Compulsory SRE? How about we stop teaching children that their consent doesn’t matter in the first place.

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I just read this article by Dr Elly Hanson about the “radical overhaul of sex and relationship education (SRE)” recently announced by the government.

She makes some really important points about the current situation, and at the end calls for sex and relationship education that is “available to everyone… well resourced and embedded within a wider curriculum”.

I wonder if Dr Hanson is aware of unschooling, I would have expected her to flag it up in her article if she was, accompanied by the fact that mainstream schooling – where this SRE is supposed to take place – is fundamentally non-consensual, and that this might be a problem that no amount of SRE is going to fix.

Herein lies the important question:

Rather than trying to teach consent, why don’t we stop teaching that consent doesn’t matter?

Our culture normalises that children’s consent does not matter. We usually don’t ask, we don’t wait for a reply, we don’t take the time to explain. Children are often deprived of the opportunity to consent in the home, and critically, in the school environment. It is common that even if children self-advocate, their wishes are overridden.

Ask yourself this: how often are children given the opportunity to consent to their relationships and experiences when they are at school?

First they are generally told that they have to go (although it is of course perfectly legal for children to pursue their education outside of school through home education and unschooling), so straight away are often deprived of the opportunity to consent to the environment in which they spend a significant amount of their time. Once at school, they are told what to do, when and with whom. They are told what they will be learning, and how, when they can play, when they can talk to their friends, when and where they can move around.

Often times they are told what they have to wear and look like, very specifically, and what they can eat – sometimes they are even told what order they have to eat it in.

It isn’t until people are 14 years old that they are given a say in what they study at school, and even then, their options are strictly controlled.

Consent isn’t something you can teach, it is an experience and a feeling. When someone asks you for your consent, to be able to consent in an meaningful way, a person needs to be able to pause, think and reflect – Do I want to do this? Do I want this to happen to me? – without coercion. They experience a feeling of being in control of their own destiny, of looking within themselves, to see if they do indeed want to consent to what is being proposed, or not. They need to know that the person asking for their consent genuinely means it, and will respect their response, in order for the consent to be meaningful.

Trying to ‘teach’ this, whilst persistently exposing children to a non-consensual environment, I just don’t see how it works.

What we should be doing, is not un-teaching consent in the first place. Normalise consent in children’s every day lives and environment, from birth, and your SRE is done. No child is too young to know that their body and their minds are their own, that their say matters, and that other people, of any age, should respect them. Children who grow in an environment where their voice and consent matters, easily recognise what is non-consensual, and understand that it is unacceptable.

Having the opportunity to consent should be a base line experience, not a novelty or add on. It should be a lived experience so that it is taken for granted as normal, so that people can understand how to navigate this world in a way that maintains their physical, sexual and emotional safety.

The coercive nature of schooling and traditional parent child relationships normalises and teaches coercive relationships and behaviour – this is the exact opposite of consent. If we want children to understand consent, we have to live it with them.

To those who are really committed to SRE that genuinely makes a difference, I suggest getting behind consent based education from birth, researching unschooling as an alternative to coercive and non-consent based mainstream schooling, and I encourage you to challenge the countless normalised examples of children being deprived of their autonomy and consent in their everyday lived experiences.

Consent Based Education course: now open!

I am now taking bookings for the Consent Based Education course that I am running from April – June this year.

Here are a few of the reasons as to why I am offering the course:

  1. I believe that when we apply the concept of consent to the way we live and learn, we actively deconstruct the historically rooted influences of patriarchy and authoritarianism that negatively impact our relationships, our sense of self, our health and wellbeing, and our lived experience. However, as consent is a relatively new concept, particularly in regards to family dynamics, a key purpose of the course is to unpack what it means, and how it looks.
  2. Parents are intuitively gravitating towards living more respectful and consent based lives with their children, but may not have had the time to fully explore it’s importance and historical context. By developing an awareness of the social and historical constructs of childhood and parenthood, parents can appreciate why consent based living is in such stark contrast with traditional parent child dynamics, and why it is such an important and progressive shift.
  3. The course is reflective and empowering. The course gives parents the opportunity to reclaim the power of their own autonomy, and information to support their knowledge, courage and persistence in holding space for their children’s empowerment and consent based living and learning. Consent frees us to live our most authentic, meaningful and empowered lives, and to respect and support others in doing the same.

