Monday, 21 May 2018

Home Ed Diary

I met someone at the weekend who asked me how a home ed week looks. Of course, that's a difficult question to answer because each week is different. That is the nature and freedom of alternative education. However, she said it would be helpful for her to see what we actually do day-by-day, hence today's post, the first in a series I will try to complete each day this week - Home Ed Diary ....

So, this weekend, my parents were taking a trip to visit my Auntie on the south coast, who has two grandsons, the older of whom is the same age as my youngest. So, they invited my littlest boy to accompany them, which he was glad to do. He has spent the weekend on the beach in the sunshine, making new friends and enjoying time with his grandparents. He won't be back until later this afternoon.

My oldest son (16) is off on study leave and studying here at home for his GCSE exams which he is in the midst of. He says he prefers to study at home than at school because it is too distracting, so is getting on with his revision here.

My 12 year old has been to his home ed swimming lesson this morning, which is half an hour, and has then gone with a friend to play tennis. It is such a gloriously sunshiney day, so nice for him to be able to get out and enjoy it. I have been doing the weekly online shop, and making soup for lunch. My 12 year old is a creature of habit and likes home made leek and potato soup for lunch on Mondays! He comes home from tennis to join us for lunch, and a discussion about healthy eating and BMI, during which we looked up our healthy weight range for our heights and talked about lifestyle choices with regards to food.

Monday afternoon is chore time in our home ed routine when we usually put on some music and get on with cleaning the house for an hour. The older three boys all have assigned chores and the youngest is apprenticed to his brother to assist. But he is not here, so two boys and I get on with some housework. My eldest hoovers the bedrooms, stairs and landing. The 12 year old cleans the downstairs loo and sink and does some laundry. He and I are bearing the brunt of chores this year as the others are so busy.

My oldest son has been asking for new shoes for a while, and asks if we can go and get them this afternoon. So, chores done, the three of us troop across to the Common to the store he works at and where we can now, therefore, enjoy a staff discount. He selects the shoes, and chats to some colleagues whilst his brother researches some sportswear he is saving up for. Percentage discounts are calculated and shoes purchased. We then walk back. Conversation centres on what my oldest son will be able to buy for himself once he is earning on his apprenticeship next year. My 12 year old is looking at the trees, picks up a leaf to identify in our spotter's guide at home. Having done that, he settles down to read his current book which he is keen to finish, 'Twist of Gold' by Michael Morpurgo. His older brother cycles off to meet a friend from school who is coming round to do some maths revision.

My parents arrive with my youngest son having driven back from the south coast. He is full of the super weekend he has had, and pretty swiftly heads out to the garden to paint a clay man he made last week. He gets out the acrylic paints, palette and brushes and gets on with this independently whilst my parents and I have a cup of tea together before they head on home.

The school crowd arrive home, and my oldest and his friend head down to our garden room to tackle a GCSE maths paper which they will later discuss with my husband, who is a maths teacher and has now arrived home, too. My second son comes in from his day at school, and heads out into the garden. Littlest is now busy with his Lego. Our washing machine has packed up, so I am trying to haul washing out to the line to drip dry in the sunshine. Somehow this leads to a conversation with my 12 year old about soap. Does all soap come from soap nuts? How is soap made? He looks it up on YouTube, watching several videos about how soap is made.

It is now time for him to head off to his tennis squad training session. Maths tuition continues in the garden room. Dinner is prepared. Washing is managed. The garden is watered. Lego construction continues. Everyone assembles for dinner. Afterwards, my second son disappears to watch Romeo and Juliet. He has his first ever GCSE exam in English Literature tomorrow morning. The rest of us clear away, and then my littlest son proudly shows me his Lego construction. It is a mini figure in a rotating watch tower. There is a ramp brick up to the tower which looks like lava. I ask him if he has heard about the volcano erupting in Hawaii. Maybe this minifigure is keeping watch over the volcano. Yes, he says, maybe they have a watchtower like this in Hawaii. We watch a few YouTube videos together about the eruption happening now in Hawaii and talk about that a little.

Time for youngest's shower, and then a read-aloud with his brother. We are currently reading "Anne of Green Gables" together, which is a favourite of mine. Then smallest goes to bed. The older boys are still busy with their own work. Our online shop arrives, and everyone helps unload the boxes and get the food put away in the kitchen. As the evening draws to a close, they sort themselves out with showers, and drift bedwards. One day in our home ed life. How much did we learn?

Thursday, 10 May 2018

On Exam Season

It's exam season, and this year we are feeling it in our house .... Our eldest son is about to sit his GCSEs - 15 exams over the next 5 weeks or so. And our second son, who opted to follow his brother into school in September, will be sitting GCSE English Literature in just a few weeks time. Two different boys, two very different learners. But just the looming shadow of exams brings home to me once more how much I hate and object to testing.

It is over eight years since I deregistered the boys from the school system which had so disappointed me. I deregistered an anxious boy from whose eyes the light of joyful learning had been extinguished, a boy who had learned to sit down and shut up, silencing his primary means of learning about the world, which is to ask questions. I deregistered too, with more qualms, his brother - just a year younger - who was compliant and what I would have called 'happy' at school. Except, it turns out, he wasn't. He was just compliant, which is not the same thing.

