Almost four years ago I was at a coffee morning watching a mother weeping over the chances of getting her child into a decent primary school in September. During the ensuing conversation I was horrified to hear others stressing about secondary school options for their toddlers. This was a Thing To Worry About? Already?! And there was me with my unbaptised baby, his name on no school lists. We were renting with no idea what school catchment area we might be living in by the time he reached school age. What chance did he have against those who had been put on lists before they were even born?
So I did what all the other parents were doing and submitted his name to various schools of good repute in the areas nearby. This being Ireland, they were predominantly Catholic schools who made it absolutely clear that he would be at the very very bottom of their list due to his lack of Religion or a confirmed future home. As soon as he reached his second birthday (which of course falls at an awkward time of year that puts him at the bottom of the age-related lists) I sent off applications to the more sensible Educate Together schools that don’t believe in enrolling your embryos. Would we actually send him to a Catholic school though? Maybe. If there were no other option. There might well be no option at all. What to do? The Irish education system is tricky if you’re one of the growing number of ‘No Religion’ families. There simply aren’t enough non-denominational school places available to match the demand. We refuse to baptise our child into a religion we don’t believe in and have that religion entwined in their education, just as it was in ours. That put us at a massive disadvantage.
Fortuitously it was around then that I came across the first Irish Unschooling Conference being run by a former work colleague of mine. I knew little about the concept other than it didn’t require baptism or a particular postal address. And there were apparently other people doing it in Ireland. Worth looking into, we thought. Although the decision was years ahead of us we took the opportunity to learn about Unschooling from those that were doing it. It was interesting and informative. It also gave me a totally different perspective on learning and education which shaped how I approached raising our child. At the very least, after the conference we determined that Unschooling was definitely a viable option for us depending on how the next couple of years went. We would defer making any decision on what our schooling preference was overall, but we now had a safety net should our child fail to get a place in a good school. I could check this particular parenting worry off the list, confident that in four years time I would not be that mother, sobbing into my tea.
Fast forward to last year. We started our first foray into the world of early education thanks to the ‘free’ ECCE year that (in)conveniently coincided with the arrival of our second son. I debated sending him at all, but the opportunity to send him to an outdoor school was too good to pass up. However it took almost four months to settle the Rascal in. Four months of tears and misery every single morning. Feeling like the worst parent ever as he was physically handed over at the door. We came very close to giving up and taking him out. Then the sudden sea-change occurred, as so often happens with our stubborn son. One day he’s totally against something, the next it’s been adopted as an expected part of his day. He’s been a different child going into preschool in the mornings.
Preschool has been great for him. It’s given him time to socialise with peers and to explore his own personality and boundaries without parental intervention. The outdoor child-led learning approach suits him perfectly. He’s had time away from the frustration of being the active and noisy older brother of a baby that needs to nap, and parents who are irritable due to lack of sleep and the stresses of moving jobs and countries. He has learnt to interact with a small group of the same children every day and get along with them. He has definitely developed his social skills and done a lot of activities we just don’t have time to do. He has become more independent. Now he knows that he can go out and do his own thing without a parent in tow. This was a new thing for me too – having to rely on the little news he tells us about his time away from home instead of seeing his days unfold alongside him.
Things we won’t miss about preschool include the thick north Dublin accent he somehow picked up from being there. The totally disorganised owners. The wild preschooler antics. The popularity of the word ‘Poo’ within his gang. The layers of dirt and dust caked onto his clothing (and himself) every day. Or the piles of sand spilling out of his wellies and into the car. Speaking of the car. It will never be the same again after bumping up and down a country road and into the construction site of a premises still being renovated. Nor will I miss the preschool run. Cars queuing to awkwardly try and fit into a driveway that just hasn’t got sufficient capacity. Having to rush to get out of the door every morning, or constantly watch the clock to make sure we get back in time for pick-up. That little sea of sad faces peering out the gate at home-time dwindles quickly to the one lone child who desperately doesn’t want to be the last anything in his social group.
But what comes next after that one ECCE year? Our unbaptised and relatively new to the area child did receive school offers from the other side of the city, but only one single offer based here for a school that doesn’t have a great reputation. It’s also a stupidly long commute. Our preferred Educate Together, just a short walk up the road, has no room for him. Regardless, I’m not convinced that he is ‘ready’ to start in a formal education system purely because he was unlucky to miss out on the second year of ECCE and almost all other kids his age are in preschool or school next year. He’s had an outdoor and active environment of running and jumping and learning that he loves. Suddenly sitting for hours in a classroom and ‘playing’ in a yard where children aren’t allowed run for fear of falling over would be a big change. If things were different then right about now we would be making a final decision on formal schooling in the Irish system versus homeschooling/unschooling. For me, Unschooling would be looking very attractive.
Unschooling would suit the Rascal perfectly based on his learning to date – in fact I could argue that he has already been unschooled up until last September and has done a fantastic job of learning all by himself. My only real qualm would be the vastly limited social options here, where it’s not the norm. However now it’s an easy decision. Friday was his last day of preschool because of our upcoming relocation. It was hard not to feel a little sad watching the video his carer had made of him and his friends playing together. Even sadder watching her saying goodbye to him and tell him that she was going to miss him. I have to remember that in a few more weeks he would have been finishing up anyway, and saying goodbye to her and his little gang who hug it out every afternoon.
In Montréal he won’t be of school-age for an extra year. There’s a large homeschooling community over there which makes it a more viable option socially. We’ll see how the next year goes before making a definitive decision about entering the Quebec education system. Particularly how we fare with the language-learning. But for now, we’re not just done with preschool. We’re done with formal schooling. Our Unschooling journey has officially begun (or restarted). I’m not sure how long it will last, but it’s taking us in the right direction for now.
Have I done any preparation? Well, no. It is, after all, supposed to be child-led learning so I’m not worried about that. The Rascal covered letters and numbers under his own volition before starting preschool and has been developing his writing skills over the last few months. Then there’s the topics they’ve been learning about in preschool. Is it a total coincidence that they’ve spent so much time on many of his particular interests? Volcanoes, dinosaurs, planets, fossil-hunting and err.. building a scarecrow. Unschooling means different things to different people. For now we’ll get plenty of educational mileage out of discovering a brand new country and language once we finally get over there. After that I suspect that I won’t really need a book to tell me what to do. I’ll just be following along as my son finds his own path towards knowledge.