The course is designed for parents who want to get to know consent based education better, for their own personal development, and to support their family’s life long consent based living and learning.

It will support parents in reframing their understanding of family relationships, education, love and life in consensual terms, and seeks to support the transition from beliefs to behaviour.

This course is for parents who have a sense that through their parenthood, they have the potential to influence positive personal and social change, and want to know more about the how and why.

The course is made up of 6 two hour sessions, that take place fortnightly from 7.30-9.30pm. The dates are:

Monday 17th April
Monday 1st May (Bank Holiday)
Monday 15th May
Monday 29th May
Monday 12th June
Monday 26th June

The sessions will take place at a venue on the Herts/Essex border, on the outskirts of Stansted Mountfitchet, easily accessible from Saffron Walden, Bishop’s Stortford and the surrounding area.

Places on this course are limited, more details can be found here. Booking can be made via email: sophiechristophy@gmail.com

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To My Dear Self,

Seven years into unschooling parenthood, I have realised that probably the most important love letter I can send on Valentines Day is one to my very own self.

So, here goes. Let me count the ways…

  1. I love how I am rediscovering my own identity after years of having intentionally put myself to the side in order to meet the needs of my babies and then young children. More and more I can feel myself coming to share the fore, exploring myself and my passions and interests, and making them a priority.
  2. I love my body, in all it’s glory. It has experienced two pregnancies, two births, the physical toll of carrying, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping, plus all of the physical work involved in day to day family life with young children. Having shared it for a long time it is starting to feel like my own again and I love it without condition from top to toe.
  3. I love my mind and the thinking work I have done over the past 7 years and continue to do. First thinking about my pregnancies and births, making informed choices for myself and my babies, informing myself as fully and critically as possible. Then thinking critically about parenthood and childhood, really thinking about my children, spending time with them, observing them and their needs, working out how to best support them in navigating this world. I love myself for having prioritised that process, and for continuing to do so.
  4. I love that I am committed to being true to myself, and to not giving in to societal norms when the are in conflict with my ethics, and the best interests and wellbeing of myself and my family. I love myself for toughing it out, going against the grain when necessary, and for living with the greatest integrity and authenticity that I can.
  5. I love that I have tried, that I have made mistakes, and that I have sought to acknowledge and reflect on those mistakes in order to develop and grow. That I have practiced self-forgiveness and self-love, and endeavour to model that for my children so that they feel free to love themselves as fully as possible too. I love that I have compromised and changed my mind when that has been the right thing to do.
  6. I love the personal boundaries that I am working towards. That I feel worthy to be mindful of my experiences, to say no, to stop doing things that don’t work for me and to protect myself when necessary. I love that I am taking responsibility for my own life and experiences, and acknowledging my needs and limits.
  7. And finally, I love that, despite everything, my commitment, courage and passion to do the work in this life that I need to do, is stronger than ever.

Happy Valentine’s Day. xxxx

A Love Letter to My Self on Valentine’s Day

Consent Based Education: What can a flock of Spanish geese tell us about schooling?

 

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Let’s take a few moments to think about what it means that schools are compulsory and coercive environments and not consensual ones. To do this, we need to think about the many compulsory layers that exist within schools.

Firstly, there is showing up. Unless home educating, young people have to attend school. There is no choice, it is compulsory, and failing to attend is a big issue with attendance data highly monitored. School being a place that you ‘have to be’ is the baseline of a person’s relationship with their school and education.

Then there is the compulsory participation within the school day. Students have to be in certain places at certain times, as decided by the teachers and school leadership. Their time during the day is rigidly structured in terms of the places they are allowed to go, and what they are allowed to do within those places. Again, compliance with this is compulsory, with deviation carrying the risk of punitive consequences.

Within this are further compulsory aspects. What information is offered, what, when and how students interact with that subject matter. Students are not given the opportunity to consent to what and when they are taught, and their participation in lessons is compulsory – you can’t just sit quietly at the back waiting for what you want to learn, you must tune in regardless of whether you actually want to or not.