One of my chief objections to the schooling system was the culture of testing, the shadow of SATS, dominating the early summer skyline in primary schools up and down our country, seeping into the system and shaping the curriculum, the priorities, the focus. With numeracy and literacy at the forefront, the creative, artistic curriculum was being squeezed out. And headteachers, their staff and, ultimately, children, too, felt that ominous shadow keenly even then.

And so I opted out. Some people probably think this is a cop-out, that we need to remain within the schools, within the system to push for change. And I am glad there are people doing that. But if I had waited for that culture of testing to get better, for the pendulum of government policy to swing, which it inevitably must, surely, sometime soon .... If I had waited, it would have been too late for my children. For the system has only gotten worse in these past 8 years. If we hoped that the play-based philosophy of the early years would press upwards to reclaim Years 1 and 2, we would be disappointed to see instead the more formal, sedentary, test-oriented philosophy of Year 1 press downwards, now threatening to claim reception and even our nursery classes. It would have been too late for my children. And so I do not regret taking them out, and giving them the broad education all children deserve, free from the judgement of testing and performance ratings. I do not regret it. Because performance ratings have come to matter more than the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and children alike.

But now our boys are growing up, and we are facing GCSEs - and it feels just the same all over again, the sausage-factory exam machine is in full, glorious swing. And parents' evenings are all about working levels, outcomes and predicted grades, not really about our children. A curriculum is delivered to be learned and regurgitated for the purpose of the test. And I am appalled at the need in this modern age to learn quotes from numerous pieces of literature to be regurgitated on cue in the exam hall, which is great if you have a good memory, and an absolute nightmare if you do not. Or your mind goes blank. Because you're just not too good in an exam situation. Or you get stressed. Or your gifts are in other areas. Tough luck. The measuring sticks are out. How will you measure up? And how will you compare to your peers?

That is my objection. Children are not commodities to be so processed and measured. They are unique human beings, each with their own particular strengths and gifts, each deserving their chance to shine. And I do not believe our current system provides that opportunity, no matter how old they are.

These past two days, my oldest son had refused to go to school because he wants to study for his exams in his own way. He finds the organised revision sessions in the classroom distracting, not helpful. He has his own study plan, and he just wants to get on with it. So what do I do? I am not prepared to fight him at this stage, to get him into school - What would I be fighting him for? Rather he needs my support, so that he can study in the way that he deems best for himself. He knows the way he works. But schools want control. They have a responsibility. Gone is any trust, such as was exhibited by the study leave I had when I did my GCSEs almost thirty years ago. I know study leave might not suit all students .... But could it not be acknowledged that it will suit some? Can we not move away from this one size fits all? Because it never will.

As we navigate this exam season, there is one big difference and that is that the boys are sitting GCSEs by consent. They are at school by consent because that is the way they have chosen to tackle this stage of their education. But for younger children, there is no consent about school or about SATs. They are passive recipients of a test-driven curriculum, rather than active participants in their own education. Education is being done to them, and to that I still, and will continue to, object.

In Praise of Apprenticeships

What we need in education is to move away from the one-size-fits-all conveyor belt. What we need is choice and diversity so that different children with their differing talents, needs and interests can access education which is suited not only to their age, but to their aptitude and ability. For this reason, I welcome the resurgence in apprenticeship opportunities for young people.

At 16, staying on at school is not going to be the preferred option for all, or even most, youngsters. Continued academic study, and the ongoing path to University, will not be the right path for everyone. It is a particular concern that young people drift towards University without any real idea of what they want to do at the end of their course, nowadays accruing huge debt before they even commence their working life.

An apprenticeship combines practical training in a job with ongoing study, and there are a whole range of opportunities on offer - from food to farming, hairdressing to hospitality, engineering to education. As an apprentice, a young person gets to work alongside experienced staff, gain job-specific skills, earn a wage and get holiday pay and time for study related to their role. Apprenticeships take 1 to 5 years to complete, depending on their level, and can be applied for from the age of 16. It is good to see that some apprenticeships have no academic entry requirements, which is great news for so many young people who may have great personal and practical skills which are not reflected in formal academic exam results.

My eldest son was all set to stay on at the engineering academy he has attended since September 2016 to do his A-Levels. He had the place conditional on his GCSE results, and was considering a degree-apprenticeship after A-Levels, at age 18. However, rather last minute, his attention was drawn to an apprenticeship at WMG - The Warwick Manufacturing Group, a place he had become familiar with through his work with the F1 in Schools project in which he had achieved such success. He decided this kind of work-based, real life, project-based learning would be a far more preferable route forward for him than remaining in the classroom. So he decided to apply.

Last week, he had his interview. My only job was to get him to the building on the University campus for 11.00. This is normally a 10 minute drive. We left half an hour, to ensure he was there in good time. It was absolutely pouring with rain, and unfortunately, a car had overturned on the dual carriageway near our house. We ran into gridlock. There was nothing to do but crawl along in the traffic jam, and make a huge loop of a diversion during which time I tried not to let my stress show. My son didn't seem too perturbed, and phoned them from the car to explain and to say he would probably be unavoidably late. I dropped him off at the door, with some relief at 11.02.

