[In]visible Children

Before I start, I need to make a disclaimer. This is not a research-based article, there are plenty of those out there that do an incredible job of laying out facts and figures to support what a lot of home educators are saying. This is merely my thoughts as a home-educating parent on what has been in the media over the last week.

When I first saw that Channel 4 had produced a Dispatches programme with the misleading name ‘Skipping School – Britain’s Invisible Kids’ I immediately decided to give it a wide berth. I knew from the ad that it wasn’t going to be a measured and fair representation of home education in the UK. Mainly because that would make for a really boring show. Who wants to watch normal families going about their business with no drama or twist to keep you watching? It might provide a certain level of interest if you work in education or are thinking about home education yourself but it’s certainly not going to rack up big viewing numbers.

At the same time, the Children’s Commissioner released a report, looking at the increase in home-educated children but mostly focusing on the process of ‘off-rolling’ whereby schools essentially exclude children by strongly suggesting their parents home educate. She uses these (approximate) figures to support her call for compulsory registration saying

“Our investigations have revealed thousands of children are ‘off the grid’ because they are being home schooled,”

“The numbers are rocketing and no-one knows how they are doing academically or even if they’re safe. Many are being off-rolled.”

“We need to know who these children are, where they are, whether they are safe and if they are getting the education they need to succeed in life.”

It’s hard to know where to start in addressing this but I will firstly make the important point that there is a huge difference between those being electively home educated by their parents (which I think accounts for the majority of those being home educated) and those who have been forced into home educating by a failing school system. The two cannot be compared and shouldn’t be lumped in the same category. Quite obviously, children who are struggling to thrive in mainstream shouldn’t just be forced out by schools. They, and their parents, should be offered the support they need to succeed, whatever that means and wherever that sees them being placed. However, schools are in crisis with funding cuts and huge levels of teacher stress.  I know many teachers, all of whom share a passion for what they do and frustration at what is happening within the state education system. That is a separate issue and one that needs addressing urgently.

So back to elective home educators and the main accusation being made, are our children “invisible”? The answer is, simply, no! To use my own children as an example; Elijah attends an Ofsted-registered nursery once a week so that I can concentrate on more complicated school work with the older two (last year it was Egypt, this year we’re looking at World War Two and the Victorians, also whilst learning Italian). My older two attend Parkour classes once a month at a company in Marsh Barton, Sophia goes to dance classes weekly, Isaac attends football training with a local FA club every weekend, they all go to Forest School every Friday without me and we go to Church most Sundays where they go to Sunday School. On top of this are the one-off educational visits to the Aquarium, Seaton Wetlands (run by a council-funded educator), Clip n’ Climb, various museums and nature attractions and many many more. We go to the library, to the shops, to the doctors and dentist when needed, to the beach, to the woods…

Every day we are out and about and interacting with people from the average Joe on the street to professionals in their field. If asked, we are always happy to chat about home education, why we do it and how it works for us. My children are far from invisible and having inherited my love of talking, everyone they encounter is engaged in conversation with them (whether they want to be or not!).

And we are not at all unusual for home educators. The activities may vary but all the home educators I know in Devon have similar tales to tell (of which there are many and whilst I’m obviously not friends with everyone, I have probably met hundreds of families over the last 6 years). They are out in their communities, their children go to a range of activities and they certainly do not hide away, in some inner sanctum of their homes. As a friend commented the other day, ‘I don’t know why it’s called ‘home’ education, none of us are ever at home’!

The argument however from those calling for registration is that although this is the case for the majority, what about the minority that this doesn’t apply for?  The Department of Education’s official response to the report states

“Where children are being home educated, we know that in the vast majority of cases parents are doing an excellent job. ”

“We also know, however, that in a very small minority of cases children are not receiving the standard of education they should be, which is why last year we ran a call for evidence on proposals to introduce a register, as well monitoring of provision and support for home educators. We will respond to that in due course.”

So why are so many home educators against compulsory registration? I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years and read a lot of articles arguing both sides of the coin. But I think what it comes down to is the gradual erosion of our freedom as parents. Because usually, alongside calls for registration are proposals that proof of a suitable education must be made. And that is such an incredibly subjective term that it is bound to be abused or misinterpreted. Children, like adults, learn in a multitude of different ways and suitability is going to hugely vary depending on their age, ability and approach to learning. What doesn’t look like learning to one inspector will be more than satisfactory to another.

