Advocates say it creates delight in learning. But amid calls for more monitoring of home schooling, how do authorities work out if theyre getting an education?
Its Tuesday morning in Coventry and three children are making clay seal pups on the dining table at home. Zephan is four, so his looks a bit like an aeroplane. Noah and Josiah, 10 and 13, are carefully shaping flippers. A book about seals lies open on the sofa. This mornings activity was Zephans idea, inspired by the boys term-time holiday to see seal cubs on the Pembrokeshire coast.
While other children may be fidgeting at their desks in school, these boys can take the day in whichever direction they choose. Zephan goes off to make a den; Noah picks up his Lego; Josiah decides the seal activity has more life in it and starts a painting.
This is unschooling in action, a step beyond home education because children decide what theyd like to learn and when. Unlike school, or more traditional types of home education, theres no curriculum, no imposed learning, no testing. The children set the agenda and pace; the aim is to learn through living.
For Alice Khimasia, mother to Zephan, Noah, Josiah and their 14-year-old brother, Elias, this is an antidote to school. In year 3 I started to be concerned about Elias, she says. He seemed to lose his spark, almost like the light in his eyes went out. He seemed downcast. He stopped looking at people. He exhibited anxious behaviour. Khimasia had written off home education as weird but she and her husband, Kaushil, a supply teacher, started to research it. Then came a snowy day in January 2010: It was the most beautiful day, clear and bright, she recalls. The boys were so excited when they woke up. So I rang school and said: The boys wont be in today, we want to play in the snow! And we didnt go back.
Unschooling, also known as autonomous, child-led or delight-directed learning, has spread across the world from its inception in the counter culture of 1970s America. There are no firm figures for how many children are home educated in the UK, let alone unschooled, as there is no legal obligation for parents to register their children, but a 2015 survey put the figure at 36,609 home-educated children. The real number is likely to be much higher.