In spite of this drama, he felt the interview went as well as it could have done. He presented a portfolio of his engineering work over the years, and his predicted grades for GCSE. He chatted about his projects, and the experience of F1 in Schools and designing the Fastest Car at the World Finals last year. He is an accomplished engineer. He didn't think he could have said or done any more than he did. And so we waited two days for their decision.

It is a great joy and delight to me that he was given an unconditional offer for an apprenticeship starting in September. WMG is at the cutting edge of research, education and technology, working with organisations such as Airbus, Arup, AstraZeneca, BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Jaguar Land Rover, Network Rail, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, TATA Motors, TATA Steel, and TVS Motors to tackle major challenges and opportunities, connecting with businesses, students, and government organisations worldwide, believing in innovation and cooperation to overcome shared global challenges. It is a wonderful thing that my son, the engineer, will be able to learn and work in such a dynamic environment amongst others who share his passion for engineering. It is a wonderful thing that he is thriving in his area of gifting and enthusiasm. It is wonderful that this project-based learner, having spent only 9 terms in British classrooms in his school career, will be able to work and learn in an innovative environment which will value his quirkiness, indeed welcome it.

I am excited for the next chapter in his ongoing life of learning. It is a delight to see our children achieve in their area of passion and expertise. And the fact he will be earning from September is an added bonus.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Days on the Beach

Love this article! Happy to be starry-eyed, romantic and idealist about kids' play!


"Left relatively alone to explore the beach, the child feels that the world is theirs."

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Too Much Too Young

With the government proposing baseline testing at age 4, this Channel 4 documentary from 1998 could not be more relevant.

20 years on, baseline testing will test all children soon after they begin reception, will be delivered in English, probably on a tablet device, and will be used to measure how much progress children make between reception and SATs in Year 6. In other words, it will use children as data for measuring school effectiveness. Baseline testing is a return to a failed policy trialed in 2015.

I have long hoped to see early years educational policy push upwards right through Key Stage One with play (as the primary means by which children learn and make sense of the world) being a central part of infant schooling. Sadly, instead, we are continuing to see more formal teaching and assessment pushing down into the early years in a way which is damaging to young children, to their learning and their wellbeing. This documentary is well worth a watch.


Why British Primary Schools Fail Their Children

Cartoon by Polly Donnison

Monday, 23 April 2018

Light on Ed Inaugural Learning Exchange

I am making a small contribution to this research event at Liverpool Hope University this weekend if anyone fancies it?

"This research network aims to be something a little different, being inclusive of academia but by no means exclusive to it. Light on Ed seeks to develop a multi-level network of researchers originating from schools, colleges, universities, other organisations along with independent researchers and scholars. It seeks to be open, supportive and focussed on accessible and creative communication with mixed audiences and constituencies.
The focus of the network is to shed a critical lens on our mainstream learning systems and look forward to an educational landscape where the learner is put back centre stage. In the process it will shed light on alternative educational settings and projects in addition to radical innovations from within mainstream. The network will serve as a resource for research questions and as a ‘dating agency’ for researchers and potential research projects. Light on Ed will establish a range of platforms for dissemination including websites, social media, forums, journal, digital and hard book publishing assisting with the visibility and archiving of this kind of research. The network will contribute to and emphasise developing informed grassroots narratives and understandings."
Join us at this inaugural LEX. We have a diverse line up and interesting themes running throughout the day. Come along and listen, question, contribute, talk, network and enjoy!

Light On Ed Inaugural Learning Exchange

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Parents Hit Out at Plans to Increase Oversight of Home Education

"Many in the home education community are opposed to a register, claiming it will not make children any safer. They are also concerned that the proposals, if approved, will strangle the home education movement in England, which they regard as a vital alternative to state education."

Parents hit out at plans to increase oversight of home education
Home schooling community says government proposals undermine parental rights and cast suspicion.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

My Own Tutor

My husband, Kaushil, who's a secondary school maths teacher (on supply these days), has a new project: My Own Tutor - an online learning platform with telephone tutor support, if needed.

This may be of interest to some home educators, particularly those who follow the National Curriculum, or are looking for a study programme to help with exam preparation.

It is not an expensive programme, and the money invested can be recouped with Shop to Learn, which gives you discounts on everyday purchases.

Check it out, and please share with anyone you know who might be interested. Thanks. :)

Saturday, 7 April 2018

A Reminder

Sorting through some papers, I came across this piece of writing from my eldest son's brief time at school. He must have been about 6 when he wrote this, and I kept it to remind myself why I took him out of school to educate him alternatively.

My Dad (his grandad) loves teddy bears ....

Monday, 26 March 2018

World Changers

100 years since some women in this country were permitted to vote, my youngest son and I have been enjoying Kate Pankhurst's colourful picture book, "Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World". So, it was great to see a workshop with the author as part of this year's Bournville Bookfest, Birmingham's children's book festival and annual celebration of storytelling fun.

Kate's book - and the new sequel, "Fantastically Great Women who Changed History" - introduces a cast of inspiring and adventurous female world changers, who have been too long overlooked by history. I recommend them. As we listened to Kate talking about her inspiration for the books and the way she learned about the characters she chose to include, it occurred to me how important it is that boys and girls are given both male and female role models. Seeing men and women visibly engaged in varied work and roles inspires our children to believe they can do anything.

