Extreme-schooling vs Free-schooling: why (and how) we should be putting the learners in the driving seat

I’ve watched with interest – and at times disbelief – as story after story pops up, about schools imposing rigid new behaviour policies, strict discipline measures, and new, non-negotiable uniform regulations. ‘Cracking down,’ so they say.


Often, it’s schools that have been deemed failing, due to low exam results, or that have found themselves converting to academies. Often it seems to be at the hands of a new headteacher, drafted in to ‘turn the school around’.


I wonder how successful these changes will be in the long run. Recent cases include the school that turned students away at the gates because their shoes, although they were the right colour and style, had the wrong colour stitching around the soles ; the school that sent pupils home because their trousers were the wrong shade of grey ; a school placing children in isolation over lunchtime because their school dinner money was late ; schools banning students from talking to each other  as they walk between lessons, and – at that same school – a rule that students must only ever look at their teacher, or where their teacher has directed them to…  Wow!


But, in schools that (in many cases) are already ‘failing’, and in which morale among both students and parents may already be minimal, will such drastic and antagonistic policies really help? Will having every student looking identical result in a more successful school? Will stopping students from talking to each other grow them into more successful adults? Will imposing such strict and controlling rules about where you are and aren’t allowed to direct your eyes result in better grades? And will punishments for breaking these bizarre rules really turn these kids into better learners and more successful adults? Or will they further demoralise an already demotivated, reluctant and frustrated community?

I can imagine, in the short-term, that this policy would probably make teaching a breeze. I can see how a school where teachers have “unquestioned authority”,  where children behave – dare I say it – like robots, following every instruction without question and with fear of severe reprisals if they fall out of line, may seem like education at its finest… if you are very traditional in your thinking.


But how can these children (yes, still children, despite schools’ insistence that they must maintain a business-like environment) be expected to grow into self-disciplined, critical thinking, decision-making adults, when up until then, they are consistently stripped of those opportunities? How is this teaching them to make their own choices, form their own opinions and forge their own paths through life, if the whole time that they are supposed to be preparing for adulthood (as school is often described), they are rigidly controlled in every aspect, even down to where to direct their eyes. This isn’t healthy. It is far from healthy. It is over-controlling and extreme. This is what I’m calling ‘Extreme Schooling’!

Thankfully, most of our schools are not like this. I’m sure if all schools were placed on some sort of ‘scale of control’, this extreme schooling would surely be… well… at the extreme, with the majority of schools, sitting much more central. Rules in most schools are more reasonable and tend to be rooted in respect for learning and caring about each other, rather than in bowing to authority. Children are given perhaps a little more leeway in their behaviour, or in their appearance. But worryingly, the trend for tighter uniform restrictions and behaviour expectations does seem to be increasing.

However, despite what our government and our traditionalist society would have us believe, there are other, equally (perhaps even more so) successful ways to school our children, which are very, very different.

Unbeknown to most parents, there exists a style of schooling which lies at the opposite end of that spectrum: schools that, rather than seeking to control every aspect of their students’ behaviour, learning and appearance, seek to hand that control to the individuals themselves. Schools where students are allowed, even encouraged, to have individuality, not only in their clothing and appearance, but also in their learning choices and styles. Schools that allow students to choose their own paths, their own subjects, their own curriculum. Schools that do not overload children with excessive workloads for unwanted GCSE courses. Schools that, instead of seeking to achieve more A-C grades than all the others in their area, are seeking to create wise, thoughtful, critical-thinking, self-sufficient and motivated adults. You may never have heard of these schools… they aren’t much talked about, but they need to be.

They are schools like Summerhill, in Suffolk, Sands School, in Devon, and Wicklow Sudbury School in Dublin. They are education centres, like The Greenhouse Education Project, in Bath, Place to Grow  in Gloucestershire, The Self Managed Learning College  in Brighton and HEET in Hampshire. And they are projects that are just starting up or newly formed, like the East Kent Sudbury School, in the Southeast,  and Alexandra Park, in Manchester. Further afield, in countries with more flexible school registration requirements than ours, they are growing even faster. They are at the opposite end of that ‘control scale’. This is schooling rooted firmly in freedom and choice, or as I’m calling it here, Free-schooling!



