Friday, 16 December 2016

Some thoughts on re-integration ... one term in

Today my eldest son will finish his first term at our local engineering academy. He decided to go in to Year 10 in September to gain qualifications, having been educated 'otherwise' for 7 years. He missed 7 years of being in school, which you might expect to be detrimental to his education. So, it is interesting to observe ...

1) That he is so self-motivated that he has insisted we buy text books for him so that he can study at home and go in prepared for each lesson;
2) That he arrives in class having pre-read that lesson's material and ready to ask questions;
3)That he is the only Year 10 student to be on the F1 enrichment team, and has been put in charge of design;
4) That he has been elected head boy;
5) That despite not having been very keen on reading or writing throughout his years at home, he finds he is actually not too bad at English (towards the top of his class) and that, as he studies the terminology needed to do well in the exam, his scores are rising rapidly;
6) That he is leading his class in the sciences and is doing well in maths, too;
7) That he finds he is able to draw better than his peers, useful for design, and is excelling at CAD;
8) That he is well able to handle some of the material at A-Level standard, and
9) That he has been given special privileges to use the engineering equipment because he has proven himself competent and responsible;
And 10) That his teachers are mildly baffled by the fact that he hasn't been in school and are not really sure what to do with him;

For all the prejudices against it, home education can produce young people who are intrinsically motivated learners, who know how to learn for themselves, who are articulate and able to communicate with adults and other students, who have leadership qualities and the skills they need to be successful in the world of work. I said to him, "Everyone must wonder what happened to you" and he replied, "It is not what happened to me. I am the natural one who was left alone to learn. What on earth has happened to everyone else?"

Another observation ... He has always loved audio books, and we have always enjoyed family read-alouds. He goes off in the morning with headphones on now listening to his assigned English text on audio. His English teacher told him audio isn't so good, he needs to read the book. But he questions this. And when it finally comes to his turn to read aloud in class, the teacher is surprised at his expression and ability to read, as though not having been to school - and not being an avid reader - he wouldn't be very good at this. My son observes that audio books are so useful for hearing how the story is supposed to sound. Stories are made to be told. He has listened to and heard the story read, so he is able to read it with expression and to understand it. Why is this approach considered to be inferior?

Emergent Writing

Until very recently, my four-year-old has not shown much interest in putting pen to paper. Other skills have taken priority for him ... Physical skills, and verbal skills. He hasn't really been interested in drawing, let along writing. But in recent weeks, I have noticed he is drawing more ... Figures are beginning to take shape on paper, and drawings have meaning and tell stories. He has begun to leave me 'notes' around the house consisting of patterns on paper, and 'maps' which direct me to 'treasure' ... Again, these consist of wiggly lines, zigzags and patterns. He has some interest in letter sounds - mostly in context, for example playing scrabble with his grandparents. They help him to form the words and then he remembers what they say on the board. His knowledge of letter sounds is pretty good now. He spots letters he knows, especially his initial and the initials of other members of the family.

If he were in school, he would be in reception now - and learning to write ... but at home, there is no rush. We can take our time and allow him to develop his skills in this area at his own pace trusting that, with support and encouragement, as he learns to make sense of the world, he will learn the skills he needs to read and write.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Fascinating Ice

These beautiful clear, crisp days have inspired in my younger boys a fascination with ice. We have loved looking at the patterns in the crystals, so evocative of plants. Try these YouTube vidoes to learn more and to instill a sense of awe and wonder ... Or use as an introduction to talking about fractals. Remember the science of pattern?


The Secret Life of Ice

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

TEDx Talk

I gave a TEDx talk on Unschooling at The University of Warwick. You can listen to it here:

Friday, 25 November 2016

The Science of Pattern

Doesn't that sound better than maths? The science of pattern? Sometimes maths is defined this way. I like it. Patterns are all around us, beautiful and fascinating. Yet for most of us mathematics is a dry subject we struggled with at school, mostly involving arithmetic and sums. Of all the subjects, it seems to be the one parents are most afraid of unschooling, feeling the need for the security of a curriculum for this subject, even if not for any other. Sometimes I think this is because we do not feel we have secure enough a knowledge of mathematics ourselves; we are afraid we will somehow miss out some vital stage in mathematical progress or development which will hinder or damage our children's progress. I want to encourage you to stress less about maths ...

