I had the great pleasure recently of re-meeting a friend I hadn’t seen for ages, who is still home educating her family of six. Of course, that’s what we talked about! I asked her if she’d be willing to share her wealth of experience – and confidence – here for us all to learn from. Here’s her insightful story in her own words:
I have six children and none of them has ever been to school.
In the beginning, I didn’t really think about school and was horrified at how quickly the subject of school came up after my eldest, Rosie, was born. I’d heard about home education (I think it was a magazine article in the dentist’s surgery) but I presumed that it must only be for children with special needs. When I learnt that ANY child could be home educated, it was a total light-bulb moment.
My husband was against it from the start, even though he could see our little girl thriving and learning. He had, as a lot of people do, a belief that school ‘makes’ you, toughens you up, shows you how to fend for yourself blah de blah. I sucked up as much information about home education as I could for him to read and he wouldn’t. So in the end I put my foot down and said that if he wanted Rosie to go to school, he would have to fill out all the forms, buy the uniform and take her there each day himself. It was a dirty tactic, but I was convinced that home education would be perfect for her and a few years later, my husband agreed with me!
Like most little children, she was an absolute sponge for learning and our small house filled up with books and resources from charity shops and car boot sales as well as boxes and boxes of art and craft equipment. I bought a bulk box of 100 exercise books (around fourteen years and five more children later, we still haven’t used up all those exercise books!!) as well as lots of other expensive educational equipment. Some of it was pointless – the anatomical model where you could remove the plastic heart, lungs etc and fit them back into the body for example – once the body parts had been taken out, put back in again, that was that and the body parts were soon lost. This was all in the bad old days when I was feeling anxious at this beginner stage of home education and surrounding myself with the same equipment that schools had made me feel safer.
I drew up a timetable, but it fell apart after a few days. One thing I learnt through experience was that even when I had prolonged periods of time where formal education went out the window (like the births of Rosie’s brothers and sisters), the children kept learning. Just because I wasn’t there to open up a workbook or get the maths cubes out, they didn’t fall behind or stop learning. When formal education resumed, they were always up to speed, which I found very heartening and which gave me confidence. Our style of education has relaxed a lot over the years. Sometimes we get workbooks out, mostly we don’t. Nowadays, workbooks fill in the bits that haven’t been learnt in some other, more hands on way, which I’m happy about.
The pressure to socialise your child when you start to home educate is MASSIVE and if you’re a very shy person (as I was back then), the idea of meeting strangers is terrifying. I stuck my name down on the contact lists of HEAS and EO and I was contacted by a few home educators who I dutifully invited to our house and went to groups.
I think the children liked the home ed groups better than I did, but that was ok because we weren’t there for me, I was just there to tick a big, important box marked ‘Socialisation’.
The trouble with home ed groups is that there is no such thing as a typical home educator, so there were inevitable disagreements! The groups contained people who were very confidently home educating as part of their alternative lifestyle, people whose child had been in and out of school, people who were home educating for religious reasons or because they couldn’t find a school they liked. Some worked well, some didn’t. We have not been to a home ed group for about six years now
My two older sons started going to Scouts about four yeas ago and absolutely love it. It was a bit hard for them in the beginning, there were children who picked on them a bit and others who were envious that they didn’t have to go to school, but once the novelty wore off, they made friends very easily and really enjoy it. My second daughter began Brownies and endured a whole nine months without anyone talking to her. Her Brownie leader suggested that home education was to blame which was very annoying. I switched her to Cub Scouts where she has never looked back and gets on with everyone and her little sister followed suit by becoming a Beaver Scout. Joining Scouts has been the turning point in their lives and has given them so much more than socialisation. They have gone abroad, been on many camps, stood up to read in front of large crowds and a load more that I didn’t have the social confidence to do when I was their age. Children do not have to go to school to be socialised or to fit into social situations.
Home education’s greatest advantages are not being bound to term times, a more relaxed pace of life, and I can tailor their learning to suit their own abilities. Rosie, for example, was very unconfident at maths and went through a stage where just the sight of me holding a maths workbook made her shut down and give up. So I took the pressure off, gave her a break from maths and when we resumed, she used workbooks suited for a child a couple of years younger and she found that she could do the maths and her confidence grew. Within a year she was back using workbooks set at her own age again, she just needed that confidence boost and I don’t think she would have got that chance at school.
I didn’t have any set goals when I started home education. I just concentrated on tailoring their education to their needs, interests and abilities. I always told people that I would only carry on home educating so long as the children were happy and thriving; if I felt that I couldn’t do it anymore, or that school would be the better option, of course I would do the best thing for them. Happily though, they have never wanted to go to school and each LEA inspector that has come to visit has been very satisfied and told us to carry on! I did want the children to take GCSEs, because I wanted them to see how they measured up against their peers. I wanted them to have the camaraderie of suffering coursework, exam pressures etc that the other children they met had and also to see that just because they hadn’t been to school, they were taking the same exams as everyone else, facing the same questions as their friends and could see where all their hard work had led to. Seeing my daughter pass iGCSE maths (which I failed miserably) gave me a huge confidence boost. Post sixteen; it’s all up to them. Both my eldest children have slipped very easily into college without any problems and Rosie is now headed for university while her brother is on his second year learning carpentry and joinery. They love college life and I love stepping back and watching them do it for themselves now.
What advice would I give to someone just starting out or considering home education?
Get rid of those fixed ideas of what is the best method of education! People get hung up on the details of how education should be delivered and lecture each other. But this is your child, you have put yourself in the driving seat and you will test ride all the routes till you find the one with the least potholes and is best for you. These may not be other people’s experiences, but you will know when your child is learning. You don’t have to learn everything to be able to teach your child either. You don’t have to be a fountain of knowledge because you are the facilitator – the person who shows the child where to get the information so the child can learn. That way, your child learns how to find it for itself, which is a good foundation for a future life of independence.
If you’re still unhappy about school but worrying about home education, just give it a try. School will always be there and you will never know what home education is like from just reading about it. Nothing is forever, literally nothing. We got confused and my son ended up on the wrong college course, so we changed mid-term. He now has two sets of friends from each course and he is very happy. Home education is like that, you try something and it doesn’t work, so you think about it and find something that does work and along the way, you learn patience and confidence. If it turns out that home education isn’t working for you, well at least that’s better than not knowing and torturing your days thinking; ‘what if?’
Home education chops and changes and what you do with one child isn’t what you end up doing with another and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. I don’t need to have all the answers right now because I will learn as I go, just like I did with all my other children; that’s the beauty of home education.