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.