My husband is a secondary mathematics teacher, and he has always said that the children he meets in secondary schooling often struggle with the abstract concepts because they have not had enough play in their primary years. Playing with numbers, shapes, measures and concepts allows children to explore these ideas in their minds and to build their own web of concrete knowledge and understanding on to which abstract concepts can later hang. One of the problems with a very fixed curriculum for maths is the idea that children have to acquire certain concepts at a certain age. In reality, children might come to an understanding of different concepts at varying times. And if they pick up that they ought to be able to do something they cannot yet, then they will become discouraged, even internalising the idea that they are no good at maths. Many of us will know that this perception can stick with a person into adulthood. It may very well be absolutely untrue ... Perhaps a child just isn't ready for a certain concept yet. Let's think about telling the time, and the many ideas which need to come together for a child to understand this .... a concept of the passing of time, the 5 times table, fractions ... one child might be able to put all these ideas together in Year 2, but another child might get there later. How much does this really matter? But building a fascination with mathematics, even a love for the subject, seems to me to be a far more important aim. I honestly believe this is better achieved through play in the primary years.

I have been observing my 4 year old's current fascination with numbers and mathematical concepts. This term, he has been interested in the ancient Egyptians, and from there came questions about pyramids and 2D and 3D shapes. His question was about 'flat' shapes and 'solid' shapes ... We played with Geomag and cocktail sticks and sweets. We looked at platonic solids on YouTube and he built several of those, observing why a square-bottomed pyramid was different.

He has been doing lots of counting, just at random moments, of course when playing hide and seek, but also in the car ... anywhere. Sometimes he now counts in 2s or in 10s. He has been playing with a tape measure, and we have measured things, including making a size chart of various sharks - another of his fascinations. And how big was he compared to all those creatures of the deep?

He has been looking at the clock - numbers, wherever he sees them in his real life - and reading around the clock, then in 2s. This week, he began to add his friends' ages together to add up to other friends, for example: Amelia (who is 3) and Leo (who is 5) make Micah (who is 8). It is clever, the way he is puzzling this out.

He plays with a calculator, and types in 10, then 2 10 ... I show him 20 ... It becomes a game: 3 10, 30 etc. He asks questions like "10 and 10 is ?" or "What's 4 10s, Mummy?" I answer. He puzzles. Sometimes I scribe what he is saying to show him how that looks written down. I remember my third son similarly puzzling out a whole page of self-written sums, so thrilled with the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 and we can write it like this.

Maths Seeds is also a real hit with my tech-loving son with 3 older brothers. He loves the idea that he has 'his work' to do on a tablet, and the immediacy of knowing whether his answers are correct, as well as the opportunity to work independently are both positives of the app. A friend of mine's little girl (age 6) is loving Carol Vorderman's Maths Factor and can't wait to get on with her work on the app every day. Technology provides a whole new way to play with maths.

Lego - and similar toys - are brilliant, too - for space, shape, form and symmetry.

My eldest son, now 15, is naturally good at maths. His brain seems to work that way, and with very little formal maths education prior to starting at a local engineering academy this term, he finds himself at the top of his class and predicted a good grade at GCSE. My husband tutored an unschooled girl of a similar age for a couple of terms once or twice a week. She had had no formal maths education, but worked independently through past papers, bringing to my husband questions about which she was unsure or concepts she was struggling with. She passed her GCSE Maths with a grade B. What our unschooled children are really good at is solving problems and figuring things out, which should stand them in good stead for the new GCSE, if GCSE is something you feel is necessary.

My second son (13) is not so naturally inclined towards maths, in fact, his own assertion that he was no good at maths, after just a year at school, was one of the reasons we decided to take our boys out. It is not actually true. He is very clever at some things which require mathematical thinking .... design and technology, for example. Perhaps all the time he has had to work on his music, at which he is very talented, has helped his mathematical thinking, too. Some people say the two are connected. At any rate, through much play and patience, he has acquired many mathematical concepts over the years, most importantly the belief that if he wants to know how to figure something out, then he can do it. The other day, he wanted to draw a pie chart and wasn't sure how to do that. So he went to YouTube, looked it up and watched a video, going on to produce the required pie-chart. He is just about to start working through a KS3 maths text book because we don't want him to be disadvantaged for GCSE ...(He just does a little bit perhaps every other day) ... and I am sure he will find he can apply himself to the problems presented and figure them out, because being an independent learner is really what it is all about. Real learning has to start with the learner.

My eldest son's teachers don't quite know what to do with him, and I have realised why. It is to do with learning style. The teachers are used to students coming in to the classroom and waiting to be directed as to what to do and how. My son goes in having pre-read the day's lesson, and next week's too, full of his own questions about it. Rather than waiting to be told what grade he should be expecting or working towards at GCSE, he goes to the teacher and asks whether he will be able to achieve the top grade in this class. Self-directed learners. Whatever the subject, keep it fun .... Inspire curiosity, consider the possibilities ... Let them exceed your limited understanding and expectations. And don't worry about it so much.