You may have heard of the concept of unschooling; in a nutshell, this is a style of home-education, which is about as far from school as one can get. It is a totally autonomous (self-directed) way of learning that involves no imposed curriculum or structure, no timetabling or expectation to complete certain activities or assignments, or to study certain subjects. The child can steer their own path, decide when, what and how much they want to learn. And the remarkable thing is, evidence has shown it to be very successful. (www.self-directed.org/sde/why/)


These ‘free’ schools (not to be confused with the shambolic and divisive Govian free schools project!) follow a similar autonomous, self-directed educational philosophy. It’s not a new concept. In fact, according to Wikipedia the 1960s saw a surge in ‘Free Schools’ in America, as people became increasingly disillusioned with institutionalised learning. Sadly despite our very own Summerhill being one of the main sources of inspiration, the trend wasn’t echoed here in the UK; perhaps back then, there wasn’t such a need for it here. But that is changing. A new wave of democratic schools and learning centres is now beginning to emerge, not just in the UK, but across Europe and the world, too. Democratic schools have, at their heart, trust in the child. Unschooling and democratic schooling styles trust students to make choices, to follow their interests, to motivate themselves. And surprisingly, without the pressure of being forced to follow someone else’s plans, it absolutely works.


The concept of total child-directed learning, is largely unfamiliar, and often unpalatable to much of our population. The traditional, mainstream methods of schooling are so entrenched in our society, that suggestions of different, more successful, more effective schooling styles has become hard to swallow. But increasingly, parents are turning their backs on the rigid and controlling school system, and seeking out more flexible options such as home education. Now is the perfect opportunity for alternative schools like these, to rise and shine.

In fact, all over the country and beyond, groups of people are committed to making this kind of education more accessible. Groups such as Eudec and  The Phoenix Education Trust and the Alliance for Self Directed Education are working hard to raise awareness, and push forward a shift in our thinking about education. There are lots of preparations underway, ahead of what looks to be a real turning point in our education provision. It is possible that fully autonomous education, free-style education, may soon be available to more than just the home educating community.

If you are curious to know more about this style of education, I invite you to delve deeper, using the links above. If you look into it, there may well be a group of people near to you, beginning a journey into democratic ‘free’ education. And if there’s not, you could always put the idea out there locally and see if there’s interest.

Education does not have to be rigidly directed, imposed and controlled. It works better if it is fluid, dynamic and most importantly, self directed.

It works best if we trust learners to direct it themselves.


Falling at the first hurdle: the real reason our 4 and 5 year olds are not school-ready

Few things get me as riled up, as the unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure that our school system puts on our children.

This headline appeared in today’s news:


“Too many new pupils not school ready, say head teachers”

Apparently, according to 86% of headteachers in this survey from the NAHT (a leading headteachers’ union), the number of children starting school without being “school ready” is increasing, and they believe the top reasons for it are:

  • failure to identify and support children’s additional needs;
  • parents having less resources;
  • pressure on family life;
  • reductions in local services to support families.

Really? I mean, REALLY?

What planet are these headteachers on? Was the survey written so as not to allow respondents to give the real reason – that the expectations now being placed on our 4 and 5 year olds are, at best, simply unrealistic and, at worst, dangerously damaging?
The brains, bodies and emotions of 4 and 5 year olds are not developmentally ready for academic schooling. It’s as simple as that. It’s not down to parents not having resources, or families not being offered educational support. It’s because we are expecting too much, too young. And nothing else.
There are numerous, very reliable and expert studies into early childhood development and early learning, that prove beyond doubt that 4 or 5 is too young for formal schooling. Some of that evidence has helpfully been collated here by the University of Cambridge, in support of the Too Much Too Soon campaign, whose aim is to get this message through to the people that need to hear it.



And yet our ministers and our Department for Education are simply not listening!
And although many schools will have you believe that their reception year is “largely play-based” (or words to that effect), walk into any Year R classroom at 9.30am on any given day, and I could almost guarantee that you will see teacher-led, formal instruction, most likely in either English or Maths. Maybe not during the first few “settling-in” weeks, but certainly by the end of the autumn term, it’s all systems go.

