I won't send my kids to school
Leaving conformity, finding freedom
Autumn 2011. North West England, UK.
It’s a routine evening in our home. Although not late, the inky darkness outside would have you believe that it is. The heating is on and the sound of the rain tells me its pouring, drumming against the windowpanes, heavy and rhythmic. I am busy sorting tomorrow’s school uniform, preparing packed lunches and helping my eight-year-old son with his homework while starting to think about getting his four-year-old brother and the baby ready for bed.
My phone rings and I look at the number. A mum from school. Wearily, I answer.
We begin our conversation with polite chit chat before she pauses. I hear her take a deep breath and I brace myself. I know this mum is aware of the recent issues we have had at school; the coming and going, back and forth, asking questions that remain unanswered, questions about our son’s reluctance to go to school, his changing personality, his withdrawal from outdoor activities and, more recently, the unexplained bruises and bumps he comes home with.
“Michelle, I know what is happening,” she finally says, whispering as though afraid her tone will scare me away.
I don’t want to hear and yet I need to know. I stay silent, waiting. My heart pumps faster, the blood rising, my head feels hot.
“My son just told me. He told me he has seen a boy in their class bully and torment your son at every opportunity. Sometimes other kids join in, but it is mainly this one boy and your son is terrified of him. Apparently, this boy has threatened your son so he won’t tell anyone and the other kids are also frightened to tell, but I pushed and prodded and got it out of my son. I’m so, so sorry.”
I remain silent, trying to take her words in.
“There is one more thing,” she says. “Apparently, this has been going on since reception, but getting progressively worse. I don’t know what to say. I wish I had known before. I’m so sorry. Michelle?”
I’m still trying to process it all. The chaos of our noisy house fades into the background as the pieces of this puzzle fall into place, one by one. The blood drains to my feet and I feel like I am about to pass out. Shaking, I sit down, pale.
I mumble a pathetic ‘thank you’ and hang up. At first numb, I manage to pull myself together and put the kids to bed before I tell my husband. He is a strong, well-built man. A Cypriot with dark, striking, and some might say, intimidating features, he has a straightforward, no-messing manner. He is also a loving, devoted husband who had a happy, but difficult childhood in which a daily beating was normal and, apparently, necessary to control a mischievous, spirited boy. As a father, he wouldn’t and hasn’t ever lifted a finger to discipline his children. Gentle and fiercely protective, he listens to me as I recount the call and has to sit down. He is as shocked as I am. We sit in the silence of the house, the rain now louder. Slowly, the anger rises within us until I burst into tears.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe our sweet, gentle, compassionate little boy has been going through this,” I say between sobs. “We’ve been through so much and raised him to be thoughtful, respectful. We’ve loved him and protected him, nurtured and guided him only to hand him over to monsters. How could they allow this to happen? So young. Three years? This has been going on for three years? Why the hell did we not find out sooner? How can we not have known? How did he hide it so well?”
Like a movie playing in my head, I thought about the miscarriages preceding the conception of our beautiful boy. There had been heavy bleeding during this pregnancy too, but he had clung onto life. His birth was traumatic, and we almost lost him and there were seemingly endless days and nights keeping watch by his incubator. I doted on his every breath, so longingly I desired to have him. During the early days of my pregnancy I had read every book and booklet I could lay my hands on and even attended baby first aid classes. The fear of losing him was all pervasive; cot death, choking, injury. And there were the other challenges we faced at the time, such as moving abroad for a new life, with no money, and then back again to start from scratch when he was just six months old; to give him a better life, to allow him more possibilities, a better future, more hope. And as I recalled every sacrifice, every pain, every testing situation, every joy and beautiful moment with my precious child, the more I became a mama bear. And when a mother turns into mama bear, you better watch out. There was no holding me back. You mess with my kids; you mess with me.
What followed over the next weeks was a tornado of visits back and forth to the school, demanding answers, hearing the same old well-rehearsed and regurgitated noise about school safeguarding policies, anti-bullying measures, this policy and that policy and all their empty promises and lies designed to reassure us that the issue was being dealt with. In the meantime, my precious boy was forced to go to school each day, though he cried and begged me not to take him, and I would crumple into a heap outside the school gates as well-meaning mums and teachers tried to convince me he was in good hands and everything was being done to resolve the issue. All the while, my normally sociable, cheerful, happy, little boy became so full of fear he couldn't even go to the local park because he would panic at the sight of other kids, to the extent he would shake in fear. My beautiful child was turning in on himself. He was solemn, quiet and I could see the life draining from him as the school continued to spew its empty promises and false reassurances.
