The good people of Quib.ly invited me to get involved in a conversation about home educating and why/how people decide to do such a thing. Quib.ly is a parenting and technology site which aims to link parents up with answers to their questions by accessing knowledge from other parents. It’s a really interesting, innovative site which, I have to admit, I was unaware of till last week. Now I am, I think I may well be coming back to it. I’ve still got lots of questions that need answering, especially now I’m back to parenting a toddler again! Quib.ly has an education questions section which covers everything from mainstream to unconventional educational topics.
I may have just ended my home education journey (for now, who knows?) but after 10+ years, I think it’s a great time to look back and reflect. Over the years, home educating has shaped so much about us as a family – we are incredibly different people to the parents who decided not to send their first child into school at 4 years old. Over those years we’ve been asked so many questions from curious people; in the olden days they were horrified and querulous but these days more people know home educators and we are not quite the curiosity we once were! I thought a good way to write this post, since it is all about starting conversations, is to answer some of those questions for the very last time!
What is home schooling?
BIG KLAXON!!!!! In the UK we home educate as the default, we do not home school!!!! Home schooling suggests sitting at a desk and doing lessons while at home while home educating is a broader term which covers all sorts of ways of having an education, just outside of the school system. In the UK, our laws state that a parent must provide an education, “in school or otherwise” and that is what we do. We provide an education in a way that suits the “age, ability and aptitude” of each individual child; it might be workbooks at a desk, but it might equally be a lot of Lego, much reading, many documentaries and a obsession with Minecraft. It’s amazing how much a child will learn in seemingly unlikely places.
Who home educates?
You’d be surprised; rich, poor, clever, average, single, couples, famous, everyday. It’s far from narrow; there are celebrities and ordinary mums and dads, people from every walk of life and so many different reasons. Life choice, reaction to a problem, helping a child past mental or physical illness, to accommodate a gift or a need – people have so many reasons. We are far from the narrow field of crunchy, religious, academics that people imagined when I first started. Hardly any of us even make our own yoghurt Why home educate when school is there for the taking? That’s the next question.
Why did you home educate? What’s wrong with school?
For us it was very simply that Fran (and then Maddy) did not feel ready for the school system. Fran was very young and non-verbal due to her cleft palate and Maddy was still struggling with issues related to her Aspergers at 4 years old. They needed a slower start than school was going to offer, particularly school that was rigidly entrenched in the National Curriculum and testing at the time. We started with their needs, extrapolated that the system did not seem to fit their needs and decided that if they were almost certainly going to fail in school, the very worst that could happen was they might fail at home. The fact was, school would be there to pick up the pieces if we failed. It didn’t feel much more of a social experiment than sending them into a busy inner city school would be and both of us had had unconventional junior educations, so home ed seemed a smaller step for us than it might for some.
How did you home educate?
The fact is, most parents home educate for 4 years, even if their children attend nursery or playgroup or a child minder too. Most parents teach walking, eating, speaking, socialising, dressing and often even reading and writing. We educate from birth but for some reason we stop believing in ourselves when they hit 4. If you think about it, aside from reading, writing, basic maths and talking to people, we use very little of what we learn at 5, 6 or 7 in the rest of our lives. The most important skill we can develop is loving learning and knowing how to learn. And we can certainly do that from home with a caring, interested parent, some books, an internet connection and time to enjoy those things.
In the early years we did projects, following what they were interested in (which was often well resourced because it often matched the NC, that having been built around topics that typically interest children) and went on visits, watched programmes, read books and tried to access lots of skills through one topic. These days they call that the Edison Curriculum in schools – funny really that schools seem to be moving closer to home education than home ed is moving closer to schooling Later on, particularly as life got busier, we used some text books and workbooks and lots of online learning. I’ve a home education resource page with lots of ideas on it on the blog.
The things that were always vital were books, talking, visits out, an internet connection and time. Time. Really. Nothing is so important as time to think and evaluate and be bored enough to decide to find out what you need. A project doesn’t have to be written up to be finished, sometimes it just needs to be really thought about, while making something quite unrelated with Lego, Geomags or Fimo.
How do you know what to teach? I’m not clever enough!
My eventual conclusion (and I say this with some trepidation because I’ve just sent my 8 year old to school) is that school gets in the way of learning on a regular basis. I don’t know any illiterate home educated 10 year olds but I know schooled ones who can’t read. I don’t know any home educated kids who can’t work out change or do the maths the world requires, but I know of schooled kids who can’t. School is great for some and terrible for plenty. Home educating rarely seems to fail in all honesty. Left to themselves, all home educated child seem to learn to tell the time, add up, read and write; 3 of my girls couldn’t read at 8 but 2 of those 3 have achieve reading and writing at 10 (one is still only 8). Both the first two have started school as high achievers with excellent academic abilities. I basically left them to themselves aside from making sure they ‘tried’ to do things regularly and encouraged them to add to skills they had. When a maths problem was difficult (often something that in school they’d be expected to do by that moment) we would leave it and come back 6 months later – it would always be magically easy to understand. Kids learn at their own pace and my considered opinion at this point is that artificial time tables of learning are a hindrance. It doesn’t really matter if you know your 7 times table at 6, so long as you can use it by the time you are 16.
