World-schooling, edventuring, life-learning, whatever you call it, more parents are doing it – if the proliferation of blogs and books by families on round-the-world trips is anything to go by. Jo and Jamie Robins are just one example of this.
Driven by a desire to spend a greater amount of time with their children, escape the pressures of work and discover new cultures and lifestyles, a growing number of parents are jacking it all in, taking the kids out of school and setting off on an adventure.
Take Jo and Jamie Robins, who are two weeks into a four-month South America trip with their daughters, aged 10 and seven. “We want to take some time to step back from life, the treadmill of working hard to pay a mortgage, not having enough time for family or to follow our interests,” says Jo. The Robins have only just begun their adventure and are planning to come back home later this year – maybe. However, many parents find that once they are on the road, they can’t imagine going back to their old life.
David and Debs Hurst’s three-month mission to visit their Facebook friends, with their sons, aged six and four, turned into an extended campervan trip across 13 countries, which they dubbed “education by astonishment”, visiting people and places with a “wow factor”.
“To our minds, they are learning in a more interesting way. We don’t know if we’re right, but it’s our gut instinct. We don’t have a TV in the van and the boys only have one small box of toys each. We encourage them to spend as much time as possible outside,” says David.
They were so inspired by their journey that they are setting off again, this time to Spain where they hope to buy some land and set up a family campsite with a focus on learning through outdoor play.
In 2014, Martina and Julian Tyrrell sold their house in Cambridge, their car and 90% of their belongings to sail off into the sunset on a 36ft yacht, with their daughters, aged five and four. Nearly two years on, they are temporarily based by the Guadiana river on the border of Spain and Portugal, while the girls go to a Spanish school, and are wondering where the wind might take them next.
“When people asked us how long we would be away for, I jokingly said between six months and 60 years. The kids love the life and I’m not that concerned about school because we always said we would homeschool them. If they get to a point where they want to go to school, I won’t stand in their way,” says Martina.
For many travelling families, homeschooling is not just a consequence of travel, but part of the attraction. Overall, homeschooling is on the rise. Local authority figures released at the end of last year show a 65% increase in children recorded as home educated in the UK over six years. US website Vagabondfamily.org, which profiles over 100 nomadic families, has a series of posts on the benefits of “roadschooling”, while Daniel Prince (princesoffthegrid.weebly.com), who has been travelling for nearly two years using lovehomeswap.com, talks about the inspiration for homeschooling, as well as some of the resources he and his wife use to educate their four children.
One thing these families have in common is that their children are very young. Single parent Theodora Sutcliffe travelled the world for four years with her son, but settled in Bali when he turned 13. Sutcliffe has no regrets about their travels and says her son benefited “hugely”, but their journey came to an end when he decided he wanted to go to a conventional school.
Whether parents choose to homeschool on the road, like the Hursts, or more radically “unschool” (whereby children are give free rein to learn at their own pace – or not), the Department of Education takes a dim view of any time away from school. “Obviously, we do not condone it. Children must receive a suitable education. Even missing a week of school affects children’s attainment,” said a spokeswoman.
It’s no surprise that the government disapproves, driven as it is by targets and goals – the precise thing many parents are trying to get away from. But are there other reasons why long-term travel is a bad idea? The people doing it – typically well-off liberals who can afford to fund a long-term trip – justify the experience on the grounds that it will benefit their children immensely. But would those kids be just as happy and learn as much by doing activities each weekend? Are these parents just being selfish?
In a recent Observer debate about taking term-time holidays, philosopher Julian Baggini accused parents of being disingenuous about their true motives. “The value of out-of-school learning is real, but often a convenient alibi for selfishness,” he wrote, adding that he suspects parents who use the “holidays are cheaper in term time argument” are the pushier middle-class parents who are manipulating the system, rather than “genuine cases of hard-pressed families who cannot afford holidays when school’s out”.
When it comes to long-term leave, Baggini is more understanding. “I think it is probably true, and not just self-serving, that children gain more from spending an extended time abroad than the equivalent in a school. Partly, it’s because diversity of experience is generally good in itself.”
Most round-the-world family blogs hail the experience as life-changing in the best way possible, illustrating gushing blog posts with snaps of beaming children in exotic places. Few admit to finding it tough, or question their decision. Lara Pennington-Ellis, a British single mum based in Barcelona who set off on a round-the-world trip with her eight-year-old son in 2015, is one exception. Her blogzzzworldninjas.com broaches the challenges of travel, as well as the fun bits.
“It’s a wonderfully romantic idea but the reality is much harsher,” she says in one post, admitting that being together with her son 24/7 can feel claustrophobic. “I’m loving our intense time together but I’m also missing my personal freedom and adult conversation.”
Her take on homeschooling is far from rosy, too. “World schooling sounds easygoing but it’s actually the hardest hour of the day, to knuckle down and do maths/Spanish/English/handwriting homework. We are not your typical hippie family! These are luxury “problems”, of course. Any talk of round-the-world travel – let alone complaints about it – will rile a large portion of the population. But it’s refreshing to hear a few gripes among the sea of breathless accounts, especially at this time of year, when more parents than ever will be fantasising about escape.