Home Education: Beyond the Classroom

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.

Louise Gibbens Home Education

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.

SEE ALSO: The Intelligence of Play – Do We Interfere Too Much in Our Children’s Play?

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.

Louise Gibbens Home Education

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).

Louise Gibbens Home Education 

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.

Louise Gibbens Home Education

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 Home Education

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?  

12 Comments

  • I really enjoyed reading this piece and I really admire Louise and the decision she has taken.

    I do, however, have questions I’d love to know more about! How is it judged whether the boys are actually being ‘educated’ at home or just getting valuable interacting time with their family? Does a home-educating family get support from the local education authority? At what juncture does the author anticipate her sons will interact with the mainstream education structure, GCSE level?, A-level?

    I guess my fear would be that at the point at which he interacts with the mainstream system for the first time, my son might struggle (despite being an amazing, rounded human being) because that system is about hitting buzz words in answers and technique (pretty dreadful really). The reality is, I don’t want to have done him a disservice as a young adult, because I chose to take him out of a competitive environment from the start.

    I know what you will say (justifiably!), that if I can’t get my head around that, then I’m a million miles away from being able to home school but It would be something that would bother me.

    This was a great read – thanks for educating me! x

    • Louise Gibbens says:

      Hi Ursula. Thanks for your comment here. There is no judgement by the LEA on whether my boys are being educated. Because we deregistered Archie from school, we were contacted by the home education officer for our local county council. They offered assistance, offered to meet with us, and asked what our reasons were for electing to take him out of the system. They were very satisfied with our discussion and we’ve not heard from them since. The only time this would not be the case is if a child/family is known to social services and/or the child has a statement of SEN but since this did not apply to us, I’m afraid I don’t know the full facts. Since we’ve assumed full responsibility for our boys’ education, we are left with judging ourselves. And just with any parenting decisions we make, I am judging myself with a very critical eye! I think quality time spent within a family that likes to talk, discuss, share, question, experience, and get out and about IS a thorough education. We provide a learning rich environment and because the boys are not forced or persuaded to learn, what they experience is understood, retained, enjoyed. I believe their learning is more meaningful than it would have been. Don’t get me wrong, my eldest learnt quite a few things in school – a few things grabbed his attention and stuck, But he was so anxious and under pressure. You cannot learn effectively in that state of mind. Of course, if you love school (as I did myself) then there’s no problem. And if you learn well in a listening, sitting, sequential way then teaching can be quite effective. Unfortunately the vast majority of boys do not reach anywhere close to their potential in the classroom, and probably several girls don’t either. And I guess the answer to your question is also largely down to a personal interpretation of what ‘education’ actually means.

      I don’t know when or if my boys will ever enter mainstream education. I suspect that might play out differently for each of them, they’re so different in every way. I’m happy and prepared for them to home educate all the way through. They may wish to go to school or college further down the line and that’s OK too. But they won’t need to in order to gain any qualifications they might want or need. its a unknown to me right now. We have talked about moving to France and if we do that, we may not be able to home educate – it’s the only thing stopping us going there right now. Time will tell.

      I totally understand your point about worrying I will have done them a disservice but when your children are full of energy, enthusiastic and happy you kind of start to believe you’ve made the right decision, regardless of any lingering niggles. I know what you mean about school perhaps preparing children for competing in the big bad world but I personally believe being given the time to develop at their own pace, without pressure or judgement, creates a quiet confidence in ones own ability. And that makes a person more resilient in the long run. I hope this expands on the article for you and answers your questions

    • Stephy-Lou says:

      Hi Ursula! How great that you are interested in home educating your son! I’m no expert, my son is only 2 and we haven’t begun our home education journey ‘officially’ yet but we have been considering it for a long while so I can answer at least some of your questions – though I’m sure Lou will do a much better job when she gets onto it.

      In terms of the local authority, some are keener than others about keeping tabs on your child’s education. Most like to see some kind of documentation as to what they’re learning, this could be something as simple as a blog documenting your days, journals etc. I believe this is not a legal requirement and is voluntary on the part of the parents. Louise may be able to clarify this. My understanding is that LA like to be involved but they don’t have to be and some parents prefer them not to be. As for how supportive they are, that depends on the council and the people employed at the time it seems, rather than law or legislation. In terms of financial support, that’s easy: there’s none (Lou?) and if you, or your child, wants to take qualifications then you have to pay for the privilege. However most kids seem to want to only do a few, or at least a couple per year so the cost could be spread if necessary.

      As for when they join the mainstream system, well not all do. Some never do and are very successful and I’ve heard a lot of HE people end up as business owners or entrepreneurs. Ultimately it will depend on who your son becomes and what his desires will be as to what future he seeks out for himself – which for me is the beauty of HE. My son is free to become who he wants to be, not who the system decides it needs. It also appears that for most kids who do decide to go into mainstream education, it’s their decision and they make it work because it’s what they want to do, say to work towards a specific goal. So I wouldn’t worry too much about how he’d manage if he ever went to school. Instead I try to think about it as a staged approach. We’re going to take it one ‘academic year’ at a time and see how we all progress as a family. After all if has to work for everyone. As long as it’s working for us and my son is blossoming, I’m happy and I’ll try to help him achieve anything he so decides he desires – even if that’s going to school (waah).

