When Susan Walklate first came across home education she thought it was “an odd thing to do” believing that school was a natural course of events.
But when her son became introverted and stressed at school, and discovering that his needs were not going to be met, it became the right thing to do for them. Fast forward twenty odd years and she decided to write a book about their pathway, along with four other families doing the same, so people had a better understanding of this successful alternative to school and more importantly what followed.
Tell us a little about you and your son.
My school experience was okay and I was reasonably successful. I went to teacher training college, then worked in chemistry laboratories. When I was 23 I decided to work with horses. This evolved over time to running a livery yard and riding school; I then bought my own land and set up Gable End Farm which developed into various businesses. Simon is my only child and was brought up with animals, at home and at the stables.
What drove you to home educate?
From being a happy baby and contented toddler, Simon became quiet and increasingly introverted after starting school. It wasn’t immediately obvious, as it happens over time and the changes are not noticeable on a daily basis. When he was 6 a friend commented on how clingy he had become. The school system was failing him as he wasn’t learning to read and write as quickly as they thought he should. He was on the special needs register, but the SENCO suggested that it wasn’t because he couldn’t do it, but that he couldn’t see the point; which ultimately proved to be the truth. By the time he was 8/9 he was stressy at home and quiet at school. He was being picked on by the class teacher and bullied by the other children. He had shut down and just got on with it as he didn’t think he had a choice. I spent about one year proactively trying to work with the school. Just before his 10th birthday we watched a programme on Channel 4 about home education. The next day Simon came to me and said that he didn’t want to go to school anymore. From the TV programme he had realised that he did have a choice. He never went to school again.
What kind of responses did you have from those around you?
While Simon was still at school I asked numerous people/friends about their school experience and, if it was bad, would they have preferred not to go to school, be home educated. The overwhelming answer was that children should go to school regardless. I think I might have home educated sooner if I’d had a more positive response. Once we decided to home educate and I told my parents, they were very supportive and offered help. Simon’s other grandparents thought that Simon would only end up on the dole. Simon’s father was concerned that Simon would not get any qualifications if he didn’t go to school. My response was that Simon would not get any qualifications if he did go to school.
How did you approach your education at home?
I knew that if I had sat Simon at a table with a piece of paper and a pencil he might have well been at school, as that was his stress. We took each day as it came and did child-led activities. I followed a child-centred autonomous learning process, which basically means that if he showed an interest in something we pursued it, if he didn’t we didn’t. I bought box games from charity shops that involved words and strategy. He helped with the animals and we discussed lots of things that involved language, arithmetic and lots of other things. We joined up with other home educating families for activities like swimming, ice skating, etc. Each family brought their interests to the group. The main activity that took over a lot of Simon’s time was the Robotics team that entered the First Lego League International competitions. He was part of this team for 3 years, from about 14 to 16. Simon did no formal work toward any qualifications while being home educated. He went to college at 16 and did all of his formal qualifications in the following 3 years. English and maths Skills for Life (GCSE equivalent); GCSE photography; A level fashion design and textiles; BTech in software development and web design (2 A Level equivalent); business studies course. Our home education life worked well for us. Each day was different. I think my self employed life enabled us to embrace the unstructured form of it.
What is your son is doing now?
Simon has helped with the animals all his life. He now takes a part share in the responsibility of running the farm. He has set up his own business as a freelance gardener and plans to expand it into employing others. He also aims to set up a portfolio of property.
What drove you to write the book?
I wrote ‘Radical Home Education’ because home education has a bad image and attracts bad press. Both Simon and I find it frustrating that no-one is telling the stories about the now-grown-up, successful home educated people. It was not something I had planned to do until we watched the Channel 4 programme in early 2019, which was very negative. I decided it was time to tell the true stories of home education through to successful adulthood, with four other families. My aim is to give encouragement and support to other would-be home educators.
What are you up to post-home educating?
My life has always been about taking each day as it comes and living the way I want to, which is how home education fitted into our lives and my life has just continued on.
Simon has always said that he would home educate his own children when he has some.
Since writing the book I have become more thoughtful about HE and I am considering being more proactive to promote HE.
What are your thoughts on the current education system?
It is broken, too prescriptive, too rigid. It does not allow for the differences in learning styles and development. I am increasingly concerned by the number of people asking for help and advice re school. I feel overwhelmed by the number of children being failed by the system; being bullied; demonstrating stress and depression; developing ADHD, etc. Parents appear to be very concerned about how their child will learn; be taught the ‘appropriate’ work; take exams; where can they find tutors; afford it. This I find sad, as society has been indoctrinated into believing that formal education is the only route to a successful education and a successful life. I do not know the answer, but I feel that the increase in knife crime, suicide, truancy, depression is in part due to the pressure our education system and society puts on children and families to succeed.
What would you say to other families wanting to home educate?
Do it! It is the best thing that we did. (Simon said don’t send them to school!)
I have a close relationship and understanding with my son. I believe that I, as his mother, am responsible for him and his well-being. I grew up with a good relationship with my parents and feel that it is important to support ones children as much as possible. I hope that I am his role model. I believe the best learning is through example.