Sunday, 23 December 2012

The RI Christmas Lectures

The Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures are a highlight in our house enjoyed by all our boys accessing these high quality broadcasts at their own level. Don't miss this year's offering by Dr Peter Wothers - The Modern Alchemist - as he unpicks the chemistry of the world around us.
BBC Four at 8pm on the 26th, 27th and 28th December.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

About School

He always wanted to say things. But no one understood.
He always wanted to explain things. But no one cared. So he drew.
Sometimes he would just draw and it wasn't anything.
He wanted to carve it in stone or write it in the sky.
He would lie out on the grass and look up in the sky and it would be only him and the sky and the things inside that needed saying.
And it was after that, that he drew the picture. It was a beautiful picture.
He kept it under the pillow and would let no one see it.
And he would look at it every night and think about it. And when it was dark, and his eyes were closed, he could still see it. And it was all of him. And he loved it.
When he started school he brought it with him.
Not to show anyone, but just to have it with him like a friend.
It was funny about school. He sat in a square, brown desk like all the other square, brown desks and he thought it should be red. And his room was a square, brown room.
Like all the other rooms. And it was tight and close. And stiff.
He hated to hold the pencil and the chalk, with his arm stiff and his feet flat on the floor, stiff, with the teacher watching and watching.
And then he had to write numbers. And they weren't anything. They were worse than the letters that could be something if you put them together.
And the numbers were tight and square and he hated the whole thing.
The teacher came and spoke to him. She told him to wear a tie like all the other boys.
He said he didn't like it and she said it didn't matter. After that they drew.
And he drew all yellow and it was the way he felt about morning. And it was beautiful.
The teacher came and smiled at him. "What's this?" she said. "Why don't you draw something like Ken's drawing? Isn't that beautiful?" It was all questions.
After that his mother bought him a tie and he always drew airplanes and rocket ships like everyone else.
And he threw the old picture away.
And when he lay out alone looking at the sky, it was big and blue and all of everything, but he wasn't anymore.
He was square inside and brown, and his hands were stiff,
and he was like anyone else.
And the thing inside him that needed saying didn't need saying anymore.
It had stopped pushing. It was crushed. Stiff.
Like everything else.

This anonymous poem is quoted in Barbara Prashing's book, "New Ways of Learning and Tecahing through Learning Styles". It is believed that the teenage student who wrote this committed suicide two weeks later.

Individual Learning Styles

A feature of home education ought to be a recognition of individual learning style, enabling a child to learn in the way he or she prefers. I have picked up a book this week which a friend gave me several years ago, prior to her return to her home country of New Zealand. I don't know why it has taken so long for me to get around to studying it ... Well, I do know: I am just a bit busy most days with a lively baby and 3 older boys to educate!! ;) Still, I am glad I have picked this book up. It is called, "The Power of Diversity: New Ways of Learning and Teaching through Learning Styles" by Barbara Prashnig, an educator and trainer. I have only just begin, and more insights from my reading will surely shape our educational journey and so find their way into future posts. So far I have been reminded that my own learning style will be the primary determiner in the way that I teach my children. Yet, their learning style is unlikely to be the same as mine. Indeed, each of them will have their own preferred way of learning. As difficult as it might be for schools to discover and cater for the individual child, in the home environment there is really no excuse. I must find this key to unlocking the learning potential of each of my children. Otherwise I will fail them - just as a school would. I mentioned in a recent post, "Secondary Dilemmas" my realisation that my eldest son learns orally through conversation and asking seemingly endless questions. This was a revelation. Most importantly, it freed him from my expectation that he needed to learn as I do. Now my task is to discover and tap into the learning styles of his younger brothers. I don't feel I have yet managed that. I hope this latest book will help me to be more perceptive and to rise to that challenge.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Reindeer Hats

Much to my disappointment, my boys are not very interested in seasonal craft activities. However, these reindeer hats were a hit! I found the inspiration here but adapted the design by cutting ears where the antlers are on the template, then adding the twigs. I had to help quite a lot with the folding, but the boys enjoyed decorating and personalising them!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Boys and Writing

When I took my boys out of school, one of our dilemmas was writing. My eldest son's teacher wanted more neat writing at the end of a lesson than he could manage. Then aged just 8 he told me, "Mum, either it is neat but there's not enough of it, or there is enough but it isn't neat." Knowing how much small boys need to run around outside, I was cross that he would then miss his playtimes trying to get his writing up to standard.

At parents' evening his handwriting was a concern because it wasn't cursive - which counted for two marks on the all-important SATs test. I wasn't remotely interested in the SATs test, but this test-focus and obsession with neat handwriting seemed to me to be all wrong.

I am not saying that learning to write is not important, but I think we should keep handwriting in its place. By the time our children leave school, they will not be writing but talking to voice recognition computers which will record their words. The technology already exists, and I seldom write by hand these days - perhaps scribbling down the odd note or shopping list. Most of my writing is done at a keyboard.

