School can be an enjoyable time for some children, for others it can represent years of trauma, not just for the kids but for parents too. Mornings spent hauling sleepy children out of bed and into uniforms and evenings cajoling them into doing their homework leave many people searching for a better alternative. School just doesn’t work for every family and luckily it isn’t the only option. Everyone has their own learning style and so while school may be great for some children, it may not work for others. A child’s reaction to school might also vary at different times in their childhood, it may suit a child at the age of thirteen who may have struggled with it at five. It seems a little unreasonable then that all children are expected to adapt to the same educational system from the minute they turn four, or often even younger, until they hit sixteen. If your child happens to be one of those who are well suited to a school environment and finds it a positive and enjoyable place to be then it’s fantastic. But what if they aren’t? Or what if problems arise while they’re there that can’t be resolved within the school framework? How do you figure out whether home education is the solution for your family?
Is your child a school child?
Some children thrive in a school environment, they adapt quickly and enjoy a structured approach to education but there are also many that are not so suited to this way of life. It’s not natural for our bodies to be sitting at desks all day taking an almost exclusively cognitive approach to everything we do so it’s no wonder that children, with all their extra energy and curiosity, can get fidgety. Rather than diagnosing and medicating these children we have the option to take them outside of the school system and nurture their individuality and energy. If you have the kind of little person who can’t sit still then a more flexible approach to learning may suit them. Being educated at home means that they can learn in the style that suits them best. Almost all primary school learning can be done in a practical way. There are any number of maths and reading games that bypass the school desk and don’t seem like work at all. As children progress further through their home education many of them will do more book based learning by choice as certain topics grab their interest.
The other advantage of home education is that each child can work at their own pace and if they aren’t pushed into something before their minds are ready for it they will be far less likely to learn to hate it. Many home educated children learn to read later than their school educated peers but once they start, they often develop much more enthusiasm for it and can see the joy of it for themselves rather than having to be coaxed into it every step of the way. One home educated child I know did not learn to read until she was eleven years old and by thirteen had written her first novel, later learning certainly didn’t hold her back. When there are no negative associations with reading then children are free to perceive it as a gateway to another world, a way of finding out what they need to know or a way of communicating. In other words, they can see it for the amazing thing that it is, rather than just another chore. Similarly with maths, if numbers are introduced as a way of working out what they can afford with their pocket money or how to tell the time or follow a recipe they become far more interesting than if their main association is with pages of sums. Of course school children have these experiences too but when their main experiences come from sitting at desks being told what to do the negative associations can be difficult to overcome.
One of the main objections thrown out about home education, usually by people who don’t know about it, is that the children won’t be able to socialise. I increasingly wonder how people manage to miss the irony in this! We’ve come to readily accept the idea that spending five days a week for 11 years with the same 30 people all within a year of our own age as normal. The social life of most home educated children takes a much more natural, inclusive and diverse form. The opportunities to be friends with people of all ages, to interact with children older and younger than themselves as well as with adults has great benefits. Home educated children very often speak more confidently with adults whether they know them or not and interact more appropriately with other children too. There are home education groups across the country that are continuing to grow in size as more and more people become aware of their options and dissatisfied with schools. As a result our children have no shortage of opportunities to develop friendships, play and work together on projects during the time their peers are in school. Outside of school hours they have the opportunity to spend time with school children, either within the family, friends of the family or neighbours. This gives them both an idea of what school is like in case they decide to try it and an opportunity to be around a diverse range of people.
“Many parents can become bogged down trying to make sure that their children learn everything that they did in school when not only is this impossible, it doesn’t matter!”
Approaches to home education
Once you make the decision to home educate there are many different ways to go about it. Approaches range from structured to completely autonomous and there is a huge amount of variety within and between the two, in fact there are likely as many approaches to home education as there are home educating families. A structured approach may involve adhering to school term times and working times, though generally for fewer hours than in school as there’s no time spent lining up, taking the register, getting the class to settle, dealing with disruptive students, and so on. Some families follow the national curriculum or another curriculum of their choice to give structure to their learning.