      I’d recommend getting on Facebook and finding your local group. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of knowledge and experience there for you. And remember, not everyone unschools like Lou. Some families have very different approaches and some follow strict curriculums: it’s entirely up to you. Whatever works for your son best. And that’s the beauty of it all over again.

      Hope this helps. I’m sure Lou will have some more valuable advice and experience to add to the mix but I wanted to post to let you know that these questions and concerns are valid and don’t mean in any way that HE isn’t for you – it just means your son is your first priority and it’s great that he’s got a mother who is putting so much time and effort into considering his future. All the best with whatever you decide is right for you guys x

      • Thank you for your help and advice.

        My son starts school in September. I’m interested to see how he gets on. If he blossoms then great. If he is the sort of child that doesn’t, then I would seriously consider giving up work to educate him at home. There can be no better use of my time or our resources as a family. My concern is that my personality type might be detrimental to this process for my son (I’m just being honest!). I constantly have to pull back from pushing him too much because of the way I am. Too much time with me genuinely may not be the best for him. Also, my son is an only child. He loves the company of other children and is an outgoing, highly sociable soul. School offers a wonderful opportunity to mix with all sorts of children and muddle along. The value of that cannot be underestimated. This discussion has been highly valuable and I will continue to ponder on it – thank you for taking the time to respond.

  • Charley says:

    I wouldn’t be able to home educate as I work there days a week but I often think it’s not such a fringe idea as one might expect. It’s almost tempting reading this to throw in the job! That said, my big fear would be my son’s entry into the workplace… How do they compete? If they wanted to go into a profession for example, law or medicine… where do they start? I agree that targets are not always applicable and set children up for failure, especially boys, but they do also give parameters to parent and children. I’s such a huge topic, well tackled Louise.

  • Lovely article! Here in the US many of us are coming to the same conclusions. As a longtime special education teacher I have encountered many little boys and girls (and yes, more of them are boys) who need something that a traditional environment cannot provide. I think your method of education has benefits for all children, though, not just those with special learning needs.

  • Emma Day (Crazy with Twins) says:

    What if your child wants to be a doctor or a lawyer and go to uni? They’d need gcses and A levels to get into uni and unless you’d taken those subjects at A level or above yourself, how would you home educate it?

    • Bethany Reynolds says:

      Most home educated children go on to uni and college, and like the article says you can do gcses on the internet. You can even do an open university degree with no gcses or a levels, you can attend a further education college by sitting an entrance exam, so no need for gcses. Obviously with all that in mind, ultimately there is a lot of choice beyond school.

  • Mrs B says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and whilst my own daughter is not yet old enough to attend school (or not attend as the case may be!) I have my reasons for being interested in home-schooling. I hadn’t heard of the unschooling method, sounds fantastic and much like how we are educating our children before typical school-age. Although without more knowledge, I do wonder how this method will prepare my child(ren) to re-enter the education system in order to take A-Levels etc. and also the common things I hear about the under-socialisation of home-schooled children…
    I really support the general principles behind home-schooling and would love to investigate it more. Sounds like it’s really working for your family! Well done.
    Bx

  • Rachel Bryant says:

    I was homeschooled from 4-16 along with my brothers and my sister. I then went on to do five A-levels at a local sixth form, then after five gap years where I explored the world (or parts of it!) I went to university, graduated with a first class honours degree in primary education of all things, taught for four years and last summer I left teaching and am now working as a safety advisor and doing a part time nuclear engineering degree. Homeschooling works. As an (ex) primary teacher I used to long to give the children in my class the freedom I had growing up, where long walks and building dens and painting ourselves with berries and running around Roman hill forts was the norm. Some of the boys in my class, similar to the article, learnt so much more when we were outside, or active, or they were given time to investigate things in which they were interested. The English education system is constrictive, one-size-fits-all and does not work for many children. People often ask me if I will be home educating my own children and the answer is a resounding yes. Please get in touch if you have any questions about how I did exams etc – I’m more than happy to help!

    • Sarah-Ellen Vorster says:

      Dear Rachel
      Your message is inspiring as is the article above.
      I too am an ex primary school teacher.
      Taught for 17 years and left in July to have baby number two.
      I am NOT going back. Although I miss the teaching and learning I felt restricted and unhappy with the demands made on me as a professional and the subsequent demands I made on the children to fit into the right box.
      We have just left London and moved to Suffolk, we are surrounded by fields, beaches, castles etc.
      I am very interested in the home school philosophy and really believe my bright, creative, sociable 5 year old would benefit from home schooling.
      However, I am concerned that I won’t be able to take her far enough in her learning for exams, university etc (if that’s what she wants)
      How did your parents manage that with you?
      Sarah.

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