A wider classroom

My youngest son, aged 4, is loving reading Roald Dahl books with me at the moment. He started with The Twits, which he found highly entertaining, followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we had to read twice. As we were reading the book, we went to a visit a small, local chocolatier to learn more about how chocolate is made and, of course, to do some tasting.

With thanks to Caroline at Henley Chocolates, highly recommended over the now very commercial Cadbury World, which is also fairly local to us, but very expensive and not very hands-on ....

We moved on to James and the Giant Peach which just happened to be one of the films showing as part of this year's Into Film Festival, which gives school groups and home educators the opportunity to view films at their local cinema for free every November. I took my youngest son to see James, but he was highly critical of the film, which was not very faithful to the book.

He enjoyed making this collage after watching the film, though. Can you spot who is who?

One of my favourite things about home educating is being able to take trips and plan visits which tie in with what we are learning about and are currently interested in. This is what making the world our child's classroom is all about.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

More than a Score

“The chorus of unhappy voices is growing stronger by the day. If we want a truly world class, 21st century education for our children, it’s time the government listened properly both to professionals and to parents.”

Join the More than a Score campaign. More information here: More than a Score

This is not education - This is spoon-feeding

"This is not education - This is spoon-feeding."

We need to ditch SATs tests, do away with punitive accountability measures and start seeing children in the round, argues Madeleine Holt, Founder of Meet the Parents and Co-founder of Rescue Our Schools

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher

Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Home Schooling and one of my home ed heroes, suggested on Twitter that this essay, "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher" by John Taylor Gatto (another of my home ed heroes and New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991) is a good thing to read following the U.S. election.

In it, Mr Gatto says,"Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are.

The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong."

"The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch .... Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of."

"The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal."

"The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study .... Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity .... This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives."

"In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's measure of your worth .... children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth."

"In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched .... Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents .... The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate .... Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control."

"It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry for "basic skills" practice is a smokescreen behind which schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the six lessons I've just taught you .... "School" is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows to a control point as it ascends. "School" is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable .... Look again at the six lessons of school. This is training for permanent underclasses, people who are to be deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius .... Nobody survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational .... School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know."

For more, read the full essay. I also highly recommend John Taylor Gatto's book: Dumbing us Down.

Talk about Equality

The result of the recent US election has inspired a new topic of history study in our house, and that is the ongoing struggle for equality. We studied the Abolition of Slavery a few years ago, and now we will study the American Civil Rights movement, and also the women's suffrage movement, talking about continuing attitudes of discrimination towards women and people of different races. I wonder where we will go from there? I love the unknown direction of new topics as we begin exploring. There are so many inspiring figures from history we can look at. Be inspired, as I am, by this post I spotted on Facebook from Mighty Girl, which suggests lots of good resources to begin with ....

"Today in Mighty Girl history, six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the South. When the 1st grader arrived at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on this day in 1960 surrounded by a team of U.S. Marshals, she was met by a vicious mob shouting and throwing objects at her. This event was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in his famous painting, pictured here, "The Problem We All Live With."

One of the federal marshals, Charles Burks, who served on her escort team, recalls Bridges' courage in the face of such hatred: "For a little girl six years old going into a strange school with four strange deputy marshals, a place she had never been before, she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. We were all very proud of her."

Once Ruby entered the school, she discovered that it was devoid of children because they had all been removed by their parents due to her presence. The only teacher willing to have Ruby as a student was Barbara Henry, who had recently moved from Boston. Ruby was taught by herself for her first year at the school due to the white parents' refusal to have their children share a classroom with a black child.

Despite daily harassment, which required the federal marshals to continue escorting her to school for months; threats towards her family; and her father's job loss due to his family's role in school integration, Ruby persisted in attending school. The following year, when she returned for second grade, the mobs were gone and more African American students joined her at the school. The pioneering school integration effort was a success due to Ruby Bridges' inspiring courage, perseverance, and resilience.

If you'd like to share Ruby Bridges' inspiring story with the children in your life, there are several excellent books about her story including the picture book "The Story Of Ruby Bridges" for ages 4 to 8 (, the early chapter book "Ruby Bridges Goes to School" for ages 5 to 8 (, and the highly recommended memoir that Ruby Bridges wrote for young readers 6 to 12 entitled "Through My Eyes" (

There is also an uplifting film about her story called "Ruby Bridges" for viewers 7 and up ( -- you can also watch it instantly on Amazon at

For more books about courageous girls and women of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, check out our blog post on "30 Inspiring Books on Girls & Women of the Civil Rights Movement" at

To give young readers more insight into the school integration struggle, Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison, has written an outstanding book, that's filled with photos capturing the major desegregation events of the period, for ages 9 and up, at

