The teacher who decided to 'unschool' her own children

Liz Lightfoot
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Teacher and home educator Anna Dusseau was happy to give advice to parents on home schooling in a radio interview during the Covid-19 lockdown – until the presenter cut her off mid-stream. He said he didn’t think listeners would be interested in what she had to say and severed the phone link.

Undaunted, Dusseau, an English teacher, is about to publish a book of advice outlining her approach to home schooling her own children, which includes 100 learning activities parents can try.

With some families afraid to send their children back to school in September and the teacher unions warning that it may not even be safe to reopen some schools, parents are likely to need all the help they can get to keep their children motivated.

So what went wrong with the interview? With the school closures, the presenter wanted tips on how parents could keep an unwilling child’s nose to the grindstone. Dusseau, however, doesn’t believe in forcing children to learn and urges parents to adopt an “unschooling” approach, at least until the children recover from what she sees as the coercion of the curriculum in schools in England.

“Many children’s lives are so busy with school journeys, subject changes, after-school clubs and homework that they have little time to think, or to take ownership of the life they are leading,” she says. “They spend an awful lot of time being ‘processed’ by well-intentioned adults.”

“What home schoolers want for their children is space to grow, space to develop themselves, discover the world, find out what they are interested in, who they really are and what they want to do in life and then the academic qualifications that will get them there,” she says. “There are lots of parents who already home educate and you don’t have to be supermum or dad to do it,” she says.

That said, she accepts that some families prefer a school-at-home approach and can do it with great success. “For this, you will be following a curriculum and meeting targets throughout the academic year, perhaps with a timetable or daily window in which study happens and using resources such as workbooks, textbooks or online learning,” she says.

In fact, teachers taking their children out of school is becoming a trend, she claims. “Plenty of teachers leave the profession each year, and plenty – like me – decide to home school their own children. They know what goes on in schools. This is a significant trend that the government appears to deliberately ignore, perhaps because it says so much,” she says.

Dusseau has three children aged one, four and six with her French husband, a computer network engineer. They both worked in London – she at a large, west London academy – until two years ago, when they left city life for a converted barn in rural Bedfordshire.

In her book, The Case for Home Schooling, Dusseau advocates what became known in the 70s and 80s as “discovery learning”, the idea that children learn best by asking questions and following their instincts, be it staring into rock pools or looking up at the sky. The pandemic has been an unsettling time and children need space, she says. She doesn’t teach the times tables, believing her children will learn maths through everyday activities such as cooking and through talking with them about numbers. Instead of five-year-olds studying the Great Fire of London, they should be reading comics, she believes.

Sadly, home education has been given a bad name by the formal worksheets and exercises sent home by many schools in the lockdown, she believes, but at least parents now know the kind of pressures their children face every day. In fact she goes further, blaming today’s test- and results-driven English school system for contributing to the ills of society.

Related: Paris, Shanghai, Rome … teacher takes children out of school for a better education

Dusseau became a home schooler “by accident” after she witnessed what she thought was bullying in the playground but what the teacher saw as normal bickering. And after another incident involving her daughter and an older girl, she says the decision was made. It was not the only problem she had with the school. She disliked the lists of 10 of the 100 most used words in the English language that five-year-olds brought home to learn for weekly tests and she was worried that her daughter seemed to dislike reading.

To be fair, her own experience of school as a child has also influenced her. She was a school refusenik and missed a lot of time at primary school, which was allowed in that more relaxed era because she was making good progress. It was when she got to middle school that she began to rebel because she disliked being corralled into learning what the school wanted her to know.

After taking their daughter out of school, at first the Dusseaus were looking for somewhere with a different approach, such as a Steiner school. Then, after a few months, they realised their daughter had changed from hating reading aloud to “fluently reading any book from the shelf to her brothers at bedtime”. Last night it was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she says.

“Our son was similarly influenced by the change in dynamic. He began taking anything he could open with a screwdriver up to the kitchen table, to disassemble it. I was quite astonished. And this was when we first thought seriously about home schooling as a long-term prospect,” she explains.

Given her dislike of school, why did she go into teaching? It’s an obvious question and she’s ready for it. “It is astonishing – incredible, really – the number of teachers I’ve met who despised school themselves, just as I did. And yet we come back to it; apparently choosing to spend the rest of our working lives governed by changeover bells and despotic leadership, like some form of school-based Stockholm syndrome. We inflict on our students, year on year, what was done to us,” she says.

She did well at school in spite of it. “I got one of the best sets of GCSE results in the country because I was good at passing tests,” she says. Her teachers wanted her to apply to Oxford or Cambridge but she chose Birmingham because she thought it would be more fun, dropped out of an English degree and then went back to complete her degree near home at the University of Exeter. She did her PGCE at the Institute of Education in London.

“I’ve met quite a few teachers with a similar profile to me, who describe themselves as reluctant students turned teachers,” she says. “I think you have to debunk the idealised view of the profession. This mythology of people having a calling to be a teacher is not real. It is just a job and many people in teaching are quite ordinary people. Not everyone is an exceptional academic who can spout forth about their subject. It is not actually like that in the classroom, it is quite pedestrian,” she says.

“I will happily home educate my children all the way through their education, if that is what they want to do. They always have free choice and we take their thoughts and feelings into account with every decision regarding their future.”

She knows she is lucky to have the money to home educate but claims it is not just a middle-class luxury. “I’m middle-income, middle-class and I’m not going to pretend to be anything else, but you will find a wide variety of people home educating their children. Increasingly children are being off-rolled from school so their parents have to do it,” she says. “We need more choice for parents, school isn’t for everybody.”

‘Don’t be afraid of wasted time’: Anna Dusseau’s top tips for new home schoolers

  • Place no academic expectation on your child for the first three to six months. Use this time to observe your child’s natural interests. Don’t be afraid if the first few weeks feel like “wasted time”; it is new for many children to be thinking for themselves.

  • Avoid putting yourself in situations where you have to justify your decision to people who may not be sympathetic to home schooling.

  • Don’t rush into investing in learning resources, or enrolling for online courses. Remember that this is a unique opportunity to think outside the box and that might involve allowing yourselves to drift for a while.

  • Join a local home educators’ group and start to make links with families who you feel “at home” with.

  • Make it a collaborative process with your children from the word go. School is an environment in which children are relentlessly subjected to adult authority, but at home it shouldn’t work like that. Seek their opinion and ideas from the earliest stage.

The Case for Home Schooling will be published this month by Hawthorn Press.