One child might learn through ‘traditional’ approaches such as listening to a teacher/parent, reading books and completing worksheets whereas another may learn simply through conversation and physical exploration. Some may need a more visual approach, some hands on, some might need to be left alone to do their own research and experimentation before emerging with a wealth of new knowledge. But what is needed is trust. Trust that parents know what is best for their children and trust that we can do it! And by suggesting inspections, registration and at one point I believe they were suggesting interviewing children as young as 5 without a parent present (something that is wrong on so many levels) you are sewing seeds of doubt into the whole process.

For me, home education is freedom. Freedom to learn how we wish, when we wish and where we wish.

To those arguing about that minority, I would say that some of the most famous cases of child neglect/abuse/death..etc have occurred to children who are known to the system. School is not the only place where children are acknowledged. Doctors, nurses, health visitors, midwives, dentists and many more professionals are in regular contact with home educated children and anyone can raise a concern, it doesn’t have to be a teacher. Where sadly neglect or severe harm is going to occur, the warning signs are often there from day one and flagged. Unfortunately, the problem is austerity and the huge cuts to public services which means that our amazing free services are being squeezed on every side. Thousands or incredible hardworking staff are overworked, stressed and simply cannot do everything that they pledged to when taking their jobs, despite trying their absolute best to look after everyone in their caseload.

I’m not quite sure what the obsession is with targeting home educators. Maybe it’s because we’re seen as an ‘other’, a group of people not fitting neatly into the normal societal boxes. Often we branded as hippies or oddities but the majority of home educators I know are simply normal people, continuing the education of their children that we do from the day they are born, at their own pace and in their own unique and interesting ways. We are simply choosing to educate our children in an alternative manner, outside of the state education system.

I wasn’t going to get involved with this latest furor. In fact I told a friend yesterday that I was tired just thinking about it. But I woke up this morning realising that like with any fight for justice, if we all buried our heads in the sand then nothing good would be accomplished. If all of us meekly went about our business, ignoring this chatter at higher levels, it is likely that we’ll be forced to undergo unwanted, intrusive and wholly unnecessary measures before we know it. I also woke up angry.  Invisible? My children are most certainly not. They are inquisitive, engaged, confident, outgoing, active and talkative. Invisible is quite literally the last word I would use to ever describe them.

 

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Stepping Away From The Tech

For the last two years, I’ve been working for The Outdoors Group, an amazing company the delivers outdoor education across five sites around Devon from toddler groups and home education sessions to specialist 1:1 intervention for those struggling to thrive in mainstream and adult training to send more Forest School Leaders into the world. We also host birthday parties and team building events. And excitingly, this year we are opening The Outdoors School, an independent special one-of-it’s-kind outdoor school, especially for ASD and SEHM learners.  I work in an administrative capacity, sat behind my laptop or on the phone, either at home or in our cosy office at West Town Farm. I never thought I’d enjoy doing admin so much but I think it’s a combination of loving being organised and being passionate about the business that means that I really do love my job and mostly find it a pleasure, rather than a chore. I like problem solving and I like helping people, both important parts of the role.

However, I’ve always said to folk when talking about what I do that I’d love to do the Forest School Leader training itself one day. ‘One Day’ was a vague concept, some magical time in the future when it would be appropriate and I’d found the courage. But excitingly/nervewrackingly, ‘one day’ has come sooner than I anticipated. At the end of February I’ll be joining a bunch of other aspiring Forest School leaders at our site just outside Exmouth for a week’s practical course to kick off the year of training required for this qualification. I am equal parts thrilled and terrified. I love learning and I love being outside but….after many years of living in houses with stoves and open fireplaces and having attended Forest School with the kids for the last 6 years, I still can’t reliably light a fire! Hopefully this week will solve that…

I’m also feeling rather nervous about the concept of actually running sessions. Sure I run activities at our Home Education group nearly every week but I’m not technically in charge there. I can corral a group of rowdy children aged 2-11 and get them involved in a structured activity but that is indoors, without the added factors of everything that the outdoors brings, including the health and safety element of it. Folk aren’t paying to be at the Home Ed group and if I muck it up, it matters not one jot!