For Civil Rights Movement-themed books for readers 4 to 8, we recommend "I Am Rosa Parks" ( and "Child of the Civil Rights Movement" (

For older readers, we recommend "Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High" for 12 and up ( and "The Lions of Little Rock" for ages 9 to 13 (

And, for more inspiring stories of trailblazing girls and women around the world, you can sign-up for A Mighty Girl's free weekly newsletter at

Maths Education and Number Sense

"To build number sense, students need the opportunity to approach numbers in different ways, to see and use numbers visually, and to play around with different strategies for combining them. Unfortunately, most elementary classrooms ask students to memorize times tables and other number facts, often under time pressure, which research shows can seed math anxiety. It can actually hinder the development of number sense."

Some interesting thoughts on maths education here: Why math education in the U.S. doesn't add up.

The video cited from Jo Boaler at Stanford University about Number Sense is particularly worth watching: What is Number Sense?

Our children are paying a high price for society's vision of success

"Achievement is healthy, but we don’t all have to hit the heights to feel good about ourselves. Society is made up of mostly low- or medium-achievers, and to make us feel ashamed of who we are is a great burden. Success should be redefined as achieving what you feel capable of, and what lies within the realm of possibility – not what society tells you that you must achieve in order to conform to a fantasy that, for most, only exists in glossy magazines and university prospectuses."

Thoughts from Tim Lott in last month's Guardian about the pernicious propogation of middle class expectations: Our children are paying a high price for society's vision of success.

Preparing our kids for jobs that don't exist yet

"Childhood passions that seem like fads, sometimes even totally unproductive, could be mediums for experiencing the virtuous cycle of curiosity: discovering, trying, failing and growing." Zach Klein, CEO of DIY Co. Read more here: Preparing our kids for jobs that don't exist yet.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Is the State sometimes wiser than parents?

Here are some cracking quotes from Sonia Sodha's piece in today's Guardian entitled, "Is the State sometimes wiser than parents?" The article moves seamlessly from childhood obesity to home schooling to vaccinations with an arrogance which shows little understanding of the many, many reasons why children might be obese, home educated or unvaccinated - and without the time, space or word count to do any of these subjects justice.

1) "Some may be getting an adequate education – we just don’t know. But it is clear that some parents are subjecting their children to ideological nonsense that they term “non-schooling” or “delight-based learning”, in which there is no curriculum, structured learning or testing; instead, children are encouraged to “learn through living”. This is an outrageous state of affairs. We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school, so why not here? Home-schooling should be banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances."

So, according to Sodha, I am "subjecting" my children to ideological nonsense. Of course, there is none of that in schools. In fact a disconnect from the natural world, the necessity to be inside so much and mostly sedentary, to eat cheap food in poorly funded school canteens might all actually contribute to the child obesity problem the article begins with. Whilst many children suffer bullying, anxiety, poor self-esteem and mental health issues, we do not question schooling, calling it "an outrageous state of affairs". Why not? No, I do not use a curriculum, but my children are exposed to many ideas and current affairs which may not find their way on to a school curriculum. Who is to determine which curriculum is best? And "We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school"? No, we argue children have the right to an education. Schooling is not necessarily the same thing, unfortunately. For an alternative view, I highly recommend Carol Black's "Schooling the World: The White Man's Last Burden."

2) "Of course, the idea of a state characterised by ideological, nosy do-gooders peering into every corner of family life is dreadful. But fear of that dystopia has made us too leery of overruling parents, where there is overwhelming scientific and educational evidence that they are acting against their child’s best interests."

The implication is that there is scientific and educational evidence that by home educating parents are acting against their child's best interests. I'm sorry - Where is this scientific and educational evidence which sounds so impressive? There is certainly more evidence from the States about the outcomes for home educated children than yet exist here, but the results are mixed, and it is certainly not correct to imply that there is overwhelming evidence than home educating parents are acting against their child's best interests. What about situations where the State education system has utterly failed to meet a child's needs, or where a child is so anxious they are unable to function at school? You could then argue a parent is absolutely acting in their child's best interests. What about if a child's primary means of learning is shut down by being in a crowded classroom? Who decides what the child's best interests might be? How do we know? Leaving your children in the chaotic system as it currently exists with its teacher retention crisis and obsession with measuring and testing has risks of its own, whether we want to consider them or not.

3) "Parents don’t have a moral right to ignore warnings that their child is obese, to keep their child home from school to play with Plasticine or deny their child a potentially lifesaving vaccine. As a society, we should back a more muscular state that tells them that."

