Unschooling is a type of home education that is based on following the interests of the child. Parents that support an unschooling approach do not force their child to learn according to the system of defined by the school curriculum. Children are free to learn how, when and what they choose with the support and guidance of their parents.
Adopting an unschooling approach does not mean that your child won’t learn what children learn in school, but they may learn in a very different way and timing to their schooled peers.
How can unschooling fit within the legal requirements?
What is the relevant law?
This article will only consider the law in NSW, Australia, although some of it will be relevant to other Australian States and Territories. Guides to registering your child for home education and unschooling for each Australian State can be found here.
In NSW the law relating to home education is found in the Education Act. This article was written in 2023 and is based on the law at the time of writing.
There is no mention of the different styles of home education in the Education Act, and the process for registration and re-registration are the same no matter what style of home education you choose.
You need to present an educational program that is based on the syllabus for each Key Learning Area (KLA.) The syllabus documents set out a summary of the content that is taught in schools. There is no law about HOW or WHEN the content of the syllabus is to be taught. There is no requirement that all the content for each syllabus document be taught, or that it be taught in a particular way, or according to a particular timetable.
The Guidelines for Home Schooling Registration in NSW ( a PDF is available here) states that teaching and learning can follow an “interest or project based approach….. Or a personal approach developed to suit the family and the child.”
How does unschooling fit within that law?
Interest-led or self-directed learning is a legitimate teaching method or educational philosophy. When I first applied for registration I told the AP that we were following a “natural learning” approach. This was accepted without question, although the AP did still run through their standard spiel about how much time to spend teaching each subject. I nodded and let them know that I’d understood and left it at that.
Unschooling (which is essentially the same as interest-led learning) is less well known, but is becoming increasingly popular. Anecdotal reports from home educating families suggest that some APs are not supportive of unschooling, whereas others have no problem with it.
If you can demonstrate that you are providing an educational program that covers the Key Learning Areas then you are complying with your legal obligations. Tips on how you can do this are given in the section below.
The main challenge for an unschooling parent is to present their child’s interest-led learning in the language of the school syllabus and the key learning areas. Guidance on how to do this will be covered in another article.
The Guidelines for Home Schooling Registration in NSW state that adjustments can be made to enable a child to access the content that is set out in each syllabus. Adjustments can be made to teaching methods, learning activities and assessment methods to suit the learning needs of each child. Materials can be sequenced in a different order and learning can be supported by different technologies. This means that it is fine for your unschooled child to learn things in a different sequence and timing than a child would at school.
What is required to apply for registration or re-registration?
1. An educational program.
The educational program is your plan of what you will be “teaching” your child in the future. NESA does not prescribe any particular method or format for an educational program. You don’t need to specify that you are doing unschooling, but you can refer to it in your educational program if you want. You could also mention interest-led or self-directed learning, but you don’t have to give details on the style of home education you have chosen.
To meet the requirements for registration your plan should make reference to the Key Learning Areas. It is helpful if it refers to some of the content for each KLA that is set out in the Syllabus documents. You can also refer to the Stage Statements that provide a summary of the KLA content for each Stage.
You can present your program for each KLA in dot points or in paragraph form.
I demonstrated that I was providing an educational program by looking at the syllabus document for each KLA and writing a plan of the learning activities that I thought my children might engage with in the following months. I used some of the language of the syllabus. I made sure that I had educational resources available to my children that would support their learning, including a few workbooks and textbooks, and I provided opportunities for my children to engage with me and with these resources whenever they wanted to.
I included a list of resources that was available to my child in my plan. This included books, games, videos, outings/excursions, craft materials, workbooks, online resources, music and more.
When you refer to the resources available to your child you do not need to be limited by the type of resources that are normally available in schools. For example, if your child is learning from playing video games or watching YouTube channels, include these in your list.
There is no requirement that you identify your child as being in a particular Year or Stage, but you can do this if you wish.
When you apply for registration you can request registration for “primary studies” or “secondary studies.” Your educational program can be spread across the whole of the primary or secondary curriculum. This gives flexibility for your child to explore their interests and learn at their own pace rather than cover the material specified in a particular Stage. Your child does not have to be learning at the same level as their peers in school. For example, your child could be learning to read at a Kindergarten level while at the same time be learning Maths at a Year 3/Stage 2 level.
You can also register your child for “senior secondary education” which covers Years 11 and 12.
2. A system for recording learning activities and your child’s progress and achievement.
When you are assessed for renewal of your registration you must show the authorised person some records that demonstrate how the educational program has been implemented and that your child has been learning. The Guidelines state that the AP will want to see that the child’s “learning needs are being met.” The Authorised Person does not assess the child.
There is nothing in the Education Act that says that you must keep records of your child’s learning or show the AP samples of your child’s work. As discussed above, the legal requirement is that you “teach a course of study” based on the syllabus/curriculum. NESA has interpreted this legal requirement and set out their interpretation in the Guidelines. Keeping records of learning activities and showing how your child is progressing is how they want you to demonstrate that you are teaching your child.
Your system for recording what your child is learning can be personalised to suit you and your family. You might take photos of your child’s activities and keep a written notebook, or you may prefer some sort of digital record keeping. We discuss how you can translate your child’s everyday activities into the language of the curriculum/syllabus in an article to follow.
Your home education records belong to you. You will be asked to show them to the Authorised Person during the home visit or online meeting. The AP does not take copies and they do not have to be submitted to NESA. Your AP may ask for your records to be submitted in an email prior to a visit or online meeting but this is not a legal requirement. You can show your records during the meeting.
One way to demonstrate that you are implementing the educational program is with reference to the Stage Statements that are included in each syllabus document. You can find a compilation of the Stage Statements on the NESA website. You can simply mark the relevant text with a highlighter when you are confident that your child has learned that topic or skill. If your child is still in the process of learning a particular aspect of the Stage Statement, you can mark this with a different colour to indicate that it is “In progress”. It doesn’t matter if your child is not learning at the same Stage as their school peers or if they are following a different sequence of learning. It is sufficient if you can identify some aspects of the Stage Statements that they have mastered.
Will I have to show the AP samples of work?
To demonstrate that your educational program has been implemented you can compile some samples of what your child has been learning. This could be in the form of pages of written text, or it could be photos, audio files, video or screen shots. There is no law that states that you have to provide samples of work or workbook pages, but providing some samples is recommended by NESA. There is also no legal requirement that you keep a daily diary or a list of the curriculum outcomes your child has achieved.
The NESA Guidelines says that parents “typically……. keep records……. relating to the child’s learning progress and interests and of learning activities based on the syllabuses.” Most APs expect to see some “samples of work” in some form.
There is a lot of scope for APs to interpret the law and the NESA Guidelines in different ways. APs have a wide discretion as to how they interpret the requirements for registration and this can be a source of stress for unschooling families. Over the years I have heard stories of APs insisting on additional samples of work, a certain number of samples for each KLA, that timetables be followed and on evidence that curriculum outcomes were being achieved. None of these are legal requirements for registration. I