My husband and I wrestled with what to do. In desperation, I talked to friends and family, went on the internet and started looking at options until, finally, the last straw was delivered.
My son came home from school with a huge bruise on the back of his hand and this time, instead of trying to hide and cover up for the bully out of fear and shame, he confessed to everything that had been happening. He had been rejected in the school playground because he loved to read books and play board games more than he liked football. When he tried to join in he was side-lined and ridiculed for being useless and spoiling their games. The contents of his lunch box were repeatedly thrown over the fence to feed the neighbour’s dogs because it contained Greek dishes the other kids called ‘pig’s food’. He was hit and punched for being a wimp because he didn't like play fighting. The bully recruited other boys, former friends of my son, to gang up on him and make fun of him, convincing him he was ugly and fat, which would have been about the time my son started to refuse food and invitations to go out. On one occasion the other kids stole his clothes during P.E. The teacher accused him of misplacing them and he was made to stand in line at the food counter, one of the rare occasions we gave him money to buy lunch there, to get his food in his underpants while everyone mocked him. Now, with this fresh bruise on his hand, he looked up at me, with tears brimming in his eyes that he was trying so hard to hold back, and said, “Mummy, the bully (who I can’t legally identify) threw me against the school gate. I put my hands up to protect my face and he pushed my arms back into the gate that’s why I have this bruise. He told me I am a wimp for telling on him and getting him into trouble and that worse things will come.” My son then collapsed into my arms.
That was the pivotal moment of change for me.
It took all of my self-control to stay strong for my son and as I cradled him in my arms, I made up my mind that he would not only not be going back to that school again, but that I would do whatever it might take to make sure my children grew up in a place free of fear and hatred, a place where they would be nurtured, loved, encouraged, equipped for life and live it as an adventure. Somehow, I didn’t know how, but I knew this was my purpose. My children were priceless gifts, precious lives entrusted to me and I was not going to let anyone hurt them. We would not become another newspaper headline revealing how a mum found her child hanging in his room, another victim of bullying. This was the decisive moment that would change the whole course of our lives.
I knelt in front of my son and promised him he would not be going back to school. I promised him that we would do everything in our power to start afresh and put this nastiness behind us.
Initially, because we had no understanding of our options, we placed our son in a local semi-private faith school where friends of ours worked and where classes were small. His class had nine children in it and when he joined, he had a great first day. Although we couldn't sustain it financially, we were so desperate for him to be happy that we persevered for a few months while I researched everything I could regarding home education. In the UK, the law allows a parent to home school if they can show that their child is well and progressing in their education. I bought every book on home schooling and alternative education that I could find. I read every blog. I studied statistics, evidence, the pros and cons, and I spoke to parents who homeschooled. I learned about unschooling, worldschooling, wildschooling and self-directed education. I discovered there were alternative schools where kids didn’t have to go to classes, and I even did an online course to learn how to start an alternative school. I felt like Lucy in Narnia, stepping out of the wardrobe, that had represented our life up to that point, and out into this other world I never knew existed.
Meanwhile, in the midst of my research and as I battled with my own insecurities, fears and lack of confidence, my son - although happy - was beginning to demonstrate other issues that come with conventional schooling such as an increasingly ridiculous homework load, evidence of inappropriate discussions with other kids in the playground, a hierarchy mentality, ‘the bell rings and I respond’ mode of robotic behaviour, unquestioning conformity and blind obedience. For some reason, all these things were starting to get to me, perhaps because I was seeing them now whereas before I had never noticed. I knew something else was changing; there was a transformation taking place not just in my son, but in me too and consequently it was to be a transformation for the whole family.
I began to realise that there was more to life than the way we were living, which involved running a very demanding catering business that was draining the life from us. We were constantly exhausted and too stressed to enjoy our family. Our children were getting the worst of us and our customers the best of us. We were paying nearly £1,000 per month in school and childcare fees for three children and we had no idea what they were doing during the seven hours they were away from us each day. Someone else was wiping their tears, someone else was changing their nappies, someone else was choosing what they should eat and how to eat it, when and what to play and who to play with. Someone else was nursing them when they were ill. Someone else was telling them what to learn, what to believe, what to think. It felt very wrong, yet I never saw it before because I was a sheep; faithfully, trustingly, following the system until it betrayed me, kicked me in the face and I woke up.