It’s back to time again. Given time, an internet connection and a parent prepared to learn alongside, education happens and skills are learned. Some of our best maths moments (I am not good at maths) came from learning a skill together.
We don’t have space… where do you home educate?
In the park, in bed, in the lounge, garden, under the table, at a friend’s house, by the book shelf, in the library. Space matters relatively little. Same goes for money – I’ve spent plenty on educational resources over the years – I could have saved the money on most of it. My base ten blocks, Geomags and Draw Write Now books have been my best buys.
What were you thinking… my kids would drive me mad!
The hardest part for me was when my eldest girls were small and attended nursery part time. I found half and half care really difficult. Once were were together all the time, we rubbed the corners off each other and became a real community. We are a close family now and the girls are huge friends, within the bounds of sibling normality I think the opportunity to really learn to live with each other and know each other well was one of the greatest benefits to us. I know people talk about home educators ‘not being able to let go’ but truthfully I have seen almost none of that. Our girls have always done lots of activities and had lots of home ed and schooled friends; I don’t regret prolonging their reliance on family and lengthening their childhood at all but letting them spread their wings has not been difficult. Nor do they drive me any more mad than most kids drive their parents mad.
What about exams?PANIC!
This is the bit that makes people hyperventilate; junior education seems manageable, once you get past the fact that children do survive without a SATs score (and you can always download a few and test them for any gaping holes yourself) but GCSE level seems scarier. In the end, our home ed journey seems to have stopped before that bit but it didn’t worry me. In fact Fran has ended up doing one GCSE from home as the school couldn’t fit her in; she studied a (fascinating) iGCSE History course. The books and past papers are available, the mark schemes and so on are there to use – it can be done. The bigger question is whether you want to bother with them at all. Now that education is compulsory to 18, I’d say there is good reason to question a raft of exams at 16 anyway – going straight to A Level might make more sense. And then, now that coursework is being dropped and iGCSEs exist, home study alone or with an online course, makes a good alternative to school anyway. Plus you could consider that doing them on the dot of 16 is not essential… why wrestle with trying to wriggle into the system when you could just delay a year, study from home and do them at a local college at Lower Sixth age.
The biggest query is perhaps if you actually need to worry about them. Universities are perfectly capable of assessing a prospective student based on an interview and plenty of home educated children have gone to uni with no formal exams. In fact I was only hearing the other day about how an ‘unqualified’ HE teen has found it easier to get a place at college because she was assessed on ‘other criteria’ than a teen who did 4 basic GCSE’s to get some qualifications and therefore fell, by default rather than fact, into a low achiever category.
When did you know it was time to stop home educating?
This seems to have happened pretty naturally. Regular readers will know we had a pretty dreadful time over the last few years and home education stopped being ideal in some ways. It was fine, because we were in our groove but it stopped feeling like freedom and became a little humdrum and sometimes a little too much pressure, particularly when local authorities flexed muscles and governments tried to bother us. Fran felt ready to move on a couple of years ago when an ideal school place came up. She stepped into school and flew. Amelie followed when home really began to be a bit too small for her; she is a huge socialite and just needed more company. For Maddy and Josie it has been dictated by school places and circumstances. Maddy is ‘just about’ ready I think but also ready for some new direction. It’s far more of a leap of faith for Josie but the school she has gone to follows the Edison curriculum in mixed year group classes so isn’t a bad fit for her. There was just a point where they felt ready, I felt ready and circumstances combined to make it all happen. I’m a believer in spotting the moment where the universe says “now!”
One thing for sure is that we don’t seem to have failed. All the big ones are capable, able and doing well academically and socially – certainly within the characters and natural tendencies I’ve known from babyhood. It is an experiment which did not fail and seems to have worked well and I’d certainly do it again.
Two last questions… ones from kids…
The first normally gets asked while in a sports hall surrounded by people – “how do you do sports and make friends?” and the other is the toughest question (and asked repeatedly) that any school kid ever seems to feel they need to ask “what is two times six”. I’m pleased to report the girls have long since developed derisory replies
Would you do it again?
Like a shot, if it felt right for the child. I almost hope I don’t have to, because it has been a long and tough and mentally draining 13 years but worth every second and also hugely enjoyable. I miss them very much now they are out all day and am so very glad we had all those extra years together.
If you’d like to know more four bloggers (hopefully including me if my daughter is safely through surgery) will be hosting a Quib.ly Home Ed Twitter chat on Thursday 20th June at 11am. Follow the hashtag #QuiblyQs and come and join in
Disclosure: I have received payment for taking part in this conversation. As you can see, it was money for old rope