Friday, February 19, 2016

Free-range education: Why the unschooling movement is growing

This seems rather extreme

A once-utopian idea – allowing kids to ‘discover’ their own education path while learning at home – goes mainstream.   

On a late Monday morning in this rural New Hampshire town, Dayna and Joe Martin’s four children are all home. Devin, age 16, is hammering a piece of steel in the blacksmith forge he and his parents built out of a storage shed in the backyard. Tiffany, 14, is twirling on a hoverboard, deftly avoiding the kaleidoscope-painted cabinets in the old farmhouse’s living room. Ivy, 10, and Orion, 7, are sitting next to each other using the family’s two computers, clicking through an intense session of Minecraft. 

It looks a lot like school vacation, or a weekend. But it’s not. This, for the Martin kids, is school. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s their version of “unschooling,” an educational theory that suggests children should follow their own interests, without the imposition of school or even any alternative educational curriculum, because this is the best way for them to learn and grow.

“I don’t even know what grades are,” says Orion, who has never spent a day in school, has never followed a lesson plan, and has never taken a test. (Tests, his mother says, can be degrading to children – an invasion of their freedom of thought.)

“We live as if school doesn’t exist,” Ms. Martin explains. “People are really brainwashed into seeing things in school form, with life breaking down into subjects. This life is about freedom and not having limits. It’s about really trusting your kids. And it’s amazing what they do.”

Martin says that, left alone to follow their own interests, her children have learned everything from history and ethics to trade skills and math. But what they learn isn’t her concern, she says. She doesn’t much care if her son knows how to read by age 8. She trusts he will read when he is ready to read. Her role, she says, is not to be her children’s teacher or judge, but a facilitator and perhaps partner in helping them follow their own passions. 

Martin is the first to admit that her family’s approach to child rearing might seem, at first glance, “out there.” She is also upfront that it has been lonely at times, disconnected from families whose lives revolve around school, as well as from traditional home-schoolers. But in recent years she has noticed something: She and her family are a lot closer to the mainstream than they used to be.

Over the past decade, the number of children home-schooling has skyrocketed, along with the number of families practicing some form of unschooling. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of children learning at home jumped from just over a million in 2003 to 1.7 million in 2012. But since there is no federal registry of home-schoolers, and many home-schooled children are counted as being in the public school system, many researchers believe the true number is somewhere between 2 million and 3 million, if not higher. To put that in context, the US Department of Education estimates that 2.3 million children were enrolled in charter schools in 2012-13. 

Meanwhile, although data are sketchy, some surveys have found that as many as 50 percent of home-schoolers embrace some variety of unschooling – a category that might range from the Martins’ extreme hands-off approach to that of other parents who incorporate many ideas of self-directed learning but still set some limits and goals for their children’s education.

The rise of unschooling parallels a growing dissatisfaction among American parents about the country’s public education system and its focus on standardized testing. It also tracks an increase in alternative educational philosophies, such as the Montessori method or the popular Reggio Emilia theory, both of which are based on the idea of children as “whole,” curious beings whose education should be guided by their own natural interests and inclinations.

But the blossoming of unschooling also reflects something more. While it once was considered a hippie, countercultural practice, experts say that unschooling now taps into changing mainstream values surrounding children and parenting, institutions and individuality, and the best way to seize the American dream.

It also, says Michael Apple, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, taps into a growing national sentiment that “safe” and “responsible” private institutions of all kinds are better than public ones that can sometimes be “messy and violent.” Although unschooling has many critics – those who worry about the educational philosophy behind it, those who worry that it reflects a narcissistic culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, those who see it as adding to a disturbing segmentation of American society – it is increasingly accepted as a viable educational option by everyone from soccer moms and urban hipsters to rural Evangelicals and suburbanites. 

“I see a shift in the types of people who contact me,” says Martin. “I get calls from doctors, lawyers. I have talked to [professional] rugby players, and low-income people living in trailers. This is not a small subculture anymore. This is a movement.”


UK: Thousands of pupils at unregistered schools 'are at risk of radicalisation because of misogynistic, homophobic and Islamic-focused curriculums,' experts fear

At least 21 schools that haven't been officially registered in Britain are being investigated over fears some of them are radicalising pupils with 'narrow Islamic-focused curriculums', it has been claimed.

Education chiefs are said to be probing a host of 'illegal' schools across the country, a number of which are allegedly teaching hate-filled, misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material to children.

Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell said ministers needed to take immediate action to deal with the issue, claiming children at unregistered schools 'could be in harm's way'.

The Labour MP told The Sun: 'Despite warning after warning, they [ministers] have dragged their feet, leaving children in unregistered schools where they could be in harm's way.

'It is extremely worrying that Ofsted remains concerned that the number of children being educated in unregistered provision far exceeds the number currently known by the Government.'

