As my five-year-old son bounds into the bedroom at 6.30am, whips the duvet from my body and asks “What are we doing today, Daddy?” I prise my eyelids asunder, look at his expectant face and I wonder. Not about my answer to his question. No, my thoughts are more along the lines of ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What’s the best way of doing this?’ and even ‘Can I actually do this?’ For this is September, the start of the school year, and I am now officially a Home Educating Dad.
My wife and I decided to home educate our son while he was still a toddler - an easy decision to make back then, but now, suddenly, somehow, he’s of school age, and this is real. It’s happening.
After a rushed breakfast amid repeated demands to locate a specific piece of Lego from within a large box which probably contains several thousands, my wife flies out of the front door, workward bound. The arrangement is that she works full time (in two different jobs) while I am principally responsible for our son’s intellectual and personal development (well, that’s what it feels like anyway). We didn’t actually measure the straws, but I increasingly suspect mine was somewhat shorter. She drives away, and as we wave to her from the window, I notice other parents on the street cajoling their reluctant offspring into the back seats of cars, along with bags, musical instruments, lunch boxes and all the other school paraphernalia. I admit it, a small part of me thinks how lucky they are, leaving the burden of their children’s education to paid employees of the state, while I have chosen to shoulder the responsibility myself, leaving nowhere to hide. If a child attending school doesn’t meet the required standard, a parent can blame the teacher, the school, the education system. I, on the other hand can only blame… ‘Well, you can’t fall behind if you choose not to compete’ I remind myself.
By mid-morning I’m in a more positive frame of mind. I motivate myself with the reasons why we chose Home Education. I went through the typical education system from nursery to university so I’m not anti-school per se. I just believe if you have the lifestyle to support it, there is a better method.
The first question I’m always asked when I mention my Home-Ed-Dad status to non-Home-Ed people is (without exception) “What made you choose to do that?” It’s not a question to be answered briefly, and it’s virtually impossible to respond without (even obliquely) criticising the choice of parents who do chose to send their darlings into the classroom. My stock
reply is “Because we’re in a position to provide one to one attention and to enable our son to follow his interests at his own pace, making learning a joy rather than a chore”. This rather succinct response generally meets the case.
Of course, what I really want to say is “What made you choose to send your children to school?” but I’m averse to a situation in which each is trying to convince the other they’re right. Live and let live.
There has been a recent groundswell of opinion that young schoolchildren in the UK are being tested on what they know too early, too often and too keenly. Reading the news reports, I get the impression that many parents are dissatisfied with the system but aren’t fully aware of the alternatives. Parents know that the love of learning must be allowed to develop naturally in their children, and that this must come before any form of examination has the opportunity to strip away that joy and replace it with pressure to demonstrate a certain amount of knowledge at a certain time. I often speak to people who are under the impression that school is compulsory and that non-attendance is illegal. Providing an education for a child is a legal responsibility, but that need not be in a traditional school setting.
So just how does a 21st century Dad navigate the treacherous Home Education waters without running aground on the rocks of self-doubt? Well, the size of the task can appear overwhelming at times (just like that pile of laundry which repeatedly gets put off in favour of counting together up to 100 in twos for the twelfth time that day) but the most important thing to remember is this is an opportunity to positively influence the life of our child, to prepare him for the years to come in a way that relatively few parents are in a position to do. The second most important thing to bear in mind is that I can support our little learner’s unique and flexible ways of learning. Despite my best efforts to adhere to some kind of checklist or curriculum, I am reminded again and again that his pace of learning and interests ebb and flow as he grows, and suddenly he has mastered a skill or acquired a concept apparently via osmosis.
How does It Work?
A Home Educated child doesn’t really have a typical day but here’s an example of what it might look like: My son and I spend the morning using reading and maths apps on the iPad. Thank you, Steve Jobs - technology has made home educating so much more easy to facilitate than it must have been in the past. We could have errands to run or we might sit looking at books together in response to questions such as “How does the water get into the toilet?” or “How does the engine in Grandpa’s car work?”.
