[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.

 

Bu

Not Back To School (again!)

It’s that time of year where the sun suddenly reappears in full force and the streets and parks grow eerily quiet, that’s right; it’s the start of a new school year. But for a growing number of us in Exeter (and beyond) there is no last minute mad rush to buy shoes or socks, no PE kit to unearth from some godforsaken corner of a smelly room (sorry school Mum friends!) and no ‘starting school’ photos. We’ve been home educating the kids since the word go and as the older two are already of compulsory school age, this year brings with it no special or meandering thoughts, merely a sigh of relief that all our groups are re-starting after drifting aimlessly for the last six weeks.

But I did think I might take the opportunity to chat a little about home education for those folk out there who might be intrigued but not quite sure what it’s all about! Firstly, yes it is completely legal! Under law, parents are required to ensure their child has a full time and suitable education, at school or otherwise. By home educating we’re falling into that vague ‘otherwise’ section! It is up to us as individual parents how that education looks, a scary thought at first but once you delve in, actually refreshing and remarkably accessible.

So why do we do it? After several years, I still don’t have a soundbite answer to that question and indeed, often ask myself it when the kids are being particularly trying! I suppose that the main reason for me is that I love having the freedom to follow my children’s interests and passions at their own pace. Many countries around the world do not start formal education until 7 and that really resonates with me. 4 or indeed 5 seems so little to be sat at a desk, there is so much playing to be done! And the great thing is that playing in itself, is bursting with educational value.

I also massively appreciate the freedom it gives us as a family, to take our learning to the beach if the weather demands it, to have a slow start if we’re feeling under the weather, to spend a day doing science experiments and nothing else if the kids have got the bug. At almost 8 and 6, my big two are on a par with their schooled peers so I don’t think they are lacking and for the most part, we are more than happy with the decision.

However, since increasing my freelance work, I have been craving a bit of a break from the kids so I can actually be a bit productive… Luckily, Forest School has saved the day! Sophia and Isaac are now both going to be attending one of their Home Ed groups every Friday for the full day. To say I’m a little excited is a bit of an understatement. I suspect Dan is also looking forward to less BBC Interview moments during his Friday meetings…

Perhaps you have found yourself nodding along with some of the things I’ve said and if you’re at all interested in home education or would like to find out more, why not join the Exeter Home Ed Community facebook group…a friendly group of folk who are always happy to help! Education Otherwise and the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS) are also great organisations and provide a wealth of information. But regardless of whether you’ll be doing the school run later this week or not, I wish all the children of Exeter a great school year!

Back to School (sort of)

The last six weeks have flown by and somehow, we’re now at the beginning of September and with it, another school year. Although we’ve chosen to home educate we still follow national term times and so have spent the summer in the same manner as thousands of other families…having long lazy mornings, plenty of beach trips, a bit more TV than usual and generally just relaxing after a year of more structured learning and activiites. This September, my number of school age children has increased to two as Isaac would be starting reception (and Sophia year 2) if the kids were at school.

Up unto this point, I’ve slotted learning with Sophia into life with the boys with us finding chunks of time wherever convenient to carry on with what she’s studying. However, I’m guessing that this year I will need to adjust that style slightly as the balance leans heavier in favour of ‘schooling’ as opposed to entertaining babies and toddlers! I will do the same with Isaac that I did with Sophia at this age and that is to take a very minimalist approach to education. 4 is still so young and I know that at school, a large part of reception is learning through play. I’m also aware that generally speaking, boys tend to be slower than girls in terms of sit down learning. Although having said that, Isaac has expressed an interest in learning to read and write so I think we’ll slowly start with that and see how he gets on. I’m looking forward (mostly!) to the challenge of working out what his learning style is and identifying the best way to capture his attention and engage him. I’m slightly apprehensive about how much Elijah might interrupt us but hoping I can distract him with certain activities or toys when the older two need my attention.