To reduce home education to "playing with plasticine" shows such an ignorance and disrespect for the hard work home educators put into the many varied and interesting activities we provide for our children, as we lay the feast which stimulates their learning, often on limited incomes and at no cost to the State. It is this ignorance which is frightening and which prevents us from being able to think outside of the schooling box into which we have locked children's learning. It is interesting that Sodha includes in her article the same proverb I included towards the end of my forthcoming TEDx talk .... "The Igbo proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” contains a fundamental wisdom." However, her conclusion is that "Children are not mini-fiefdoms for individual parents to subject to their every whim, no matter how dearly they are loved" whereas mine is that the village, the community, exists outside of the school walls, so the involvement of the child in a network of wider inter-generational relationships outside of school is actually what we need to grow healthy human beings.

"We should back a more muscular State that tells them that?" Not if that State is ill-informed and spouting propaganda. I hope we will always back a State which respects diversity and freedom of thought. Or perhaps I have misunderstood the British values the State seems so keen to impart?

You can read the full article here:

Is the State Sometimes Wiser than Parents?

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Rise of the Home "Unschoolers"

“I want my children to become independent lifelong learners and to know that whatever they want to learn, they can learn it. Lay on a feast of interesting ideas and children will learn – that’s what they do.”

Rise of the Home 'Unschoolers' - Where children learn only what they want to

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

No Pens Day Wednesday

My husband and I had a chuckle because the school he is on supply in this week are doing "No Pens Day Wednesday" today - an initiative by The Communication Trust encouraging schools to focus on speaking and listening activities. When he mentioned it to me yesterday, I thought it was a weekly thing - No Pens Day Wednesday - but no. Apparently, for this school, it is an annual event. I find this amusing, because it is billed as being such a radical concept for schools. But seldom do our boys pick up pens in our home education journey - sometimes, but not often. It is certainly not their preferred method of learning. Thinking about it, seldom do I pick up a pen and write in modern life - do you? In fact, one of the strengths of home education - whatever form is takes - is its focus on quality conversation between children and adults. Interestingly, this article came up on my social media feed yesterday about signage being used in supermarkets in America to encourage conversation between parents and children.

Whilst I chuckle because it seems so obvious and contrived, and such a small step in the grand scheme of things, the intention behind both this idea - and No Pens Day Wednesday - is, of course, good .... "The supermarket study is one seed of a much bigger idea about creating opportunities for children to learn in the wider world; to leverage caregivers as teachers and, in the process, try to level out stubborn inequities." It is my belief that quality conversation, as John Holt says, is a key means of learning about the world. What do you think? Do you prioritise quality conversation in your family?

I suggested to my husband and the boys that perhaps we should have "Pens Day Wednesday" at home ... They looked at me as if I was crazy! So here are a few snapshots of our No Pens Day Wednesday .... I wonder what they did in schools today?

Making play dough characters ...

Experimenting with clay figures and cocktail stick bones whilst discussing the purpose of our skeletons. Do you know all the amazing functions of our bones?

Exploring platonic solids ( ...

Can you spot the odd one out? (Clue: One is not a platonic solid!)

Brothers baking brownies ...

Sunday, 2 October 2016

How to Raise an Environmentalist

When our older boys were small, we lived in Ankara for a few years. Our lifestyle became urban, and I began to worry that our children were missing out on the experience of being in the British countryside I so loved and missed. Even then, I had heard that, unless children are immersed in the natural world before the age of 12, it will never be a real part of their soul; it will be harder to get them to care about the environment. This is the message conveyed by the article below, with research to support the argument.

When we returned to Britain, I worked hard to get the boys - then aged 6, 5 and 2 - out into the countryside, and they didn't like it much at first. They would pick their way across fields complaining about the sheep poo. But this week, as I watched the middle two in particular - now aged 13 and 10 - walk the coastal paths of Pembrokeshire, enjoying the scenery and the wildlife, I know that my efforts were not in vain. They do love it. They feel it. They care about it. Children need to spend more time outdoors.

How to Raise an Environmentalist

What the Modern World has Forgotten about Children and Learning

"Like wind and weather, like ecosystems and microorganisms, like snow crystals and evolution, human learning remains untamed, unpredictable, a blossoming fractal movement so complex and so mysterious that none of us can measure or control it. But we are part of that fractal movement, and the ability to help our offspring learn and grow is in our DNA. We can begin rediscovering it now. Experiment. Observe. Listen. Explore the thousand other ways of learning that still exist all over the planet. Read the data and then set it aside. Watch your child’s eyes, what makes them go dull and dead, what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light. That is where learning lies." (Carol Black)

What the Modern World has Forgotten about Children and Learning

Friday, 16 September 2016

Councils Seek New Powers to Check on Home Schooled Children

In this article in today's Guardian, Colin Diamond, the Executive Director for Education in Birmingham is quoted as saying, “We feel that any EHE (Elective Home Education) learning situation potentially puts a child in a very vulnerable position. We recognise that parents elect to educate their children at home for a very wide range of reasons, and in many cases they do a great job. But because the child is isolated, they are not visible to their peer group and professionals don’t keep an eye on them, we would like more powers to be able to make sure every child who is EHE is safe, well and learning well.” As a home educating parent, I object to his reasoning that because a child is being electively home educated, they are isolated and invisible. This is exactly the sort of uninformed and ignorant thinking which fuels suspicion and misunderstanding about home education.