From numerous conversations with other parents of boys, I realise my son is not alone in his struggle with handwriting. Generally small boys do not like to write. They have better things to do with their time!

When we started home educating, I decided to conduct something of an experiment and to back-off on the writing. I decided instead to focus on reading to the boys, and encouraging them to narrate stories they had heard. Also to do lots of oral work, creative play and discussion. Conversation is a natural part of home educating anyway, because as you live life together, you naturally talk about all you encounter. In these ways, I figured the boys would build vocabulary. And my hypothesis was that, as their fine motor skills developed with age, what was going on in their minds and coming out of their mouths would eventually flow out on to paper. I was prepared for this to take a while. Friends had told me that by the time boys reach years 5 and 6 in primary school (aged 10 - 11), something seems to click and writing begins to come that little bit easier. Why then, I wondered, spend years 1, 2, 3 and 4 making small boys write so unwillingly? Maybe we could use that time more beneficially.

With any experiment, there is an element of wonder ... Will it work? Will my hypothesis prove reliable? Well, as I mention in an earlier post, Robinson Crusoe has recently grabbed my sons' imagination. Building on this, we are reading "Swiss Family Robinson" together as a read-aloud. This story features a family of four boys, like ours, so I suggested that the boys each take on one of the character roles and write a log-book of their adventures as we read. Sons 2 and 3 were quite enthusiastic about this, and have started to make lovely little illustrated log books.

My eldest son, always full of his own ideas, protested - but asked if he could, instead, write a log as Robinson Crusoe. 'Why not?' I thought. So he began ....

He is such a perfectionist, we often get all sorts of fussing before we get to any work. So the paper won't be the right size, or he can't get the title neat enough or whatever. Rather than letting this hinder his progress and stifle his enthusiasm, my husband suggested he write it on the computer, a suggestion to which he responded enthusiastically. He got his page organised into columns so that he could fold it into the logbook he envisaged, and then he began to write ....

Well, joy of joys, the writing was good, and quite expressive. He is using description and including emotion. His sentences are complex, and the vocabulary is rich. His spelling is pretty good, considering I have never "taught" him spelling. His punctuation and paragraphing need a little work but, all in all, I am impressed and I look forward to seeing the finished piece of work.

Friday, 23 November 2012

A Home Ed Week

Sometimes people wonder what home education looks like, what do we actually do?

I heard a story recently from a home educating parent who took her small son to the dentist. Knowing that he was home educated, the dentist exclaimed, "Ah - you're the little boy who stays at home!" The child looked at him incredulously, and declared, "I don't stay at home. I go everywhere!"

I don't really like the name "home education" because it implies that we just stay at home, keeping our children in a box, separate and protected from the world outside. Nothing could be further from the reality.

I had another conversation recently in which someone assumed I would be sending my eldest son to secondary school, "Because of course he would benefit from the wider experience." Such comments show a complete misunderstanding of home education, and what we are trying to do.

You see, from our perspective, the classroom is the box, separate and protected from the world outside. And instead of "home education", we would prefer terms like, "world education", "community education", "life education."

This week has been a busy week. So what have we been doing?

On Monday, the boys had their weekly Chinese lesson with their teacher, a native speaker who comes and teaches them Mandarin, with games and songs and great hilarity. Then we had some friends round for lunch, and 5 boys aged between 11 and 3 playing Robinson Crusoe in the front room. Later, my eldest son went for his afternoon with his grandparents, with whom he studies history and reads literature. Sons 2 and 3 and I worked on our Leonardo project, making picture frames from foil pie tins, and gathering pictures for collage life masks.

On Tuesday, we met up with a group of home educating families at a local farm, where we looked at the animals and talked to the farmer about how she makes her living. In the afternoon, we took part in a crafting workshop and made festive wreaths.

When we got home, my husband took the three older boys swimming.

On Wednesday, my second son's friend came with us to a workshop at a small, local museum where we learned about Georgian life through interactive activities with the staff. In the afternoon, it was my third son's turn to go to his grandparents, where he did some artwork, history, literature. His older brothers played Lego with their friends.

On Thursday, the older boys couldn't get to school for their regular flexi day due to flooding, so sons 2 and 3 and I went on the train into our nearest city where we saw James and the Giant Peach, which son no 3 has recently enjoyed reading, at the theatre. It was fantastic, and so clever to see how these wonderful Roald Dahl stories are brought to the stage!

Afterwards we had noodles for lunch in China town at the boys' request. Their eldest brother spent the time at home helping his grandparents take care of the baby, and teaching them Origami!

Today was Friday, and I am tired out! We seem also to have picked up a bug and were all rather under the weather. Son no 2 went off to his grandparents this morning after playing his guitar for us all. He brought home some delicious pies he had made, as well as his usual history and literature readings. His brothers watched a David Attenborough documentary this morning and generally had a bit of a rest. I was out to lunch, and have also been busy this week working on setting up our new Barefoot book-selling business, which the boys have been involved in too. We are excited to have got our new website up and functional! Friday evenings are always busy with the boys out at scouts and karate.

