This September will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of when we began our home education adventure. By this I mean, it was when we started home educating our ‘school-aged’, eldest daughter. Home education has changed a lot since then – when we visited people who were home educating, we had to travel some long distances to spend time with them – I can recall a family in Bradford, one in Stockport and another near Darlington. These were serious journeys for a young family with three children under five. This was the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone age. People wrote letters and resources from America took months to arrive! It was also before the National Curriculum.
The great danger in looking back, is the tendency to remember with blurry-eyed nostalgia – forgetting the hard days and simply remembering those glorious blue-sky days. There were tough days – really tough days, when it seemed that everything was going wrong. But, and this is a huge but, as a family we never questioned our decision to home educate and we did our best to enjoy each other’s company. We also found that, as time went on, we became increasingly informal in our approach to home-based learning. By the time we started home educating our fourth child, we had come to the conclusion that apart from maths and English, we saw most learning as taking place naturally within our son’s day to day life. We had almost become unschoolers! I say ‘almost’ because in reality, we always did things to structure or direct our children’s learning, but we didn’t feel tied to it. I also say ‘almost’ because as we moved into the secondary years, we decided that we wanted to ensure that our children had plenty of doors open to them when they got to 16. So, we loosely embraced GCSEs and we agreed together that they would study for a limited number – 5 or 6, so that when they made decisions at 16 about college or whatever, they found that as many doors as possible were kept open to them.
Looking back, here are five things we would like to have known when we started our home education adventure.
1. Demonstrate a love of learning to your children
All human beings learn what is important to them, and children in particular, have the capacity to learn at a ferocious rate. The important thing is to create an environment in our homes that nurtures learning and encourages curiosity. For us, we found that the best way to do this was to have lots of books around and for our children to see us reading. Most of this took place before the Internet and certainly before smartphones. I love my smartphone and use it to find out all kinds of interesting facts, but our advice would be use it with caution and don’t let your children see you living on it! And whether it is books or a smartphone, talk about what you are reading and what excites you; look for the quirky and show your children that you love finding out new things!
2. Don’t take formal education too seriously
There is a place for bookish learning. It is important and children need to learn that formal learning enables them to achieve mastery and understanding in lots of areas of life. But it should never be the only way of measuring success or of evaluating a young person’s gifting. My background is in history – I love bookish learning and adore the smell of old libraries, but that kind of thing isn’t for everybody. Some months ago, I watched a friend, who is a plasterer, skim a whole room with a fresh skin of plaster. I enjoyed watching him at work and when it was dry I kept running my hand along the wall, it was so smooth. It was a work of art – he was a skilled craftsman! What this guy does, is at least as important as any bookish learning that I might do. This to me is key, we shouldn’t allow our children to pick up the idea that formal learning is more important than all other types of learning, that the academic is superior to the practical.
3. Give children space to do their own thing
We adopted a work pattern at home whereby our children did most of their formal stuff like maths and English in the mornings. In the early days we used the afternoons for art and craft, baking, walks etc. In the evenings, they were often involved in brownies or cubs, gymnastics or cricket. As they got older, all of this continued but we found that it was also important to give them time to do their own thing. When they were younger, sometimes we would even cancel the planned formal learning for that day because the children were totally engrossed in building a den or make-believe and we just didn’t want to stop them learning spontaneously in that way.
4. Don’t obsess about the stuff that schools think is important
I worked in schools for many years, including a number of years as a Headteacher. Whatever schools say publicly, by and large, their primary concern is exam results and league table prestige. I don’t blame teachers and heads for this situation – politicians and some in the media have worked hard, over decades, to deliberately create this environment. As home educators, we see the world differently and we shouldn’t mimic what schools do or attach too much importance to what they value the most. Also, we shouldn’t mimic their methods – teacher-led education is only necessary if you have thirty children in your class.
5. Find ways to enjoy each other’s company
Home-based learning can be hard work. Children can also be hard work. Bring the two together and sometimes, it makes for some real tension. This is life in the real world. There is a difference, though, between occasional tension and on-going daily stress. More than anything else, we found as a family that friendship and enjoying each other’s company was a priority. If your approach to learning and what you are aiming for in education is creating an environment where stress is the norm and everybody is hating it, then get things changed. Stop what you are doing – have some days of doing nothing in terms of structured education – and do a reset. Do less, much less, if necessary, in order to create a place where you really can enjoy one another’s company.