A Question of Home Education

For weeks now I've been thinking of opening sentences to write for my first blog and now that I'm stood here, fingers poised, ready to type, my mind is a maze of sentences and jumbled words of where to start.

I guess a good place to begin is why. Why choose to withdraw our son from mainstream education? Why take him out of a school that other parents are fighting to get their children a place at? Why subject myself to more arguments and abuse that at least stop when the school gates shut every morning, (and why an earth would I want to give up those 6 hours of rest bite before it all kicks off again?) Why give up my work and personal ambitions to educate our children when there are a wealth of teachers who have amassed far more knowledge than me? I'm not a teacher. I have no training as a teacher. So why do this? 

Even my own husband thought I'd gone mad when I suggested home education to him just a few weeks into the start of the new school term. Perhaps he knows me better than I know myself and yet it was his reservations that made me think: I can do this. I can help our children to learn. Sometimes the best motivation comes from the most surprising place. Proving a point is as good a motivator as any. Perhaps I'm proving a point to myself. Because to me learning extends beyond the four walls of a classroom. A child learns out there in the real world. They learn by their mistakes and their achievements; by doing things wrong and right; by winning and loosing; by watching how the adults do it and copying, (God help them!) They learn about themselves and others; about their environment; their social capabilities; how they fit in to this big scary world simply by being in it and absorbing everything it has to offer.  Children were built to learn. That's what they do best. Just ask our neighbours in Scandinavia.

Don't get me wrong. Schools should be given real credit. I think teachers do a fantastic job given the pressure they are under and the targets they are expected to reach. And that is where my problem lies. I feel that education is no longer for the benefit of the child. It's about ticking boxes and hitting targets; pitting schools against one another to encourage competition and better league table results is not the right way to get the best out of children. In 2008, after the UK came last in a Unicef league table of developed nations's children's wellbeing, a consensus was quickly reached that children desperately needed more time, space and opportunity to play, not on screens and social media, but with friends, outside, as they have done for millennia. A 10 year strategy was launched to, 'make England the best place in the world to grow up', with every neighbourhood made safer from traffic and containing attractive places to play within easy reach of children's homes. In spite of growing evidence that free play, in the real world, is a vital component in children's adaptability and resilience, this plan was abandoned in 2010.

Four years later a new National Curriculum was introduced. The main changes were a slim down on the content of the curriculum in almost all subjects except English, maths and science. The government said the new curriculum would not tell teachers, 'how to teach', but would concentrate on, 'the essential knowledge and skills every child should have'. That the government should assume what skills and knowledge my children should have is one assumption too far. 

The advantage of home education is that you’re able to educate according to ability rather than age.

Jenson is an explosion of creativity. On Sunday morning at about 5.30am, (I didn't check too closely, it was very dark outside and that's enough to tell my body it's not time to get up yet) I could hear Jenson rummaging through our extensive craft cupboard. Every now and then we'd hear little foot steps patter across our bedroom floor then an excited voice, 'look what I've made Mummy'. In the dim light I could just make out a guitar, constructed from an old egg box, kitchen roll and masking tape decorated brilliantly with stars and moon stickers. A few minutes later he presented me with a, 'special thank you' card for the retro transformer figures we'd bought him for his birthday back in May. A few minutes more and he was proudly showing his Father a paper aeroplane he'd made. That's where school is limiting. It's great if your child really enjoys the more academic side of it, but what about those who don't? What about the ones who get up at 5.30am and don't stop crafting until 5.30pm? Is there room in the curriculum for what those children want to learn? 

I recently attended a phonics meeting at my son's school and the room was aghast at the lengthy test our 5 year olds would have to sit 7 months from now. No matter how much the teacher tried to play it down, any test at that age is wrong. But these are the new guidelines. The guidelines my husband and I set for our children are very different: they are a guide to be interpreted by our children as they wish. For example, last Monday the kids and I headed to the park for a recital of The Gruffalo as part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival. We got to the park at 9.30am and didn't leave until 4.30pm. We visited literature tents, bought a couple of books and enjoyed ice creams and our packed lunches outside in the sunshine. Since starting Year 1 Jenson has painfully complained that reading is boring, but for 20 minutes he happily sat tucked under a table with his little sister making up a story from one of her new books. It was delightful, self initiated learning. He was reading because he wanted to and surely that kind of learning is the best kind? A little while later and he had befriended a few children.  They were all running around playing tag and What's The Time Mr Wolf. At school he's normally the youngest in the group, following the older ones and being easily impressed by their not always great behaviour and choice words. It was great to see him as the oldest, taking the lead and setting an example. It must have made him feel something different about how he sees himself to? People who say home ed kids miss out on social connections should take a look at their local park. Bonds and friendships are being made every minute with different ages and characters. That's the real world that our children are going into. For Jenson to have the confidence to reach out to strangers of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds is a much more realistic social circle that he will find himself in as a grown up.

