Home Education and Us

It’s probably time we talked about home education. That got your attention, didn’t it?

Since a good couple of years before Daisy was born, I’ve been reading and researching the subject of home education. I really can’t remember, now, what got me started, but I quickly found that the internet is full of people who are wildly enthusiastic about it, and I could instantly see the huge advantages.

My own education

My experiences of school were not, largely, particularly distressing. I went to four schools – two primary and two secondary – because of the timing of a couple of parental job-changes and corresponding house-moves. Of these, my first secondary school, the one to which I transferred at the normal time, with 200 other eleven-year-olds, was the least successful. It was a very, very large school. My previous school hadn’t been much larger than my year-group at this one, and I pretty much drowned there. I sobbed solidly for a few weeks, then kept my head down, knowing that we were moving just as soon as the house sold, and I just had to survive until then.

I don’t remember any reports or parents evenings that addressed how thoroughly unhappy I was – I was bright, broadly academic, desperate to please, and insofar as I was noticed at all, the staff seemed to think I was doing well.

The lowest point, in terms of the school’s performance, was when I got lost on the cross-country run. I was the least athletic in the group by a long way, and it was the first time we’d done the route – as a result, by three-quarters of the way around, I had lost sight of the group, and took a wrong turning. I realised my mistake, after a while, and was already back on track by the time I got picked up by a panicky-looking PE teacher who was driving around the district looking for me. Annoyingly, from that day forward, a teacher always brought up the rear on the cross-country, and since the rear was always me, I paid for the mistake with constant “encouragement” to go faster, run more efficiently, etc., etc.

Two terms later, I transferred to a school that was a little over half the size, and was perfectly happy there for the following four years, though my sister had a few more problems than I did. I have since learnt that the first school has achieved Sports College status, whilst the second one is an IT College. That pretty much explains it all, as far as I can see.

The rest of it was great. My first primary school was small and getting smaller, and not particularly efficient academically, but they taught me to read, write and add up, and I was happy there. The second was a much better educational experience, but still reasonably pastorally focussed, with a staff of Bright Young Things who were going to change the world through four to eleven-year-olds.

However, even where school was positive and largely productive, I saw my fair share of bad teaching, worse crowd control, and periods of time that were frankly an exercise in baby-sitting, rather than education. I resented such things, in a casual, passing sort of way. I resented the random rules: whilst we have nothing for you to do, we can’t let you do your homework in another subject, since not everyone who was in THAT class has this opportunity, and it’s unfair for them to have to work after school when you don’t; you have permission to go home for lunch, so if it is found that you have gone anywhere else, there will be trouble; no matter how much you innately want to be seen as good, you will be punished for failings of your memory, of which you are in no particular control, and there will be no attempt to teach you strategies to avoid repeating the problem. I resented having to be there, regardless of the value or benefit of being there. Colossal amounts of time seemed to be wasted at school, though quite how colossal, I have only recently worked out.

The other problem that I encountered, as I got older, related to teacher-ego, and personalities. I was mortified, after a parents’ evening when I was about 13 or 14, to hear that my history teacher had described me as “abrasive”. I had thought I had a reasonable rapport with him, and up to that moment had enjoyed history, to some extent. Looking back, I was a bright child, with a capacity to sum up my thoughts and opinions into accurate and concise sentences, and plenty of encouragement from home to question anything in which I was interested. As a result, half my teachers thought I was wonderful, and the other half thought I was terrifying.

School and Daisy

Daisy is nearly two, at the time of writing, and is starting to show signs of the sort of child she is likely to be. She’s certainly bright, she loves books, loves drawing (and holds a crayon in exactly the same way as I hold a pen), and her vocabulary is constantly expanding. She’s the only child I’ve ever had, so I have no source of comparison coupled with an innate bias, but I think she’s extraordinary.

The thought I’m struck by, is that I haven’t actually taught her very much at all. Indeed, preventing a child her age from learning is virtually impossible, in a normal environment (as anyone whose language has gotten the better of them in the presence of a toddler will be able to tell you). I didn’t teach her to hold a crayon, she just copied me, or worked it out, or something. I showed her the mark it made on the paper, the first time, but not since then. I didn’t teach her to colour inside the lines – she’s not very good at it, but you can see that she’s consciously trying to colour in specific things on the paper. I didn’t teach her to say “Mummy, there’s a spider in the bath,” – she just came and told me. I didn’t even know she knew what a spider was, much less would recognise one in the bath. So why does she suddenly at five (or four, or increasingly, three) need someone to sit down and Teach her things?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m probably not a radical unschooler. I don’t have the confidence, for one thing, and I would feel very insecure without some way of measuring what she was learning. But the idea of turning education on like a tap at a fixed age seems frankly ridiculous.

The Problem with School

The school day lasts something in the region of six hours. At my last school, it was six hours and five minutes. Out of that time, 20 minutes was spent in registration, 15 at break, and 50 at lunch. The rest of the time was split into single and double lessons, for which one had to move around the school, so there might be another five or six periods of five minutes at the beginning of a lesson lost to walking across the school, sitting down, get books out, waiting for the people who went to the toilet on the way, etc. That adds up to one hour and 50 minutes, leaving a little over four hours a day of actual work – and that’s without attempting to count whether two years of German lessons under an inept and beleaguered teacher were worth a thing, or how much time was spent waiting for the attention of the teacher to explain something, or how much time was spent being obliged to stop while the teacher shouted about the noise levels, or how our cookery teacher had the audacity to draw a salary at the end of the month, given that I spent my every cookery lesson writing long and detailed letters to various friends in various places. Maybe my school was exceptionally unacademic, but the fact remains that with individual attention, and fewer distractions, the academic content of a whole day in school could be covered in two to three hours of concentrated work. I see no merit in making Daisy spend twice that time in school.