After lunch, we head off to a local farm where a monthly meet-up for Home Educating families is being held. This is my opportunity to converse with other Home-Ed parents, and very welcome it is too; it may well be the only conversation that doesn’t involve the mention of superheroes that I have all day. The farm volunteers help the little ones groom ponies, feed chickens, plant seeds and pet small mammals while I engage the nearest adult on the subject of football, Brexit or Kim Kardashian, depending on the look of them.
After arriving home, we might do a spot of baking and cook tea together in time for Mummy’s imminent return. The evening might consist of board games and perhaps a little television followed by the bedtime routine and stories before sleep.
Then, oh then, if I’m fortunate, follows the golden hour – that precious short time when I can just put my feet up and…but wait; before that I’d better just take the washing out of the machine, and I didn’t make the bed today, and I must phone my Mum (it was her birthday yesterday) and where did I put that overdue credit card bill? The evening just slips away like so much sand through my fingers.
My son has never set foot in an educational establishment of any kind. He’s intelligent, happy, sociable and confident, so at the moment, my wife and I feel like we’ve made the right decision in choosing Home Education over school. (Note: That confidence is apt to wax and wane on a daily basis, but this is only because it’s still so counter-cultural that wobbles are inevitable)!
“Children are hard-wired with a strong desire to make sense of the world around them and that will happen without the need to sit them down and explain things to them.”
Actually, I find the term Home Education a complete misnomer, for two reasons. Firstly, it implies that a child must be ‘educated’ (i.e. taught) in order to learn, and secondly, that learning takes place mostly in the home. In our case, and in the cases of most other children who we know that don’t attend school, the opposite is true. I prefer ‘Learning In The Wider World’. Yes, it seems like pedantry and it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s a much more accurate description of what actually happens. Children are hard-wired with a strong desire to make sense of the world around them and that will happen without the need to sit them down and explain things to them. When they reach the age at which they realise being able to read, write and count will be advantageous to them (‘If I can learn to add the name of my favourite treat to the shopping list, there’s a reasonable chance I’ll be munching it on the way home’) they will set about it with considerable enthusiasm and tenacity.
Having time at home for your son or daughter to read, research things on the internet and just to relax and ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ is important, but learning takes place outside the home very readily too. Museums, libraries and parks are places where my son learns all manner of information not just about things and ideas but about people and how they interact with each other. That’s not to mention all the activities he enjoys with other non-school children of all ages (nature walks, farm visits, Parkour et cetera).
Can I Have A Go?
Facilitating the learning activities of our son isn’t difficult. There’s no need for a teaching qualification or a minimal level of academic attainment on the part of the parent. Answering questions from an eager little boy is easy. Driving to the various meetings and groups he attends is easy too. One of the best parts of not sending him to school is the amount of time we have together. I see every milestone he achieves. He knows I’m always available to provide a more in-depth explanation (if it’s requested) of whatever he’s currently interested in. He just wouldn’t be able to receive that quality of attention from a teacher who has another 20-odd children in the classroom and a tight schedule of topics to cover in a limited time.
Not having to conform to set hours means that our boy can learn when he feels most receptive and engaged rather than when the clock says learning must take place. Often, he will suddenly embark upon a project in the late evening and become engrossed in it, carrying on until his eyes are starting to close. That’s okay because I understand that it’s important to allow learning to happen whenever the opportunity arises.
As I climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire, and peep in at that peaceful little face, I know that that my survival as a Home-Ed Dad is ensured because the job is ultimately so rewarding. That’s a cliché of course, but only because it’s true, and this thought warms me as I finally rest, ahead of my inevitable early morning wake-up call.
Martin Webster lives near Sheffield with his wife Dee and their two children, Seth (five years) and Ezra (three months). He home-educates his eldest son. Martin enjoys reading and cycling and has a keen interest in all aspects of alternative parenting and green living.