Another favourite with my six-year old shark-obsessed little boy is, "Shark Lady" by Jess Keating, "The True Story of how Eugenie Clark became the Ocean's most Fearless Scientist" beautifully illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens. We love the story of how Eugenie's childhood fascination with sharks grows with her until she is exploring the oceans and making new discoveries as a leading ichthyologist. The way the world is right now, how important it is that children are presented with stories of courage and boldness, that they may find their own passion, their own voice and raise it fearlessly.

Listening to Kate Pankhurst, I am thinking of brave little Naomi Wadler and others, who spoke out in Washington this weekend against gun violence. I think of the legacy of Michelle Obama, a role model girls like Naomi have grown up watching. I am sure this has helped them believe they, too, can and should raise their voices and stand up for what they believe in. We need to see women speaking and leading with courage and conviction.

In Kate's books we read of Boudicca and of the Suffragettes, of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace and many other courageous women in times gone by, but the battles are still there to be fought, and the voices of courage are still so needed. Naomi gives me hope for the future. She reminds us to keep showing our children that our values and our voices matter.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Rootless Urbanite

"The whole time I was at school, I wanted to be at home on the farm. I was convinced then, and I still am, that home was a more interesting and productive place to be for me. Making someone do something they don't want to do with thirty other bored kids seemed to me absolutely pointless. I'd look out of the windows and watch the swifts rising above the town, their scythed wings glistening in the sunshine."

My husband often works in challenging classrooms in our own city here in the Midlands where there seems to be disconnect between the teacher / culture of school and the young people who frequent these classrooms. That is why I said in my TEDx talk we need to profoundly change the way in which we engage these young people. We need to recognise the value of their own stories and the worlds that they inhabit. We need to help them to write their own journeys, discover the dreams and talents within, enabling and facilitating, rather than always thinking that we know better ....

When I was 15, I went to my GCSE Geography teacher with an idea for my coursework, a geographical enquiry. I went to him, a young Sussex girl with my love for the Downs and the Weald, and fascination for the geographical features I encountered walking the local hills with my friends. I wanted to investigate the strata of the hillsides; I certainly wanted a project rooted in the local countryside I loved. But the teacher didn't encourage my interest .... "You should do urbanisation," he said. Urbanisation? What did I know about urbanisation? But, ever the compliant student, I spent the weeks that followed studying global urbanisation, and drawing seemingly endless pie-charts, all beautifully coloured and nicely presented. I got an A in GCSE Geography, but a line of self-initiated enquiry was closed to me and, a few years later, life and education moved me away from those Downs I so love. I miss them still ....

"Students learn to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know."(Thomas Huxley)

"The question is not - How much does the youth know when he has finished his education - but how much does he care?" (Charlotte Mason)

Though I no longer dwell in the South Downs, the South Downs will always dwell in me.

Now as fracking companies threaten those hills of mine, who will stand before the destructive machinery and say, "No" if we do not care? Who will stand with the native American communities at Standing Rock and say, "Save our Water" unless we care? The Grade A is not so important, really, is it? Not for a rootless urbanite who really just wants to go home ....

"I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we have seen just enough of the wider world to know we like our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home." (James Rebanks in "The Shepherd's Life)

True Unschooler

He is cross with me because I tried to show him something ... "No, don't show me. I want to discover the world myself!" True unschooler!

Mirrors, Maths and Magic!

"Certainly Anna had a gift ... at once as mysterious as it was simple. She had an immediate grasp of pattern, of structure, of the way that bits and pieces were organised into a whole. Unexplainable as this gift might be, it was always well and truly earthed in the nature of things. As simple and as mysterious as a spider's web, as ordinary as a spiral seashell. Anna could see pattern where others just saw muddles, and this was Anna's gift."

I studied Education and Psychology at University, many years ago. Beside me, livening up many a dull lecture, was my dear friend, Pauline, full of life and joy and laughter. Some of our favourite classes were in Developmental Psychology. I remember watching and discussing many entertaining films of very small children being observed in psychological experiments. Very little conclusion could actually be drawn from these experiments, the samples were usually too small to be significant, and children are so individual. But how Pauline laughed at the beautiful children, their cheeky faces and funny, funny comments.

Pauline gave me a gift. It was the gift of faith. And the idea that faith should be simple yet profound, safe yet daring, serious yet tremendously good fun. Her God was always smiling, and she delighted in His company. Pauline died almost 12 years ago. She was too young, too joyous, too full of life ... I still can't believe she is gone. Of all the people in my life, she is the one person with whom I would dearly love to discuss unschooling. I wish we could walk this path together, and continue laughing at the beautiful curiosity of small human beings. She would 'get it' ... I know she would.

A long time ago, Pauline gave me this book, "Mister God, This is Anna". I found it on my shelf and read it again recently. It amazed me how full of unschooling it is, and how full of deep spirituality expressed in the person of a very small girl as remembered by her friend, Fynn, as they wander the streets and encounter the characters of London's pre-war East End. "Anna's attendance at school was reluctant and not too frequent." Her learning and discoveries take place primarily with Fynn, in conversation as they go about life together. Her learning is not compartmentalised .... She philosophises about God as she discovers the wonders of seeds, or dismantles a radio or looks into her mirror book. It was re-reading Anna that gave me the idea for my youngest son's birthday this year - Mirror tiles, and a prism. Today, the wonder began ....

