Sunday, 8 May 2011

But what about exams?

As a home educating parent, I am often asked the same questions over and over again. It's a bit like being permanently heavily pregnant, when strangers generally are likely to strike up a conversation with you asking a rather predictable set of questions or make the same observations. When pregnant it's usually "when are you due? or " how long have you got to go?" or in my case it always seemed to be " Ooh you've got your hands full".

I know, people are making polite conversation. But it is shocking how little is known or understood about home education in general. Many people still actually think it is illegal, or at least, that you can only do it to the end of primary level. People often genuinely haven't the faintest idea about what home educators are allowed to do. The government doesn't exactly advertise or promote the option. They seem to treat it as an unfortunate loop-hole that only those pesky freethinking rebels are wily enough to get away with. As each of my children have approached school age I have NEVER received anything other than an offer of a school place from the education authority, in language that clearly assumes, or even asserts, that this is your one and only option. Never any mention of home Ed, never any discussion or offer of information or help. Nope, it is totally up to you to be in the know, and for too many parents, the option only presents itself after their child has spent an unnecessarily painful and miserable period in school, which could have been avoided. Many parents find out by accident.

So what is the deal with home Ed?

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be a trained teacher or have a degree. Surprisingly, all the school-teachers who have become home educators that I know, actually talk about the liberation that home Ed has brought them and how they actually try to do the exact opposite of what they have been trained. They often have the hardest time initially de-schooling, having been taught to value academic achievement above all other kinds. Spending a lot of time with your children and being in tune with their needs is enough. How did your child learn to crawl, walk, talk, or run? Because they wanted and needed to, and it was modelled by those around them. Utterly naturally, no university degree needed to teach your kids these. And yet, we know that if someone suffers a stroke, these basic skills of walking and talking are extremely challenging and difficult to re-learn, they involve a massive amount of effort and frustration. It stand to reason therefore that in general, learning occurs completely naturally if you scaffold and support it, but there is no need to be an expert in advance. Children can learn to read, write, self- teach themselves all sorts of things in the same way they mostly taught themselves to walk and talk. They may stumble and fall over a lot, but through sheer need and determination they achieve their goal, in the same way we did when we learnt to walk and talk. As adults, we know how easily we learn something we desire to know. We are spongy and receptive and wide eyed. Kids are no different.

You don't legally have to follow the national curriculum. Nope, you are required to provide an education which is fitting to the child's age and aptitude, but other than that, there are no specifications. Living life fully is curriculum enough for me and mine.My kids learn in the classroom of the whole world from real life situations. From interesting people. From Books. Audiotapes. Cd-roms. Tv/ Dvds/ Documentaries. The Internet. Learning by doing. Trial and error. From friends, neighbours, family members,museum curators, enthusiasts, writers, puppeteers, stall-holders, plumbers, builders, the post-lady, bakers, teachers of various random things - ukulele, street dance, archery, animation, ballet, gymnastics, tae- kwon do. Even random strangers who we get talking to. A huge spectrum resources, and mixing with people who have massively different personalities. How much more broad and balanced could you get?

Ok another thing people often assume is that Home Educated children don't have as good a social life as schooled children. Here's the thing. I will agree that home educated kids don't have the same daily exposure to lots of other kids exactly their same age. But who says this is necessarily an ideal or even very realistic model of socialisation for later life? Adults don't arrange themselves into groups of other people simply by the accident of being exactly the same age as them, do they? It seems socially more responsible to expose children to a wider spectrum of folks in their daily lives, not simply an 'us' and 'them' of kids and teachers/ adults in general. The adults in a home educated child's life are generally engaging with them in a more meaningful way, for more concentrated periods of full- attention, than say a teacher who has to spread themselves out between 10- 30 kids. Home educated kids days are interspersed with moments of free- play or self- study that tend to reflect their needs in real-time. True, home Ed kids rarely play with 20 other kids, every day of the week. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Friendships in school are often tenuous and volatile, children often have to behave in a way that goes against their true nature, simply to fit in or not be picked on, and there are bullies who can make ones waking life a misery. Unhappy children are scientifically proven to find it harder to concentrate and assimilate information, so school can actually, in some cases, be damaging for one's social development, self- esteem, and intellectual development. I would rather my children had a core of solid friendships with folks they saw once a week or sometimes two or more times weekly and have a strong sense of friendship with ALL in their lives. Including adults. Home Ed meet- ups are buzzing, vibrant get togethers with children of all ages playing together and there is much less pre-occupation with single- sex ganging up together. Teenagers carry toddlers and babies around with them, adults will sometimes join in with a game the kids are having, generally everyone plays and chats and problems between children are nipped in the bud straight away, with adults and older and wiser children offering solutions to younger ones who are having some issue.

