[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

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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!

Home Education: the 411

A lot of people have been asking me questions recently about the in’s and out’s and how’s and why’s of home education and I realised that unless you already know people who are home educating, it must be a totally foreign concept. So, I thought I’d write a post just to explain it a bit more and our motivation behind choosing this option for our children’s education.

Firstly, is it legal? Well the answer to that is obviously yes or there wouldn’t be so many people in the UK taking this road. HomeEducation.org estimated that in 2012 60,000 UK children of compulsory school age were being home educated, that amounts to about 0.6% so a significant minority. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 which applies to England and Wales state that it is the duty of parents to secure an education for their children which

‘shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable-

a: to his age, ability and aptitude, and

b: to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.’

Home educating is covered under the ‘otherwise’ option. To this end, what you choose to teach your child is up to your assessment of what is suitable for your child and what you would like to explore with them. Your local education authority may ask to visit you annually but it isn’t a mandatory requirement. Some families accept the visit (and may find it encouraging to receive feedback), some opt out but send an annual report of their child’s progress instead and some decline to do either. You do not have to follow a set curriculum and your children don’t have to do GCSE’s when they reach that age although some families choose to do one or both of these.  The world is really your oyster.

The way that home educating families ‘do’ school is incredibly varied and ranges from those that practice unschooling or an autonomous approach and believe in child-led education with parental encouragement and access to a wide range of resources to those that do ‘school at home’ with a bought curriculum and a timetabled day.  From the many families we’ve encountered in the last few years I think it’s fair to say that most fall somewhere between those two extremes in accordance with what works best for their families. A lot of families are influenced by people like Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner and John Holt and their respective (and very different!) theories and approaches to education. It’s a wide and interesting world to explore! I also think that it’s not too broad a statement to make to say that a large majority of families choose to delay any formal learning until their children are 6/7 and keep the emphasis on learning through play until that age.

So why do people choose to home educate and not send their children to school? Again, the answers to this are varied and differ depending on every family and their circumstance. Some parents believe that children start school too early in the UK and so opt out of at least the first few years, some withdraw their children from school after problems with bullying, some do so because their child has asked to, some think their child will struggle from either being too far ahead or behind of their peers and some parents simply want to take charge of their child’s education and share that experience as a family.

And the big one that always gets asked, how do you manage the ‘social’ side of things (or lack of it as the question implies)? The majority of home educated children that I’ve met have been articulate, confident and enjoy spending time with people.  In most areas of the UK you can find home education groups where children can meet up with friends and parents can chat and share ideas and there are a wealth of ‘extra curricular’ after school activities that children can get involved in from dancing or sports teams to french classes or chess club. Rather than spending every day with 30 other children the same age as them, children who are educated at home are likely to have a wide exposure to children and adults of all ages and from all walks of life. It is often observed that home educated children get on better with a larger age range of children and are more confident with adults. A brief overview of some research related to this issue can be found here. I really think question is almost a non starter.

So why did Dan and I choose to educate the children at home? I think there isn’t one clear cut answer for us. I think that 4 is so young to be starting school and that is a driving factor for me to at least delay starting school for a few years, even if we don’t home educate for the long term. A lot of European countries don’t start school until 5 or 6 and research seems to show that this is better for the success both academically and emotionally of children. We also want to have the freedom for Sophia and Isaac to learn at their own pace, rather than having to keep up with something they aren’t ready to do yet or be bored by having to sit through lessons designed to teach them things they already know.

Aside from the three r’s (reading, [w]riting, [a]rithmetic) the national curriculum is both fairly arbitrary and also constantly changing. For example, there is no way one can study the entire world’s history as a child so why do certain moments or era’s deserve our attention more than others? Why do we study one style of art but not a certain type of music? By educating the children at home we’re hoping to be able to follow their interests and expand from there into different subjects that apply. One example that I think is great is that a child’s love of trains can result in a project that could include the mechanics of trains, mathematics regarding movement and speed, the history of trains and literature that includes trains! Subjects don’t have to be taught individually, they can all cross over and become intertwined.

Lastly, we’ve chosen to home educate as we’d like to continue the learning that is already done in the early years. I love spending time with them and watching them grow and we are loving the fact that we will  be able to explore and pursue passions and interests with them and actively participate in their educational journey.

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I hope that this post might have been of some use or interest to people and if anyone has any thoughts they’d like to add or questions to ask, I’d love to hear from you!