The newspaper reported that at least 21 schools are currently under investigation with inspectors apparently finding a number of cases of children being taught 'narrow Islamic-focused curriculums'.

It is unclear exactly how many pupils are being taught at the 'illegal' schools, but experts say each unregistered institution tends to have fewer than 100 - particularly because some schools are based out of small religious centres or even people's homes.

The Department for Education said there would be 'no single knockout blow against those who seek to corrupt young people' but confirmed it was taking action to protect children from 'illegal' schools.

A spokesman added: 'We are taking unprecedented and direct action across the board to protect children, inform parents and support teachers, putting us firmly on the front foot.'

It comes after Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to 'shut down' schools which were 'filling children's heads with poison and hearts with hate' in his Tory conference speech last October.

Vowing to stand up to 'passive tolerance' which leaves children vulnerable to extremists, Mr Cameron announced inspectors would shut down Islamic religious schools promoting hate.

He also said some mosques in Britain were promoting hate and vowed to shut them down. In his Conservative conference speech, he said: 'Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with children learning about their faith, whether it's at Madrassas, Sunday Schools or Jewish Yeshivas.

'But in some Madrassas we've got children being taught that they shouldn't mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people.

'These children should be having their minds opened, their horizons broadened - not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate.

'So I can announce this: If an institution is teaching children intensively, then whatever its religion, we will, like any other school, make it register so it can be inspected.

'And be in no doubt: if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down.'

Two months after his warning, Ofsted set up a special task force to uncover unregistered schools operation outside of English laws.

The schools regulator said it had already uncovered unregistered Muslim faith schools which keep pupils in squalid conditions and teach a 'narrow' Islamic curriculum and said they pose 'a serious and growing threat' to the safety of hundreds of children, who may be vulnerable to extremism.

In December, inspectors shut down three unregistered schools in Birmingham, with one using 'anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic material'.

Conditions in one were described as 'unhygienic and filthy'. A total of 94 pupils were being taught by adults who had not been suitably checked for work with children.

Ofsted has already found 15 such 'hidden' schools in the past year, running full timetables and involving about 800 pupils. It is understood a large number of them catered for Muslim communities, but there were also schools of other faiths.

There are fears the true scale of Britain's secret schools could surpass that of the Trojan Horse scandal – in which state schools were infiltrated by hardline Islamists – as inspectors may have uncovered only the 'tip of the iceberg'.


Oxbridge fails to halt decline in disadvantaged student numbers

Rising standards?

Russell Group universities have seen the number of students from poor backgrounds go backwards despite pledges, a new analysis of figures from admissions survey has revealed.

"Too little is spent on finding the kids with the greatest potential who are currently under the radar. To do that, we need smarter use of data and interventions aimed specifically at raising the sights of boys and other under-represented groups."
Nick Hillman, director of HEPI

It comes amid accusations that elite universities are wasting time and money on bursaries, leaving bright children 'under the radar'.

The findings come weeks after Prime Minister David Cameron warned educational institutions they need to do more to tackle social inequality.

Official data showed the overall proportion of more disadvantaged students starting at a Russell Group university - considered the best in the country - has stalled in the past 10 years.

Oxford and Cambridge admitted a smaller proportion of disadvantaged students last year than every other university in the country, the analysis by the Press Association revealed.

Around one in six (17.2 per cent) students from lower social groups started a course at a Russell Group institution last year, compared with nearly one in three (32.1 per cent) of their wealthier peers.

One charity leader said it was "worrying" that the gap has widened at some universities.

The Russell Group said progress is being made to ensure able students from all backgrounds have access to its universities, but it cannot solve the problem alone.

Out of the 24 Russell Group universities, Oxford had the lowest proportion of entrants from lower social backgrounds at one in 10, the analysis shows, followed by Cambridge with 10.2 per cent.

Ten years ago, poorer students made up around one in eight Oxbridge entrants.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says they are falling because universities aren't investing enough time and money in finding the brightest students among more disadvantage pupils.

He said: While the most traditional universities have made massive strides to address the issue in recent years, they is always more to do. In particular, we need to think about which policy interventions bring most bang for buck. Too much time and money is still spent on bursaries, which are not cost effective.

"Too little is spent on finding the kids with the greatest potential who are currently under the radar. To do that, we need smarter use of data and interventions aimed specifically at raising the sights of boys and other under-represented groups.

"More thought also needs to be applied to helping young people bridge the gap between schooling and the self-directed learning that characterises higher education."

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said: "Ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds really matters to us and real progress is being made. Last year 1,760 more students from low socio-economic backgrounds went to a Russell Group university than in 2009.

"The number of students eligible for free school meals going to our universities has doubled in the last four years, and the number of black and minority ethnic students has increased by more than a third since 2012."


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