Because Foundation Stage teachers are under just as much pressure as any other teacher, to prove their students are performing. They still have to provide evidence and assessments and progress reports, to prove those children are continually learning. And since the rearrangement of the national curriculum, every single year group in primary schools, is finding themselves teaching content that used to be reserved for older children; more complex and often developmentally inappropriate skills. From the moment the new curriculum was proposed, teachers, headteachers and education experts expressed their concern, as this article from 2013 clearly shows. No wonder our Early Years staff are having to force these unrealistic expectations on our 4 and 5 year olds. It’s affecting every class in the school.
Now the problem of “school-readiness” is apparently so dire, that almost a quarter (24%) of those asked, estimated that over half of their intake was not school-ready, with concerns including speech, language and communication issues, personal, social and emotional development, behaviour issues, and physical development.
But can we really expect children of 4, especially those summer-borns who have only just turned 4, to be expert enough in all these areas to be able sit still, listen intently, not distract others, take in everything a teacher is saying, while trying to block out the other 25 children around them, follow instructions without question, remember new routines, cope with long days, wrap their brains around whatever new facts or information or skills they are expected to learn that day, and do all this while behaving themselves according to the classroom rules. There is so much here that simply goes against their human nature – against their desire to play and explore and experiment and steer their own learning, and against what their brains and bodies are actually capable of doing at that age. Some may say that this has happened for many years, and nobody had a problem with it until now. But you cannot deny that the pressure on teachers and schools, to churn out impressive data and test results, has certainly skyrocketed in recent years. Perhaps before, the stakes were not so high as they now are, with schools being threatened with special measures or even closure or academy conversion, if progress data and results are not good enough.
I can’t help feeling, when findings such as these are published, that the onus is being wrongly shifted – away from the school system itself and onto preschools, families and support or intervention terms – the scapegoats. In truth, the problem is not that those groups aren’t doing everything possible for their children; the problem is that traditional schooling requires far more than its youngest cohort can manage.

It’s not the children that need to change. It’s the ridiculously low school starting age, and the detrimental forcing of an academic curriculum onto them.
In other words, the whole thinking behind school-readiness needs to be turned on its head. Perhaps we do not need greater government investment in early years education (including more education before school) or family services, as the NAHT suggests. If children aren’t coping with the expectations of schooling at such a young age, and with the plethora of supporting evidence from psychologists and child development experts, why aren’t our education ministers listening, and suggesting alternatives? A later start to formal schooling, would bring us into line with the rest of the world, and radically ease this whole “school-readiness” problem.
And it would give our nation’s school children the fair chance at success that they need when they first enter the school system, rather than causing so many to fall down at the first hurdle.

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Can’t we just let clothes be clothes?

Recently, social media has been flooded with posts about kids’ clothes. The cause? A couple of our UK high street retailers (John Lewis and Clarks ) announced their plans to do away with “boys” and “girls” labels, and sell their children’s ranges as unisex.

Well, the internet went mad!

A read through the flurry of social media comments reveals a nation divided: one side thankfully commending the retailers for their open-mindedness, relieved that their children can now freely choose clothes they like without stigma, and without being made to think those were “only for boys” or “only for girls”; the other side complaining, either that this would make clothes shopping so much more laborious, or that this was political correctness gone crazy, that boys should wear boys’ clothes, girls should wear girls’ clothes, and that’s that.

Personally, I find myself firmly on the thankful side.

Jessica (my 6 year old) is very sensitive, both emotionally and physically, so clothes are a big issue in our house. Anything with frills, lacy edging, capped or puffed sleeves, or fancy embellishments (ie the majority of the “girls” section in many shops) is out of the question for her, because they feel unbearably irritating on her skin. And while both she and Amy (my 5 year old) love unicorns, kittens and “fashion” dolls, they are also massive fans of Star Wars, dinosaurs, Minecraft, Pokémon, Paw Patrol and Blaze, all of which I’ve noticed (at least where clothes are concerned) are often marketed towards and labelled for boys, rather than girls, by many retailers. Which IS frustrating.

Thankfully, in the last couple of years, in the shops we use (mainly supermarkets and budget-end clothes shops) there has been more overlapping of styles, colours and especially character designs, across the girls’ and boys’ sections, but still I find myself browsing both sections, to find the right T shirts, tops, hats etc. When I’m shopping alone, this is nothing more than mildly annoying, but when I’m with the kids, it’s an uneasy feeling having to coax your sensitive 6 year old daughter into the boys’ section, to show her that there’s more clothes in there that would be right up her street. Then come the protests: “No, look, it says those are boys’ clothes! These are the girls’ ones!” And despite being on a mission to teach my kids that conformity is overrated, sadly they are bombarded with it from virtually every other angle, that girls should stick to certain designs with their specific selection of colours, details and characters, and boys should stick to theirs.

