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Why an unschooled autonomous masters degree

For a long time, since 2013 when I “failed” to complete a formal Master’s degree and a second undergraduate degree in psychology, in the same year, I have coveted achieving a MSc in Psychology. For many reasons including a need to destroy my previous “failure”, and to be able to say I had a formal qualification at a high level in the area that I write about, that I use in my work, and that I love. I felt inadequate. Why would anyone take me seriously?

So every couple of weeks I distract myself from my actual studying, writing, learning and supporting people to scour the internet for a suitable Masters course that I would enjoy, or a seriously fast-track route to convert my previous study to this qualification in as short a time as possible. Every time I frustratedly go back to my learning thinking that I do not have the time, the money, the neurology or the intelligence to get what I want. How can I ever learn whilst I do “my work”, and whilst I raise my developing humans? I failed before so I must not be capable.

Then it hit me, I was already doing it and I have been for a very long time. Learning isn’t a building, a syllabus or a qualification. Well my best learning certainly hasn’t been. So what? What comes next? 

My education to date has felt like a strange ramble in some unknown woods at times, yet an enthusiastic one, at least after some initial avoidance and resistance to walk out the door. Let me explain:

My early education

During my mainstream education until I left school at 16 I genuinely felt like I was sleep walking. I managed. I passed. My “teachers” knew I had more to give and some tried to push me. It did not work. I had moments when I excelled at something but rarely. Mostly I did what I had to do to prevent aggro and to get by. The irony was that I worked hard at home, just not on their stuff. I wrote stories, I structured and wrote (fictional) education programmes, I wrote more stories, I created better worlds in my mind, I cared for the people around me, I volunteered working with young children, choosing to work with them on inset days, and I watched human behaviour. I believed I was only interested in things that didn’t matter, that would never be useful or valuable. I didn’t know that I was autonomously educating myself, and that it was what I needed for my future.


After school I blindly headed to college to study a strange combination of A levels that I genuinely had very little interest in. These were Film Studies, Computer Studies, and Philosophy. I had wanted to study psychology but had been advised it was too “science-y”. This may have been because I was a “girl” but also probably because I had chosen to be with my friends and only do a lower science paper and go for a C when capable of more. I found lessons very boring. Regardless, I hated college and felt no inspiration to learn. My tutors treated me like a child and I wanted to do anything else. I left and chose to work with children, who had always inspired me to do more, and do better. I wanted to do better for them and I went to study child development only months later.

This time, college was awesome. I was eager to go above and beyond the learning that was required and I just wanted more. I was inspired to change the way that children are treated and educated and intended to run an alternative school. I had visited the Froebel Institute where children were respected and learned autonomously. I have never been so inspired. I enjoyed supporting other students and facilitating debates on sociology, education and religion.


When considering my next options, midwifery tempted me but I was really keen on my school idea and decided I needed to understand how to run a business, so I went to do a business degree. Honestly, it seems like a boring subject but I found much of it pretty interesting. I liked to expand my learning out into more alternative areas, focusing on human behaviour and organisational culture. I found great inspiration in teaching other students and in leading group work. Presenting, though it filled me with dread, seemed to be something I could just do.


Alas after my degree, the reality of life and my family meant I had to work and could not find the huge investment I would need to start my school. It became a “one day” project that my friend and I would return to. I worked for the NHS in Human Relations and though I found projects to occupy my curiosity and need for novelty, I became very bored in the end.

​I tried to study for professional HR qualifications that my employer required of me to gain access to promotions but I just could not motivate myself.


Following the birth of my son I began to study the physiology, neuro-psychology, anthropology and social context of birth in my spare time. I trained as a Doula with the thought I would eventually train as a midwife. My work with mothers led to examining what kind of parenting I wanted to support, leading to studying child development again at home, and within specific training courses that inspired me. I then began a Child Psychology degree with The Open University.  Simultaneously, I was searching for more interesting career prospects, I quit my job and studied for a Masters in Human Resources (even though I was not really inspired by this). I made it bearable by specialising in organisational culture and alternative business structures and by supporting other students. I was (and am) in love with learning and teaching but the demands of my life and all the learning, which I was trying to cram into one time frame, got the better of me, and my mental health was screaming at me; I had past trauma to heal from and I had to stop, just short. I received a Post-graduate Diploma but I could not make the last hurdle to make it a masters degree. Stopping was a gift, that at the time felt like the ultimate failure.


