The home eduction community is growing. And this is providing valuable confidence and support to parents who want to choose something different from mainstream schooling. When I started home educating my children it was quite different; we relied on just a few organisations, like Education Otherwise, (educationotherwise.net) to find others who home schooled.
We joined several home schooling groups for varied activities, educational and social, sometimes just for friendship and support and found these an essential part of our home schooling life. Not only did they give us company to learn with or go on trips with, they widened our network of friends and gave us that wonderful sense of community. I remember thinking that it was like discovering a whole parallel universe we never knew existed of people like us making alternative choices. When we started at our group it only consisted of a few families but this soon grew to over a hundred as word spread.
Today, there are many groups online with thousands of members offering advice, encouragement and understanding, creating a sense of community for parents and children, which makes home educating feel shared and supported. Groups and communities, once invisible to each other, can unite and organise physical meet-ups.
One mum said that visiting her local group gave her immediate access to support of her choice to educate outside school. She’d found a place where she didn’t feel judged about her decision, where she found enthusiastic ideas and a source of comfort for anxious days as well as friendship. This was just what Prudence Clarke (homeschoolprestwich.blogspot.co.uk) was hoping to offer when she started a group, based in Heaton Park, Manchester. She wanted to provide local home educating families with a place to meet, learn and socialise. She also wanted to build that sense of community to replace the feeling that some families have of being ostracised from school communities. She described to me some of what happens at the group and how it affects the surrounding community:
‘We’ve had very scientific sessions based on DNA extraction right through to running around in the woods digging and planting seeds - it is quite a seasonally influenced group as we are based right in the heart of the beautiful park. We have refreshments together and the room is equipped with a good range of farmyard toys, train tracks and a vegetable stall so the younger members of the group happily play during the session. Older children, including my own, can read together or use their laptops - most importantly they socialise. The £2 charge per family is paid directly to the park at the end of each session to cover the room hire with any change added to the refreshments kitty. ‘We have a very positive influence upon the park and they have used stories about our group as part of their internal marketing. Our recent adventures on the plot of land they have loaned us have given members of the public something to smile about as the children have been seen digging, laughing and breathing life into the park during otherwise child free weekdays. I have received several comments from older members of the community who have been delighted to see such happy children enjoying learning out in the fresh air. We will be working with Incredible Edible over the coming months to get the children planting edible food in the park. ‘We also have workshops - recently an author put on a show for the children based on his book. When I contacted him and explained about home education he was only too happy to visit us free of charge. I am constantly amazed by the positive reaction I get from community members about home education and people are willing to give their time for free to visit the children. We will be having a visit from a Bonsai tree expert soon, a willow weaver and I am looking for an archaeologist. ‘I am also hoping to introduce some fundraising to the group with the aim being to raise money for the park, giving children a fun activity which could give back to the park and positively reinforce the perception of home education in the wider community. ‘Being visible in the community breaks down the barriers and shows people that home schooled children are happy, safe and sociable. I have not received a single negative comment and instead I have had parents of mainstream educated children asking if they can join our community because it looks so much fun!’
Zena Hodgson, from the Home Education Centre in Chard (homeeducationcentre. org.uk), told me that their group offers very similar support through activities, opportunity to mix and extend networks, emotional reassurance and increased understanding of all the different learning approaches and styles parents use. This can be very comforting when sometimes the choices feel overwhelming.
She also said that they too get involved with the wider community: ‘We sometimes join in with community events, e.g. the local Carnival and town fun day (raising money with a cake stall). We put on a production of Alice in Wonderland and invited friends and family. We staged a conference - Pathways to the Future inviting colleges, LAs, local employers, Community Learning centres, home educators etc. to help broaden awareness of our home educated young people and their abilities/skills as they move on to college and/or work as non-standard learners. We have fund-raised by doing a beach clean at Charmouth to raise money and do something good for our local environment.’ Several parents told me about the numerous benefits of belonging to a home educating group; a feeling of belonging, watching their children’s friendships bloom in the unthreatening climate, the pleasure of interacting with like-minded people who understand your choices, and the opportunity to chat to parents with similar styles of parenting and learning other than mainstream.
Another advantage comes from the range of skills and expertise parents bring and contribute to the group sessions, giving children a wide range of experiences they may not otherwise have. It’s also a place to share and celebrate the children’s achievements which are diverse and many. One parent said that it is hugely reassuring to be able to chat to others further along the home schooling route about things like tackling exams for example, but now several years later, after establishing long term friendships with the other parents she met there, she can do the same for others. Another felt their group was a great place for parents to make friends and watch a group of thirty kids between three and sixteen mix and learn together completely naturally.
Watching children interacting, learning and socialising so easily without the boundaries we normally associate with education, is an eye opening experience for all, especially as there is a common misconception that children need to go to school to “socialise” and learn. Home educating families socialise and learn both with each other and in the wider community; a more natural setting for children to develop the social skills they need. The widening home educating community has become well established and looks like it will continue to grow as greater numbers of parents prefer this more natural, organic and tailor made approach to education, than that which is offered in schools.
TIPS FOR SETTING UP YOUR OWN GROUP
• Don’t be afraid to start small. Groups can develop from just two families getting together, maybe at home or a local playground to start with.
• Look for a suitable local venue that provides outdoor and indoor space (plus toilets!) like community centres, sports halls, churches, parks, museums, even fire stations and libraries. Sometimes the charge is only small when they know it’s for children’s activities.
• Keep everyone involved as much as possible, to contribute ideas for activities or visits elsewhere and spread the workload.
• Don’t be afraid to offer something different from other groups. There is a need for variety which families benefit from. • Try and have regular “admin” meetings for discussions and think sessions and to iron out the hiccups that occur within any group.
• If the group grows then it’s worth considering creating general rules or policies for being together, covering behaviour, bullying, attendance, roles, respect, etc., that safeguard everyone.