Here’s an article David wrote (but not the headline that was used below!) that was recently published in British national newspaper The Daily Telegraph.
Why I’ve taken my son out of school for a year (and why you should too)
Last year, my wife Debs and I came up with the idea for a family adventure with our two sons. A three-month, 7,500-mile trip, to forge family bonds and tick off some bucket-list locations before the children got stuck on the treadmill of education.
Before we set off, we had shown our then four-year-old son, Daniel, photographs of places we could visit. Debs and I were tremendously excited about the trip but to Daniel, we soon realised, it was largely incomprehensible, an abstract concept. To him, the places we were describing were just words. He asked a couple of questions, then wanted to get back to whatever it was he was playing with.
A short while later, when Daniel and his three-year-old brother Darley got to feast their own eyes on Stonehenge, Hampton Court Palace, the Angel of the North, Scotland’s mountains and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Debs and I couldn’t answer their questions fast enough. A door was unlocked, and suddenly they were hungry for as much information, as much history, geography and art as we could feed them. Reading about the knights of old is all very well, but it’s better if you can show your children where they lived.
When our journey took us to Spain (in a motorhome we bought after downsizing our Devon home) the boys’ desire to learn continued, whether we were visiting Valencia or counting pebbles on the Andalusian coast. They picked up Spanish (and bits of other languages) at the campsites we stayed at en route. They were soaking up the world like sponges.
But we weren’t just filling their minds with experiences. They were learning the value of exploration, that risk-taking can be rewarding beyond expectations. And they were gaining rapidly in self-confidence. Even the greatest Oxbridge degree is worthless without an inner confidence to get out into the world and get stuck in.
We had a huge amount of fun, all of us, and our family bond grew stronger than ever on that trip. That’s not to be underestimated: we didn’t have children to not spend time with them. Yet family togetherness is something that gets lost in the maelstrom of modern life, too often forgotten in the race for a bigger house, nicer car, better job, or as we stare at a succession of screens, lost in our private digital worlds.
That wasn’t for us. We wanted something different. Back home, we began planning another, bigger adventure.
Children in Britain have to be in full-time education by the term after their fifth birthday – but while education is compulsory, schooling is not. So a few weeks ago, we informed Daniel’s (excellent) school-to-be that we’d be educating him ourselves until the start of the next school year.
We’re piling into our Swift Escape motorhome once again, and will be travelling through Spain, Portugal, Morocco and more besides. We’re also planning to fly to Australia. The idea is to continue what we started on last year’s three-month travels: we called it our Face2Facebook project and visited as many of our Facebook friends as possible, donating to charity for every one we saw. At the same time we will be broadening our children’s horizons, opening our eyes to the wonders of the world.
Which is not to say the boys won’t also be getting any traditional education. Being on the road means there’ll be plenty of reading and writing time, but because we’ll all be together we can seize the moments when Daniel actually wants to read, write or do maths – so that he’ll be more engaged and more likely to learn. And the teaching he and his brother get will always be one-to-one.
We’re giving them something more too, which Debs and I call “education by astonishment”. Our aim is to tailor our travels in order to show the boys somewhere astonishing for each of the National Curriculum subjects. Children are born curious, and new environments bring out that natural curiosity. Travel broadens education.
A criticism of taking children out of school is that they won’t socialise with children their own age. It’s true, Daniel and Darley won’t find as many peers in the coming months as they would at school or nursery, but they will be socialising on a much broader scale. They’ll be interacting with people from all backgrounds, cultures and ages. We think this is important – we want them to be able to get on with someone aged 90 from another country just as well as they can with a five-year-old down the road.
What my sons will learn this year is something that can’t be taught in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, teachers generally do a first-rate job. But increasingly what we hear from teachers and parents is criticism of successive governments for making formal education a procession of tests, rather than a process that turns our children into confident, open-minded individuals.
So don’t be surprised if you hear about more people doing what we’re doing.
Tim and Kerry Meek are teachers from Nottinghamshire who recently quit their jobs and sold their house to travel in a caravan with daughters Amy, 11, and nine-year-old Ella. “Education is becoming dominated with tests and targets, at the expense of engaging and enjoyable learning,” says Tim. “But children aren’t sausages in a sausage factory to be pumped full of facts ready for regurgitation at the end of some arbitrary Key Stage, when they take high-stakes assessments.”
Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider whether our young children really are getting the education that’s best for them. In particular, it’s time to ask whether they are starting school too soon. Ninety per cent of countries don’t start primary education until the ages of six or seven, and even then there is more emphasis on “learning through play”.
In the latest world education ranking report, the Programme for International Student Assessment survey listed the top ten countries, which included Switzerland, Netherlands and Japan. None of the top ten start children at primary school before they’re six or seven. The UK came 26th.
Perhaps things are changing, slowly. A British campaign started in 2013 called the Save Childhood Movement, backed by a group of academics, teachers and authors calling for reassessment of national policies on early education. Collectively they have asserted that children who “enter school at six or seven consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing”.
That makes perfect sense to me. In the meantime, Debs and I are doing what we hope is best for our young children by travelling and giving them real-world experiences. We hope they will learn from the wonderful world that’s around us, one that in the coming decades is likely to be ever more open for opportunities and adventure.
We also want them to see that the world is generally a friendly place, not a hostile one (it’s easy to forget this when you read news headlines from around the globe). We want them to grow up understanding that our world is something to be respected and cherished, one to give their all to, and one in which they can fulfil their potential.
We also hope that, when they’re older, they’ll look back on 2015 and think: wow, that year, it was truly astonishing!