It’s a bit of a moot point though at the moment as I’m not actually going to be in the woods doing delivery for the forseeable future I think but I like to think ahead to when that day comes. I know really, that the whole point of doing the training is to equip the learners with the skills, knowledge and confidence to be able to successfully plan and deliver sessions but still, eep!

Turning off the laptop, putting on my boots and waterproof trousers and stepping outside feels like a bold move. But one that I’m looking forward to. And even if I don’t use the training in the woods for a while, I’m hoping that it will better inform me for my role within the metaphorical ‘office’. However, even in order to make the week’s training happen has been a bit of an undertaking in terms of childcare and I owe a huge thank you to one particularly special friend and my Mum and Dad for helping Dan keep the kids occupied that week whilst he’s working from home. It really does take a village and I’m so grateful for my little one.  So here’s to stepping out of my comfort zone of inboxes and spreadsheets and entering a whole new world of outdoor learning and adventure…I’ll keep you updated as to how I get on!

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Cutting bits of string, I’ve got that. Fire lighting, watch this space…

 

New Year, New Me?!

We are finally approaching the end of the first month of the year and it’s taken me this long to think about what I want for the year ahead. We spent New Years Eve with some lovely friends and in the morning, spent some time making ‘vision boards’, cutting out pictures and words of things that we wanted to come into our lives during 2019. I liked the idea but didn’t put much as thought into it as I could have, hence my board finishing with a picture of aspargus middle and centre (meant to represent growing generally, not just a love of this particular vegetable), a bottle of gin and some other assorted outdoorsy and fitness related cuttings.

I knew from the offset that for me, 2019 was about saying ‘no’. During the last few months of 2018 I was struggling to manage with fitting everything into our lives that we wanted or needed to. I have never been good at turning down opportunities and prioritising but by December I felt absolutely burnt out and constantly slightly frantic as I attempted to get everything done whilst still saying yes to every invitation offered. So I knew that 2019 needed to be about doing less, about saying no to opportunities that aren’t right for us at the moment, about prioritising what is really important to us. I was also starting to struggle with Home Ed, I didn’t (and don’t) want to send the kids to school but I was also starting to feel the strain of having them around me all. the. time. I was starting to revert back to being a bit of a shouty Mum (which I hate) and the atmosphere in the house was on a decline. And this was mostly just because we were always rushing to fit everything in. I needed to revisit the Orange Rhino blog and remember that the children are my mirror, if I’m chilled and willing to talk through things rather than snap, so are they!

So I’ve made some decisions and had some things happen that already is helping me feel positive and hopefully, less stressed about the year ahead. Firstly, I decided not to run any marathons this year. I know that sounds stupid but I have done three in the last two years and have a growing list of races I’d like to try so had just taken it for granted that I’d run at least one this year. The training however, is fairly sizeable and inevitably eats into our time as a family as well as my own time. (Another reason is because I want to focus on calisthenics and strength training this year but that’s possibly another post – albeit maybe a boring one for most!) So I have committed to not running any races longer than 10 miles and feel really happy with that decision.

Secondly, my wonderful, amazing parents (can you tell I’m sucking up!?) have kindly offered to take the kids for a morning on a fortnightly basis for violin and piano lessons and some reading practice for Isaac and I am so excited! I’m going to pop down the road to a cafe to get some work done in peace and the kids are excited about the extra time with their grandparents.

I’m also trying to make a conscious point of not saying yes to all the incredible home education opportuities that arise on an almost daily basis. I’m starting to realise that we don’t have to go on every trip and that the children’s education will not suffer if we don’t! On the contrary, it means I should actually be able to commit to planning and executing the projects they have requested (WWII and Victorians) and that we will get some more much-needed time at home to do some structured work (and for me to get some of my work done in daylight hours rather than working to 10pm every evening)!

