing our children ‘the way’, because we don’t know it ourselves.

This screenshot arrived the other day from a friend who began homeschooling her boys just a few months after us:

“We all have a bag. We all pack differently. Some of us are travelling light. Some of us are secret hoarders who’ve never parted with a memory in our lives.I think we are all called to figure out how to carry our bag to the best of our ability, how to unpack it, and how to face the mess. I think part of growing up is learning how to sit down on the floor with all your things and figuring out what to take with you and what to leave behind.”

Hannah Brencher

I can’t stand clutter. Luckily for me, even if my home is now more messy and disorganised, homeschooling provides a unique opportunity to Declutter Your Mind. Part of this is, of course, sorting your own memories and feelings about school, in order to find a strong, healthy place from which to approach home education with your kids. It is also a cathartic process and requires a lot of honesty, with yourself and with your children, when asked. “Mummy, did you enjoy school?” “Ye-es, sort of.” “What did you like?” “Well, I was very good at passing exams.” “Oh. Well done.” “Thanks. But look, I was also a bit naughty. I guess you could say I liked trouble; that made school enjoyable.” “What, being bad?” “Yep.” My daughter shakes her head sadly and goes back to her book. The difference for her is that she can be naughty, or wild, or loud, or rude, any day of the week if she wants to, provided it doesn’t hurt someone else. There is no physical restraint on her natural childlike abundance. It’s been over a year now since she’s been told to sit with her legs crossed and pay attention, yet when the moment requires it – like in January when we visited Hampton Court – she can stand silently in the chapel, feeling the stillness that the moment requires, and listening to the murmur of the audio tour headphones. I realise that much of the stress levels that have dictated my relationship with my children up to this point, have depended on fixed, ‘schooled’ ideas about how children should behave and how they should learn. I was afraid that if I didn’t manage to anchor them for 10 minutes to practise their spellings, they would never learn to concentrate. Not true. And I feared, if I let them spend the summer up trees with unbrushed hair shouting song lyrics, that they would develop a wild streak, like me, and get into trouble. Perhaps so, but I don’t fight it any more. Because a lot of fighting the kids has been more to do with resolving how I feel about myself.

Deschooling can take a more extreme route, depending on the severity of the school-based trauma that has occurred. Not everyone goes through the system simply feeling that they don’t ‘fit in’; for many the scars are real, physical, and lasting. In her recent article for The New York Times, Joanna Schroeder described “one couple…who chose to withhold their son’s name to protect him from further bullying…[who] said his arm was broken when a classmate shoved him into a wall last fall.” This stuff happens. I trained at a school where a girl was pepper sprayed outside the gates and attacked by a rival gang armed with belts. But let’s turn to Edward, a boy I met just a few weeks ago through research for my next book. At 14, he stands head and shoulders above me and his brown-eyed Spanish mother, who has come into the garden to tell me the story. How they withdrew their son from school just before Lockdown due to what she describes as a long campaign of discrimination and bullying from a member of staff towards her son. Edward sits at a table, listening in, but he says nothing. I am told he has barely spoken a word since the day he left the school, preferring instead to paint, listen to music, and watch cartoons with his younger sister. I nod and smile, thinking how much I’d like to know what Edward’s voice sounds like and what really went on. This regression, I know, is an essential part of Reframing Your Story and Reasserting Control for children who have experienced real trauma, but still, I’m incurably nosy. His mother, as if preempting my next move, looks me in the face. “He’ll open up when he’s ready,” she says. She is a wiser woman than me.

This past week, I’ve been buried in ‘Deschooling Society’ by Ivan Illich. It’s nothing short of a shock to recognise yourself, and people you know, in such a radical, anti-establishment text. “School,” he writes, “is not reasonable because it does not link relevant qualities or competences to roles, but rather the process by which such qualities are supposed to be acquired. It is not liberating or educational because school reserves instruction to those whose every step in learning fits previously approved measures of social control.” I remember swearing in the cloakroom one day during the last year of primary school. A playground assistant backed me physically into a corner and lent massively over me to state that, wherever I went, whatever I did that day, she would be listening with her ‘big ears’ for me. I have never forgotten that moment. In fact, I think that it was somewhere around this time that I started ‘acting out’ in school. Oppression typically draws two responses; bottled aggression or ‘psychological impotence’ (Illich, 1971). I would go so far as to speculate that many of the problems the world faces today, from environmental disaster to our increasing social polarisation and inhumanity, have roots in a system that is fundamentally hollow, yet claims a “monopoly over the social imagination, setting standards of what is valuable and what is feasible.” (Illich, 1971) Deschooling, therefore, is about Reimagining Your Mental Horizons and feeling the world again, for yourself, not through a filter. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You’ve probably already figured it out for yourself.

The Case for Homeschooling is now available to order with Hawthorn Press