Six hours a day, five days a week seemed such a long time for a four-year-old to be away from her family – having someone else deciding when she should play, eat, learn and even use the loo – that when the letter came through to apply for schools for my eldest daughter, I duly ignored it.
Though we didn’t know it when she was a baby, our early decisions to follow an attachment style of parenting and allow her to grow at her own pace had already set us on a trajectory to educate her along the same lines.
She’s now seven, and having happily home-educated her and her five year-old sister for the past three years, I plan to do the same for their two year-old sister, too.
Yet the Government is now consulting on plans to require parents of the estimated 60,000 home-educated children to be registered and monitored, amid fears that thousands are being educated at illegal faith schools and others “off-rolled” simply to spare heads the choice of having to issue expulsions.
However, a compulsory register for home-schoolers would do nothing to protect these vulnerable children – there is already a system in place to keep track of them – while those of us who have taken on the heavy commitment of educating at home would pay the price.
My husband and I came to the decision to home educate quite literally from different places. He went to boarding school in Somerset, aged eight, and looks back on school fondly. When I reflect on my school years in Trinidad and Tobago, I mostly see experiences I would not recreate for my own children; while I achieved academically, I often struggled socially and emotionally.
Mainstream education in the UK might be better, but it still isn’t set up to give children a real say in what happens to them, which I believe creates a hotbed of poor mental health, lack of support for unique educational needs and bullying – the very reasons so many parents choose home education from the start.
Since our set-up involved my husband working full-time as a graphic designer while I stayed at home, I scoured the internet for information on different approaches to home education, from Waldorf to Montessori, Charlotte Mason to un-schooling.
I eventually landed on a semi-structured approach to classical education, discussing and deciding with my children what we would do. We tend to finish our structured learning in the morning when we’re still fresh, before meeting friends at home education groups or individually in the afternoons for organised activities or free play.
We’re flexible and grateful for the freedom to make changes wherever needed. If we’re gasping for time at home to focus on projects or recuperate, we can take it. On the other hand, if we need to clear the cobwebs because nothing is going to plan, we can head off to the beach or woods near our home in Truro, Cornwall, at a moment’s notice.
We frequently come up against questions about whether our children have friends and opportunities to socialise. As someone who struggled in this department at school, I’m often amused that people consider it the natural place for children to find friends. Home educated children tend to have more free time to spend with others of varying ages in different settings and more agency to choose with whom they spend their time. In many ways, their childhood looks a lot more like the real world they’re preparing to enter.
I wonder whether some people’s fears around homeschooling are actually based in the fact that we’re stepping out into the unknown, creating for our children a childhood that we did not experience.
My children are confident and inquisitive, voracious lovers of books with lots of self-directed projects on the go. They know that their opinion matters and that authority can be questioned. They may be ahead of their schooled peers in some areas and behind in others but I’m confident that they are learning how to find everything they need, and to motivate themselves, which will enable them to fill in any gaps later on.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds claim that the register isn’t meant to crack down on “dedicated parents” like me, “doing an admirable job of educating their children in their own homes”. Yet we are the ones who would be targeted, should registration become compulsory.
If protocol is followed, there is no reason for any child to fall “off the radar” or become “invisible”: when a parent deregisters a child, the school is responsible for informing the local authority, to whom parents must at least offer an educational philosophy in writing. If that system isn’t working, it cannot be fixed by insisting that children who have never been to school are added to the register.
Some may say that we should accept compulsory registration and monitoring if we have nothing to hide. Where does it end if we begin to apply this logic? Most would baulk at the idea of a stranger inspecting our homes ahead of birth to decide whether they’re deemed suitable for our new babies. Insisting that homeschooling families should accept this kind of invasion of privacy is a similar erosion of both parents’ and children’s rights.
Who decides what an education should look like? Who determines academic achievement? In this country, parents are the ones responsible for providing a suitable education and that is a responsibility that should be protected.
This week, my seven year-old made a boat from items she’d found in the recycling. She helped her five year-old sister do the same, tested her boat on water, took a picture and, with a little help, emailed it to the magazine that had inspired the idea – displaying scientific understanding, emotional intelligence, spelling, grammar and computer literacy, all before I’d finished my morning coffee.
I don’t know what my children will end up doing, but I can see that they are developing their love of learning. Many of today’s jobs won’t exist by the time they reach adulthood. Many of the future’s jobs have not been invented yet. Protecting their curiosity and adaptability may well be the best way to guarantee their success.
There may come a time when school comes into the picture for us. I heard a funny story recently about homeschooling parents who received a letter of acceptance to the local private school for their daughter – who had applied without them knowing.
If one of our children asks to go to school (they haven’t yet) we are open to letting them try it. Down the road, they may have educational goals we’d struggle to support at home. With this in mind, we try to speak positively about school, knowing that it’s an option we might one day need to make use of. Today, we celebrate that we can choose not to.
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