In addition, I have grave reservations over school as a safe environment for children. One of my major roles as a parent is to protect Daisy until such time as she is able to protect herself. As a result, I don’t let her run in front of traffic, I don’t let her play with plastic carrier bags, and I keep her well away from matches. When I look at the school environment, I simply don’t see it as a safe place to leave her. I want her to be supported and protected by an adult who knows her, loves her, and has time for her. The best of teachers is always going to be busy attending to the needs of the other twenty-nine, and without the emotional tie of family, has no particular reason to look out for her. Children need to be shown how to interact with one another by adult role models – the idea of one adult to thirty children (and one adult to 90 children at playtime) sounds a lot like Lord of the Flies to me.

The current state school environment also concerns me. I have no desire for Daisy to sit SATs at the age of seven, and to be labelled as a success or a failure at that point. I believe that children across the country are being done a huge emotional disservice by the assessment culture which exists in schools these days, and that the National Curriculum brings in assessment at the expense of actual education. If teachers must be assessed, assess them. If schools must be ranked, rank them. Do not pass the pressure of that requirement down to my six or seven-year-old.

My chief emotional concern, however, is the inescapability of it. When an adult finds him/herself in a situation which they are unable to cope with, they always have the option to walk away. That can mean walking away from a conversation, a situation, a job, or even a home, if necessary. Unless they are actually imprisoned, there is always an escape option. If a child in school faces a situation that they cannot handle, there is nothing they can do about it. The playground is too small to hide in, they are obliged to sit at whichever desk was assigned to them, and they have to go, every day, day in, day out. Older children can and will play truant if they are desperate to avoid school. The inability to escape a situation leads ultimately to desperation, despair, and depression – in extreme cases, suicide has been reported among despairing schoolchildren. A child should always have the advocacy and protection of a loving and committed adult, and I cannot see my way clear to absolving myself of that responsibility for such a large proportion of the week.

The Problem with Not Going

The vast majority of the school curriculum can be covered perfectly satisfactorily at home. The only major investment that schools make into infrastructure is in the form of laboratories, and the need for those is some time away, and may be surmountable, in the form of flexi-schooling, FE colleges, home education group resources, or by some other means. Other subjects are taught in a classroom, with little specialist equipment. Kevin and I approach the task of educating Daisy with a certain amount of confidence: between us we have a BSc Hons, a BA Hons and an MA, neatly covering both sides of the great “Arts vs Science” divide. We both believe in our ability teach her what we know, and to learn what we don’t, before teaching that too. In short, the academic rigour of such an education as I could offer at home does not worry me, and in addition, I believe that knowing my own child is a great advantage to being able to teach her effectively.

The “socialisation question”, much rebuffed by home educators across the world, does leave some threads hanging. I believe that children need to spend time with other children. I do not necessarily believe that there should be thirty such other children, all of more or less the same age. I do not believe that adequate socialisation requires six hours of the day, on five days of the week. Indeed, I believe that time spent with other children of various ages is probably more healthy, a more realistic preparation for the adult world, and likely to foster more substantial relationships. I am sure that if Daisy spent the next fourteen years at home with only me for company she would be both very unhappy, and socially stunted. I am not proposing to keep her in the cellar until she is of age. I am merely proposing not to send her to school. Brownies, Guides, Swimming, and any of a thousand and one other available activities can and should provide her with as much social interaction with other children as she wants or needs – and she can go to her friends houses, and invite them here, just like any other child. Without school, a parent may need to think about opportunities for making friends a little more carefully, but it is quite feasible to make all the friends one needs elsewhere.

In short, my only real worry relates to a comment made by a friend of mine, along the lines of: “Your greatest responsibility to your children is to give them as normal an upbringing as possible – otherwise, you will end up with young adults who have no experiences in common with the people around them.”

I have thought about this in great depth. I do, of course, worry that if (and it is still an if) we decide to home educate, that I will wreck Daisy’s personality forever; turn her into a freak who cannot function properly in the adult world. It’s a very scary idea. However, it’s no scarier than the thought that sending her to school could put her in a situation that causes her equal social or psychological harm. After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that my greatest responsibility is not to make her normal – it is to help her fulfil her potential. Indeed, the text of the Education Act itself says as much. Equally, I can think of no worse reason to do anything, than “because everyone else does it”. School because it is the norm is not a valid reason, to my way of thinking.

The Bottom Line

When the extremes of unlikeliness are stripped away – if we assume that she would manage fine in school, that she is perfectly capable of building social relationships outside of school, that neither approach is going to represent an unmitigated disaster – it comes down to whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. At home, Daisy gets to focus on her educational interests, and waste much less of her time waiting around for everyone else. She gets to bond more closely with her family, in the way that was perfectly normal before the industrial revolution took work out of the home, and split families up for the first time. She gets to gradually achieve a degree of autonomy over her education, and over her life, instead of being thrust suddenly from a world of great structure into the abyss of adulthood, overnight. She gets to learn for the sake of learning, without the distraction of SATs and the National Curriculum – to focus on the education, rather than the examination. She loses a sense of being “normal” (though who knows if she would ever have felt that way? Plenty of school-children don’t). She loses the chance to be taught each subject by a subject specialist.

When put like that, the advantages of school seem fairly weak, and the advantages of home-education seem to represent a better quality of life than I see most people enjoying. I can’t help feeling that if I DO enrol her in school three years from now, it will be because I wasn’t brave enough to follow my heart – and that’s the worst possible reason to do anything at all.