Exams. Not strictly necessary. Not a legal requirement. They CAN be very useful. They are also bloomin' expensive, since we have to fork out for them ourselves. Very generous of the government to tax my husband and use the money to pay for other children's education, and then ask us to shell out for our own, at a much higher rate than schools are charged! Yep, basically you are on your own financially for home Ed and exams are VERY expensive. On the plus side, your child can sit exams earlier or later than schooled peers, when they are ready. They can also study for a wider range/ combination of exams than is possible at school. But if home educated folks can get into places like Cambridge uni on the strength of their interview and can demonstrate their utter devotion to a subject, I have hope that there are means and ways to get where you want to be without 10 Gcse's and 3 A'levels. I think the clever way to approach exams is to cherry pick those that your child really needs to get to the next level of where they want to go. It does good to remember that many self- made successes are often those who have succeeded in spite of school, not because of it, and have gotten where they are today by grit, personality, risk taking and the ability to think outside the box.

Now please don't think I write any of this here to undermine the intellectual capacity of those mamas reading this, who send their children to school. In no way is this blog post a dig at your choices. We all do what instinctively feels best for our kiddos, using the best of our abilities of reasoning and working our own personal circumstances to the advantage of our own brood. I do not think that those who send their children to school are bad mamas! No way Jose!

But I do feel a little sad that so little is understood about home Ed by the public at large. That there is so much misinformation, so many misconceptions, pre- conceptions and so on.

Your kid may go to the loveliest school ever with amazing teachers. I do not seek to put your choice down.

I'm simply mindful and thankful that we at least have the option of another way. That this way works really beautifully for us. That we have the option of sending the children to school in future, should that feel like the right thing to do. But for now, the kids are living free, and I celebrate and am in constant amazement at this wonderful international movement called home Ed that we are so very lucky and priviledged to be a part of.


  1. Well said that woman! I find we have to defend a lot of our choices, not just the home ed thing (though it's still a bit early for us on that topic officially) and it gets so tiring getting people to try and turn the questions around on themselves - as in well why *not*?

    There is a definite parenting 'route' laid out for us and if you dare to stray from that route then be prepared for the onslaught! Home ed is a magnificent start to our children's lives because, above all, it helps them to think for themselves!

  2. Glad to have you comment on here and speak up for the rebellious few who don't go down the usual route!

  3. I'm not anonymous - it's Ali.

    Thanks for this - you are right that there are so many mis-conceptions and untruths about home ed - surely a very conscious effort on the part of some to deny parents the opportunity to make an informed choice about it. I'm shocked that you would be expected to pay for exams yourself! Do you receive any financial incentives / funding / support at all if you go down the home ed route? I totally agree that this kind of info should be made freely available to all parents.

  4. Very interesting. Thanks Paula. Loads to think about here.


  5. No financial help whatsoever! They really wash their hands of you in this respect. But in terms of providing support, information and a ready-made community then we are a self organised, well-connected movement with no leaders but lots and lots of members and independent groups not affiliated to any political ones necessarily.Pretty democratic in most cases. The internet certainly has opened up more and more ways of sharing information between ourselves, making it easier to link up with families and events further and further afield. We use yahoo groups to advertise local events, gatherings, theatre trips, museum trips, etc etc... and to support and advise one another. I am a moderator for a couple of these groups.
    There are stacks of really great books on home ed generally as a concept - John Holt and John Taylor Gatto are good examples. Free Range Education by Terry Dowty gives you the low-down on the legal and practical aspects of home edding in the UK. This is one of the best resources I have found for those starting out and not having a clue where to begin....

  6. Ah hello there Saffia! Thanks for popping by :-)