The push finally came from my husband. He asked me one day what I was worried about. What held me back from taking the step to home educate the children.
I thought for a moment before answering. Fear, I told him. I’d not been a success, academically, in life. In fact, I barely got through school myself and I don’t remember anything I learned there. I finished high school and that was it. No college, no higher education, I don’t have anything to show for the years I spent in school. So, what if I fail at this? It was our kids’ lives at stake, not mine. It was their education, their well-being. It was a huge responsibility.
And with that straightforward way of his he answered, “We are in this together. I believe in you. You have everything it takes and more to pull this off. This is a family journey. You are not alone. You don’t need a degree to see that the people we trusted with our child’s education and well-being have failed him. How much worse could we do? Give it a try, you have nothing to be afraid of and nothing to lose. In the worst-case scenario, we can choose another school further down the line. We won’t know until we try. But you know in your heart this is right for our kids.”
And I did. I knew it was right and that was it. The decision was made. Our journey was about to take a different path of further discovery.
In September 2012, we began home schooling.
At first, we tried a structured, bought curriculum for home education. I was too nervous to do anything else. Too frightened of leaving him behind, of messing up his education. It was a great curriculum, but my son hated it so there came a point when I thought to myself, ‘you know, I didn’t do this so I can make him miserable again’ so we threw it out and created our own by choosing subjects he enjoyed and focusing on those. Over time, as we became more confident – and observing how our son was learning and the children were thriving in this new environment – we chose an even more radical path. Unschooling.
Influenced by the writings of educators such as John Holt, Peter Gray, John Taylor Gatto, Grace Llewellyn, Blake Boles, Alfie Kohn and others, we were excited to learn that there was indeed another way, another approach, one that followed the child’s natural learning and growth patterns, their inbuilt wiring, their innate abilities to learn through environment, senses and experiences. This fitted so well with all that we wanted to offer our children. A chance to be children, a chance to play and learn through uninterrupted or parent-led play, a chance to explore and investigate at their own pace, to learn through being part of normal life instead of being shut in an institution for six to seven hours a day, a chance to recognise their gifts and passions before anyone had a say in what they should be doing with their lives. And so, we followed an unschooling path. Of course, not all unschooling paths are the same, just as no two home educating paths are the same. Each family, each child, moulds their own unique way and grows according to their uniqueness, their experiences.
I noticed small changes at first. The absence of the morning rush to get uniforms on, breakfast eaten, and out of the door in time for school. Instead of the pressure and stress we all underwent every morning, we woke when our bodies told us to wake, stayed in pyjamas until we needed to get changed for an outing, took longer over preparing and eating breakfast, laughed more, noticed more. Small changes led to bigger ones as my children gradually became used to the freedom and began to think for themselves, to form opinions without the fear of being ridiculed or shut down by peers or even, occasionally, teachers.
We suddenly had time. More time than ever before with no one dictating how we should spend it. We could play for hours, or go out and not rush back for homework, we could have play dates with home educating friends and go to bed and wake up when we wanted. I noticed the connections became stronger. As parents we became more present, available and interested in our children’s innermost thoughts as well as their activities and interests. They chose books to read that they wanted to read, not what teachers decided on according to some colour coded reading readiness or fast reading challenge or the usual boring stories. Age was not a deciding factor in our choice of books, games and activities. Meet ups with other home educators meant learning was not age segregated, it was organic, natural, uninterfered with, unmanaged by adults. Older kids naturally mentored younger ones and sometimes even learned from them. It was community learning and community living. This led to the realisation that life is like that.
Once upon a time, we lived in close-knit communities, helping each other, learning from each other, doing life together, young and old, no one was useless, every one had something to offer, something to bring to the table, and connections were deeper, stronger and healthier.
In our house, shallow talk was replaced by meaningful debates or conversations of discovery and understanding. Laughter filled our days more than ever before and suddenly I started to realise how alien I felt to the world I once participated in so faithfully and loyally. Where I had followed blindly, unquestioning, trusting the systems that gave me a false sense of security, I now stepped out into another world, one my previous one did not approve of and yet one that made us feel more alive than ever before, more connected, more purposeful and more natural.