On hearing our son was returning to school this September, a colleague of my husband's remarked, "Well, he's got to enter the real world sometime." How is entering the confines of the school building equated with the real world? How is not being confined to the school building equated with isolation? Home education does not mean sitting in our house alone all day every day. It means making the whole world our child's classroom. Home educated children have all sorts of opportunities to interact with their peer group and with other adults and professionals all through the week ... for example, in our family, at swimming, scouts, home ed sports and social clubs, swimming, church, youth group, music lessons, every time we visit the doctor, dentist, hairdresser, optician, on the community allotment, visiting friends, grandparents, neighbours, local shops .....

On 5th January 2015, The Guardian reported HERE that: "The Westminster education committee inquired into home education in 2012. It found no child protection issue. The chair, Graham Stuart MP, recently wrote that “the conflation of home education with a child safeguarding risk amounts to a serious stigma against parents” and that he had never seen either “any credible evidence that home education is a risk factor … nor … evidence that home education effectively hid abuse from the authorities”.

You can read today's article, including Mr Diamond's comments here: Councils Seek New Powers to Check on Home-Schooled Children

New Beginnings

My eldest son has started school this week. He isn't four .... He is fourteen! And I was still wracked with anxiety on his first day, wondering how he would fare. He is the most 'schooled' of my four boys, having attended nursery as a preschooler, followed by a few years in early educational settings in Turkey, where formal schooling starts later. Returning to the UK at the age of 6, he went into Year 2 of our local primary school, having had minimal reading and writing tuition, but a rich experience of living in another culture and learning another language. With a super teacher, who appreciated his quirky personality, he thrived in his SATs year, and did well, which in itself is an interesting comment on the necessity of formal education before the age of 7.

At the start of Year 3, I became concerned that our lively, chatty and inquisitive son was becoming subdued and anxious, seeming uninterested in starting anything new. His head dropped, he stopped talking to people and seemed unable to look them in the eye. The school did not share my concerns, but a few things were said which shed some light on my son's frustrations .... He told me he didn't have time to write enough and so was having to miss his break. Either his writing wasn't neat enough - or there wasn't enough of it. He couldn't win. I didn't like the fact that lively boys are prevented from having their break times, running around in the fresh air, but instead must do enough writing. He was already beginning to hate writing. When I asked if he had to do cursive writing, I was told it counted for marks on the SATs test, but I knew he wouldn't be doing another SATs test until Year 6. The school's priorities did not sit well with me. I was also told he must learn to sit down and keep quiet. I understand that it can be difficult for teachers to deal with children individually in large classes, and that a constant stream of questions can be annoying when you have to manage a class of 30 - and meet the requirements of the curriculum. But I have also since learnt that my son's primary means of learning is talking, discussing and asking questions. He is very verbal. So, by telling his to sit down and be quiet, school was actually shutting down his primary means of learning. How can that be good?

Around that time, I began to research alternatives, and discovered that school is actually not compulsory in this country. I had never realised that. A child's education is the responsibility of parents. This is a responsibility which can be passed to the school, but it doesn't have to be. Alternatively, parents can take responsibility for educating their children themselves. "The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable — (a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b)to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." (The Education Act, 1996) This was a revelation to me, and the more I read, the more intrigued I became. After the Christmas holidays and just a term in Year 3 - following just 4 terms in a British primary school - my husband and I made the decision to de-register our sons from school and to take responsibility for their education ourselves. This is simply done by writing a letter to the school informing them of your intention.

Some years later, when he would have been in Year 6, he flexi-schooled for a term, attending a small village primary school a day a week - mostly so he could play football at break. But that all went wrong when he went on a school residential trip and fell foul of the fact that the rules and expectations of teachers were different from those at home with me - and at scouts. He was too independent, a loose cannon - and I had to go and fetch him home. It was difficult. I understood the concerns of staff who have responsibility for a large group of children, and health and safety requirements to follow. But I understood my son's upset, too, because he hadn't understood where the boundaries lay in very different contexts. I wished I had prepared him better, but hindsight is a great teacher.

