Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"In keeping with its subject, Unschooled is loosely structured, throwing a lot of things into the mix."

Ever since Maria Montessori opened her fist school in Rome in 1907, there has been a growing body of evidence to suggest that conventional education systems lead to at least some of our children falling short of their potential. The thing about the established standard, though, is that it's very easy to deliver on a large scale. As a consequence, those children who have had access to more child-centred approaches have tended to be from socially and financially advantaged backgrounds, making it hard to tell how much of their success might simply be a result of those backgrounds. Could methods like this be equally effective in poor communities?

Peter Bergson has been working in non-standard education for decades. This documentary charts his progress as he moves into the deprived urban landscape of north Philadelphia. Can he get similar results? Can he provide anxious parents with the chance for their children to break out of generational poverty, and what will he learn from trying?

Though we spend some time in the classroom looking at the various techniques Bergson uses and the impressive way he draws reluctant pupils out of their shells, the larger part of the film looks at the social context of his work. Everyone he meets comes to respect his intentions, though one mother questions the ethics of testing a theory about what might or might not work on children whose whole futures will be shaped by it for good or ill. Whilst he's a easy man to like and his commitment to helping pupils pursue their passions is commendable, he also comes across as deeply naive about the realities of urban life. In one scene, he blithely dismisses the usefulness of high school diplomas, highlighting all the ways that people can make progress without them. But there's a difference. The people he refers to had good social connections. They were white.

Most documentaries exploring an initiative like this end up coming down heavily on one side or another. This one is pleasingly nuanced, illustrating how Bergson's methods work well for some pupils but not for others. Shooting took place over several years so we are able to see the young people grow up and move into the first stages of their adult lives. We see the changing attitudes of parents faced with successes or failures, hear about the stigma some of the young people face for attending the school and also witness its potential to improve social skills and reduce family tensions.

Where Bergson's methods don't work, the film leaves us questioning wider issues of neglect. How can a teenager struggling with basic fractions not have learned them before he left the mainstream school system? Where is the broader tailored support that he clearly needs? Bergson stresses the importance of parents supporting education at home, and it needs to be gently explained to him that when parents are working two jobs just to have enough to survive, there's precious little time for that. There is, perhaps, some selection bias in the film itself: all the parents we hear from are thoughtful and articulate. one wonders in Bergson would make any progress at all with young people whose parents were themselves lacking basic skills,.

In keeping with its subject, Unschooled is loosely structured, throwing a lot of things into the mix and hoping it shakes out in a useful, informative or entertaining way. Some scenes are clearly positioned as they are to add to their impact, and work very effectively. Many are intriguing and meaningful but don't fit particularly well into the narrative, so the result of it all is a bit hit and miss. Where it really succeeds is in raising questions which one hopes will inform future work like Bergson's. Like any film of its ilk, it also has bags of charm, and it's a satisfying experience to watch at least some of its young subjects taking the first steps towards achieving what once seemed like impossible dreams. If you have an interest in the topic of education or if you're worried that mainstream schooling isn't working for your kids, it's well worth a look.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2019
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Veteran educator Peter Bergson established the Natural Creativity Center on the outskirts of Philadelphia - this follows him as he works with three challenging teenagers.

Director: Rachel Beth Anderson, Timothy Grucza

Writer: Rachel Beth Anderson, Timothy Grucza

Year: 2019

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2019

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