From past years experience though, I know the biggest challenge for all of us will be establishing and maintaining a routine over the first few weeks. After a languid summer of spontaneity and no commitments, adjusting to having certain groups to attend and things that we need to achieve each week will be a bit of a struggle I’m sure. The big two have also taken to sleeping in late and still being in PJs come 9am and although we don’t have to be dressed and out by a certain time, I like to get into the habit of being ready for the day by a reasonably early time. I’ve got mixed feelings about the end of summer but can at least say with confidence that we’ve definitely made the most of our summer and are probably ready to get back to some semblance of normality this week. So parents of Exeter, I salute you as the summer holidays have finished and although I don’t have the school run to do (and massive sympathy to those of you that do!), I’m feeling solidarity with you as we start another academic year.

Sophia enjoying her summer off!

(Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 5th September)

Finding what works

Since September, the number of people questioning our motives and reasoning behind home education has risen. This is of course because Sophia would have been starting reception this year and obviously hasn’t. I still struggle to have a concise soundbite answer and often end up rambling whilst the other person looks confused, concerned or just loses interest!

All I can definitively say is that right now, right here, it works for us. I guess I struggle with a short answer because I’m often talking to parents of children who are in school and I don’t want my answer to appear like I’m attacking their choice or the UK schooling system. As it is, I’m not sure the current system works as well as it could. But I’m not so pig headed as to think I have the solution. I believe children start too young, that class sizes are too large, that the curriculum is so broad and inclusive that it is hard for detailed study or specialisms to be investigated more deeply when a child’s passion is caught, that it is impossible for one method of teaching to be effective for 30 odd children. But, I have no idea how this could be fixed on a large scale. Teachers are limited by time, funding, challenging behaviour and a minefield of bureaucracy. I completely admire and salute them for their continuing commitment to their students. But in light of those observations, if I am in a position to potentially do better for my children, then why not?

I know that I am very privileged in us being able to sacrifice the second wage in order to stay at home (although we are by no means well off and operate on a pretty strict budget). And I completely understand that not every parent feels like they could home educate their children, or even that they want to. But it’s the right decision for us and every so often (and increasingly so now we seem to have found that ever elusive rhythm), I have a day that totally cements that feeling of ‘rightness’.

Today was one of those days. After a not horribly early start to the day, we got on with our ‘school’ for the day. We read our allotted books and worked on the poem Sophia is memorising. She then practised reading with one of the much loved Biff, Chip and Kipper series. We moved on to violin practice before my friend and her two daughters arrived to join us in our craft activity of the week-making beeswax candles. The older girls however got distracted with the idea of making a hammock and then a house out of cardboard boxes and were kept well occupied until lunchtime doing so. After lunch, we made the candles, an activity all four kids enjoyed. Then the big two went back to building and the younger two got deeply immersed in some playdough. After they left, we read some stories and Sophia and Isaac did some colouring and puzzles together whilst I made dinner.

It was a gentle, productive and most importantly, enjoyable day. That is not to say it was perfect, Isaac and Sophia had some small squabbles (I’ve just paused now to referee one such incident that has resulted in a screaming big girl). But it was really good. And whilst we can all have such lovely days, socialising and learning together as a family, I’m loathe to change that.

We have a pretty great weekly routine sorted now which works for us as well. Mondays and Tuesdays we tend to stay close to home and focus on our ‘schoolwork’. Sophia is currently regularly practising reading and writing and working her way through various KS1 science and maths workbooks, augmented by interactive games online and discussions/practical demonstrations with me. We also do a lot of craft activities and they often join me in the kitchen for baking or to help with dinner. On these days we try to pop out to get some fresh air, either to visit the park or local library, run some errands or do a nature walk. Fortnightly on Wednesdays the Christian Home Ed group meets and we try to go as often as we can (transport permitting). On Thursdays we go to Hedge (Home Education Group Exeter) where there are themed activities and lots of people to socialise with. We rush back for Sophia to go to her dance class before a late dinner and bed. The week finishes for us with the Exeter Forest School home ed group on Friday mornings and a quiet afternoon to rest and tie up any loose ends from the week.

I love that we’ve finally found a rhythm that works for us; it’s just the right balance of structured learning vs socialising, time at home vs time out, planned activities vs spontaneous play. I’m aware that it might not stay like this forever, circumstances and needs are inevitably going to evolve and grow. But right now, right here….it works for us.

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