At the other end of the scale is a completely autonomous style of learning in which the children follow their interests and will study the things that appeal to them in as much depth as they would like to. This is a brilliant way to nurture a love of learning because learning is always interesting, it is always something that they have chosen to do. The children often develop very specialised knowledge and come to know their areas of interest in great detail. Another advantage is that one topic can lead to another, an interest in history can become focused around the second world war and develop into a curiosity about rationing which can lead to a desire to learn to cook which can lead onto nutrition, biology, chemistry. Many traditional school subjects can be covered in this way but it all remains relevant and connected, bringing a greater understanding of how the world fits together rather than reducing it to isolated subjects.
The most important thing to remember is that whatever approach you choose or wherever your child is educated they will not reach the age of sixteen or eighteen knowing everything they will ever need to know. Many parents can become bogged down in trying to make sure that their children learn everything that they learned in school when not only is this impossible, it doesn’t matter! All that matters is that they know how to find out. That could be seen as the entire purpose of educating children, teaching them how to find out more about their interests so that when more interests develop in the future, they’ll know how to get more information and in this way they will always be able to achieve anything they wish.
Does it suit the whole family?
One essential thing to consider when deciding what to do is that home education is more than an educational approach. It is a major lifestyle choice for the entire family. At the very least it will affect one parent as much if not more than it affects the child and it may well affect siblings too if all of the family’s children are taken out of school at the same time.
No matter how much you feel your child would benefit from home education if you know you couldn’t manage it then it’s not for you and that’s fine. Being home educated by an exhausted, stressed parent who would rather be at work isn’t going to be better than being in school and it may be that there is a more flexible way around it for your family. Above all this is not another thing to feel guilty about, it’s just a possible choice. If you’re a two parent family it may be worth discussing whether the home education could be managed between you, perhaps with both parents working part time. Unless there is already a stay at home parent in the family, home education will mean big changes for everyone and thinking through exactly what this will mean is vital to succeeding with it. Most families who decide to go ahead with it find it incredibly positive for everyone concerned, it can become a way of taking a step back from the fast pace of the working world and relaxing into a lifestyle of just being and connecting. It is a magical and beautiful way to see your children growing up but only if it suits you all.
Sarah Menezes is a home educating single mum living in a pretty little market town on the edge of the North York Moors with her two cute but noisy children and disgruntled cat. She enjoys hot drinks and too much chocolate.
Illustration: Laurie Hastings
TRY THIS AT HOME
If you’re struggling to decide whether this is the way forward there are a few things you can do:
- Join your local home education group. You don’t have to be a home educator to do this; most will welcome people who are considering the possibility. You will have the opportunity to talk to people and get a feel for the existing community and what activities are available. Find support and information about local groups at thegreenparent.co.uk/forums
- Read up. There are a growing number of books on home education available. Shop around and see what appeals to you. Books by Ross Mountney and John Holt are a good place to start. The internet can also be an invaluable resource as there are many blogs by home educators giving a more personal view.
- Try it for a year. If a year sounds too long try it for a term and reassess after that. Remember no decision has to be final and if you feel like you’ve made a big mistake you don’t have to stick with it. The longer you can make your trial period the more of an idea you’ll have of how home education will work for you and your family.
- Think about the holidays. Considering how the summer holidays feel for your family could form part of your decision but it often doesn’t give a realistic impression of a home educating lifestyle. The holidays have a temporary feel, involve preparing for the return to school, might involve spending more money than usual and could be spent with others who are in the same position. If you’re planning to finish the school year before home educating, the holidays can be a good time to meet with a group to help you decide what to do.
- Have fun! Of all the decisions you could be making this one has the potential to bring so much joy. Be aware of how you are feeling and enjoy your investigations wherever they lead you.