Perhaps the most noticeable culprits are the characters and colours of underwear. Boys’ underwear (understandably) is shaped differently to girls, making department-hopping less of an option. But have you ever tried finding Star Wars or Pokemon themed girls’ underwear? Everything, frustratingly, is pink and emblazoned with princesses, unicorns or equally stereotyped designs. But it hasn’t always been this way…

Interestingly, customs and traditions around children’s clothing have varied widely throughout the generations. Did you know, for example, that (according to this article) throughout much of the 19th century, it was normal for all young children, regardless of their sex, to be clothed in plain white dresses? Practicality overrode fashion: the dresses were easy to get on and off, and allowed for relatively fuss-free nappy changing, and the plain white colour allowed for easy bleaching.

Things gradually changed later in that century, with the introduction of more colour, until it was customary for little BOYS to be dressed in PINK, and GIRLS to be dressed in the “more delicate” pastel BLUE (yes, you DID read that correctly).

Later still, according to that article, moving into the 20th century, children’s clothes once again became much less segregated, with no particular colour or style associations. Gender-neutral romper suits were the order of the day. It wasn’t until the 40s, that the whole pink and blue thing began again, this time with boys’ clothes predominantly blue and girls’ pink. Marketers must have jumped at the opportunity to persuade us we needed to kit our babies and kids out in the correct colours. And as consumers, we fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

And the characters? Well, that’s the product of our obsession with media. Film-makers and TV producers very cleverly market their characters to very specific audiences, and their merchandise follows suit. But what if you’re a girl that likes Transformers or Ninja Turtles? What if you’re a boy that wants to wear a pink or purple shirt, or buy a Paw Patrol hat with Skye on it, rather than Marshall?

And why are some people so opposed to allowing our kids this autonomy, this freedom of choice?


In most cases, it’s not a practicality issue: the clothes are functionally the same (with the exception of perhaps underpants or trousers that may be shaped differently for obvious reasons). So why the segregation? When you consider the way kids’ fashion has changed throughout history, to insist we should keep things this way forever, seems pretty closed-minded and stubborn. Future generations do not have to live exactly like past generations, surely? We learn from history and move with the times, don’t we?

And will it really make the task of shopping more arduous and laborious? I can understand this point, that it won’t be as simple as walking straight to the “girls” section or the “boys” section (or clicking on one tab or the other on a website). But on the other hand, it opens up a whole load more options for children and their parents. Maybe there were some great t-shirts, that would have suited your kid perfectly, but you never saw them because you never ventured into the other aisle. Maybe your child will have the opportunity to brighten up their wardrobe with a whole new range of colours that were previously “unavailable” if you only ever shopped in that one section of the clothes shop. Maybe your child will leave a shop, even just a tiny bit happier that he found the perfect pair of shorts that felt just right and made him feel like a million dollars. Maybe your daughter will finally feel comfortable wearing sturdy, protective shoes that are more suited to playground running, climbing and scuffing that all children should be free to enjoy. So if it really does mean a shopping trip takes a little longer than it used to (though I’m skeptical that it even would in reality), then that’s not a bad thing.  A browse around the shop might just open your eyes – or your mind – to some new products or designs you weren’t aware of.


But even without all that, why should we be told what colours, designs or styles our children can or can’t wear, by the very businesses whose purpose is to serve us? We are the customers, not the slaves. We should be telling THEM what WE want to buy, and if they want our custom, they should be taking notice and delivering the goods, not the other way around. Thankfully, parents and families ARE speaking up about the types of clothes we want for our children, and thankfully, retailers like Clarks and John Lewis are listening.

This is not about political correctness. This is not about denying that “boys are boys” or “girls are girls”. And it’s not about somehow forcing “gender fluidity” on people, as some of the protestors in the social media comments seem to be very wary of. It is not denying anybody anything, or forcing any ideals on anyone. In fact, it is the opposite; it is about retailers listening to, valuing and responding to their customers. But more importantly, it is about widening choice for our children, freeing them up to wear the clothes that they find most comfortable, most practical, or most appealing, no matter who they are.

Clothes don’t need to be assigned a specific gender.

Can we just let clothes be clothes?