Next, there was Year 7. He sat the 11+ (at his own request, and without preparation - I think primarily to challenge himself and to measure himself against his peers) and, to his surprise, he was offered a place at a local grammar school. Excited at the thought of an independent train ride to school every day as much as the desire to try secondary school - a new experience - he desperately wanted to give it a go. My husband reckoned he would last around 5 weeks and, sure enough, half a term in, he came to me and said, "I have made a terrible mistake. Please let me home educate again and I promise I will be the best home educated boy in the world." So, we took him out. He left with an exceptional reference from his Year Head, which said amongst many things that "he threw himself at every task given to him showing great independence and a desire to learn and develop".

He has not always been the easiest boy to home educate, mainly due to clashes in my personality and his - or perhaps because we are too similar and both want to be in control. But he has always been a motivated and independent learner, with plenty of his own ideas and projects on the go. We will miss his energy and direction. What he has experienced really is a very play-based education, with plenty of time and space to pursue his own interests and to discover his own passions. I say that because those passions are not interests that I share, nor things that I am good at. We have tried to facilitate his project work as best we can and to provide resources, visits, people who have stimulated those interests. In the last year, I have found it hard work having him at home. He has all the arrogance of any 14-year-old boy and responds to most of my attempts at directing him with an impatient, "Yes, Mum, I know".

A year ago, I asked the engineering academy if they would not consider taking him a year early. But that was a closed door. Looking back, I am glad he has had this extra year at home to move through the changes of adolescence in peace, including sleeping to his own schedule. Taller than me now, I decided early in the year that trying to get him to comply to my agenda was going to result in a year of continual conflict, so he has been allowed to follow his own ideas and interests - often with surprising results. The projects and ideas he comes up with are beyond my imagination and have stimulated his interest in ways I could not have manipulated. Often I am amazed at his ingenuity and creativity as much as I am dismayed at the junk cluttering his workspace and the mess in his wake. (I am a very tidy person, and this has been a real challenge!) However, my growing sense has been that it is time .... It is time for this young man to move on from the opportunities home education has afforded him, to have access to better resources and like-minded mentors. It is also necessary that he gain some qualifications, and we had long conversations about the best way to do that. There are a number of options for home educated youngsters. Together, we decided the local engineering academy was the best option for him at fourteen. And so, with a mixture of relief, anxiety and anticipation, we have watched him re-integrate into the system over the past week or so. And I have to admit, I have held my breath .... It is hard to go against the flow of conformity and to strike out on a different path, however much one believes in the path one is walking. It can be lonely, and the weight of responsibility is heavy. Home educating parents struggle with guilt and the fear that they perhaps are not doing the best thing for their children. The negative attitudes of the media and of others around us do not help with that. If you know any home educators, please encourage them! My guilt came from the fear that he wouldn't be able to readjust to the box from which I had removed him, that having offered him wings to fly, I was now requiring him to stay grounded. It turns out, I needn't have worried. As I sat in the parents' information evening last term, I did have a deep sense of peace that this was the right way forward for this young man and that the wings he has grown would not be clipped, but rather enabled to fly higher than he could with me. It is time ....

So, some observations from his first week in school .... Having pretty much refused to eat anything healthy in recent months, often opting out of family meals and tucking in to 'junk food' (to my dismay!), the new engineering academy student has thought through his own healthy breakfast and lunch requirements - "The canteen only sells really unhealthy stuff, Mum" - shopped with me for all the ingredients and got up in time to prepare a protein-enriched fruit smoothie and salad-filled sub-roll every morning. He is doing homework and organising himself to leave in good time under his own steam - "If I get a bus pass it will only make me lazy, Mum". He had gone in filled with enthusiasm, genuine interest and motivation to impress and to equip himself for a career he wants to pursue. And it has been interesting to hear his observations .... He is like an anthropologist studying a different culture, rather than a participant. He notices that many students do not want to be there, that they complain a lot. Some mess around and are disruptive. He notices other children struggle to draw, and to figure things out. "They wait for the teacher to show them how to do it," he says, "whereas I just figure it out." "Most of the kids look down, Mum," he observes, "so the teacher talks to me because I am looking up - and I ask questions." I ask if that is encouraged ... "Yes, it's not so much like a school, Mum. More like college or University." Good. I hoped as much. Long may his enthusiasm last. It is early days.

In his first week, he came home with the first University Technical College (UTC) Award of the year ... It was for a device he and a friend designed and made over the summer (to impress their teachers and make a good start) to enable people who have lost their hand to steer a car. He showed his engineering teacher his vlog of the build and - to his surprise - the vlog was shown to the whole of Year 10 in their 'assembly'. "Were you embarrassed?" I ask. (I would have been mortified!) "No!" he laughs, and I can tell he is chuffed. He is pictured with the Principal in the first school newsletter. This week he came home with a distinction for outstanding performance on a science test. "The teacher can't understand how I did so well since I haven't been to school!" Hmmmm, interesting that.