We became bolder at stepping out of the status quo. We sold the business and we followed dreams of training in vocations that made our hearts skip a beat from excitement. My husband became a coffee barista trainer doing something he had always been passionate about and using that skill to train ex-offenders, homeless people, the long-term unemployed and young adults. He found his purpose. I started to write again, trained as a life coach and felt a renewal taking place within me. All that I had set aside until I dutifully raised my children and paid my dues to the state was picked up as I realised that I could do it all and do it now – not tomorrow, not when the children were older, but now. Together, we could do life together and find fulfillment and joy.
Our lives were altered. We were all transformed by the experience. What started as a change in education became a learning process for us all as a family, as parents, as a couple, as humans. As we became braver and stepped out of the box of conventionality and conformity, we discovered things about us we never knew before. It was a reconnecting with ourselves as much as reconnecting with each other. We realised that the word education did not equal to a system, a formula or a curriculum and there was no time restriction. We no longer had to achieve such and such by this and that time. Our entire lives became a journey of constant learning, doing, falling, getting up, character building, skills acquisition, knowledge, making mistakes, finding better ways, creating, breaking down, dreaming, imagining, exploring, discovering, hurting and working through the pain to learn the lesson it needed to teach. We became comfortable in our skin, understood our world, learned to forgive, to love more, to hate less.
How could I ever have believed that any of this could be learned in an institutionalised setting where indoctrination, regurgitation of text and facts, age segregation, belief in hierarchy, lack of critical thinking, a robotic factory education and lack of freedom reigned? How did I not see?
But I saw finally. The tragedy of what my son went through did not happen in vain and lessons were learned. What could have been an absolute disaster turned out to be a force for good; a force for change, transformation and living out of the box. For that I am grateful because had it not been something like this, maybe today I would still be a puppet on a string, puppeteering my own children and husband while life passed us by.
Eight years on, that little boy is now a 16-year-old young man, confident, assertive, strong, resilient yet gentle and compassionate. He is one year away from qualifying as a mechanic. He sings, plays four instruments (self-taught), enjoys coding (self-taught), foreign languages (self-taught) and meaningful friendships. He loves to travel and has been to Greece, Cyprus, Paris and Africa. Last summer he spent three weeks in Uganda serving the communities there and, following a stint in Greece helping refugees, he developed a passion for Arabic, so he is now learning that language. His part time job at an optical store has kindled an interest in university and so, as in the last eight years, open to ideas, to inspiration, to his heart, he is exploring, dreaming big, making plans and living in the now with no one’s agenda, no one leading his way, no one predetermining his path. He is in tune with his own compass and is traveling his own journey with his family by his side, his parents still present and available but knowing he has no one to answer to but himself, no one to please, no one to give him permission to live his way with only his heart and soul to satisfy. And as such, life is one big adventure. He can be excited, he can dream, he can follow his path.
His siblings are following their own path. At 12, my younger son is preparing to crowdfund for a travel journal which he wants to self-publish and sell, learning business skills on the way and earning the money to fulfill his own dreams.
My daughter at eight years old loves to ride horses, dance, draw and wants to design clothes for girls. She wanted to try school to see what it was like, so she did. She lasted ten days. She couldn’t understand why the kids wouldn’t include her in their play, refused her requests to join in and left her eating by herself. She couldn’t understand why the children talked and shouted in class, making the teacher angry. She couldn’t understand why she needed permission to go to the toilet or have a snack or why she couldn’t hold a long conversation with her teacher or peers on a topic of fascination that she wanted to explore. She wondered why she had to take part in sports she didn’t like or learn stuff that held no interest for her. By day ten, she sobbed as she told me how heartbroken she was at what she had witnessed. From her perspective, she saw it as something cruel, unnatural, forced and coerced. Even at her age she saw what I didn’t see until eight years ago. I pulled her out and we continued our own path.
A few days ago, as we drove to the woods for a dog walk, she asked if she had to be an adult to have a vision for the future. I replied that of course she didn’t, she is living now and can dream, visualise and imagine now. I asked what her vision was, expecting her to say what she had said in the past when watching videos online or talking with her friends, that she wanted to be a ballet dancer or an artist or a “clothes maker”. Nope. With all seriousness she said, “I want to start a community where people come and learn how to be kind and loving to other humans and all living things.”
Is there anything better than that? Is that not what will change our world for the better? Children dreaming big dreams and wanting to make a difference? The entire dog walk was spent unpacking her dream and talking about the first steps she might take to make it a reality. And if she doesn’t, if she changes her mind, that’s also great. The wonderful thing about our life is that she can.
That is why I won’t send my kids to school.