I say I stopped. I stopped trying to get qualifications. I stopped having other people telling me what and how to learn. I never ever stopped learning. researching or studying. I have been studying child development and human behaviour for more than two decades. For the last 6 years, that learning has been completely “unschooled” and autonomous.

In 2017 I had the immeasurable honour of meeting Sophie Christophy at the APUK conference. Although her education was not unschooled as a child, on becoming a mother she became a scholar of children’s rights, parenthood and education. She was talking that day about consent-based education, which was not something of which I had ever heard, and on reading her work (which is beyond awesome), I found Sophie’s blog entitled “My Unschooled Master of Arts”. I have never been so excited. 

My neurology means that this has always been the only real way I can learn effectively. I just didn’t know what it was called. Sure I do need guidance and structure, but I need to create it myself. I need autonomy. I also hate status and the huge importance put on pieces of paper called “qualifications” in our society. Human value has nothing to do with qualifications, nor does it have anything to do with job title, salary, or the car you drive. Human worth is in kindness, empathy and the support of others. For me, my self-worth also lies in gaining and disseminating a greater understanding. My learning, by any means, for the purposes of gaining and disseminating understanding is intrinsically valid regardless of accreditation.

Research and special interest – masters of science and arts

For 6 years I have been more intensely researching and studying human neurological and psychological development, the concepts of childhood and parenting (sociologically, anthropologically and historically), the treatment of children in our society (in the home and education settings), and autonomous motivation. More recently (approximately 18 months) I have been intensely studying neurological differences.

I do not need a course, nor do I need a qualification. I do not want to choose one area of my interest and forsake the other meanderings of my curiosity and desire for novelty. I want to follow my own motivation autonomously. I do not want to choose between an “arts” approach or a “science” one. I can love both. I am not right or left brained (because that is bullshit).

So here I am, choosing to study to a level I believe makes me a master of both Arts and Sciences in my specialist area. I choose to put my, somewhat flexible, structure of study in plain site on my website, to serve as my own guidance system to keep me on track, to stay  accountable to myself and to disseminate my gained understanding to others. I will blog my learning, my findings, my experiences, videos, essays and writing and I will publish my dissertation to ensure that my studies are credible and potentially replicable. I use this all to formalise the studying I have been doing for many years and will continue to do.

Let us hope that this act of formalisation does not act as a demand that I can no longer face. I will keep you posted, and I welcome your interaction and enthusiasm. It will keep me going.

Written by Emily Wilding Fackrell

2 thoughts on “Why an unschooled autonomous masters degree”

  1. Gosh – so inspiring! I love the idea of unschooled autonomous learning and it is fantastic that you are pursuing this as your natural way forward.
    You are so right about the misplaced value we place on qualifications; ditto the status of possessions. In many ways, these often suggest instead an ability (even a need) for those who’ve acquired them to toe the line and do what others tell them to.
    Perhaps there is a place for this – but it is the antithesis of what we as humans are born to do. We have incredible brains that are curious and seek knowledge and understanding. Often, the ‘knowledge’ that is presented to us as fact is biased, out-of-date or misleading. It means we simply regurgitate what is already known. I was so disappointed at uni by the relatively low expectations of what constituted ‘original research’. (I scraped an Environmental Science degree, gaining a ‘Pass’ – lower than a third – in spite of my 2(i) scores in both written work and exams. I simply couldn’t complete a dissertation in the way they wanted – and because it was hugely important for my research to be wholly ‘original’.)
    My daughter (possible PDA) is a natural self-learner. She (like me) is highly able but could not/would not conform to what school and college decided was of value in learning. For this (and other reasons), she became a school refuser.
    She has not been able to work since getting out of education – but when she is able to use her days productively she constantly amazes me with what she reads up on and how this shapes her view of the world.
    Whether or not you eventually get to set up the school you mention, you are absolutely right with what you are endeavouring to do. Autonomous learning is a far more natural way for so many of us to understand how and why the world and its inhabitants tick. And it is far more likely to generate the clear, positive, independent thinking that creates the answers this world is looking for.
    All power to you!

  2. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, it was like someone lived my life before me, with all the same interests, fears, doubts and passion. I’m in that crossroad, I’ve been learning about child development all my life, and dream to have my own school one day, but do I need to study for years to be taken seriously, and it all stems from inside, I want to take myself seriously. Reading your article made me feel like I hit the forward button on my life and saved years of trial and error to reach to this conclusion, which deep down, I always knew it was the right thing to do.

    I’d like to discuss more on the topic, if you’re willing.

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