When I first saw this in the Mail, I thought it was an article talking about truancy rates. Actually it turns out to be something quite different.
A mother of two who lets her children stay at home says they don’t need to go to school because they learn enough ‘naturally’ by playing computer games and going for walks outside. Maryanna Jacobs, 32, from Gorebridge, Scotland, is one of a new wave of parents embracing ‘unschooling’, a new philosophy that rejects traditional, curriculum-based, education in favour of letting children choose what they want to do.
Rather than sitting down with a workbook and learning key subjects such as maths or English, Miss Jacobs’ daughter Rio, nine, and son Bryden, eight, enjoy playing Minecraft on their laptops, baking or going to the shops with their mother.
Miss Jacobs, who has been criticised by education experts for harming her children’s chances, says often people cannot ‘comprehend’ her reasons for choosing to bring them up this way. But she says her children are learning ‘naturally’ by playing on their own and having ‘life experiences’ like cooking or playing in the park.
She said: ‘School is not necessarily the best environment to learn in and when it came to my children I wanted to give them the choice to stay at home. And they’ve not been held back by that – they can both read and write very well, and they’re just as advanced as children their age who go to school. They pick things up every day and that’s how they learn. I don’t think it’s right to introduce projects and make them sit down to learn something.
‘If I tried to do that, they’d be confused.’
Miss Jacobs, who lives with her registered disabled partner, Allan, and their two children, says she doesn’t believe in routines or schedules, so there are no set meal times and the children go to bed when their parents do, which can be between 9pm and midnight.
And while children across the country are sitting down to the desks for the day’s lessons, Rio and Bryden are engrossed in their favourite computer game, Minecraft, or collecting feathers and stones in the nearby country park.
Their mother said: ‘Both the kids have learnt numbers, words and how to type through their computer games, and they’ve learnt a lot about computers too. They’ve learnt maths through things like shopping and baking. Numbers are always going through Bryden’s head – he’s fascinated with clocks and timetables. Rio is more of a words person – she learnt through games like Scrabble and Monopoly. They’ve learnt about birds, trees and rocks just by being outdoors.’
She added: ‘They’re naturally curious and ask a lot of questions, which I try my best to answer. If I can’t, we’ll look it up on the computer or we’ll find someone who can help.’
Miss Jacobs, who left school without any qualifications and did a variety of jobs including working on a market stall before having children, dismisses people who have told her she’s ‘not educated enough’ to educated her children. She said: ‘I have been criticised for what we’re doing and some can’t believe it’s legal. A lot of people find it hard because people have been going to school for centuries and we’re going against that. We have a great deal of quality time together and it’s made us closer as a family. It makes me very sad when I hear parents say they can’t wait for their children to go to school so they can have some peace and quiet. Why have children if you don’t want them around?’
I find this fascinating but there are some things that make me think: ‘Why?’ I’ve seen and talked to many children who either have been home schooled or in one case currently being home schooled, and they find it difficult to interact with other children. Mind you in these cases they were only children so I guess when there’s two of them they learn to interact with each other so they still pick up some elements of social skills. Another concern of mine is to do with the last question I mentioned. To me, I guess in part due to my lack of knowledge of home education, that parents are almost scaffolding children for too long in these circumstances. There comes a time when children need to be independent and the scaffolding needs to be removed, and that’s where formal education comes in for me personally.
It’s not just me that has their doubts either. Leading educators criticise Miss Jacobs’ work too. Dr Kevin Stannard, of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said: ‘It’s important that we do have an element of choice within our education system, and one size will never fit all, but for the vast majority of children a school environment, with a formal curriculum and experienced teachers, is by far the best option. It’s not just the content of a formal curriculum that’s important, it’s also about how you learn and the life skills and attributes you develop while in education. Part of a rounded education, for example, is the ability to develop ‘critical thinking’ and to question assumptions you have grown up with, which can only truly happen outside of the home environment. It is also much easier to learn skills like ‘collaboration’ when you are actually working alongside a group of classmates each day.’
Adding to this, Julia Harrington, headmistress of Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, near Reading, said: ‘Schools provide an environment where there can be exciting stimuli, opportunity and support for an adolescent to safely learn and develop their thinking and personalities. Teenagers are very creative and, as we all do, benefit from working with those who are more experienced and experts in their subject area alongside their peers. Research shows that a teenager’s brain demands interaction with other teenagers and will seek it out if it is not there. In the age of information overload, young people need to know how to filter and show discernment in their processing of information, and it is very difficult to develop this sort of mindset in a vacuum.’