My partner and I home educated our two boys for about six years. We began when the youngest was in year 1 (about 5 years old) and the eldest was year 2.
I used to help out at the school a couple of mornings a week. In general I’d been happy with what I’d seen in the school environment. However, things started to go wrong when my youngest son was forced to moved class. Soon afterwards the new teacher invited all parents to a maths lesson as an example of how maths is taught in school.
Keep in mind that this lesson was the first lesson on fractions to a year 1 and 2 mixed class. The children sat on the carpet in front of the teacher, who had a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in her hand. She unwrapped the bar of chocolate and proceeded to count the number of squares of chocolate in the bar; there were 36. She then explained to the children that if she gave them a square of chocolate, they would have 1/36th of a bar and if she gave them five squares of chocolate, 5/36ths.
Is it just me? Beginning fractions with 36ths seems like a bad plan. Wouldn’t you start with a half? With sharing a pizza or a cake between 2?
Then she asked the children, in front of their parents, for a thumbs up if they understood and a thumbs down if they didn’t. I looked at the sea of confused small faces and saw a class of children with their thumbs sticking up in the air. But they clearly didn’t understand and that was in evidence when I sat at a table with a group of them afterwards helping them with their worksheet. I remembered using blocks for fractions. I actually needed the physical feel of small squares of plastic that I could pull apart and push back together again so that I could see what was going on and play with the ideas and questions that formed in my head. These children had a piece of paper and a pencil.
Later, I began one-to-one reading with a girl in the class. I had experience of reading with children in the school environment and I understood the range of ability in the age group. This little girl had a reading book at a reasonable level, but bless her she couldn’t read a word of it. She wasn’t even speaking properly, although she was able to. She was just making a bunch of unconnected sounds and with prompting was occasionally making reference to things she saw in the pictures – ‘that’s a dog’, or ‘that dog is Kipper’. I tried working out if she could recognise any individual letters and the sounds they made. She couldn’t. I wondered if I was missing something and I spent a long time talking with her and talking about the book to try and work out what was going on. I mentioned all this to the teacher and was told that she wasn’t going to worry about it, like it wasn’t her problem. Until that moment I had wondered how children could get through school in modern times without being able to read, and now I had my answer.
Parent’s evening was a joke. Our youngest son has a common name. The teacher didn’t seem to have any idea which child she was talking about. I really was left with utter clarity that my partner and I could provide our children with a vastly superior education to the one offered by the almost brain-dead bovine-like creature sitting in front of me.
I looked into home educating and I found out as much as I could both good and bad. I was lucky that the parent I spoke to first of all told me that it was bloody hard work. A lot of home educators are so enthusiastic about it that you will only ever hear the positives; they talk like it’s some kind of panacea for all educational ills. It is not. My partner spoke to a very experienced teacher. His advice was that at a young age missing school for a year wouldn’t make a significant difference so we may as well try it.
We told the school we were going to home educate. On their final day the boys were given cards from their class. The one for my youngest son read, “SORRY YOUR LEAVING”. It felt like confirmation from the universe that we were doing the right thing.
Early on, we went to a meeting organised by the local education authority for home educators, the purpose of which was to meet other families and get information on how to access various resources. As part of that, we all spoke about why we had taken the decision to home educate. We were the only family present who weren’t doing it for a ‘negative’ reason. We’d taken the decision because we thought we could do a better job, but mainly it was an opportunity for us as a family. Most parents were doing it because they felt that the education system could not provide for their children appropriately due to various educational needs they had that could not be met in the school environment. I felt that was very sad, because although it’s certainly not for everyone, if you are in a position where you’re able to home educate then I think it’s a really good choice to make. If it’s forced on you because the local education authority have run out of money to provide specialists that can help your autistic child who has various complex related issues (which happened to a good friend of mine) then that’s not such a great position to be in.
If you’re thinking about it, there’s a lot of information out there. But just a few things to be aware of:
- You don’t get any time off, and loving your children does not mean that spending 24/7 with them is easy.
- If you do choose to home educate, you will be judged by strangers in the street who think that children can only be educated while seated behind a desk, in absolute silence, listening to a teacher. “Are you a teacher?” they will ask, in a superior tone, as they will feel they have made a wise point. They have merely pointed out their own stupidity to anyone with half a brain within eavesdropping distance.
- You can’t force anyone to learn anything, but you are in a position to approach learning creatively and to tailor it to the individual. Home education is not school and you can’t approach it like school. You need to think creatively.
- Worrying about children learning certain things by a certain time is a recipe for disaster and stress. Children learn; you cannot stop them. You just need to provide them with a reason to get enthusiastic about the right things, and guidance about how to learn on their own. My eldest son was such an expert on giant squid that when, age 9, he went for a tour at The Natural History Museum, he could answer questions about the giant squid that the guide couldn’t. He proceeded to educate the guide, along with the rest of the tour, on the various behaviours of squid and the biology of the specimen. I didn’t have to learn anything about these revolting creatures and teach him; he learnt it all on his own.
- Trying to get children to sit at a kitchen table with workbooks is a giant waste of everyone’s time, they will resent you for it and it doesn’t work.
Most home educators are lovely people and will help you out and share information and resources. Some, however, are quite political about the idea of home education and will try and push all sorts of agendas onto an unsuspecting parent. From my personal experience:
- Minecraft is not the great educational activity some home educators would have you believe. Neither is TV. My personal advice, for what it’s worth, is to limit computer time and TV time and not give children iPads or Kindles unless they are for a specific targeted purpose and for a limited time. If they’re used to screens they will complain about this. Let them. It will be good practice in forming a coherent argument which is an important educational activity; my son is an expert in this now. The problem I have with screens isn’t that they spend so much time on them; it’s how they could be spending their time otherwise.
- Home educators sometimes present the choice to home educate as the only kind thing a parent can do. There is a strong element of ‘if you’re not for us, you’re against us’. The fact is that most children go to school, and most children enjoy it. You’re not a cruel and heartless beast if you choose to send your child to the local primary school. Home education is not the only way, just as school is not the only way.
- Some home educators seem to think that children should be allowed free reign over all aspects of their life. For example, food… Children are not cats. They will not limit their food intake automatically. If you put sugary shit in front of them then unless you are very lucky they will eat sugary shit all day long. Then they will have a sugar rush followed by a nasty crash. This is awful for the child, and awful for everyone around them, especially for any surrounding parents who are left trying to comfort their own children after the sleep deprived and sugar-fuelled child has behaved abysmally and that behaviour has been conveniently ignored, over and over again, by the parent of the sugar-fuelled child. This is basic stuff – young children are not able to be responsible for all their choices, especially screen time, food and sleep. They need boundaries. Don’t believe the lie that boundaries are about preparing them for a lifetime of slavery working for the man. They’re about sanity.
I will write about this later, but my children returned to schooling when they were most of the way through year 7 / 8 and then we spent some time in New York so had to take them out of school again. They returned in year 8 / 9.
They both transitioned back well to the school environment and felt that when they went to school they generally knew a lot more and certainly had more life experience than most of their peers, and their attitude to learning was, and still is, really healthy.