Like any parents, we want what's best for our children. So instead of sending our five-year-old boy to start school this month, we're heading off with him in our motorhome to some beaches. There'll be cities and countryside, too – and most of all, there will be family and friends.
We're on a quest to visit as many Facebook friends and family members as possible until the new year, giving money to charity for each person we visit, in a project we've called Face2Facebook. For a few months, in our Swift Escape motorhome – which we downsized our house to afford – we're travelling around the UK and Ireland, then heading to the Netherlands, Germany, France and Spain.
My wife, Debs, and I decided that travel is the best form of education: Daniel and his three-year-old brother, Darley, will be learning the value of family and friendship; that the world is generally a wonderful place with decent people in it; and they'll learn about kindness and thinking of others. Travelling will also develop their self-confidence, and teach them about new languages, geography, geology, history, music, sport, religion, cooking and culture.
Thankfully, our travelling venture has the support of Daniel's future headteacher at a wonderful school near Exeter, where we live. When I went, somewhat apprehensively, to see whether we could defer Daniel starting school while we travelled, she explained that, by law, you can defer your child's primary-school place until the term after they turn five. Then she added with a smile that she thought it was an amazing idea – that she too had a camper van that she travelled in with her family.
It's a journey with a purpose. On our trip, we'll nominate everyone that we visit to see a loved one from among their Facebook friends whom they have not seen for at least a year, and they can then donate to charity for that visit. We hope that this friendship and family fiesta spreads swiftly. We're also organising one-off fundraisers in our motorhome with authors, chefs and musicians and are currently in discussions about teaming up with a charity (as well as seeking corporate sponsorship to make the project as big as possible).
It's an idea that started forming three years ago, after unexpectedly losing my uncle, David. He'd just got back from walking in the Highlands to celebrate his 67th birthday when he developed a sore throat. Three weeks later, he died from oesophageal cancer. I recall his wife, Alison, saying some months afterwards: "If anyone says to me that they're planning their dream trip for next year or visiting someone they've not seen for ages, I always say: 'Don't wait – do it now.'"
Six months after David died, Darley was born and spent the first week of his life in neonatal intensive care. Thank God for the NHS. Then, when he was six months old, my best friend, Tim – a 48-year-old Chicagoan I'd met two decades earlier – emailed me just before Christmas with a shocking, out-of-character message saying that he was suicidal. I spent two months chatting with Tim, thinking he was getting over the unplanned life events that had taken him into his depression. But that February, Tim took his own life.
Our stark realisation cried loudly that the most important things in life are not things at all, but family and friends. Yet we were taken aback when we realised how many of our family and friends we hadn't actually seen for years. While Facebook is fantastic for staying in touch, it can veil how infrequently many of us truly see those we love.
Then it seemed that every time we went out, an elderly lady would say something like: "It seems only yesterday when my two children were the age that yours are now. Make the most of it – they grow up so quickly; time passes so swiftly."
So a few months back, we were bewildered to realise that Daniel was due to start school soon. Darley would miss having him around, and so would we. We wondered about what children actually learn there at such a young age. We pondered whether such an early school start was, in many cases, mostly a convenience for parents where both go out to work all day. We're fortunate there: Debs is virtually a full-time mother and I work from home. Fortunate, but it's also down to choice. We may be about a million short of being millionaires, but we get to eat every meal together, and that is priceless.
We concluded that starting school aged five is too young – most countries leave it until six or seven. Our children are really only children for such a small fraction of our lives, and then the system wants to take them from us for the bulk of that time. We reached the decision that this is ludicrous.
Perhaps it's not best for a child's development, either. In the latest world-education ranking report, the Programme for International Student Assessment survey listed the top 10 countries, which included the Netherlands, Switzerland, Singapore and Japan. None of these top 10 countries starts children at primary school until they are at least six. The UK came 26th.
We figured that we could teach our boys more from being out there in the world. So we're going to see how it goes over the next few months. We are beginning to see why more parents are home-educating their children: surely, learning through experience is more effective (and more fun!) than rote learning. What better way to inspire English than in Stratford-upon-Avon, maths at Bletchley Park, and history at Hastings?
Daniel, being one of the older children in his year and a bright boy anyway, has already reached the school levels expected of him by January. But maybe there's something more important than reaching levels and passing exams anyway. This idea has prompted Michael Rosen, the author of popular children's books such as We're Going on a Bear Hunt, to write a book that reveals how everyday events are a better learning experience than tests: Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child's (And Your Own) Best Teacher (£11.89, hardback; £6, Kindle) is published by John Murray tomorrow.
Many teachers would agree with him. Tim and Kerry Meek, both teachers, are taking their daughters, aged 11 and nine, on a road trip around Britain this year, having sold their house to fund what they call their "edventure". Both have become disillusioned with a school system which they feel teaches to the test.
There seem to be a growing number with similar convictions. We know another young family from Devon who have just sold their house to travel and teach their little boy in their motorhome. Then last week, we read about a couple from Scotland who took their two teenage sons and their 10-year-old daughter travelling around the world for a year. Jen Taylor, 44, said of the trip with her 47-year-old husband, Neil: "It was a great chance for our children to see a bit of the world and learn about different cultures. We knew if we didn't do it now, we'd never get to do it together."
We want our boys to know that looking at scenery and living life is better than staring at a screen. And we hope that in years to come – when they are young men and we're elderly parents – they'll look back at the photographs and read again about what we did and still continue to grow from it. I guess we also hope they'll think: "Our mum and dad were pretty cool to do that!"
Follow the Hurst family's charity-fundraising travel adventures at http://face2fb.wordpress.com