"We'd both been told that 'five' meant 'five' and nothing else, but the figure 5 reflected in the water or a mirror was the figure 2. And this fact of reflection could produce some pretty curious arithmetics, and this is what fascinated us so much. Perhaps they were not of any practical use, but it didn't matter. 'Five' meant what is usually meant by 'five' only by usage and convention. There was nothing at all special about the figure 5; you could allow it to mean anything you liked as long as you stuck to the rules once you had made them, and you could go on inventing rules forever - well almost. So you see we were wasting our time, but we didn't see it that way; we saw it as an adventure, something that had to be explored.
Anna and I had both seen that maths was more than just working out problems. It was a doorway to magic, mysterious, brain-cracking worlds, worlds where you had to tread carefully, worlds where you made up your own rules, worlds where you had to accept complete responsibility for your actions. But it was exciting and vast beyond understanding."

"'If,' said Miss Haynes to Anna, 'you had twelve flowers in a row and you had twelve rows, how many flowers would you have?' Poor Miss Haynes! If only she had asked Anna what twelve times twelve was she would have got her answer, but no, she had to start messing around with flowers and rows and things. Miss Haynes got an answer, not the one she expected, but an answer.
Anna had sniffed. This particular kind of sniff indicated the utmost disapproval.
'If,' replied Anna, 'you grewed flowers like that you shouldn't have no bloody flowers.'
Miss Haynes was made of stern stuff and the impact of this answer left her unmoved. So she tried again.
'You have seven sweeties in one hand and nine sweeties in your other hand. How many sweeties have you got altogether?'
'None,' said Anna. 'I ain't got none in this hand and I ain't got none in this hand, so I ain't got none, and it's wrong to say I have if I ain't.'
'Brave, brave Miss Haynes tried again.
'I mean pretend, dear, pretend that you have.'
Being so instructed, Anna pretended and came out with the triumphant answer, 'Fourteen.'
'Oh no, dear,' said brave Miss Haynes, 'you've got sixteen. You see, seven and nine make sixteen.'
'I know that,' said Anna, 'but you said pretend, so I pretended to eat one and I pretended to give one away, so I've got fourteen.'
I've always thought that Anna's next remark was made to ease the look of pain and anguish on Miss Haynes's face.
'I didn't like it, it wasn't nice,' she said, as a sort of self-inflicted punishment."

Sunday, 18 March 2018


This is the longest my husband and I have lived in the same house. We have been here 4 years! In the first 17 years of our marriage, we moved no less than 17 times. And each move required a thorough clearout. So I do not think we are hoarders! How quickly and easily, though, the piles of 'stuff' we acquire begin to take over .... Maybe it is because we would normally have moved by now, that I feel the oppression of the clutter, and the need to purge our house of stuff.

One week in to our mission to clear the clutter, and I have been steadily removing items from the house - Several bags have gone to the charity shop, I have been offering items to friends or to folk I know might appreciate that particular thing, listing things on Freecycle and Facebook, and selling things on ebay.

I have sold a few things on ebay in the past, but normally I just tend to save myself the hassle, and give things away. However, I decided our huge Duplo Lego box might be worth splitting into lots and selling on ebay. I mean, Lego is worth a lot, and we have too much of it in our house. To my surprise, I have made £177.50 on ebay this week, which is a nice bonus to the wonderful feeling of decluttering my house and my life. It feels very good to watch stuff go .... I am lighter somehow. Yesterday, I finally began to feel we were making real progress when the hearthstone emerged from beneath my youngest son's Playmobil collection! So far, my focus has been on toys, books and DVDs. We will persevere.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Birthday Time

Littlest son turned 6 today .... How do you celebrate birthdays? How do you create the rituals of celebration which mark the turning of the years? We have an ancient banner which was created when my eldest son turned one, over 15 years ago. It comes out year after year, birthday after birthday. New colourful paper letters have been created as new brothers have arrived ... It is strung ritually before bed the night before a birthday to greet the coming morn.

Three years ago, my youngest son asked to go to the safari park for his birthday. We had a lovely time. Last year, he wanted to go again, with his best friend, so we did. We had a lovely time. So this year, when we asked what he would like to do for his birthday, he looked at us as if amazed we didn't know. "The safari park, of course!" he declared. So off we went again, with the same friend. It is becoming an annual ritual. It is early spring, still cold and a little windy. There are few people about. But the sun shone, and the animals were active. The young bears were the stars, climbing in the trees for us. And the giraffes were so close we could almost reach out and touch them. We walk amongst the lemurs and the squirrel monkeys and they are utterly unperturbed by our presence. The boys' faces light up. And when we see a red panda - a first for us all - they are overwhelmed. The elephants are walking around the park with their keepers, trunks holding tails, all in a row. They are incredible. We picnic in the car because it is cold. The boys choose penny presses and tiny soft toys as souvenirs, a bear, a wolf, an elephant. Grandma and Grandpa are with us, too. We make some memories. Driving home, the boys are making up silly stories about a giraffe, and illustrating them. They are inspired.

