As we are currently boringly ill we've put together a post we've always been meaning to do. Here's the story of how we came to home ed.
We knew about home ed back when P was a baby. We thought about it from time to time but had some reservations – probably me more than D, I think. My main concern, shared by D to a certain extent, was that our kids had enough ‘difference’ to handle having two mums and no dad, and that school was an important shared cultural experience. We were never under any illusion that school was necessarily a great place to learn, or a pleasant place to be, but we somehow felt that the surviving of it was some kind of cultural bond. We were also very keen that our kids be part of the local community, have local friends to play with, and generally feel that they ‘belonged’.
So, when P was two we put her name on the waiting list for the very well-respected local nursery school. When she was three and a half a place came up for her. It had been a tough few months since Leo had been born (he had two meningitis scares and hospital stays in his first four months) and we thought this might be a good opportunity for her to have some fun and make friends. But it was a real shock for her – five sessions a week and, though we were encouraged to ‘settle her in’, it was clear that we couldn’t keep staying. So, in the end we bit the bullet and I let the staff wrench her from me, screaming and crying, and left. It was extremely hard for all of us and now seems crazy.
We thought that, as we were planning to send her to school, she should learn to be away from us in a kinder environment than a reception class. She did settle eventually and made some lovely friends and had a good relationship with her key worker, but every now and then she would resist going and we thought whatever we did we must stand firm.
So we were on the treadmill – nursery school led to school and, at first, Pearl seemed to quite like it. She was going half days and was able to show off her reading and writing skills and make friends. But as soon as she went full-time it got harder again. She was tired and frustrated by the end of the day – and angry a lot of the time. In year one Pearl had a teacher who eventually succumbed to stress (we used to stand outside and listen to the shouting :-() after she suffered at the hands of Ofsted. Pearl was already reading fluently and able to understand far more than the maths she was ever given and it all felt like so much slog to us.
In year two Pearl had a much happier teacher who seemed able to keep order with less shouting. The school work was inevitably influenced by SATS and endless handwriting practice – but things were ok for P – she had good friends and was quite settled.
Meanwhile Leo had reached the age to start at nursery school and I took him along. He declared that he was excited and wanted to go but after being left happily the second day, he was much more wobbly the next.
D and I had decided that there was no way we were going to do the screaming and wrenching thing again, so I stayed for a few sessions. A few more years as a parent, and some overheard remarks, made me far more critical than I had been in Pearl’s day. Leo was also more able to discuss his feelings than P had been and he declared one night in the bath:
“I don’t want to go to X – even if you do stay. In my mind there’s just me, Pearlie and you mummies.”
I realized that he was saying, quite clearly, that this place was not for him – that he just didn’t need it. The previous three years of worries and doubts and dissatisfaction with the system all came together in one evening and we decided that this time we would go for it. We sent in a note to the nursery school the next day and so started our home ed adventure.
It is interesting to see what had changed in us in those three years – that we were so determined that Pearl should go to nursery school and school and yet so ready to abandon the idea when it was Leo's turn.
I think that what it came down to was the overwhelming feeling that it had not been worth it. The things we thought school would provide (friendship, community, belonging) we realized were all around us anyway. Pearl had made friends but at too high a cost. Her initial experiences at nursery and some of those in her reception year had broken the trust between us and her – we were on bad terms for some time.
Pearl had started to read spontaneously the summer before she started in reception, she had been reading and understanding three digit numbers for some time, the literacy and numeracy hours in primary school were just tedious. We went in to help in Pearl's reception classroom and were dismayed to find infant school that seemed more Victorian than that we remembered from our own childhoods. The crowded classroom and the 'jobs' laid out on tables for four year old children just did not seem like a learning environment to us. There was an agenda at every turn and it was not play based at all.
At home Pearl spent her time reading, and creating wonderful things from cardboard and string - learning through play and exploration. In school she was learning, but most of what she learned was about how to manage in school. By the time she reached year two we were tired of biting our tongues over all the things that had upset Pearlie or offended us. To be fair to the teachers and the school, a lot of the most troubling things were related to the pressures of the curriculum and the numeracy and literacy strategies, but others were just the facts of school life like arbitrary rulings by dinnerladies and the sadness of watching the children endlessly sorted into sheep and goats.
In an attempt to find others who felt the same as we did about the direction of education policy, we joined Education Now! (an organization run by Roland and Janet Meighan, which has now metamorphosed into the Centre for Personalised Education). We began reading and seeking out heretical educational ideas.
• 'Wally's Stories' by Vivian Paley,
• 'How Children Learn', 'How Children Fail', and 'Learning All the Time' by John Holt,
• 'Doing it their Way' by Jan Fortune-Wood,
• 'Learning Unlimited' by Roland Meighan,
• 'Educating children at home' by Alan Thomas,
• 'Those unschooled minds' by Julie Webb,
• and numerous websites, magazine articles and blogs.
We were easily convinced by the arguments for autonomous learning, which made the reality of school even more frustrating.
As soon as we had decided that we would home ed Leo we offered Pearl the chance to come out of school, but she chose to stay for the rest of that year. She doesn’t like change and she felt settled in her class. She breezed through the silly SATS and got the school a fistful of ‘level 3s’ – whatever that meant. She prepared herself for the move up to the junior school.
Pearl went to junior school for two weeks in the end. She started nervously – her class had been split up and a lot of her friends were not with her. On day one the teacher spelled out the rules and punishment system, including the final sanction of 'time out room'. She assigned each child a seat in the classroom and then gave every child a number and told them that they had to line up in number order. Pearlie told us it was 'too strict' and we thought it sounded extremely unpleasant. We imagined how we would feel if, on day one in a new job, we had received the 'welcome' Pearl had just received to her new school.
Pearlie could see the fun Leo was having, and had met some of the new home ed friends he was making. At the end of the first week she told us she wanted to be home ed. We wrote to the teacher, and a formal de-reg letter to the Head, and Pearlie joined us at home.
Once we had decided to home ed we realized that it was going to suit us all. We never attempted to do 'school at home' – always having had great faith in our children's ability to learn autonomously. We have had our worries over the last eighteen months but we have never regretted our decision to home educate.
There is no point regretting the choices we made in the past – perhaps they were necessary to get here – and we all met some lovely children and their parents through Pearl's school. But we are glad that, as parents, we have the freedom to follow a path that we actually believe in, and our children have the freedom to learn in their own way. And, best of all, it turned out that there is a wonderful community of home educators here and our decision has, in no way, made our children social outcasts or denied them friends.