Amidst everything else, I forgot to mention the boys' Kumon maths and English work, which they complete every day. We have decided to give the older two a break from the English programme for the time being as they are reading more independently nowadays, and we do quite a lot of literature work with them in other ways. However, they are continuing with the maths programme, and son no 3 continues to do both subjects. He is becoming a really independent learner and has this week completed his work before I have even surfaced in the morning!

So, another busy week draws to a close ... Maybe you'd agree that "home education" isn't really an adequate description for all that we do.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Capturing the Imagination

Our eldest son recently started reading Robinson Crusoe with his Grandpa. So enthusiastic was he about this story that he started a game with his brothers where they re-enacted it, setting up their pop-up tent on their 'island' and casting the baby as their goat! Lunch was not pasta, but roasted tortoise!

I love to see this imaginative interaction with literature. It is what reading should be all about. I maintain that creative play and oral narration are especially relevant and important for boys, and will lead to great writing later on.

A teacher recently told me her first struggle with children's writing is building their vocabulary, as they are often not exposed to a rich variety of language. Reading great literature with our children, though it might be beyond the child's own reading level, feeds their vocabulary and imagination and expands their world. There is still no substitute for a terrific story!

The Great Outdoors

The National Trust asks, "Are we losing touch with the outdoors?" and, "Does this matter?" Read more and see their report on reconnecting children with nature here.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Solar Eclipse

Great footage of the Australian solar eclipse here.

A Lego Party

Inspired by our recent visit to Legoland, my eldest son asked for a Lego party to celebrate his 11th birthday. In a moment of madness, I agreed to having 12 boys in total, which was rather chaotic. It was nice to see my son invite boys of ranging ages. Not being in school, he plays quite happily with children much younger than himself and, if he knew they liked Lego, they were in! In reality this proved challenging, as the ages ranged from 5 up to 12, and not all the boys were as into Lego as my three, so concentration and creativity were sometimes lacking. However, my boys assure me they had a good time, and I hope their guests did too.

We had fun the week before the party, painting team banners and baking cupcakes which we decorated with Lego bricks made of coloured icing. I always enjoy making the boys' birthday cakes, and the requested Lego minifigure cake was duly constructed and iced.

When the boys arrived, we split them into four teams, for whom they collected points throughout the afternoon. Each team had their own zone and banner with a box of assorted Lego bricks.

For the first game, they sat in a circle with Lego in the centre. Each boy chose 4 bricks which they had to piece together, they then passed their models round to the left and the next person had to add two bricks. After half a minute or so, they passed to the left again and so on. When the models had gone once around the circle, we looked at the creations and the boys had to tell us what they thought 'their model' could be. This game was a great hit.

I had a box into which we had put folded up scraps of paper on which were written things to try and build ... a spaceship, a fast car, something scary, an insect ... At various points in the party, I would ask a boy to choose a piece of paper and we would give each team five minutes to come up with the best model they could, which would then be judged with 4 points for the best model, 3 for the second, 2, 1. This was quite good for moments when we needed to calm things down or provide a focus.

Another game involved each team trying to build the tallest free-standing tower they could in five minutes. We then measured each tower and awarded points to the teams in order of success as explained above.

Kim's Game is another one I like for calming things down. I put 12 pieces of Lego or Lego related items on a tray and gave the boys a minute or so to study the tray really carefully. They then had to go into their teams and try to write down as many items as they could remember. All teams did really well, recalling all twelve items, but the youngest team (with help scribing) were the fastest.

We had a Spinjitsu battle, with each team customising their spinner and choosing their Ninja. This was very popular and we pitted each team against each of the others in turn to find the champion. The boys in each team took turns to spin. Another good game involved setting up Lego minifigures like skittles (10 pins). The boys had to try and knock down as many as possible using a marble which they rolled down a piece of car racetrack. Each team member got to bowl once for their team, and they scored a point for each minifigure knocked over.

We had a jar which I had filled with Lego pieces and we asked each team to guess how many were insider, with points (4,3,2,1) awarded according to whose guess was the closest.

We also attempted to play Lego Creationary (the board game) but there were too many boys, some of whom were not really engaged, so we cut that one short. It is a good family game for Lego fans!

We added up all the scores, and awarded a Lego cup, made by my 6 year old to the winning team. Then it was time for burgers and chips, cupcakes, hot chocolate and fireworks. And the piece de resistance - the birthday cake. The boys went home with a piece of cake, a small chocolate treat and a Lego minifigure and builder's kit / certificate, which I got as a job lot (here). A Lego fan's dream!

Learning through conversation

One of the key ways home educated children learn is through the numerous conversations which arise throughout each day as a result of situations encountered. The other day, we had two such conversations, which deserve mention here.

The first followed the sad death of one of our guinea pigs. Having watched his decline over a couple of days, my second son, to whom the guinea pigs belong, and I decided we needed to visit the vet. There, as I suspected, we faced the decision as to whether to put the little creature to sleep. As we sat together with the guinea pig, we both felt a sense of peace that it was the right thing to do, to stop his suffering. It was a moment of growing up for my little son, and though he wept, he felt he had done the best for his pet.

The next day, one of the boys asked whether people are ever "put to sleep" and so commenced a discussion of euthanasia, during which we looked at arguments for and against and the older boys gave their opinions. All this is done very informally, just through conversing. It is learning which is not really measurable.

The second example arose when my eldest son and I were looking at some simplified economics animations on the Open University website (Watch them here). As we talked about different economic systems, we moved into a discussion of communism, the pros and cons and, ultimately, why it doesn't work and the problem of human nature. We talked about George Orwell's Animal Farm, and he even expressed some interest in reading that book together, which I shall have to act upon.

A great strength of home education, which is often difficult to explain to people, is the room for adult / child discussion and conversation in context and at a level appropriate to the individual child.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Not so much broken as completely outdated

This article discusses the education system in the US, but the argument could equally be applied to the system in Britain.

Friday, 2 November 2012

GCSE Fiasco

GCSE Fiasco: Report Blames Teachers' Marking

This is an example of a system driven by top-down pressure to achieve, rather than a compassionate and professional system which starts with the pupils in front of us.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Secondary Dilemmas

A letter met us on our return from London informing us that our eldest son had done well on the 11+ exam, achieving a mark which could mean an application to grammar school would be successful. (See my earlier post "11+") Of course, we will not know if we are offered a place until March, but based on his result, I put in an application. What to do with my eldest son through his secondary years, that is the question, and I confess I am in two minds.

If he was my only child, without a doubt, I would continue home educating him. But I worry that his eager mind requires more stimulation than I can provide - especially with the arrival of our youngest son, who takes so much of my time and attention. However, the role of the home educator is one of facilitator. With my husband and parents' input, and by bringing in others, as we do with the Chinese lessons, to discuss things with him, could we not meet his needs?

When I began home educating, it was with my eldest son foremost in my mind. By removing him from the educational box, I imagined he would fly. In my mind, I imagined him reading avidly and thereby becoming increasingly independent in his learning. What I failed to see then, and have now realised, is that he doesn't learn from books, but by asking questions and talking to people, seeing, doing and discussing. He will pepper visitors with questions, and remember what he learns, making wonderful natural connections between pieces of knowledge acquired from different sources over broad periods of time. Though I might feel my attempts to meet his needs are inadequate, how will these needs be met in a class of thirty, where a questioning child can so easily be seen as an annoyance and give up asking?

I have an idea that he would thrive in the academic environment of a grammar school - where it's alright to be bright. I imagine him being free to ask lots of questions and ideas being batted round the classroom by other eager learners and inspirational teachers. I imagine the mental stimulation of such an environment, along with a good dose of competition, suiting him. He is a sociable boy and, as he grows, I imagine the journey to and from school and the friendships he might form, being good for him. I imagine many things, but how will the reality match up? How easy is it to climb back into a box from which you have been set free?

I looked round our local secondary schools and I realise the appeal of the grammar school is partly because it is in our nearest city, is more ethnically mixed and takes him into a bigger world than this small corner. Since we lived in a large city in Turkey for some years, where he functioned in a second language, I realise this is more important to me than I had realised.

All these thoughts are positive and yet ....
I have ideas that maybe things could be different, that there must be better ways of raising people than our current system allows. I want to throw off my concerns about exam results and academia to consider the whole person, his character, his values, his self-esteem. I would like him to spend his formative adolescent years doing things so much more exciting than sitting in a classroom. I want him to plan and face challenges, to travel, to know himself, his gifts and passions. I want him to find work he loves, to be confident and not to be swayed by the crowd. I imagine him going off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, or spending some months in another culture, learning another language. I imagine him growing and developing without the negative peer pressure which can be so pervasive in the secondary school environment. I imagine him growing with strong male mentors, always in conversation, doing life together. I imagine him outdoors a lot. I imagine a different way of raising men.

Why am I torn? As ever, it is myself I doubt. With home education, the buck stops with us and the question is, can we deliver? Maybe what I should be asking is, do we dare to try?


London has been so much on our television screens this year - with the Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics happening. We decided to take the boys down for a week. We are fortunate to have family down there, so it was good to see them. We took the boys to The Natural History Museum, and to see the central sights.

We also visited Windsor and surprised them with a trip to Legoland! Since they are Lego mad, we pushed the boat out and had a night at the fabulous Resort Hotel which was a huge treat. I hope the whole experience will give them fresh inspiration in their creative Lego play.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Thoughts on School

Although the boys have only been in school a few days over the last month, conflicts of ideology have already surfaced.

First or second day in for son number 2, and he came home discouraged because he had encountered maths he was unfamiliar with, an experience which could have dented his fragile confidence. I don't think it did, because he is currently experiencing great success in his Kumon maths at home.

The conflict arises because we have chosen to work at his pace, ensuring firm foundations before moving on. For him, this means he is just now working on his multiplication tables and, through repetition, is achieving real fluency. Although not usually keen on maths, he has willingly been picking up a times table game we have and working at beating his record.

At school, by contrast, lessons are driven by what is on the curriculum and tend to jump around more. Children who need more time to consolidate what they are learning can easily be left behind, or soon forget what they have been taught because they have not had sufficient practice to enable them to master each new skill.

I found it did not take long in school for my son to come to the belief that he was no good at maths. It has taken two years at home to work at reversing that self-belief. I hope a day a week in school will not undo our hard work.

I have had long discussions about worries with my third son the night before school. He had no-one to play with at playtime. He doesn't know which line to stand in. He didn't have money for a snack at break time ... Worse - He doesn't like writing! Well, that one was news to me, especially as he is currently working at home on his own storybook about a musketeer! As one of the youngest in his class, which is a combination of pupils in Years 2, 3 and 4, I am hoping he won't compare his ability unfavourably with that of older children he may sit alongside. :/

Other than that, I had forgotten how much I hate the stress of the school run in the morning. Driving back and forth with the baby in the car during the day is a hassle. And we have all been ill! I had also forgotten how the bugs come home from school, and a poorly baby - as well as a teething one - means a tired and rather grumpy mother!

Is it worth it?

My eldest son seems to be enjoying school, and the day a week is inspiring some project work, and has also presented the opportunity for a week away at an outdoor pursuits centre in the new year. So we will try it a little longer before we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I do enjoy my day off, and have been able to go to a baby group with my new little one, which we both enjoy.

Rafiki's Visit

My third 'unschooled' son was delighted to bring a friend home from his day at school last week. This was Rafiki - the little, cuddly class rhinoceros, who visits a different child each week and records his adventures in an accompanying scrapbook. Perfect inspiration for learning a little about East Africa - where my husband was born - and its wildlife. We read a lovely Barefoot book entitled "We all went on safari".

Through it, we learnt a little about Tanzania, its people and language. We also found out about rhinos. My son then made a lovely rhino out of clay and, later in the week, when we were having a go at batik, he chose to make a rhino design.

Lava Lamp

Aquila magazine arrives monthly in our house, and is an education in itself, full of interesting and informative ideas, articles, challenges, puzzles and competitions. From the most recent issue, my eldest two boys and I added to our understanding of earthquakes, volcanoes and pressure. As we read and talk, they remember feeling earthquakes when we lived in Turkey, and drilling for such an event in school there. As we look at the maps of the earth's faultlines and continental plates, we see why Turkey is so susceptible.

As a practical activity, we make a lava lamp, a practical suggestion from the same magazine. All three boys are fascinated by this make, which continues to stand on our kitchen windowsill with a supply of alka-seltzer tablets at the ready.

Simply half fill a bottle with water, and add a few drops of food colour. Then top up the container with oil. Break alka-seltzer (or other similar fizzing) tablets into small pieces and drop in a piece at a time. Enjoy the results!

Friday, 21 September 2012


One of the advantages of doing a day in school every week or two is access to free extra-curricular activities from which home schooled children are usually excluded. My two eldest boys are doing two days of Bikeability this week. With my third son at his grandparents, it is just the baby and I at home. How quiet it is!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Raising Successful Children

Raising Successful Children

One of the most common misconceptions about home education is fuelled by the name "HOME education". I think people imagine me keeping my children at home all the time, some perhaps believing that I am sheltering them from contact with "the real world" beyond the front door.
I would like to change the name "home education" to "world education" or "community education" or just "education beyond the classroom". I would like to turn this misconception around, because one of the reasons I choose not to send my children to school is to give them a bigger vision of the world than the classroom allows. One could ask whether the classroom might be the sheltered place which hinders our children from maturing into responsible adults able to safely and confidently navigate "the real world"? Discuss.

Play is the highest form of research

The importance of Play and Learning in the daily lives of our children...

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning … They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.” ~ Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)

“It is becoming increasingly clear through research on the brain, as well as in other areas of study, that childhood needs play. Play acts as a forward feed mechanism into courageous, creative, rigorous thinking in adulthood.” ~ Tina Bruce (Professor, London Metropolitan University)

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” ~ Joseph Chilton Pearce (author)

"Play is the highest form of research." - Albert Einstein

Our Education System

"Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." (Albert Einstein)

A Judith Kerr Retrospective

From The Tiger Who Came to Tea to Mog and Pink Rabbit: A Judith Kerr Retrospective at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Musical Tendencies

Yesterday, the boys and I went to a different group I have discovered for home educators locally. It was well attended, with plenty of boys, which was a plus, and it was also well organised. The children had the opportunity to join in with a french session, a music session, a story time, and with parachute games outside. There was also a round robin of science activities laid out on tables in the hall - all on a 'sound' theme. These engaged my 6 year old particularly, and my 9 year old enjoyed the music sessions and liked the way the morning was organised. My eldest was less enthused. It is so hard to find something to suit everyone.

Apart from the music session, which was adult led, one small room was set aside for musical exploration, with a whole range of interesting and unusual percussion instruments laid out for the children to play with. My second son was in his element, and when I went in to see what he was up to, he was playing with a set of bells, which he carefully arranged according to pitch and started to compose tunes with. He was so absorbed by this activity, I was thrilled to watch him, and it made me think about how different children are and how they can display giftedness in a particular area. He also enjoyed tapping out rhythms on a small Indian style 'dohl' drum, and has since expressed an interest in acquiring one similar to practise with.

It has left me wondering how we encourage and develop his musical talent ...

Saturday, 8 September 2012


This week, with the start of the new school year, I finally managed to make contact with the Head Teacher of the school I mentioned in my previous post "The Rise of Flexi Schooling". This tiny village school has opened its doors to home schooled children and flexi schoolers in a bid to boost student numbers. I found the school surprisingly welcoming, open and flexible. After a tour of the 3 classes and lovely outdoor spaces, the Head said the boys could attend as little as 1 day in 10 to be considered flexi schoolers and would, in addition, be able to join in extra curricular and enrichment activities which are normally not accessible to home educators.

In order to accommodate home educated children, and to make it workable for families and for the teachers, the school has set one day of the school week as a topic day. This day stands apart from the rest of the week's activities and curriculum and will be organised as a round robin of cross-curricular tasks based on a half-termly topic in each classroom.

Our visit to the school was so brief and positive that I was rather swept along with it and found myself agreeing to give two days a week a go without having much chance to think about it. At home, with reflection, I felt that would be too much and would impinge on what we are doing at home and our desire to instil an independent work ethos with the boys. One day a week, though, or one day in each fortnight, might be a good thing providing opportunity for the boys to work with others, as well as a break for me. Since our new baby is proving to be quite a handful, this would be welcome.

So, without much time or opportunity to think and worry about it, we found ourselves pulling up to school one day last week ready to go. Our third son had never been to school before. 2 out of the 3 boys were quite excited. They were whisked into their classrooms and I was soon settled in the staff room with the baby and a cup of tea. I confess I was feeling really anxious about the whole thing, but everyone was very friendly and the boys seemed to settle in alright and get on with it, so after break I left them to it, kicking a football around in the playground.

I was so disappointed when I picked them up and all 3 told me it was really bad. I felt like someone had popped the balloon of hope I had inflated in my mind at the possibility. However, as we talked it over, they revealed that it wasn't so bad at all and might indeed be worth a try. Unschooled son said he liked the children and the teacher and had made a friend. He didn't like the lunch and he was disappointed that they didn't do more fun stuff! It was encouraging to hear that all 3 boys had found the level of work manageable and I had positive comments from their teachers about their work.

My eldest son could see the advantages, but "School is school, Mum," he said. Given the choice between a day a week there, though, and a home education group which this term is lacking any similar aged boys, he would choose the school. My second son, who is the most sensitive and likely to get anxious, was the least keen but, even he, on reflection, is willing to give it a go.

In the days since, it has been nice to see links made between what had been done at school and what we are doing at home. For example, we have been reading Roald Dahl in preparation for Roald Dahl Day next week, and the school is doing the same. So my third son and I have enjoyed reading "The Enormous Crocodile", "Esio Trot" and "The Twits" along that theme. My eldest son has been preparing a Chinese activity for his class at the teacher's suggestion, as the children are learning some mandarin - one of their teachers being taught by the same lady as teaches our boys! So that is a nice link and makes my eldest son feel he has something to contribute, which he always likes.

It is early days, and we have some weeks to trial it before anything is formalised, but I like the idea of school being one resource to utilise amongst others, of maintaining our autonomy whilst being able to access opportunities offered through school and of being part of a learning community. If it works, it is a glimpse of my idealistic vision of school as an open community learning hub. Can we build a bridge between the ideal and the reality? Well, let's see ....

11 Plus

My eldest son is 10 and would just have started in Year 6 if he was in school. A few months ago, he decided he would have a go at the 11+ exam which is still on offer in our area to children seeking grammar school entrance. We put his name down and the day of the exam finally rolled around.
I couldn't believe the length of the queue when we arrived at the school for the exam - Hundreds of boys with their nervous looking parents. Our son said he was doing the exam "just for fun" and the challenge and experience in itself will have done him good.
It is hard not to be impressed by the grammar school with its sports grounds and science labs sparkling invitingly in the morning sunshine. I look around at the anxious mothers and fathers who are placing so much hope in their son's performance, and I wonder how our little guy will get on.
I have known since he arrived in the world - just as I do with our new baby - that this boy is bright. For 10 years, I have watched him play and learn and grow, and I do not need an 11+ or an SAT result to tell me that he is clever. He loves maths and seems to 'see' numbers in a way I have never been able to. Reading and writing have come later,and he is still far stronger orally than he is able to get across on paper. But his vocabulary is broad and intelligent. How will he get on?
During our brief visit to the school some months ago we were told not to coach for the test, and as I am vehemently opposed to the 'teaching to test' which SATs tests have pushed schools towards, I was happy to follow the advice, trusting that the test will draw out the brightest children. I guess, on the day, you either perform or you don't, but I am mighty glad all my hope is not invested in the result.
As the day drew nearer, I began to doubt, and wondered whether we should have pushed harder, started preparing earlier ...? He ran through a few practice papers this week, and my husband attempted to fill in a few gaps in his mathematical knowledge which he has yet to cover in Kumon. How were we to know if it was enough?
What our son has, and I believe home education has helped him with, is a great ability to problem solve ... to look at a question and to apply all his knowledge in trying to solve it. He doesn't look for a method or try to remember a formula, but he puts his mind to finding the answer. Perhaps this will bode in his favour?
He ran in through the gate with an enthusiasm and a willingness I was proud of and, as we had advised him, he gave it his best shot. As I waited outside with the crowd of hopeful Mums and Dads, I found myself wondering what we would do if he passed? I am not 100% sure I would want him to go to school - even this impressive looking grammar school. But I found I was not 100% sure that I wouldn't want him to go either. After all, there are opportunities there for a bright young man, different opportunities to those we can offer at home. I guess we will cross that bridge if we come to it. For now it is enough that he set himself the challenge and had a go!

Friday, 24 August 2012


My third son (6) has been interested in the Ancient Egyptians for some time. He was having nightmares about 'mummies' sparked by a children's TV show which, despite his elder brother's best efforts to explain exactly what mummies are, continued to recur. So I was surprised when , recently, he got out an Usborne book about this ancient culture and expressed an interest in learning more about it.

When visiting the art gallery and museum in our nearest city, we noticed an exhibition on the Pharaohs which sons no 1 and no 3 wanted to look at. We had a good look round and they completed a museum trail. The best exhibits were huge stone tablets with clear hieroglyphic writing preserved upon them. Son no 3 enjoyed writing his name in hieroglyphics and, when we got home, he made a small tablet out of clay into which we carved his code name. He was also inspired to make a small clay Pharaoh figure.

I often look for Barefoot books on different cultures and countries, and pulled out a lovely one we have on Egypt, "We're Sailing Down the Nile." These books often have information at the back of the book about the country or culture they are exploring.

We discussed a visit we made to Egypt when son no 1 was small, including a trip sailing down the Nile on a felucca, also recent political developments in Egypt and the revolution which overthrew President Mubarak.

We then decided to make a big map of Egypt, which is a great way to learn something of the geography of a region. Son no 3 will label it, draw features and stick on relevant pictures to do with the country's history, geography, culture, animals, produce and religion. He is also making a plaster bandage mask of Tutankhamun's death mask such as his brothers made when they looked at the Ancient Egyptians a while ago.

In a home educating coincidence, this summer's holiday club at our church, which the boys have enjoyed attending this week, was themed 'Pyramid Rock' and looked at the story of Joseph with lots of Egyptian themed activities, which fit in really well with our topic work!

Heads Demand Urgent Inquiry into GCSE Results

Heads demand urgent inquiry into GCSE results

The Rise of Flexi-Schooling

There seems to be increasing interest in the concept of flexi-schooling, an arrangement between parents and school whereby a child's educational provision is shared. A flexi-schooler would spend some days at school, some days learning at home - or off the school site under parental responsibility.

When I first heard about flexi-schooling, I thought, "Great! Best of both worlds." But as I thought more about it, I realised it would be difficult for all parties involved - the school, parent and child - because of the lack of continuity and, from the family's perspective, not belonging fully in either camp with the flexibility of the home schoolers, or the community provided by a school. It must be difficult for schools and teachers to embrace this and to make it work without real vision and dedication, when I know they are so pressed to hit targets and to manage the large numbers of pupils in their classes.

However, there is something refreshing about the idea of a school becoming a learning centre, with an open door to parents and members of the community with valuable skills and interests to share with our children. I like that idea. And that is why I am excited to have discovered that small, rural schools seem to be catching this vision in a bid to survive. In such small schools, where low student numbers mean they are fighting for their very existence, some bold headteachers have realised that throwing their doors open as resource centres for home educators could be a way forward. The schools benefit from extra children on their books - and the funding that entails. For home educating families and their children, the benefits could be huge. I am wondering whether one such school in our locality might provide opportunity for shared project work, for art workshops, for sports opportunities, for access to the school library, to music lessons, to extra-curricular clubs and activities. I intend to meet and talk to the Head of this school and to see where the discussion leads.