The birthday boy has chosen Chinese take-away for dinner, and of course there is birthday cake. The making of birthday cakes has been something of a creative challenge for me since I was a teenager. I enjoy creating them for the boys. It is kind of an extra special present. My older sons have revelled in the task of setting me challenges in recent years - a radio controlled car, Yoda from Star Wars, a land rover .... It's become a game. Today's Stromtrooper was not too much of a challenge, though I did wonder yesterday as the cake collapsed if I was losing my touch. Fortunately much can be hidden beneath a sheet of fondant icing! I always try to keep the cake as a surprise, and when I carry it out with candles aglow as we all sing Happy Birthday, I love the look of wonder and delight upon their faces. "Wow! Did you MAKE that?"

And now it is late ... A small boy dressed as a ninja is curled up in his chair watching a movie with his brothers and his Dad. Another year has gone by, and he is 6 ...

Now We Are Six
By A.A. Milne
"When I was one, I had just begun,
When I was two, I was nearly new,
When I was three, I was hardly me,
When I was four, I was not much more,
When I was five, I was just alive,
But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever,
And I think I'll be six now forever and ever!"

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Writing Encouragement

When my sons came out of school 8 years ago, one of the big sticking points, particularly for my eldest, was writing. He told me that either he wrote enough for the teacher, but it wasn't neat enough. Or he wrote it neatly, but it wasn't long enough. He would get kept in at playtime to do more writing, and had learned to hate it. So, my first big home ed decision was to back right off on writing. We were not going to have tears and arguments over it. I decided to focus on oral work. We have always enjoyed family read alouds and audio books, and the boys would narrate stories in their own way - often through role play (I remember a week when our living room became Robinson Crusoe's island), or by drawing. My eldest son used to enjoy dictating stories into his MP3 player, and listening to them back. Often I would scribe a narrated story and the 'author' would illustrate it.

Sometimes the boys and I have agreed to do a little writing every day for a time, because their writing has become something they want to improve. I would correct as asked to, but not otherwise, and now computers help with formatting writing, with spelling, punctuation and grammar. These are not things we have taught formally. Honestly, we have done very little over the years.

Now, if you are a home educator, and you worry sometimes about your children's writing, here is the encouraging part of the story .... When they want to write, they write! And their writing isn't at all bad! My oldest son (now 16) was sitting filling out an application form with me last night, perfectly competently. My second oldest (now in school, aged 14) is producing essays for homework, and his writing is OK! And last week, over 3 or 4 days, my third son (almost 12) sat down at the computer and wrote a 3000 word essay on Andy Murray's career - a subject he is passionate about. And his writing style is lovely. So, be encouraged. Follow your heart and your children - and relax!

Towards Minimalism

I haven't been well this winter. For about the past six months, I have been suffering from pain in my upper body, an aching right through my back and chest. It has been really quite debilitating. At its worst, coupled with low energy, I was finding it difficult to hold myself upright by the end of the day, and simple tasks like picking up a few things at the shops would completely exhaust me. It has been rather concerning. Several trips to the doctors eventually resulted in blood tests being run, and the results showed a vitamin D deficiency. So commenced an 8 week course of mega vitamin boosters. But, in a multi-pronged approach, I have also consulted an osteopath and a chiropractor, who have told me my body is very crooked, and misaligned in a number of places.

It is six years ago this week that our youngest son arrived. He was delivered in a crash emergency section, which meant I was given a general anaesthetic as I was rushed dramatically into theatre. I remember waking up, and lying in hospital feeling as if I had been hit by a juggernaut. My iron levels were so low, it was touch and go whether I would have a blood transfusion. I didn't. So I left the hospital a few days later severely anaemic with a newborn and three other children awaiting my care at home. There were days in the weeks following when I lay on my bed and felt I simply could not move. Yet, somehow, I had to wrench myself up and get on with life. That is what we do, isn't it? We just get on with it. Yet I look back now, and wonder why there is never any time anymore for convalescence. Could it be that our lack of adequate convalescence gives rise to further problems in the future? I wonder if that experience six years ago took rather a toll on me, and that only now, as smallest son has stepped further into independence, has my body allowed itself to say, "Give me a break!"

"Could vitamin D deficiency and the misalignment you see be adequate explanation for this debilitating pain?" I ask the chiropractor. She assures me that, yes, this is sufficient to explain such thoracic pain, and assures me that she can help. I am three sessions in to eight weeks of treatment, and seven weeks into eight weeks of vitamin D supplements. My energy levels are much improved, and this week, the pain has had days of easing, too. It is such a relief. But I am still not right.

In the midst of all this, our house has not been as clean and tidy as it usually is. I am not very good at living in clutter and disorder, and it is a constant source of stress to me. Sitting taking it easy, as I have had to, it occurs to me that so many of us are enslaved to our clutter, our 'stuff', our possessions. We spend so much time having to organise and tidy up so much stuff, a lot of which we do not even need, or want. And so a new radical idea begins to form in my mind, what if we just get rid of it all? Pretty much everything! What if we just held on to the things that we actually need, and use ... Or perhaps just a few that are beautiful, or sentimental. But I am talking about being really disciplined, and taking control of the clutter rather than letting it control us.

