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Back to School... or Not?

It's fall, and everyone's thoughts turn to school.

Or do they? More and more families are discovering that learning doesn't have to mean boredom and misery; it can instead mean joyful discovery, just as it does for any child under so-called "school age". Watch a two-year-old eagerly greeting the day - he can't wait to explore more of the world around him. Exploration and discovery are his agenda! Then watch an older child slowly and reluctantly (or even miserably) getting dressed for another day filled with someone else's agenda, which only very occasionally, if ever, matches what he himself would have chosen to explore that day.

But isn't school necessary, or have we been indoctrinated to support the massive educational system? Home educated children typically score significantly higher than public school students on standardized academic achievement tests.1 And home learning is by far the fastest growing form of education. According to the Homeschool Population Report by the National Homeschooling Research Institute (NHERI), there were over two million homeschoolers in the US in 2010.2

If compulsory schooling isn't necessary for academic learning, what about socialization? Yes, children do want and need to spend time with other children, but school limits their interactions to those of the same age and social background. And most schools then further limit their interaction to lunchtime and recess (by far the two most common answers to "What do you like best about school?" yet no one seems to be paying attention to those polls.) Children learn the most by spending time with people of all ages and backgrounds. Unschoolers are free to learn from people of all ages, from babies to the elderly. And they can spend time with schoolchildren during weekends and summers, and with the many other unschoolers who are available every day. Local homeschooling and unschooling support groups are flourishing in the US and Canada, and in many other countries.

If parents are beginning to recognize that literacy and socialization aren't valid arguments for school, why are so many children still there? Unfortunately, the most common reason for sending children to school is economic necessity. Now that families are struggling financially and two-income homes are common, school has become the de facto babysitter - available, safe and free.

But are schools always available? When school teachers strike, or a school closes, working parents have to scramble to find an alternative. Fortunately, more and more parents are discovering that they are able to work from home.

Are schools really safe? They used to be, but one glance at the news headlines tells us that is no longer the case. And it's getting worse: incidents of theft, assault, bullying, and other forms of violence are on the rise.3 Many schools now have armed security staff present in the school building. Yet strategies such as the use of security guards and metal detectors have been found to be consistently ineffective in protecting students, and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption.4

Are schools really free? They seem to be, but a parent with outside work and a child in school rarely takes into account the many hidden costs of that arrangement, such as a second car or other transportation, professional clothing, work lunches and convenience foods. And because schools have catchment areas, the cost of nearby housing is driven up - another hidden cost.

Are schools really necessary? Even parents with no outside job have been convinced that they can't be their children's educator. Yet their children have already learned easily and joyfully, as toddlers, the vast majority of the skills they will need later, simply by observing and copying the adults around them. With no formal instruction, they have learned through their own efforts to walk and to talk, and a myriad of complicated social skills. And according to a NHERI survey, homeschoolers demonstrate "healthy social, psychological, and emotional development, and success into adulthood" and are more socially engaged than their schooled peers.1 Parents considering homeschooling and unschooling often worry that this choice may make it harder to qualify for university programs, but the opposite is the case; colleges have been quick to recognize home learners' achievements, and now actively recruit them.

If schools are not available, safe, free, or necessary, why are we still using them? In fact, we are slowly moving away from compulsory schooling. Homeschooling, unschooling and free schools are growing exponentially. According to the NHERI report, we can expect "a notable surge in the number of children being homeschooled in the next 5 to 10 years. The rise would be in terms of both absolute numbers and percentage of the K to 12 student population. This increase would be in part because [1] a large number of those individuals who were being home educated in the 1990s may begin to homeschool their own school-age children and [2] the continued successes of home-educated students."2

Can we learn from our happy, curious, insatiable toddlers what true education looks like?

  1. "Research Facts on Homeschooling", National Home Education Research Institute, January 15, 2015.
  2. Brian D. Ray, "2.04 Million Homeschool Students in the United States in 2010", National Home Education Research Institute, January 3, 2011.
  3. Schreck, C. J., & Miller, J. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2003). Trouble in the school yard: A study of the risk factors of victimization at school. Crime & Delinquency, 49, 460-484.
  4. Nickerson, A. B., & Martens, M. R. (2008). School violence: Associations with control, security/enforcement, educational/therapeutic approaches, and demographic factors. School Psychology Review, 37, 228-243.
Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.