He is form rep, he is leading the class in merits, he has been given extra time to use the workshop and tools having chatted to the teachers and shown them his welding work. The vlog he made this past year (when I wondered what on earth he was doing with his time) has proven to be his project-work portfolio and has stood him in good stead.

I am not saying this because I want you to think my son is amazing. I am writing this to encourage you, if you are home educating, to trust the process, trust children - as John Holt so wisely says. And if you are not home educating, but are reading this out of interest in alternative ways of learning, then maybe it forces us to question just what we are doing in our schools .... because I am telling the story of just one child here, my eldest son .... but I feel a deep sadness for the children in class beside him who are looking down, who have lost faith in their own ability to figure things out. They are most of them boys. They did not start their school careers ten years ago looking down. That is a learned behaviour. And I do not believe that after 10 years of schooling, that is what our young men should have learned to do.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Instead of re-hashing failed educational policies of the past, why can't our ministers embrace a totally new vision for an educational system for the 21st century? Such a vision might include seeing schools as learning hubs where new technologies are used to encourage and support individualised learning, where adults engage with our young people as much needed mentors, rather than teachers, and where each individual child is free to follow a course of study best suited to their talents, interests and aptitude.

Grammar Schools: Life at the Coal Face

Monday, 27 June 2016

Unready at 4, Ready at 7

Though my eldest son had early years education in nursery schools both here and in Turkey, in common with many other countries, formal schooling does not begin there until age 6, and our son didn't really start formal schooling until he went into Year 2 in this country, aged almost 7. I am so grateful he was not pushed to read and write earlier, though he had the rich experience of living in another culture and learning another language, challenges of a different kind.

"Unready at 4, Ready at 7" is an interesting blog post from a parent who battled to defer her young son's school start. "When we filled in our little boy’s school form in December 2012, he showed no signs of wanting to read or write, but we assumed it would come. The nursery assured us he would be ready by August. However, as summer arrived and he was actively resisting any efforts to put pen to paper, we became increasingly concerned."

In this country, children are not legally required to be in education until the term after their 5th birthday, and parents can delay a school start further by choosing to home educate.

Friday, 10 June 2016

We cannot continue to apply adult amounts of pressure on young people and expect them to cope

"A child or adolescent’s brain is not the same as an adult’s brain – it is not fully formed and is at a crucial development stage. Children and young people ... need to feel safe. They need to feel nurtured and valued. They need to have a creative outlet to express their emotions in a positive way. They need time and space to think to be able to play."

Read the full article from The Times Educational Supplement (TES) here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Consuming to Creating .... Example

I recently had the privilege of leading a workshop on Mentoring Self-Directed Learners at the "Learn Free" annual conference hosted by Christian Home Educators, Warwickshire. "Learn Free: Home Educating with boldness and freedom" is a powerful message for so many families living and parenting under the pressures imposed by our current education system. It was great to be amongst so many already home educating and those considering this alternative educational pathway. The message of joy and liberty was an encouragement and inspiration to many, including me. Sometimes I forget the freedom we enjoy in this country, a freedom we can so easily take for granted.

In my workshop, I talked about moving from a family culture of consuming to creating. Last week, there was a brilliant example of this happening in our house which I thought I would share.

The boys kicked a football through the back of their guinea pig hutch, which they patched up with a panel of wood. However, the next time they moved the hutch, the bottom fell out - rendering it pretty much useless. Now guinea pig hutches are not cheap and we have bought a few over the years which haven't lasted that well at all - considering the price. So, pointing this out, my older boys suggested that they would be far better making their own hutch this time around out of all the pieces of wood my eldest son has accumulated in our garden, mostly old pallets. So they set to work.

They dismantled the old hutch so that parts of it - the wire, the roof, the latches etc - could be re-used, and they took pallets apart to construct the main part of the hutch. After school, the boys next door came and joined in too, so we had a great bit of teamwork going on - as well as a whole lot of innovation and creativity. Here are some pictures of the process and resulting hutch. We'll see how long it lasts, but it's saved us a few pounds for the time being ....

And if you think your kids are unlikely to do this kind of work with wood and nails and tools, well, can you see the camera my eldest son is using in the second picture above? He currently films everything for his vlog on his youtube channel, which he edits and uploads daily. This, too, is an example of creating rather than consuming and he is practising and developing many technical skills in the process. If you'd like a look, follow this link.

Be on the lookout for your children bucking the trend of consumerism and becoming creators!