Part of the reason for some of this highly managed and non-consensual environment is practical. There are large numbers of students in an environment that is designed for classroom based teacher-led learning, and so it can be said under their current design, a degree of structure and organisation is necessary to ensure everyones safety. Some of the compulsory nature necessitated by restrictions resulting from testing and imposed curriculum requirements.

There are other reasons as to why consent is absent in schooling, to do with beliefs and mindsets about young people and learning. These beliefs inform policy and everyday school life.

Some people believe that school and learning is ‘bad medicine’ that will only be taken if a person has no choice. That ‘education’ and/or ‘learning’ is only possible if children are forced into it. Some people believe that given the choice, children wouldn’t sit in that classroom.

Maybe there is some truth in that, when considering what is currently offered as ‘education’. Unlike teachers who can leave a school, or leave the profession, students can not talk with their feet. It’s impossible to say how many would show up given the choice, and how essential coercion is to the functioning of schools as they currently stand.

The fear within schools, that given the choice, students wouldn’t voluntarily show up, either to school at all, or to particular classes, is very real. It even prevents some schools from granting students free access to the toilet during the school day – the fear that a student would prefer to sit in a toilet cubicle than in a classroom.

To me, this fear and ‘bad medicine’ idea is telling us something very important. If people wouldn’t actively consent to being there and to participating, we have an epic problem that needs resolving.

There is a farmer in Spain called Eduardo Sousa, who produces foie gras without force-feeding his geese. His geese help themselves to enough of what they need, through their own choosing, to self-create some of the best fois gras in the world. No forcing, they do it through their own choice. They do it consensually.

His geese aren’t even penned in. They are free to leave at any time, should they wish to. Only, his geese don’t want to leave. Wild geese flying overhead even come down and join his flock. He has proven that it isn’t necessary to force feed geese to produce foie gras, it isn’t necessary to keep them under caged conditions either. Given the right environment and opportunities, the geese choose to be there and do it themselves, and given the space and opportunity, thrive. Some people believe you can only produce foie gras by force. Eduardo has shown that that isn’t true.

Some people believe that learning and education require force, compulsion, coercion. I don’t believe that to be true.

What would a school need to look like to replicate the effect of Eduardo’s farm? What environment and opportunities would you need to offer in order for students to actively consent to being there? What if students could choose with their feet, and the only type of school that was sustainable was one that students chose to show up to, and chose to participate in? What would the impact on ‘learning’ be if it was happening in a consensual and personalised rather than forced relationship?

For a school to be consensual, it needs to offer freedom of movement, it needs to genuinely listen to and respect the people within it, to offer space and time, and access to things of interest and value, as perceived by the participants as well as the providers – and those can be flexible roles. It needs to be an attractive and comfortable space that people want to be in, where people are free to meet their own needs, and can reach out for support if needed.

Who wouldn’t want to show up there everyday?

 

Consent in Education

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I want to explore some ideas about consent in education. What I mean by consent in this instance, is the idea that a person be given the opportunity to consent to what instruction/direction/training/ they are exposed to/participate in, and also the idea that this consent can be withdrawn at any time.

To put this into context, lets consider reading. Currently, children are not given the opportunity to consent regarding reading. Parental choice in this regard is limited to two choices, accepting reading instruction without active consent by entering mainstream schooling, or choosing to home educate.

When a child is not in school, they can be given the opportunity to consent to the ‘teaching of reading’ and/or the act of reading itself. They can also be given information that will help them to make an informed choice about reading, such as evidence based information about the broad range of ages for reaching developmental readiness for reading. Their own lived experience will likely influence their views on and interest in consenting to read.  They can consent to reading as and when it feels right and appropriate to them.

Within schooling, no consent is sought, in fact mainstream schooling requires that intellectual or educational consent (which term is best I am not yet sure) is not sought. It is a system that is coercion dependent, and it uses an infrastructure of punishment and reward to facilitate and reinforce the coercive environment.

But why should it be acceptable that intellectual/educational consent be absent? Some may argue that a child is too young to be able to make a decision about consent, that asking them to do so would be age inappropriate and that adults should be trusted to make the decisions on their behalf.