There are a few other things potentially in the offing but really, I think it’s a change of attitude rather than any huge monumental changes to our lifestyle which is going to have the biggest affect on me this year.  I don’t usually subscribe to the ‘new year, new you’ school of thought but this year I have used the change in the calendar to mark an end to one way of doing things. I’m going to say no to more things but also try and rebalance our life so that my work, home ed and my love of fitness all gets an equal say rather than one dominating over the others. It’s only a few weeks in but I’m feeling momentously more relaxed than I did a month ago already!

What about you all? Do you have any New Year’s resolutions or has the New Year prompted you to rethink the way you do things? Or how are you finding 2019 so far? (Brexit notwithstanding, obviously that’s just a dire shadow clouding all of us!) I’d love to hear from you!

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Keeping A Record

It’s been nearly three months to the day since my last post so I thought it was probably time to sit down and write an update, if only for my future-self’s sake, rather than for those of you that might be reading this (as let’s face it, how interesting is someone else’s life really?) No, my reason for blogging is two fold. Firstly, it forces me to exercise my creative muscles and to focus on something that isn’t work or the kids. The impetus to kick me out of my dry spell came from seeing a friend’s beautiful art work on instagram (Hi KT!) We briefly spoke about her illustrating a children’s book I was writing a long time ago and seeing her gorgeous work made me realise that I’ve been spending too much time working and not enough writing simply for the love of writing. So I’m going to try and make time to write for me, here and on my works-in-progress. It’s highly likely none of it will go anywhere but at least I’m giving it a go!

Secondly, I’m posting to keep a record of our life over the last few months. When I first started home educating I saw other families incredibly organised ways of recording and documenting their days. Unfortunately, commitment to seeing things through is not my strong point and this applies to all areas of life… I have so many half-filled records of what we’ve been up to, both from an ‘academic’ point of view and a general ‘making memories’ persepctive. This blog seems to be one of the longest lasting endeavours I’ve ever undertaken as an adult so I figure I’ll stick with it for now.

So…what have we been up to? Well, I guess most significantly, we moved house from Topsham to Newton Abbot at the end of August. It’s mad really, we’ve only been here 6 weeks or so but it already feels like we’ve been here forever. I think I’m used to moving after a lifetime of  not staying anywhere more than a few years so adapatability comes easily. The kids are getting there. They are loving the space that the new house offers but Isaac especially is missing Topsham and getting quite anxious about various things. But I’ve got a two-pronged approach to dealing with this. I’m trying to give him space to be sad and make sure we can still see our Topsham friends. But I’m also trying to maximise opportunities to explore our new area and highlight the things that might appeal to him as ‘being better’ than where we used to be. Today we went on an epic exploration of the estate next door and found two new play parks, a pretty cool pond and most excitingly (for me at least), a walnut tree! We brought home a bag full and that was pretty much the highlight of the week for me!

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Also significantly, me and Dan celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary just a few weeks ago. We did so in style by disappearing to Italy for three nights whilst my frankly heroic parents took on the task of keeping the kids alive and happy in our absence. Whilst Mum and Dad took them hiking in the Lake District, Dan and I explored Pompeii, visited the top of Vesuvius, swam in the Bay of Naples and ate all the carbs (because let’s face it, you can’t go to Italy and not eat pizza and gelato for the duration of the trip).

In the home ed world things have re-started for the academic year. The big two and I have embarked on a Egyptian project, a quest to learn Italian (to be practised on a family holiday there next year hopefully), have started a new awesome weekly curriculum with friends (looking at a different piece of art but then expanding it to look at the wider scope of subjects around it – geography, history, politics…etc), have started a new geographical themed project at our weekly social group and of course the normal reading, writing, maths and Forest School. Oh, and our Garden Group has finally got round to starting our fire circle mosiac and we’ve got some cool conservation stuff underway and lined up for the winter months. Phew! Isaac has started football training with the local team and Sophia is now doing two hours of dancing each week (musical theatre and hip hop…just to mix things up!). Eli is loving Kindergarten and was meant to try ‘Mini Kickers’ last week but lost his nerve at the last minute. Busy busy!