Children taught at home have been found to be more confident than those taught at school. At home, more emphasis is put on learning life skills - such as communication, interpersonal skills, as well as self-esteem and responsibility than in schools. If you look at these children in comparison with school taught children, they are very different. They seem to develop more responsibility, they are far more involved in what is happening in the family. That’s very different from children who are out of the house during the day time. Because inspectors are used to seeing schoolchildren, they are judging by school standards - they might find these children very different indeed.

Like every parent, I only want the best for our children. But what is that? I'm very conscious that the decisions I make about their education now are going to effect them for the rest of their life. Do I really know what's best? I know my husband doesn't take kindly to being told what's best for him so should I really do it with our children? Why do we think we know what's best for them? Is it because they are so young? Because we have so much more experience? Because we know how the world works, (supposedly)? Heck, I'm doing it now by taking my son out of school and not even letting our daughter have a shot at it! When I ask Jenson what he wants to do, (school vs no school) he instinctively tells me he wants to stay at home with me. The sceptics would say, well of course he's going to say he wants to stay at home with his Mummy all day and play. He's a kid. And so he is. I think he really does know what's best for him in that respect. He's a child. Children were born to play. He knows he wants to play. It's what feels right to him. It's instinctive. Should I be giving him more credit or am I acting out of selfishness? Is it me that can't let go and accept he's growing up? I think the older our children get the more you realise they're not going to be babies forever. And I think you become very conscious that they should be embracing their childhood with every ounce of energy that they have. So I know my reason for taking him out of school is not an act of selfishness. Selfless perhaps, but not selfish. Of course I'm looking forward to having him around more, but my reasons are not selfish ones. As his Mother, I'm there to support and encourage him. To believe in him whether he's wrong or right. We can pick up the pieces if it all goes wrong but we can do it together. It will be okay because he'll know it's good to try and okay if it fails. I hope that by choosing this path of education for him and his sister that I'm setting an example to them both. Dare I say I hope I am an inspiration to them; to follow what they believe in when everyone else is doing something different. That's what will take them far in life. Even if it doesn't work out and he ends up back at school next year, my biggest failure would be to not have at least tried. 

I'm very much of the, 'get on and get out there' attitude, just ask my Father. Sometimes we all have to do things we don't want to do, no matter how bored or tired we are. But at 5 years old? Surely this is the age to let them be children because if not now then when? I want my children to have resilience and if school was like it was in my day, (which isn't that long ago!) I wouldn't think twice about sending them. But things have changed. The pure enjoyment of thrashing two conkers against the other until one breaks is something of the past, (how many children even know what a conker looks like?) And remember marbles? I used to come to school with about 20 stuffed in my pocket, (and that's not a school uniform pocket either.) The words 'choking hazard' were never spoken. Our children live in a society governed by fear and constraint, but it's not their fear. Yet they're the ones paying the price. Despite my concerns about whether I can actually do this and my anxiety about the days when they're sat watching Paw Patrol because I'm having a bad day or let's be honest, feel hungover, my biggest fear is that my children are missing out on their childhood if I don't act; waving goodbye to it at the school gate every morning. That's my biggest fear. And so they're an inspiration to me really. They're the ones pushing me to places where I don't feel entirely comfortable. Jenson has not once told me, 'Mummy you won't be able to teach me'. He just looks at me with a sense that I can.

I want my children to be submerged whole heartedly in the act of being children. When Jenson started in Reception in 2015 I thought it was great. Lots of play based learning with masses of outdoor time and forest school every week. He was tired at the end of the day, but he was happy. He started Year 1 in September 2016 and the change was remarkable. Homework within the first week didn't sit well with either of us. A ratty child driven to delirious levels of anger brought on by the regimented system of school and then they wanted him to sit and do more work at home. I talked to other parents with children further through the school and listened to their stories. I didn't have to dig very deep to unearth substantial unrest and concern. I was shocked that so many parents feel as I do. These are our children. Surely we should be able to have a say in how they are educated and speak out if we're not happy about it? Surely they should have a say too?

So that's what I've done. I've taken control back and in turn I'm giving it to my children. They are great kids and will thrive in the classroom of life. It will give them the space to evolve naturally and mature into well rounded, intelligent young people. Whose place is it to tell them what they should or shouldn't learn? What they should or shouldn't be interested in? Why not let them learn through their own interests? Let's give them more credit and more confidence that what they know is perhaps what is best for them. If we believe in them, they'll believe in themselves. Let them follow their instinct. Let them fall over and learn to get back up on their own. I'm giving my children the space they need to do this; to be guided by what they know and to love what they learn about. It's my job to simply guide and encourage them on their journey.

I'm going to do this because my children need me to and if I don't try, what kind of example is that setting to them? So this is our journey. Let the adventure begin.