This is the first full week of exams at our NSWLearning exam centre and it started me thinking about our relationship with exams as home educators. As somebody who did his teacher training in the 1970s, I am old enough to remember the great counter-cultural educational movements of the 1970s and 1980s where exams were regarded as limiting for students and limited in what they assessed – i.e. there was a general view that traditional exams were not fit for purpose. This was the motivation for the introduction of coursework and other non-exam types of assessment that appeared back in the 1980s.
Roll on forty years and we now seem to be locked into some sort of Victorian time warp where written, paper-based exams are regarded as the gold-standard and anybody who questions their quality is seen as a fifth columnist, aiming to undermine the future well-being of our children and the economy. We must keep driving educational standards up to compete with countries such as South Korea and Singapore, so the argument goes!
I don’t have the space here to go into a massive rant about how ludicrous this approach is; or to elaborate on how similar to the story of the emperor’s new clothes the whole debate about educational standards actually is.
What I do want to touch upon however is the extent to which we as home educators buy into this narrative and – for the best of motives – place much the same pressure on our children as teachers do in the school system.
Home-based learning is an incredibly liberating thing – it is the ultimate opportunity to raise out children with open minds and hearts, able to develop their gifts and talents in a way that enables them to mature into the sort of people that our country is crying out for at the moment. I am very aware though that for large numbers of home educators, the experience is not quite as uplifting as this – especially for those whose children are approaching ‘exam years’. In the end we all need to find a way through the educational maze that works for us, and I certainly do not want anything that I write here to put even more pressure on an incredibly courageous group of parents who have made the decision to take their children out of school during the secondary years.
However, I do want to encourage parents to think a little outside the box. Because schools place enormous pressure on children to sit more exams than they need to, this does not mean that we, as home educators also need to. Young people do not need a huge number of GCSEs in order to get to university and in fact, a reduced number along with evidence of ‘other interests’ may well make a candidate more appealing – it will certainly make for a more rounded and quite possibly happier individual.
I am very aware that, as Educational Director of NSWLearning, some people will be surprised to hear me suggesting that fewer GCSEs can often be better for students. Ultimately, however, NSWLearning was set up to support home educating families in their educational choices, not to try to persuade them to buy as many courses as possible.
Before making those big decisions about GCSEs (IGCSEs), spend time chatting things over with your daughter or son, and see what they want to do; ask for advice ideally from people that you know and respect and then, seek a little further help from groups on social media. Don’t overstretch yourself, in terms of what subjects you are going to teach your children, and look for help, either face to face or online. Buy in support only when you need it, and when you do decide to work with a curriculum provider, do your homework on them; what promises do they make and do they sound too good to be true? Do they offer subjects such as GCSE English Language or Sciences, that are virtually impossible for home educated students to sit exams in?
Ultimately, make the decisions that best suit your family and enable you all to thrive. Surely this is what home-based learning is all about?