To that I pose the question, are we not then doing something too soon? Would it not make sense to wait until time at which a child can make a consensual decisions, and in the mean time facilitate an environment in which for the most part children can demonstrate consent through their play choices? When schooling in some countries doesn’t commence until a child is 7 years old, we can be confident in saying that children will not be missing out intellectually or educationally by not being put through non-consensual ‘education’ in their youngest years. In my experience, by the time a child is 7 years old, especially if their life experience to that date has valued their voice and consent, they are in a position to make active and informed consensual choices about what they do in an environment designed for ‘education’.

Then we come to the barrier of fear, and negative stereotypes of children. The idea that given the freedom and opportunity, they would make bad, lazy, wrong or other negative choices. That they wouldn’t learn the right things, that they would do things in the wrong ways and so on.

But when else other than in childhood is there a better time for risk taking and mistake making? It is a fallacy to believe that there is only one magic moment to learn specific things. We know this as adults as we keep building our own knowledge banks, changing our minds, developing new skills and constantly shaping our world views based on new information that becomes available. Learning is a life long endeavour, the sense of rush and strict timings is a construct, not a necessity. We could afford children far greater freedom to determine the journey of their education without causing damage to their future.

And do we not believe also that sometimes the best or even only way to learn things is through what we might perceive as mistakes? Try something, find it doesn’t work and try something else until it does work? Maybe if I do it this way, or that, or look at it from a different angle, it will make sense? What if the very process of a consensual education journey provided the richest and most longterm learning experience of all, regardless of the actual content – the ability to think critical, to gather information to make decisions, to take personal responsibility, to realise that at no time do we know everything, and at all times we can find out more.

What more honest and richer an educational journey would we make if we were only asked for our consent, and given truthful and balanced context from which to make our decisions?

In the past it has been believed that doctors should hold all information, sharing as little as possible with patients under the premise that the doctors know best and the patient need not know. Perhaps this isn’t always in the past.

In the past it has been believed that women’s consent to sex was not necessary in marriage, and that their husbands had a right to their bodies regardless of their views. Perhaps this isn’t always in the past.

Perhaps one day it will be a thing of the past to believe that the minds, the intellects of children, are not their own, but are owned by others with power over them and who know best.

Or is that now?

The Grassroots Movement Revolutionising Education

For too long discussion about improving the education system has gone on. Tweaks are made here, tweaks are made there, but at the end of it, the system remains the same, the problems and inequalities continue. The reality is, the kind of change needed to address and overcome the fundamental issues inherent in the existing system are too significant to be achieved by the usual channels. It requires a bold and imaginative new way of thinking, it involves us stepping away from the system that exists altogether.

What would you do, if you were creating a system of education anew? I’m talking about a new build, rather than a restoration. If you were starting from scratch, right here and now, what would that education system look like? What type of environment and focus would you take? How would you go about creating the optimum environment for people to self-actualise, to explore their potential?

You may be thinking, this is fanciful pie in the sky nonsense. If you work within the education system you may be tired of ‘fixes’, you may struggle to see that another way is possible. Schooling and the current system of education is all we know, it’s what we take as the only legitimate place for learning to happen, and as central to childhood experience.

However we also know that the system that exists today is fundamentally flawed. It is outdated. Gradually we are waking up to the realisation that an authoritarian system of education is an obsolete concept. As avenues for connectivity and self-study have opened up via the platform that is the world wide web, we are becoming experienced in interest-led and self-directed learning. We can find our own news, our own answers, our own solutions to problems. The current system of schooling is becoming a performance and a distraction from the new systems of education that are emerging.

Not only is the current system of education a red herring, it is also becoming more and more apparent that it is detrimental. The high stakes, competitive and standardised model works against our mental health, sense of self, and social justice. Pitting humans against each other for the duration of their most formative years of life ingrains and normalises the idea that some people are winners and some are losers, it teaches individualism rather than offering an environment ripe for experimenting, and exploring methods of cooperation. It creates a narrow, ageist, classist, ableist, sexist and racist neoliberal version of ‘success’. It is in conflict with the new sharing economy and collaborative rather than competitive ways of living and working. It is bad for our health and our concepts of work/life balance.

And this is a pressing and urgent concern for parents who are considering the options available to their own children’s education. We often hear of the importance of ‘choice’ in education, but what choice is there really when each option is based on the same dysfunctional model? What choice is there when all routes lead to the traditional model of schooling?

