Unschooling in Galway – one family on its experience of teaching at home
Education People: Home schooling without a curriculum
Pauline O’Reilly with her children Finn (6) and Caragh (3) at their home in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
‘Mum, I don’t want to go to school!” We’ve all heard it at some stage. However, when Pauline O’Reilly’s young son Finn made the announcement, she decided that she was going to take him seriously and keep him at home. The Galway family is now home educating , using a very specific kind of education called “unschooling”. They don’t follow curricula, they don’t have set periods for learning and O’Reilly’s two children give her the lead when it comes to subjects that interest them.
O’Reilly says she has no particular problem with traditional schooling, but her own experience is that school sets children up to see learning as a series of competitions and tests, rather than something to delight in. “Children have a natural desire to learn,” she says. “If you trust them and work with them it is amazing what they can do. At school, children are conditioned to think that they must learn to please adults, rather than to please themselves.”
O’Reilly’s children, Finn, aged six, and Caragh, three, spend their days at home with their mother playing, reading and taking part in normal household activities such as cooking and shopping. O’Reilly says that they are learning skills as they require them, rather than according to a curriculum. They ask a lot of questions and she is guided by these questions when it comes to their learning. She says her son already has a natural curiosity for maths and follows his interest in the subject.
John Holt, an American teacher and author, first wrote about the concept of unschooling in the 1950s, claiming in his most popular book, How Children Fail, that children naturally want to learn in the same way as they naturally learn to walk and talk. “In many ways it is what comes naturally when you trust your children, in my opinion,” says O’Reilly. “In the US there are ‘radical unschoolers’ who would leave all decisions to their children, from how much TV to watch to what kind of food to eat.
“It is essentially not using a curriculum and not testing or comparing children. I am not sure how I came across it. I suppose my parenting up to that point led me to choose it as a method. I have breastfed my children, co-slept and generally tried to respect their instinct to be human and to learn everything they can about the world, to be cared for by those they trust and to move out towards the world once they feel fully secure and attached. It’s sometimes called attachment parenting. I have also been deeply affected by the work of Alfie Kohn, as have many other parents I know. While he does not speak about home-educating, and indeed most of my friends don’t home educate, most of those who unschool would also follow his approach, called ‘unconditional parenting’.”
While many home schoolers follow a curriculum, O’Reilly claims it is common for parents to move away from formal curricula as they come to trust their children’s instincts and interests.
There is a perception that home schoolers have to meet basic educational requirements; O’Reilly maintains this is not the case and says once you have registered as a home schooler with the National Education Welfare Board (NEWB), you are free to teach as you see fit. The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 specifies that all children receive a “certain minimum education’’ and the NEWB details what that is, including verbal skills development, literacy and numeracy. As part of NEWB registration, there is provision for an assessment of the child’s education.