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Moving away from the kids, I’ve increased my hours with The Outdoors Group and am very much enjoying my work there. My long-term dream is to do the Forest School Leader Training but it’s just not the right time for me yet. I’m still trying to balance running and weightlifting but have now discovered an enthusiasm for calisthenics as well. I’ve got headstands down and am working on forearm stands and handstands now. I’ve seen progress in both these areas which is encouraging. Pole has taken a back step and whilst I really want to get into climbing, there just aren’t enough hours in the week. In running, my average pace has mysteriously hugely improved since getting back from holiday (maybe it was the pizza?!). I got my 5k and 10k PB in the last few weeks (23:44 and 52:45 respectively) and I’ve got the Great West Run in a fortnight so hoping to smash my 2 hour goal…we’ll see!

Dan’s absolutely smashing all calisthenic and weight lifting goals he sets himself, is starting a new job next month, has re-discovered his fondness for graphic novels and is enjoying having the space to play music a bit more in the new house. He’s also acquired a drone and has shown a natural talent for photography which is pretty bloody cool! I even managed to get him to agree to doing a Mountain Marathon with me once the kids are a bit older….given that he’s not a fan of cardio, I thought this was quite a feat. Of course, asking him after a glass of Italy’s finest bubbles might have been the key there!

And I think that’s us caught up. I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads because how can you condense the life of five people over three months into a few hundred words and pictures? But I’ve given it my darndest best shot! And now it’s off to investigate my children’s book and see if it’s worth reviving. I’ll keep you updated…

If you made it to the end of this, hats off to you. If you thought, TLDR (too long, didn’t read)…that’s totally understandable. Here’s the summary: we’ve moved house and gone on holiday, life is plodding along, everyone is well.

 

 

Ebb and Flow

(Little late this one I’m afraid but I still liked it enough to post it late!)

Even if you don’t make a conscious effort to mark or celebrate the summer solstice or equinox, you are probably aware that the longest day of the year was last week, a signal that we are almost exactly half way through the year. If you are anything like me, you are probably enjoying the light-filled evenings (although perhaps not the early starts quite as much – my youngest seems to be a little bit like a farmer, rising with the sun…which at 5am is just a bit too early for me at the moment!) My evenings have been fairly languid and lazy, I’ve been going for evening walks with friends, watering the parched plants at the allotment and generally fully embracing this time of year.

However, it has taken me a little while to fully acknowledge the natural ebb and flow effect that the seasons have on other areas of our lives. Recently I’ve been fretting that the kids haven’t been doing enough ‘sit-down’ work and that we have been spending a lot more time outside, in nature and on organised home education day trips. It took me a while to remember that this happens every year and for us, is just part of our normal academic rhythm. Each winter, when the weather is unwelcoming and hostile, I throw them outside for Forest School once a week and then we spend the rest of our time hibernating and engaged in quite a lot of project-based work and more traditional academic learning. At some point in the winter I start to worry that I’ve overloading them with information and that we might be doing too much and then usually these worries are put on pause by the Christmas holidays.

As the weather improves each Spring though, our ratio of indoor to outdoor learning seems to slowly swing the other way and by late June I am worrying about our lack of time spent indoors at the table! Remembering this has filled me with relief and also allowed me to fully enjoy spending as much time as possible outdoors whilst the weather is still fine. So we’ve been at the allotment enjoying soft fruit season this morning, we’re off to Tiverton Museum for a field trip tomorrow and our regular hall-based group on Thursday is temporarily moving to the beach to make the most of the heatwave whilst it’s still here.

This realisation has been a reminder of two things for me. Firstly that learning can take so many different forms; the kids can learn through hands-on maths whilst we’re pottering at the plot or at the beach, through discovery at Forest School of new plant or animal specimens, can develop their physical skills through outdoors sports and can work on their social skills almost constantly through the people we meet. Secondly, that there is so much to be gained from observing the seasonal changes around us and not fighting against the opportunities they present. So this week, I’d encourage you to take any opportunity you can to get outside and be in nature, soaking up the sun or perhaps relaxing in the shade, before Wimbledon brings with it the inevitable week of summer rain (although at least the gardeners will be grateful)!

And…breathe.

