As more and more pressure is put on schoolchildren by the relentlessness of the system and the constant focus on exams, home-educating is increasing in popularity. Could you do it? Alex Gray talks to three families who took the plunge.
As I have the umpteenth discussion of the term with one of my children as to why it would be better that they do their spelling sheet the day they get it, rather than in a mad rush on the morning that it’s due, I can’t help but feel annoyed.
Because I don’t think they should be doing homework at all.
Certainly not at the age of six. And don’t even get me started on SATs.
In moments of rage about the undue pressure put on schoolchildren these days, I fantasise about taking them out of school altogether and educating them myself. After all, who wouldn’t want to visit the Natural History Museum on a rainy Monday, instead of on a weekend? To go swimming when the pool’s not crowded? And there’s another thing, we could jet off to the Mediterranean during term-time and pay a fraction of the cost. The school run and the packed lunches and the wretched spelling sheets would no longer lord it over my waking hours.
But they love school. They skip in, they skip out; they’re doing incredibly well. So if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
For Samantha Rowe, the decision was far easier. From the moment her daughter Isis entered mainstream education, Samantha felt that she was being let down. “She wasn’t getting what she needed,” explains Samantha. “I was apprehensive even before she started school because I knew she was way ahead for her age. The first day she was so excited about doing science. She had a particular interest in learning about the human body, but the teacher said [referring to the science they were going to cover]: ‘We’re just going to pour water’. Isis was heartbroken. And then it just escalated. In maths she didn’t fit the criteria of the national curriculum, which is mental maths as opposed to more abstract maths, and now she thinks she can’t do maths! There’s no flexibility in the curriculum for different learners. And I didn’t want to destroy Isis’ natural love of learning.”
In Samantha’s case, Isis is an ‘HLP’ child, one with High Learning Potential. After a year of researching different options, Samantha came to the conclusion that, in fact, no school would really suit her daughter’s needs. “If you had asked me two years ago about home-education, I’d have said: ‘They’re all weirdos aren’t they?’” laughs Samantha – but Isis left school at the start of Year 1 and almost a whole year later, they haven’t looked back.
It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 children are home-educated in the UK. As a parent, you must make sure your child receives a full-time education from the age of five, but you don’t have to follow the national curriculum and the Government allows you to teach your child at home. If you’re taking your child out of school, you simply have to write to the head teacher and let him or her know. You can also ask a school to teach your child part-time, but the school doesn’t have to accept your request.
six year old Isis making a lemon battery
And there are different ways of home-educating a child. Samantha follows a system of child-led learning, otherwise known as ‘un-schooling’. If Isis has a particular interest in something – the first subject they tackled was the human body – they will “do it to death, until she’s fed up” before moving on. That’s not something likely to happen in school.
Isis does Spanish lessons over Skype with a lady in Guatemala, goes to a day camp every month run by a home-education group, does a science club every week with four other girls (with proper experiments) and artistic maths with one other girl every two weeks.
Others, like Joanne Classick, who began home educating her children when they reached secondary school, follow the national curriculum. Joanne’s eldest son had special needs that weren’t being met by his school. His younger sister was given the choice on whether to join him at home, and decided to go for it. “We tend to sit around the dining table in the mornings to work towards GCSEs and then the afternoons are freer,” explains Joanne. “We do something artistic or simply go for a walk with binoculars and discuss the birds we’ve seen. My daughter is quite musical, she teaches herself the ukulele on the iPad and YouTube. There are some families where everything is free, but I try and keep it a bit more focussed because of their ages, and because you’ve still got to work in the real world.”
What both Samantha and Joanne agree on is that the ‘book work’ can be done in a fraction of the time that it takes in school.
One reason why a lot of parents baulk at the idea of home-educating is because of the socialisation question. The idea that just as much is learned in the playground as in the classroom. “It’s harder to not socialise!” exclaims Samantha when I pose the question. “The networking for home education is amazing.” Dawn Taylor, who has home-educated all three of her children, retorts: “I just think that’s complete rubbish [that school assists in socialisation]. Where else in life do you spend your time surrounded by 30 people? My children are really good friends with each other, and they all share their friends. I know kids who refuse to mix outside of their school group. We have met a far greater variety of people than we ever would have at school.”
For Dawn the decision to home educate came about as a way of escaping the relentless pressure of modern life. “Family life instantly became more relaxed,” she explains. “We had this glorious six or seven years where we just lived in the moment, we would to go places when they were quiet. There was no worrying about the future. It was a real blessing.”
I wonder about the gap in children’s CVs if they haven’t followed the traditional school career. Yet it has been no impediment for Dawn’s offspring. Home-educated since the ages of five, six and eight, two are now in sixth-form doing A-levels, and the third is reading Liberal Arts at University. “I actually think it’s an advantage when it comes to University applications,” says Dawn. “Some students can’t think for themselves, and I think home education gives children the opportunity not just to do as they’re told because they’re told to do it. All of the home-educated kids we spent time with could formulate an opinion, but I think that school drives that out of them.”
Critics are apparently prone to ask how parents can bear to be with their children all day every day?…
“I didn’t have them to ship them off so someone else could have them,” states Joanne. It wasn’t the only negative reaction Joanne received: “A few of my teacher friends, right at the beginning said ‘you’re going to damage them, they’re going to have no education whatsoever’. But I thought… hang on a minute… you moan about your jobs, you can see what it’s doing to the children! And I love being with my children. There are days if they’re in particularly bad moods – because they are now both hormonal teenagers – when I think shall we abandon it all for today? And because we’re not governed by a Monday to Friday timetable we can do just that!”
Home-education requires mammoth commitment from at least one parent, but none of these three have regretted the decision for a moment. In fact, they all struggled to come up with anything negative: “Oh you have to be proactive,” says Joanne. “Things won’t come to you. But in the last two and a half years my eldest was at school he didn’t have one school trip. In our first year we fit in 15, and that was down to us.”
“I had an idea of seeing Isis through her whole school career,” says Samantha. “And I think it took me longer to accept that I wasn’t going to than it did Isis! I didn’t take her out until a couple of weeks after Christmas so she could say goodbye to her friends, but really it was me that needed to say goodbye.”
“I have learned so much,” says Dawn. “Life is when you take the blinkers off and you don’t just follow that track. There’s so much more out there.”
For more information see: