Tuesday, 17 September 2013

First Class Activities

Our toddler is proving a real handful and is also not a great sleeper. The result is that I am tired and there are days when I feel I am not providing the quality home education I want the boys to have. The dynamics have changed at home with our eldest at school. He has always been a dominant personality, so it is very quiet. He is also often the leader and instigates games. So now the other two need to step up and fill the gap he has left. I think it is important to give them the time to adjust and to do that. They miss him. We were involved in a couple of first class workshops last week, which encouraged me, and also made me sad that Son No 1 was in school and missing them. The first one was run by my husband for our home education group in a local village hall. It involved looking at platonic solids and then playing with creating these shapes using wine gums and cocktail sticks. It was brilliant to see parents as well as kids getting involved and enjoying mathematics.

We then attempted to build a giant geodesic dome out of rolls of newspaper and masking tape. Although we ran out of time, a lot of fun was had in the attempt - and some great teamwork was demonstrated!

The following day, we had another great day organised by The Stoke Museums. In the morning, the children had a science workshop "FEEL THE HEAT" with plenty of hands-on activities, the highlight of which was burning magnesium (always dramatic!), as well as measuring temperature changes in miniature replica bottle kilns.

After lunch, it was time for some creative artwork inspired by the art deco style of Clarice Cliff. I love the way that a group of people, given the same stimuli, produce such individual and unique responses.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Bella Magazine

A while ago, I was asked if I would write a piece for Bella Magazine about home education and our reasons for choosing this alternative lifestyle. As I am keen advocate for home education, I agreed. I think it is important that parents know there are options about the way children are educated. School is one of those options, but parents do have a choice. Whilst school may suit some, there will be others who struggle in the system, and some for whom school is difficult, even damaging.

Below is the piece I wrote for Bella magazine. Perhaps inevitably, it was edited following a number of telephone conversations between myself and the writers at Bella. Upon seeing the article, my second son looked at the picture at the top, which shows a boy sitting at a school desk with his books and equipment and said incredulously, "We don't learn like that!" Maybe the image was intended as an image of school to contrast with the article's title, "We Unschool our Kids!" I found the strap line quote, which was supposed to have come from me, a bit misleading also ... "I teach all 4 of my boys!" ... because what I do isn't what most people would call 'teaching' at all. Rather I facilitate, guide and try to strew their paths with interesting experiences. It is difficult for anyone who is new to the concept of home ed to think outside the institutional box inside which most of us have been raised, and begin to grasp that things can be done very differently, that home education doesn't necessarily look like school at all, that home educating parents do not 'teach' in the way that people might imagine. This is why I don't like the label "home-schooling".

(I also wanted to point out here that I did not comment on the role of the state and the local authority, apart from to briefly describe my own experience which followed the deregistration of my boys from school, and has thankfully been fairly positive. Any reference to the law and the obligations of the local authorities were added by Bella Magazine's own researchers.)

Original Piece for Bella Magazine

We lived abroad for some years and decisions about our boys’ education were difficult. I used to imagine how easy it would be back in the UK with a primary school – like the one I attended as a child - conveniently nearby. When we did return, we put our elder boys into school without question but, after four terms, we were disappointed. The curriculum was so narrow – mainly English and Maths. I was concerned about the testing regime, and the pressure upon schools to perform. This seemed to me the wrong emphasis. When our eldest son began to lose his confidence and love of learning, we decided to take drastic action. We didn’t feel a change of school would address the problems we saw in the system so began looking for alternatives. We had seen others home educating overseas, but didn’t realise it was possible in this country. However, after reading a lot and considering whether we could make the commitment, we deregistered the boys from school in January 2010 by writing a letter to the Head Teacher communicating our intention, and began our journey into autonomous learning. For us this means taking the children out of the box, making the whole world our classroom, utilising resources available in our locality as well as online, involving other members of our community. It has been a liberating decision, though not without its challenges. Home educators do not need to work to a curriculum, though we need to ensure a suitable education is provided for our children. This requires some reflection. For us it is important that education is broad and balanced, that each child has a chance to discover where their gifts and talents lie. We have one son who loves engineering projects, another who is a talented musician and a third who loves best to tell stories. We have an annual visit from our local authority and the boys love talking about all they have been doing with an interested visitor. They play with neighbourhood friends after school, and attend clubs and activities to mix with other children. We are part of a local home education group where children of all ages meet together to share activities and participate in educational trips and workshops. The freedom to go on visits – off-peak and when the weather is fine - is one of the top things about home educating. There are so many opportunities out there and many resources available online. Our best learning happens spontaneously, springing from our daily lives and the things we encounter together. For example, we saw a swarm of bees in a tree and went on to learn a lot about these fascinating creatures, including talking to beekeepers and helping spin some honey. The boys learn a lot through conversation with the adults around them. I am amazed at where their interest takes them, how much they retain and the way they piece their knowledge together. They do not see divisions between subjects and my third son, who hasn’t been to school, doesn’t distinguish between ‘work’ and ‘play’. I read to the boys a lot and give them time to imagine and play creatively. It is a different way of living and has led to us thinking differently too, about working more flexibly and being more family centred. We try to enjoy our life together and allow our work and learning to flow from that. We have been working at establishing home based businesses, and the boys are a part of that too. Our eldest son had his own little business making and selling soap. We share our challenges and the ups and downs of life. I think their relationships with each other are stronger because they have to sort things out and get along with each other. It is challenging to have responsibility for their learning, but just as a baby learns to toddle and talk, so children continue learning as they walk beside us and acquire the skills they need to live in the world. The boys love technology and all enjoy working on the computer. They also get to spend a lot of time outdoors, and do woodwork with their Grandpa. My parents were concerned initially, but have become great advocates for home education as we’ve gone along. People do misunderstand what we are doing. I think this is because they don’t know much about it. School is the norm and it is difficult to think of a radically different way of doing things. Our goal is that the boys are happy in their own skins, know themselves, their own talents and learning styles and grow to be independent, lifelong learners. I think then they’ll be adaptable, able to tackle anything and acquire the skills they need as they go through life.
“At home, we can arrange what we do ourselves and we get more free time. I like it because it’s not crowded and I don’t like crowds.” (N, aged 7)
“You can learn to your own learning style instead of that the teacher sets for you, and you’re not restricted to the classroom, you’ve got the whole world!” (E, aged 11)
“You do more of the stuff you want to do and you get to go on more trips.” (J, aged 10)
Organic Ed once trained as a teacher and is now a home educating mother of 4 boys and a Barefoot Books Ambassador who blogs at
Do your research. There are lots of books, blogs and websites to help you.
Take time to ‘deschool’ and discover the right way for you and your child to learn together.
Relax, enjoy your child’s company and see where their interests take you.
Make the most of local resources: libraries, museums, clubs and groups.
Don’t think you have to know everything. You are your child’s facilitator and you can learn together.


The edited article appears in this week's Bella magazine (17/09/2013)

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

If a child is bored at school, blame the system!

Love this article in today's Telegraph ... "If a child is bored at school, blame the system" The writer's experience is similar to our own, particularly his description of the worrying change in his daughter ... "But seeing our fizz-ball of a daughter literally fizzle out within just a few weeks of changing class was too appalling for us to see. We felt compelled to do something. We tried looking for another school – both in the private and state sectors. To our astonishment, none offered us much comfort. They talked about wonderful food, superlative facilities, excellence in health and safety, anti-bullying and, of course, their great results, but none ever volunteered a zero-tolerance policy on boredom."

Timely, since I have spent the whole evening listening to my eldest son telling me how bored he is at school - and he's only been there a week! I thought it might take a little longer for the novelty to wear off! Early days, perhaps?

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Spontaneous Learning

People often look a bit baffled when I try to explain how a lot of learning happens spontaneously, springing from what we are doing in the moment by living our lives. I don't really plan a great deal. Usually, spontaneous learning is the best and it is when I am trying to follow my own plans - and the boys are not particularly engaged - that things don't go so well. The other day, we experienced a great example of spontaneous learning, and I thought I would share it here to give you an idea of how it can happen. It was a sunny morning and I looked out of the window and noticed that the vegetable patch was a little over-run and in need of harvesting and tidying up. Also some of the flowers had finished blooming and needed cutting back. My second son was at home and he is the one most interested in gardening. (His elder brother is now at school, and our third son was with his grandparents.) So I gave him a shout and he came out a few minutes later to give me a hand. Seeing what I was doing, he soon joined in. Our toddler was roaming about as we worked. He found his courgettes had done really well and there were several ripe for the picking.

Some of his crops were a bit disappointing so we cut those back and also picked some spinach and beans. He sorted and washed the spinach and then we thought about what we could do with the courgettes.

We pulled out the cookery books and decided to have a go at making a courgette cake. The recipe included a filling of lime curd, which we also needed to make. My son made the shopping list and we went to the local supermarket to buy all our ingredients. He then followed the recipe to make the cake, curd and icing, reading, measuring, weighing, estimating and counting. Baby brother went for a good nap, so we had some good one-on-one time. He was especially proud of the lime curd, and expressed a desire to try making custard another day. The cake proved an interesting experiment, actually better a day or two later.

We then decided to make a courgette carbonara dish for dinner, which was very tasty.

I always smile to myself when I hear about cooking lessons in school, the theory that has to be done before any practical cookery can take place and all the concerns about tools and health and safety. In the real world, meals need to be prepared and our children can be involved with that. Not only are organisational, reading, writing and mathematical skills involved, but they have the satisfaction of preparing delicious food for their family to enjoy - and the confidence and life skills of knowing they can do that!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Morning News

So I sat briefly in front of the breakfast news yesterday morning. There were several stories about educational issues, and they all got me thinking.