A week away in a holiday cottage where we - and the kids - manage on just a minimal amount of 'stuff' and where we live with the glorious absence of clutter convinces my husband and I that drastic action is required. We have set ourselves a target of the end of the Easter holidays to clear most of our stuff, and just the thought of it is liberating. We have already begun to pare down books, toys, DVDs .... We are a culture addicted to consumerism. What happens if we say, "No more!"?

Why does clutter bother me so? I think it is possible I have some sort of sensory processing disorder .... I have realised this by talking to my husband about his ability to shut out peripheral noise and to tune in to one thing - the television, for example. My sons do this, too. Often, they do not hear me, because they are focused on something else. I can't do this closing out peripheral noise. If there is sound, even the hum of the fridge in the background, I can hear it. Is it a female thing, or is it just me? It has never occurred to me that other people don't hear everything going on around them all the time. I realise I cannot filter sound. It's the same with my sight ... If there is text to be read somewhere around me, I will read it, without even thinking about it. It is read, absorbed, noticed. So it is perhaps no surprise that clutter is overwhelming, too, as a sensory experience. It is as if all the stuff is screaming at me, and it is disturbing and not at all restful. Home should be a restful place, right? So, it seems to us it is a good idea to take control.

We begin to think about how we will prevent more 'stuff' coming into our home, how we will have to politely decline the barrage of potential clutter that comes our way. We begin to think about how we can give and receive gifts without the accumulation of material stuff. We like to give gifts in our culture .... We like to give 'stuff'. It is a demonstration of love and generosity. But perhaps it is the only way we know, and it is time to rethink it, to reinvent it? This past Christmas I finally managed to break with the tradition of stockings for all but my youngest son, and his was lean and devoid of plastic tat. Our older three sons all just had money for Christmas, and they were happy with that. Part of our challenge is to think about how we can give treats, time, experiences, perhaps .... How can we redefine our giving?

For some time now, slowly and deliberately, one small step at a time, we have been looking at how we can reduce our household waste, and in particular, our dependence upon throwaway plastic, especially single-use plastic. So one of our new rules is not to bring new plastic into the house, but to choose items made of other materials. Of course, clearing out cannot mean throw away. I am trying to be mindful of the fact that there isn't such a place as 'away'. Everything we discard has to go somewhere. This makes the clearout process more time-consuming and challenging ... Each item has to be considered. Would someone I know like this / find it useful? Could we sell it on ebay? Can we give it to a charity shop? Offer it on Freecycle? Would it be useful to our local refugee ministry? I am kind of excited and curious to see how we will get on. I will let you know .....

Some pictures of our starting point .... This is this weekend, downstairs, as we began to clear things out. I think we are a pretty average British family in terms of 'stuff' ... We are six people in a 3-bed semi ... Maybe we have slightly less than some folks based on the fact that we have moved a lot, and are pretty good at getting rid of stuff. We still have a LOT, far too much ... I dream of clear surfaces that stay clear, and of calm ....

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Schools Largely to Blame for Rising Mental Health Issues

"While progress has been made, a few schools appear to care more about academic results than the well-being of pupils," writes former head, Peter Tait.

"The causes of the growing mental health problems lie largely with the schools and it is the causes, not the symptoms, that need addressing. For that to happen, whole school cultures will need to change, and sometimes, radically so."

Read the full article here: Schools Largely to Blame for Rising Mental Health Issues

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Social Justice Issue

I have been thinking about social justice a lot recently. Most of the issues I feel passionately about are issues of social justice ..... poverty, the environmental crisis, the dumping of our waste (& resulting toxins) in other parts of the world, gender equality .... Such issues (& I know there are many others!) stir our hearts because we care about our neighbours in the global village. We are none of us disconnected in our interconnected world. Today it was brought home to me again that unschooling is a social justice issue. But it is not seen as such, and remains shrouded in misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

One of the criticisms most often directed at unschooling is that it is a luxury choice for the middle classes, for those who can afford it. It is assumed, though often unspoken, that some parents would not be able to unschool, perhaps because they are not seen as being “educated” enough by the system they are seeking to escape. Or perhaps because it is too costly, and some folks will simply not have the means. I have long known that this is not true. Unschooling is a choice, a life path, like so many other choices. And there are parents who choose this path even though they are single, families who choose this way and live far more simply, parents who live on benefits yet long for something better for their children, a different way, who enjoy a whole new education alongside their offspring and are empowered by it. Unschoolers are a mighty diverse bunch. Seems to me that in fact, those deemed to have been failed by our current system of schooling, have the most to gain from unschooling, the whole process of deconstructing the self as defined by the powers-that-be. Freedom is actually a scary concept, isn't it? We talk as if we want people to be free, but free thinking can be frightening, threatening to the status quo; threatening to those who are pretty well served by the existing hierarchies, who find the world as it operates works pretty well for them. Do we really want people to be free?

Another question I am often asked is about aid initiatives in the so-called “developing world” .... Is it not a good thing to be providing schooling (education) to children in the name of aid and development? Of course, questions like this are multi-layered, and do not always have easy answers, but I think we have to be prepared to examine our motives, to begin with the people we are seeking to serve and to ask what their priorities for development would be, rather than imposing our own. And I think we have to be prepared to be wrong, to be challenged about solutions we may simply take for granted, to be open to rethinking the entire system of global development and the role of schooling in that.

