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Don't send your kids to school and they'll go on to get a PhD. Wait, what?

unschooling in Australia
Would you try un-schooling?

There are no classes, no teachers, and no tests.

There is still reading and arithmetic, but kids are expected to learn these skills through the course of everyday life. Basically, children are given control over their own education – with no specific curriculum.

Welcome to the world of ‘no schooling’. Otherwise known as, un-schooling.

60 Minutes investigated this new trend in schooling last night, and spoke to Rachael Clark – a mother who has chosen un-schooling for her children.

“It’s allowing my children to learn naturally through their passions and what they enjoy to do,” Rachael explains. She says that her children learn reading, writing, addition and multiplication through “everyday life”.

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unschooling in australia
George and Rachael Clark.

“It’s very much about teaching them how to learn themselves. So rather than just giving them some facts, teach them how to find those facts and also how to solve problems,” the kids’ father, George says.

Un-schooling would seem like a – to put it frankly – totally bat-shit crazy idea to a lot of parents. Australia has a comparatively excellent education system, and a free education is something that many around the world can only dream of.

Not only do un-schooling advocates reject the idea of attending a school, but – unlike home schoolers – they reject the idea of a curriculum all together.

When you learn a bit more about the Clarks, it becomes apparent why this arrangement might suit them.

Rachael and George’s eldest daughter, Jemima, has Asperger’s – and she was struggling in a traditional school. She was angry, frustrated, anxious and her self-esteem was low. The system wanted her to fit in – but she didn’t.

unschooling in australia
Jemima, Milly and William Clark playing video games at home.
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The Clarks say that once removed from the traditional school system, she began to thrive.

They then decided to withdraw nine-year-old Milly from school as well; and their son William has never been inside a classroom.

The Clarks are just one family in Australia trying out un-schooling – but there are others. According to the SMH, more than 50,000 Australian children were home-schooled last year but there are no accurate figures on how many kids are un-schooled each year.

In rural Victoria, Carleen Sing un-schooled all five of her boys. They have all gone on to successfully achieve other things, including tertiary degrees and trades.

Joel has a PHD in Information Technology. Dion is a social worker with teenagers. Tali is at university studying music. Liam works with horses as an apprentice farrier. And the youngest, Erik, wants to go to university to study music as well.

But even for the five Sing brothers – whose accomplishments are remarkable – there were setbacks to un-schooling.

As 60 Minutes points out, most children who attend traditional schools learn to read by the age of six. Carleen Sing says that her children struggled, with reading in particular, and learned when “two of them were 11 and 12, another two were 14, and Liam, at 19, still finds reading quite difficult”.

unschooling in australia
Carleen Sing chose unschooling for her five boys.

Liam, who still has difficulties with the basics today, says that this is not due to him never being interested in reading, or not pursuing it in his own time. “I’m not really sure. I just know that I’ve always found it really, really difficult to read and write,” he explains.

Although Carleen disagrees that a traditional school might have helped, it doesn’t seem beyond reason that if the children had attended a traditional school, they may have learned to read earlier. Or, if they were struggling, their problems may have been identified earlier.

Still, Joel Sing – the brother who has gone on to obtain a PhD – and his partner say they too will be un-schooling their children. “One of the things that’s brilliant about un-schooling is it means you can follow the things you are interested in,” Joel says.

Not only do children learn what they want but also when they want. There is no pressure put on children to have a certain reading level by a certain age, or have made their way through the multiplication tables by a certain year.

And this is probably why some people, such as senior education lecturer at Monash University Dr David Zyngier, are concerned by the rise of un-schooling.

unschooling in australia
The Sing brothers at home to visit their mum – all grown up.

Because it’s mostly unregulated and outside the control of the state system, there’s not much opportunity to check whether children are actively pursuing an education because they love to learn – or if they are being neglected.

“I think state authorities need to look very carefully at un-schooling because it certainly doesn’t meet the needs of accreditation of parents following school curriculum,” Zyngier says. “… if the child wants to play all day then, I guess, that’s what they do.”

When you hear something like that, you might wonder whether un-schooling is even legal.

The Educating Parent, an Australian home-schooling and un-schooling website, says that regulations differ between each state and territory:

Legislation and regulations differ considerably from state to state. Some require exemption from attending school, others require registration. Some authorities ask for detailed learning programs, others ask for much less. Some offer more support than others.

For example, home-schooled children in NSW must be registered and taught with a syllabus provided by the Board of Studies. Spokeswoman for the Board of Studies, Julie-Anne Scott, told the SMH that, ”Regardless of philosophy or teaching methodology, the parent must demonstrate that the requirements for registration are met.”

Rachel Clark, whose daughter Jemima has Asperger’s, says that her children are a lot happier now that they are learning at home. And for parents whose kids don’t fit in at regular schools, it makes sense that they would seek an alternative.

But the jury’s still out on whether an un-schooled education is as effective as a traditional education – and whether you could be disadvantaging your kids by giving them one.

What do you think about un-schooling? An interesting alternative or bat-shit crazy? Should unschooling in Australia be allowed?

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