1) Teenagers who fail to achieve at least a C grade in English and Maths GCSE will have to continue studying the subjects up to the age of 18. (Read about it here.) I can see how this might look like a good idea - after all, everybody needs sound basic literacy and numerical skills, right? Well, firstly I question how it is that, having spent 12 years in full-time schooling, such a significant number of our young people are still not achieving the skills perceived as the basic leaving requirements. When we celebrate school successes, as our local newspaper has done this week, record-breaking results, 70-80% of pupils gaining 5 A-C grades at GCSE, the appalling figure hidden therein, that 20-30% of pupils do NOT achieve these basic results, is ignored. Behind the glowing smiles of the system's successes, do we care about those the system fails? If the system has failed them after 12 years, why prolong the misery? If they have failed to achieve the desirable C grade in GCSE, why keep them continually in the environment which tells them they are failures? Skills minister, Matthew Hancock, said on the programme that when you study something, you usually take an exam in it. What nonsense! We can learn and study many things for our own enjoyment and understanding without everything having to be about an exam. Maybe that is part of the very problem, always making the exam, the test, the measuring, the objective. It seems to me that, with a little imagination and creativity, we could surely come up with a better way to help these young adults move on into work and a more edifying future, a means which would nurture and celebrate the gifts and skills at which they excel. My husband taught pupils in bottom maths sets in our high schools who had their own entrepreneurial businesses and were designing apps and websites professionally whilst still at school. These youngsters are not without skills and, rather than perpetuating their failure, we should look harder at how the system has failed them and change it!

2) There was an interview with Kate Watson (here) who was bullied at school and through social media to the point that she attempted to take her own life. This is a topical subject at the moment, following the suicide of teenager Hannah Smith. The figures for young people affected by bullying are simply shocking. And I wonder why it is that so many people ask - when they hear about home education - about the children's socialisation, as though the social skills acquired at school are exemplary. On the contrary, I think the 'survival skills' children have to acquire through schooling are clearly a cause for concern. The messages which those bullied like Kate receive are such lies ... "You are worth nothing. No-one cares. You might as well kill yourself" ... Evil lies which devalue personhood. Kate said, "I can't stay off school any longer. People are getting annoyed with me at home. I can't go into school because they'll get me." Attempted suicide seemed to her the only option. Did she know, did her parents know, that she didn't have to go to school? That there are alternatives? Clearly not.

3) There was another feature in the news about parents being fined for taking their children out of school for holidays during term-time. The more children you have, the higher your fines will be! But it might still be worth it to benefit from the cheaper holiday prices out of peak season. What do you think? I think this is an infringement of parental civil liberties and I resent it. I do not think it is any of the governement's business to dictate when I can take my family on holiday. A friend of mine was discouraged by her son's school from taking him out just before the summer holidays to visit family abroad. She was livid when most of his time in school in those final days was spent watching DVDs. But heaven forbid our children should "miss education"! What about the value of travel, the learning to be gleaned in the great outdoors, the value of family relationships nurtured during time away together? No, none of this matters so much as the numeracy and literacy hour ... or watching Shrek with their class!

The Clean Bin Project

Last week, my brother had a visit from an old childhood friend, Grant Baldwin, who - with his partner, Jen Rustemeyer - undertook the challenge of living waste free for a year in Canada and made a movie about it. It's called The Clean Bin Project. You can learn more about the movie here and read more about the whole undertaking on their blog, here. A while ago - on a short break in an eco cabin - our family read a book from which we learned a lot about the island of plastic polluting our oceans. We were really challenged and began to think about steps we might take to reduce our waste. The one thing we decided we should do was to SAY NO to plastic bags. I know that people are getting better at doing this, that more of us are taking reusable bags into the supermarket, for example. In Wales last week, I noticed that they charge a small amount for each carrier bag a customer uses in Tesco. I expect like other people, we have managed to significantly reduce the rubbish going into our black bin for landfill, and we sort out our waste for recycling - including food scraps for composting - for kerbside collection by our local council. However, our good intentions did not really result in enough action. The boys were planning to campaign locally to ban the plastic bag, but they didn't pursue the idea, perhaps didn't own it enough to follow up on the idea. But seeds were definitely planted in our minds, and we were eager to watch Grant and Jen's documentary, a copy of which they kindly left for our family to view. I found it inspiring, challenging and motivating. Don't you often wonder why we all have so much stuff, and seem to be constantly acquiring more? Don't you wonder why everything has to be wrapped in plastic, why the simplest products have so much packaging and create so much waste? Have you ever really thought about what happens to our plastic rubbish? The film is really worth watching. It is so easy to think we can't really do much about these things, that we don't have much power as individuals to change anything. But Grant and Jen show that 1) it is possible to do things differently, to change our habits - perhaps just one small step at a time, and 2) that consumers do have power to make a difference, because if we all start to ask - and to demand - change, then the retailers and the powers-that-be will have to respond. "I don't need a bag" ... Five little words I intend to say more. That's my small first step - and I hope others will follow.