To these questions speaks Manish Jain in Udaipur, India, reminding me that yes, unschooling is indeed a social justice issue. In my heart of hearts, I despise schooling and the way it shapes people into conformity and enslaves them to the way things are, to knowing their place in the scheme of things. As Manish says, "Using IQ tests and labelling millions of innocent children as ‘failures’ is one of the greatest crimes against humanity." Maybe you disagree with us both, and that’s OK, but I am thankful for voices like Manish Jain’s and for the reminder that all around the world, green shoots of alternative thinking are shooting up amongst the ruins of our failing systems of institutionalised schooling, kindred spirits whose words speak out for a different way, a better way, of raising human beings.

"After visiting and working in many villages in Africa and India, I noticed that schooling was a vehicle for spreading industrial monoculture. It was like an AIDs virus which destroyed the immune systems of local culture, and local commons and local common sense. ‘Educated’ students became ashamed of their traditions and their elders, they became emotionally and spiritually disconnected from their fields and forests, they became useless members of their local economy. The entire backbone of community life was disrupted. My own father was a victim of this. Today it has become very clear to me that the call for ‘educating the tribals’ is very much linked to an agenda of displacing tribal communities from their land (which are full of valuable natural resources).”

Read the whole interview with Manish Jain HERE.

Shikshanter: The People's Institute for Re-Thinking Education and Development

"The modern factory-schooling education system is one of the greatest crimes against humanity. One hundred years from now, we will look back at the violence of the culture of schooling and ask how could we have done this to innocent children."

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Give childhood back to children

If we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less.
Because students spend nearly all of their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative or discover their own passions.

"Play is the natural means by which children and other young mammals educate themselves. In hunter-gatherer bands, children are allowed to play and explore in their chosen ways all day long, every day, because the adults understand that this is how they practise the skills that they must acquire to become effective adults."

"We can't teach creativity, but we can drive it out of people through schooling that centres not on children's own questions but on questions dictated by an imposed curriculum that operates as if all questions have one right answer and everyone must learn the same things."

Wonderful piece by Dr Peter Gray. Read the full article HERE.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

On Rainforests, Palm Oil & Caring ......

To envisage the devastation of the world's rainforests, the extent of palm oil production and the effect of both on native people, Chris Packham's documentary is worth a watch .....

Chris' connection with this photograph resonated with me. I wrote the following on this blog in November (See A Road Trip) following a visit to the Eden Project .....

"The stories of the peoples of the rainforest, depicted in wonderful photographs around the Biome were particularly moving. Some of these tribes have had no contact with the outside world, and are endangered by the destruction of their native forests. I was particularly touched by this one extraordinary photograph of a young girl, taken the year I was born. She was described as being as at home in the forest as any child in a modern playground, and already knowledgeable about the flora and fauna around her. I look at this picture, and wonder if the girl is still alive; she would be older than me. And I think about the arrogance with which we condescend to native peoples, thinking we have so much to teach them, about civilisation. And as I gaze around me at this immersive rainforest experience, and think about all the riches of our planets' forests, all the resources they hold, many of which we have yet to discover, I wonder who really has more to teach. Do we not have so much to learn from native peoples in these majestic places?"

I always wanted to walk in a rainforest, sleep out in a rainforest ... And I did once, in my youth, when I was travelling around Australia. I slept one night in a hammock slung between two majestic trees - and it was noisy, and alive, and lonely - and wonderfully wild and remote and vast ... It felt so far from anywhere. Untouchable. Yet we are destroying it. The lungs of our planet. Beautiful wilderness, treasure trove of medicines and flora and fauna we haven't even discovered ....

Another post on this blog is relevant here: The Cultural Imperialism of Schooling. We should not educate our young people out of touch with the wild places, out of touch with the earth and the wilderness. "The question is not - How much does the youth know when he has finished his education - but how much does he care?" (Charlotte Mason)

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Ofsted's Bold Beginnings

If Ofsted's Bold Beginnings report is driven by concern that transition to Year 1 is difficult because the Early Learning goals are not aligned with the year 1 national curriculum, then why not make Year 1 more play-based rather than narrowing the curriculum in reception? If research and the experience of Nordic countries (and others) teach us that children are better equipped for learning if they start at age 7 after several years of learning negotiation, communication and risk-taking through play, particularly outdoors, why not extend learning-through-play further up our infant schools rather than pushing formal learning ever younger? Why do the powers-that-be continually fail to understand that children learn through play, it is their learning media? We could argue that all of us need more playtime in our lives to awaken and facilitate our creativity and problem-solving faculties. How vital this is for the youngest in our society.

Read more about Ofsted's Bold Beginnings report HERE.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

IF ...

If I can
ask my own questions,
try out my ideas,
experience what's around me,
share what I find;

If I have
plenty of time for
my special pace,
a nourishing space,
things to transform;

If you'll be
my patient friend,
my trusted guide,
fellow investigator,
partner in learning;

Then I will
explore the world,
discover my voice
and tell you what I know
in a hundred languages.

This poem was written by Pamela Houk with valuabel suggestions from Lella Gandini and the late Loris Malaguzzi.