I’m not going to mince my words. Over the last few weeks, the behaviour of my children has been pretty unpleasant. They’ve been bickering constantly, there has been shouting and screaming fits (regularly) and I’ve even been hit whilst trying to help them negotiate a tricky situation. Thus far, I have been fairly successfully fostering a calm facade and have managed to avoid shouting mostly but I am so far past the end of my tether at this point that the veneer is starting to crack. What I’m most puzzled by is what is causing it. Usually I can pinpoint a reason for such a noticeable decline in temperament but this time, I am clueless. If I was going to clutch at straws I’d suggest that maybe it’s the end result of too much time inside after recurrent bouts of illness and a long wet and cold winter. I’m not convinced though. If it was just one of them I’d blame sleep or hormones but for it to be all of them (actually not so much the smallest) is a bit of a mystery.

However, I have long known the best way for me to manage through such a season of discontent. And that is with regular breaks to go somewhere, by myself, and just enjoy the peace. One such opportunity presented itself last weekend when I realised it was time to do a long training run for the upcoming mini ultra. So I laced my (new!) trainers, packed my running belt with snacks and headed out for a blissful 3 hours of running around the Exeter Green Circle. I covered 18 miles and returned with very muddy and slightly bleeding legs (I lost an argument with some brambles) but feeling much more “zen”. It’s amazing what a little bit of exercise and some time outside without the constant refrain of ‘Muuuuuuuum’ can do for your mood!

And whilst I don’t fully blame cabin fever or the upcoming full moon for their moods, it does have to be said that after a consecutive few days of getting them outside to play or walk for several hours they have been a little bit better. Granted, today in Rougemont Gardens the boys and my friend’s son drew the glances of a fair few passers by with their exuberant running, yelling and general mud covered antics. But after that and an afternoon exploring her amazing garden we returned home with everyone feeling a little happier and a little less grouchy.

I refuse to believe scare mongering of a third Beast this Easter and am living naively in the belief that it will be, if not glorious sunshine, at least not too wet or cold. I am hoping to cram in as much outside time as possible to the coming bank holiday weekend in the hopes that I can fully shake the grumps out of my kids and enjoy a few weeks off our normal routine with a little more harmony than we’ve seen of late. And if it is cold and wet, then that’s what raincoats and woolly hats are for! As long as I remember to grab my moments to breathe, then we’ll weather this rough patch and come out the other side with no hard feelings!

An ode to libraries

(Posted a little late but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sing the praises of libraries!)

Even though the kids aren’t in school, we tend to follow the local term dates when it comes to our home education. That means that this week, like families everywhere, we were faced with a week off our normal routine as we took a half term break. This actually came at a good time as everyone had just come down with another heavy cold so it gave us the perfect opportunity to rest and recover. The weather further aided this by being incredibly inclement (again) meaning that lots of time inside playing games, doing puzzles and reading books was welcomed by us all.

However, as the kids started to recover, I found myself puzzling as to how to fill the empty days when we needed to be out of the house but still indoors, and I didn’t want to spend much (or if I’m being honest, any) extra money. On one of these such days I received an email from Devon Libraries with a ‘pre-overdue’ warning and the solution was obvious…a trip to the library was in order!

The love for our libraries is strong in this house. Sophia is currently working her way through the Book Track challenge (reading 100 books and receiving badges along the way to mark various milestone) and the boys are content rummaging through unfamiliar and exciting books for me to read as well as getting to use the fancy new self-checkout machine. And me? Being a bookworm with neither the time or finances to regularly frequent bookshops, a trip to the ‘adult section’ always appeals to me as I look for something interesting to get my teeth into.

Like all public services, libraries are constantly facing the pressure of cuts, loss of funding and threat of closure. But there is a really really easy way to support these amazing community resources, and that is simply…to use them! The more of us that use libraries for borrowing books, going to the various groups and meetings that they hold, using their resources for research or printing, the more it will show those higher up the food chain (and therefore in charge of the purse-strings) that we want libraries to stay.

With World Book Day fast approaching on 1st March, now is the perfect opportunity to dust off your library card and go searching for a good book to lose yourself in at the end of a long day. And if you have small kids don’t forget to check out the various events taking place around the area. Devon Libraries are excellent at providing all manner of fun things to do for the children so it’s always worth keeping an eye out on their facebook pages! Libraries are one of the cornerstones of small communities everywhere and I think it’s fair to say, of vital importance to many. To paraphrase the old adage, if we don’t want to lose it…use it!