Unschooling: The Beginning

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We are about to set off on our unschooling adventure, one step at a time. We have been asked lots of questions. Why? How? What’s the difference between unschooling and homeschooling? What about social interaction? What about exams? What about the future? What about motivation? Do you have to be a teacher? Is it legal? Why now? How do you find out about unschooling? What are you going to learn? Who decides?

There are two reasons we have decided to write about this. Firstly to answer these questions, and secondly to log what we do because there are “inspections” in France, theoretically once a year by the Education Department and a questionnaire every two years by the Mairie (the town hall). The inspection is of the work and the child.  There is usually an element of monitoring no matter the country, although the exact details will vary.

The legalities

“Schooling” in France is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. It’s been legal to homeschool since 1998. Anglophone countries such as the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have a far higher percentage of homeschoolers than non-Anglophone countries. Why I am not sure, but that is something we will perhaps find out along the way. Some countries, like Germany, take an extreme view and have banned it completely.  The U.S. Department of Education have indicated a 61% rise in home education in the past decade.  It’s also on the rise in the UK.

You don’t need any special qualifications to homeschool in France (nor in most other places). Although I teach English, that was a career move I made later in life – it’s not necessary to be a teacher of any sort. We are doing this as a family so I am not the “teacher” anyway.

In France, you have to register each year as a homeschooler, both at the Mairie in your commune and with the Inspecteur d’Academie (school inspector for the Department).

You also need to register with the CAF (Caisse D’Allocation Familiales) which is the department responsible for child benefit. Here’s the point where the financial discrimination starts. If your child goes to a regular school (or they can’t, rather than choose not to), you are entitled to the standard Allocation de Rentrée Scolaire (ARS) which is an amount of around 300€ per year given to all schoolchildren to cover books, stationary, calculators etc (which the school does not provide). That is, all schoolchildren except homeschooled children. You are not allowed to apply for income-based bursaries either, no matter what the income of the family. Why, I am not sure.

There’s the other financial element of homeschooling too. How to afford to be around with our kids. We turned our income sources on their head when we moved to France. We retrained to do more flexible jobs. I teach English and can often work from home, Neil started by making goats cheese until the owners of the farm where he worked retired, and then changed to repairing machinery on a self-employed basis. Principally, we have reduced our outgoings so that we can reduce or income. It works for us.  Just.

We found the basic information about homeschooling in France on http://vosdroits.service-public.fr/particuliers/F23429.xhtml It’s in French.  In Scotland there’s www.home-education.org.gov or in England and Wales there’s https://www.gov.uk/home-education.

Our homeschooling situation

It was our intention to homeschool when we moved to France 8 years ago, but we realised pretty much immediately that the kids’ (French) language acquisition would benefit from attendance at the local primary school. Exposure to the language was one of the main reasons for our move in the first place.

We have cleared that hurdle, or at least the kids have, and they can now speak, read and write equally well in English and French. We were reminded just how far they’ve come recently when Adam came home from an interview for a summer job in a sports shop in our nearby town. Later that day, after he’d presumably checked around for references, the owner phoned Adam at home to offer him the job and to say that it was great to learn that he spoke English too. He had no idea at the interview.

Our school routine was broken in 2013/14 when we set off as a family around Europe for a year in a campervan. When we got back the deeper questions started. We had met or been in contact with so many families on the road, educating their children as they went. We got to know real examples of it working. Not just kids following the school curriculum at home, but those who “unschooled”. Too my mind that’s the learner-led form of unschooling where what you learn, how and when you learn it, is determined by the learner.

The questions in our mind persisted.  How was it possible for kids to be at or above the level of their peers after “missing” a whole year of school?  Our three very loosely followed the curriculum which can be found in plenty of bookstores in France, but for approximately a sixth of the number of hours (an average of 6 hours a week: French kids go to school from 8am to 6pm four days – with two hours off for lunch, and from 8am to 12 on a Wednesday). Was school an effective way to learn, or could so much more be done in less time? Was it more a form of childcare to fit in with a working week? Was it just training for a working week? Why did the teens I taught English to around Europe look so bored with life at school? Was it just a teenage thing, or was it a school thing, or did I just happen to see a non-representative group of students?  I don’t think the efficacy or the boredom issues are restricted to France by any means.

And our decision is not a reaction to negative aspects of schooling.  It’s more a perception that the positive aspects of unschooling are huge.  

So here begins our journey. 3 July was the end of the school year in France, and the start of the Summer holidays. The boys return to school in September: Adam to the final baccaelaretate year out of three, and Matt to the first baccaelaretate year out of three. One is keen to complete the block, the other to try out the block. We’d entirely support a decision by either of them not to return and to learn in another way and we are not forcing the unschooling path either.

Katie on the other hand, is ready to dive into the world of unschooling. It’s a work in progress for us all. We are far more confident trusting her to learn than we were before we left to go travelling.  However, the “homeschooling” we did last year – following the same curriculum but not in school – seemed less daunting than an entirely learner-initiated method.  But intuitively homeschooling doesn’t feel right compared with unschooling.  We are all going to be learning.  And that’s very exciting.

Disclaimer: this post does not give legal advice.  Please see a lawyer in the country where you live if that’s what you want.

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