Even if you get a place at your first choice school, you may find that the emotional and practical implications of the education system simply don’t suit your child. But would you consider home education? Louise Gibbens explains why it’s right for her sons.
At first glance we’re a pretty typical family – my husband, our two sons, and I – but we’re amongst a growing group who are choosing to educate our children at home.
‘You’re brave!’ (I’m not, honestly)
‘Is that legal?’ (Yes, totally)
‘Don’t you need to be qualified?’ (No)
‘How wonderful, I wish I could do the same’ (you can!)
…just some of the things people say when they discover that we home educate.
Our eldest son, Archie (8) started school at 4. I had my concerns but he settled well in his first term at a small village school, and then things started to go wrong. He became increasingly anxious, his learning regressed and he was failing to meet targets. He was assessed by a Paediatrician, a Clinical Psychologist, and an Educational Psychologist.
Constantly focussing on what might be wrong with Archie was depressing and began to make us lose sight of the things that were right with our bright, charismatic little boy. I began to research how children learn, particularly children like Archie who are highly sensitive, bright and inquisitive, but lack essential classroom skills: sitting still, concentrating and listening.
It’s a generalisation, but isn’t this most little boys? It’s my opinion that schools are geared towards how girls prefer to learn, play and socialise.
Meanwhile, boys are often left floundering. I came to the conclusion that even the best school in the land still wouldn’t be the right environment for Archie to reach his potential, and it took me the rest of that academic year to convince my husband.
During the summer holidays we made our decision and Archie didn’t return in the September. It felt wonderful to just roll with our summer, taking a family holiday in the first two weeks of term that year was liberating (and so much cheaper).
Statistics are difficult to pin down for those who choose to home educate (EHE – elective home education). Latest figures (July 2014) record 27,292 children in England and Wales. However, this only accounts for the children that local authorities are aware of, in other words, children like Archie who initially went to school (and had to legally deregister) or children who applied for a school place but then didn’t take it up.
Families who chose to home educate as a lifestyle choice, and who did not apply for a school place, are unknown to the local authority unless they choose to get in touch, despite no obligation to do so. In other words, Archie is one of those 27,292 recorded but our younger son, Jody, isn’t. The estimate, according to Education Otherwise, is likely to be in excess of 40,000.
Most people worry that they’re not qualified to home educate. But we don’t follow a specific curriculum or teach at all. Instead we ‘unschool’. This approach is about having faith that learning is natural and happening all the time. It doesn’t require coercion and should be fun, interesting and meaningful.
Our boys spend their time doing the things they love and are free to play. Much of their learning is incidental.
Many home educating families we know prefer this unstructured approach but just as many follow a curriculum instead (Montessori, Steiner, etc). It’s about finding your best fit. The change we’ve seen in Archie since he left school has been incredible: he’s far more confident, relaxed and happy. I prefer not to compare him to his peers these days, I left that attitude at the school gate. But I imagine he’s ‘ahead’ in some respects and ‘behind’ in others. The main thing is he’s not being judged, or judging himself, anymore.
Jody (4) is a very different child. His resilience suggests he’d fair well in school in comparison, but we’re not sending him. I love the natural way in which he’s gaining so much from being with his older brother. Their relationship is amazing even though they’re chalk and cheese.
The really wonderful thing about home education is that the boys don’t have to fit into anyone else’s boxes, only their own.
Usually two or three days a week we join others at organised groups or sessions. Our favourite is a weekly gymnastics class. Another is a social group at a nearby beach, a natural playground where they engage in imaginary play with friends. Sometimes we meet in a local orchard or woods instead, where tree climbing, fire lighting, and water play are the main (unstructured) activities.
If we’re not attending a group we usually have an ‘in day’ to simply play and read. I’m on hand to facilitate what they choose to do. Some days it’s very obvious that learning is happening in abundance. On others it’s less apparent. Often we’ll go on our own field trips, the local library and museums get plenty of use, as well as the beaches, castles, and galleries we’re lucky to live close to.
Archie attends a youth theatre class and Jody spends a morning each week with Grandma, baking or gardening. Our lives are rich and full. If there’s too much going on, we can ease off and take things slowly. If they need extra sleep they can lay in (and so can I).
They socialise far less with children of their own age than they would do if they were at school, but that doesn’t mean they’re not as well socialised as their schooled peers. They socialise every day – with the postman, with our next door neighbours, with their grandparents, with people on the bus, and other home educating families: babies, toddlers, peers and teenagers.
Spending the majority of your time with people exactly the same age, tends to lead to unnaturally high levels of competitiveness, and in extreme cases, bullying.
And of course, adults make all the rules and dictate what’s happening and when. It’s interesting that home educated children don’t appear to display signs of hierarchy based on age. Sure, there are natural leaders, and natural followers, that’s human nature, but the lines are not drawn up based upon age. Archie has really noticed that when he meets schooled children for the first time, their first question is usually ‘how old are you?’.
This just doesn’t seem to happen at home ed meet ups. How would they fare if they went into the school system? It’s hard to tell, but children are far more resilient than we give them credit for. In some ways I think they’d be more confident, especially Jody who won’t have had that difficult transition into school at the age of 4. Research shows that this is not an ideal school starting age, both academically and emotionally, particularly for boys.
This confidence might get them into trouble. Home educated children tend to question, not just other children, but adults too. It’s how they learn! But in the classroom this could be perceived as naughty behaviour. I secretly dread them wanting to go to school, if I’m honest…
The legal position on education is no different for a child of 15 as it is for a child of 5. Education is compulsory, school isn’t. The law here places responsibility for the education of a child in the hands of the parents. It’s up to us to decide whether to take on that responsibility ourselves, or send our child to school, though most people assume the opposite is true.
Home educated teens often decide to take IGCSEs, usually with great results because they can choose to take a few subjects each year, for an extended period of time, rather than the more typical situation of cramming for exams and coursework for 10 different subjects in an intensive school year.
We take advantage of empty beaches, quiet museums, and cheaper holidays. Our relationships feel so much stronger than they did before and whilst it’s true that I get less time for ‘me’ than I used to, I find I also crave it less.
For those thinking of home educating, I encourage you wholeheartedly. Join local home ed Facebook groups and attend some meet ups so you can ask questions. Read something by John Holt, How Children Learn and Teach Your Own are the best. Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s amazing TED talks online.
If you take the plunge, prepare to face doubters with confidence. Prepare also to have the occasional wobble yourself. Create a learning-rich environment for your children: have loads of books, art and craft supplies and games available so that when they have an idea for an activity, you can make it happen.
Above all, trust in the process. Your child learnt to crawl, walk, talk, and question, simply by interacting, watching and trying. This doesn’t suddenly stop when they reach school age. In fact, it never stops.
Crucially, try hard not to compare them or yourself with others. Ask yourself is my child happy? Are they loving what they do? This is really all that matters. If the answer to both is ‘yes’, then they are learning.
Louise Gibbens is a home-educating mum to two boys, Archie (8) and Jody (4). They live near Canterbury. Before moving to the countryside, Louise worked as the Information and Membership manager of a London-based trade association. Louise loves photography and has an unhealthy obsession with kids fashion. You can follow the family’s unschooled life on Instagram @loopygibbens
Do you like the idea of a less competitive, more flexible education for your child? Or does home educating feel like a leap too far?