Monday, 30 July 2012


If you search the web, there are many examples of lapbooks being created by home school families to present project work. Click here for some examples. I decided to have a go ourselves, thinking it would be a good way to encourage my reluctant writers to produce some well-presented work to showcase. I have invested in some notice boards at home with the same purpose, and given one to each boy to display his work on.
Our first lapbook was the culmination of our project on bees. We used an Amazon delivery packet with fold out flaps for our lapbook - painting it with black and yellow stripes. Each of my three sons decided what he would produce to include. They all copied out a poem - the youngest writing his own. The eldest did some work on pollination and the parts of flowers, and also organised the photos from the project and wrote about what we had seen. My middle son wanted to make a bee hive which opened up. He was inspired by a piece of bubble wrap to use that for the cells inside the hive. He also wrote about what happens in there. The youngest has enjoyed several books about bees, and included a cyclical diagram of the process of egg changing into bee. Here are some pictures of our first attempt. We have plans for a second one on the Olympic Games!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Summer Reading Challenge

It's time for the summer reading challenge - running in a library near you!
I took my boys into the library to sign up for the annual challenge. The eldest (now 10) didn't want to do it this year. "I read anyway, Mum," he said, which is now true. However, my third son (aged 6) was really keen.

I always encourage the boys to push themselves. "This is supposed to be a reading challenge," I say. "So push yourself to read harder books than you did last year." And they do.

Last year, our third son chose picture books and was reading them with considerable help. This is the year he has become a reader, and he was excited to pick out his own books from the beginner readers section, discovering stories he is familiar with in simplified form. He chose Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and two Just So Stories, one of which he began to read right away as he waited for his brother. We left the library, him with his nose in his book and he carried on reading when we got home.

Whenever it happens - at 3 years old or at 10 - it is a wonderful thing to see a child realise the reading code they have managed to crack means they can read story books for themselves.

Son number 3 kept reading until he had finished six books, and 2 days later, he went back to the library to collect his final stickers and medal. He was so proud, and he was the first local completer. That is an advantage of being a home schooler!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Languages from 7

I smile to see Government proposals to introduce Greek, Latin, Mandarin to primary pupils. I wonder how they will train the teachers or, with cut budgets, bring in the specialists to be able to deliver on this idea?

I am convinced that foreign languages are important in the global marketplace, and the younger we start, the better. In my opinion, age 7 is too late. The ideal window, that when a very young child is acquiring their first language and is so open to new sounds, has already closed.

We moved to Turkey when our eldest son was 3 and a half, and his brother 2. Our 2 year old learned far more easily and, having attended a Turkish nursery, spoke Turkish just like a little Turkish child. Our eldest son learned too but, even at that young age, it was not so easy. Of course, they do not speak Turkish now because they don't have need to. But I am convinced those language learning pathways, which were opened when they were small, help them now to learn Chinese and will help them in the future to learn other languages.

GCSEs face axe

Return of O-Levels as GCSEs face axe

Do we agree with Michael Gove's proposals to scrap GCSEs in favour of a return to an O-Level style system, or do we see this as a return to a 2-tier elitist system?

I think Mr Gove is right: our exam system desperately needs reform. We need fewer exam boards to maintain standards which employers can rely upon. Do his critics really think that the system we currently have is not a 2-tier system? Do we think a GCSE G is as valuable as a GCSE C? Are young people in bottom sets today not as undervalued as those pushed down the CSE route in the O-Level era? It is nonsense to think that by making everyone the same we somehow promote equality. We need to do more than that. We need to truly value routes which are non-academic. Not by talking about them as second class and devaluing them as such, but by accepting that there are different routes to success, and that all have a valuable role to play in our society, whether as doctors or bricklayers, chefs or entrepreneurs, teachers, scientists or electricians. People are not the same, our gifts, skills, strengths are different. What we need is a system which enables our young people to have an education suited to their needs. That will require different qualifications, different routes. Our current exams do not allow that. They fail the majority - by clipping the wings of the brightest and demoralising the less academic by pushing them down an unsuitable route which sets them up to fail.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Topic Development

Often in home education I find things seem to come together in a way which is not planned, but works out really well! One such instance happened today when we visited some Reflection Gardens, a lovely thoughtful project symbolic of the Christian spiritual journey. As we walked through the first garden, "The Loving Creator", our guide pointed out a sculpture which used hexagons. He pointed out that hexagons are the shape of a 'benzene ring' of carbon atoms, part of the molecule of many organic substances and a building block of creation. My third son (6) remarked that bees also build their waxy cells for larvae and honey in hexagons. We had read this in a book yesterday as part of our ongoing 'bee project'. It occurred to me that a spin-off for our eldest son (10) might be a study of hexagons.
Later, whilst speaking to another of our hosts, I mentioned our recent interest in bees when she told us they also kept bees at the gardens. She went to find a piece of beeswax, which she gave to the boys - with hexagonal pattern. She then offered to show them how to assemble a bee hive, which she did, explaining how a beekeeper checks the hive. The highlight for the boys was being able to use a traditional smoker, which she lit for them.

We left our phone number with the promise that, when (if) they get the opportunity to spin some honey from their hives this summer, they will call us to go and watch.