So here we come, back to the concept of a new-build system. As the arguments for opting in to the existing model fall flat, we have not only a problem, but a great opportunity. What is possible to build in it’s place? What scope is there to change what currently exists, to craft and nurture something entirely new? And I’m not talking about the future here, I’m talking about the now. In this moment is another system possible, is it already out there?

What if I told you that at this very moment there are children who from birth have been given the space to pursue their learning in a personalised, self-directed way, and that there are children being deregistered from school to join them. To live and learn cooperatively, without grading or testing, where their peers, of all ages, are their allies not their competition. What if I told you that in these conditions children develop skills in reading, in writing, in researching and critical thinking, in creating, without a classroom, but through their own curiosity and intrinsic motivation. Where mistakes are embraced as essential for learning, where there are no wrong answers, wrong subjects, wrong or right times to do or achieve certain things. Where they can follow their interests and own unique developmental readiness in the supportive context of community.

We can not afford to wait for ‘someone else’ to fix and rebuild the education system. It just isn’t going to happen, no matter the campaigning, lobbying, reasoning or ranting. Every moment we spend wishing that things were different is time and energy lost that could be redirected to working with each other on the alternative available to us right now.

The term ‘home education’ is an unattractive one, that conjures images of a chalk board on the dining room wall. However, don’t be misled. Home education is a gateway out of a broken system. It is an opportunity to work together to create something better. Something fit for purpose in the 21st century. Once we are free from the confines and rigid thinking of school based learning, we can expand and explore the true potential meaning of education. It frees us to work collaboratively with each other and the young people whose lives we are really talking about here, for them to be equal partners in manifesting this ‘new way’. It gives us the opportunity to model what learning without traditional schooling looks like, to challenge and overcome false beliefs, social norms and values about the capabilities, status and agency of children and young people.

By stepping through the doorway of home education to new connections and communities both virtual and in real life, we find a grassroots movement that will lead the way to revolutionising education as we know it. And believe me, it’s already happening.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

 

Why do people home educate?

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This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of Salad Days

There are as many reasons as to why people decide to home educate as there are families home educating. Each family comes to the decision in their own time, and in their own way. Some families realise that home education is right for them before their children are school age, or even preschool age, others enter the school system and later decide that home ed is a better route for them.

We didn’t start out thinking we would home educate, but as our children approached school age and we researched and thought critically about the education system and how they would experience it, the more we looked for an alternative.

This led to us exploring how children learn and thrive without school, and gave us the confidence to create the opportunity for them to pursue their education outside of the classroom. Dissatisfaction with the existing education system is one of the most common reasons given by families for their decision to home ed.

For one local parent, key to their decision making was their desire to give their child the opportunity and freedom to continue exploring the world around them with the self-directed curiosity and enthusiasm that they had shown since birth. Why disrupt something that was already happening naturally?

Another family initially planned to home educate until their children were 7 years old, but observing how it had given them the time and space to develop, learn and grow, at their own pace and around the things that most interested them, decided to make it a long term plan.

‘Too much too soon’ was another reason given by parents – concern that formal learning starts too young. England has one of the youngest school starting ages in Europe, three years earlier than in Finland, for example, a country renowned for one of the most successful, progressive and learner focused education systems in the world.

Some families come to home educate because of their children having had negative experiences in school, whether that be bullying, inadequate support, or just that a traditional school environment is an uncomfortable fit.

The stress and restriction of standardised testing and assessment, seen by many parents and teachers as counterproductive to learning, was another reason given for opting to home ed. Through home education children are free to be themselves, and to be treated as individuals – they can pursue their own unique path to educational success.

Local parents also mentioned the opportunity home education offers in regards to respecting children’s rights, particularly children’s right to have their views and feelings listened to and taken seriously. Home education allows the best interests of the children to be prioritised above any other agenda.

With a thriving local home educating community, the option to home educate is more accessible than ever before. Families can decide to home educate knowing that they will be able to spend their time with other home educating families, that their children will be able to socialise with children of a range of ages, and participate in regular activities and events. Families have the opportunity to contribute their own creativity and skills to building a fantastic educational experience for their children.