Sarah taught in primary education for 10 years before leaving to be a full-time parent. For the last four years of her career she was the school SENCO. When her children turned school age, she decided to home educate. She has two children, L aged 12 and T aged 11.
Why did you choose home education?
I’ve been asked hundreds of times why we chose to home educate our two children. I always find it hard to articulate but, I guess, if I had to pick one word to sum it up, it would be ‘instinct’.
Our culture teaches us to ignore our instincts, to override them, to do what everyone else is doing, and to do what we’re told. I had spent 10 years teaching, most of that in one school, with wonderful teachers and pupils. I loved it. It really is a vocation not just a job; you put your heart and soul into it. I had seen the other side though, in my supply days, so I knew not all schools were as amazing as the one I was lucky enough to work in. But even in an ‘outstanding’ school, there were things that niggled in the back of my head. Why, for example, were there so many very young children with SEN? Were we trying to teach academics to children whose brains were just not ready for it? Why did that boy, who couldn’t recognize numbers, have to be constantly drilled in the same lessons over and over, when what he really wanted to do was gardening? Wouldn’t gardening teach him some of the things he was failing to learn on paper but in a way that made sense to him? I had fantastic support in the school, including a head and a deputy who trusted me and gave me a lot of freedom in my SENCO role. The paperwork would stack up though and a lot of time was taken up in that way. But I got to do other things, too, like painting old chairs with a group of children with behavioural difficulties. They loved it, a chance to hang out, being themselves, and doing ‘fun stuff’ for an afternoon. What they thought of as ‘fun stuff’ tended to be the hands-on, real life kind of learning. I imagined these kids, who ended up being sent out of the classroom regularly, could have been better tasked with ‘real’ jobs, ‘real’ learning.
I had all of this going around in my head all the time and, when my son went to playschool and hated it, I just thought: ‘Why are we doing this?’. I knew about home education and I thought we could try it for a year, to see if it worked and if everyone enjoyed it. I had looked around schools in Ireland where we were living and, at our local school, the children weren’t allowed to run in the playground because of ‘health and safety’. I thought of my daughter, her beautiful wildness, and knew I couldn’t send her there. How could I send a child who valued her freedom as much as the air she breathed to a place where she couldn’t run and be herself? I had this gut feeling that school wasn’t going to be a good fit for either of our children, though for different reasons.
What does home education look like in your family?
Instead of school, our children played non-stop in those early years. I always think of them as these experts in play (as all children are naturally), and they would wake up each morning and just carry on where they’d left off the previous day. Our days were filled with painting and teddies and cooking and swimming and running around the woods with friends. We spent a lot of time outdoors getting muddy and many hours snuggled up on the sofa reading books together. It was joyful. I remember once, the playschool teacher came to our house and we were just leaving for an adventure with bug books and bird books, magnifying glasses and sketch pads. She had come to talk to me about my decision not to send my son back: ‘You need to make home more boring so that he will want to come to school.’ It just didn’t make any sense.
Things have changed a bit since those days. Home education changes as your children grow. For me, that is one of the greatest advantages, the ability to be flexible because school is just more of the same every year. I won’t pretend that home educating can’t be a challenge at times. We are privileged that we can do this, but it is a huge financial sacrifice and, as the years move on, that becomes more and more apparent. Furthermore, of course, it’s 24/7 parenting, with all the emotional ups and downs that growing children bring. But I’ve never regretted our decision.
L had always been curious about school though. She enjoyed being home educated, but she’s her own person, and it was important to her to see what school was all about. We feel passionately about our children being allowed to make their own choices and have their own views. She went to school for 5 months at the age of 10. It was a disappointing experience. One day they had a parent open day and I was the only parent to attend. The children in her class were cynical and mean. I didn’t feel at all welcome. There was such a hostile atmosphere. The entire set-up felt so alien to the way we lived our lives at home. I had been away from teaching for almost a decade by then and, in all honesty, it really shocked me. The school was run like a failing military boot-camp with zero respect for anyone. Any last bit of faith I had in our education system was extinguished that day. L felt the same, but she had a few boxes left to tick on her ‘school experience list’ so she stayed a while longer and then, one day, she decided that that was enough. How can anyone really learn in such a noisy and stressful environment? She’s the kind of person who needs a lot of ‘down time’ to process things quietly. At school, there’s nowhere to hide: you are forced into the company of lots of other people all day, every day.
After that short-lived ‘school experiment’ we were back doing things the way we’d always done them. At home we follow an ‘unschooling’ ethos, which means that the learning is self-directed. Our children follow their own interests and we provide a stimulating and supportive environment. They both learn in really different ways. It’s fascinating to me, after all my years of studying education and teaching, that it’s my own children who have given me the most important lessons in how children learn.
I’ve been amazed at how fast they can acquire certain knowledge when they want to or need to. L is a voracious reader and loves to write. She writes late in the evening when it’s most peaceful. She is really into an online series called RWBY and has been teaching herself to draw in Anime style. She also enjoys taking photographs and is about to start a photography course. She has been dancing for many years now and goes horse-riding and learns stable management skills.
Lots of people have commented that self-directed learners will avoid learning things they dislike and, thus, their education will never be broad and balanced. Research shows that education doesn’t need to be broad and balanced to be effective. I think the school system really gets this wrong. I remember at secondary school wishing I could spend all day painting. I look back and wonder why that would have been so bad? It’s not as if I remember or use half of the subject knowledge I acquired; in fact, I used to spend most lessons daydreaming and then just ‘cram’ at exam time. Besides, it turns out that children will often confront subjects they don’t really enjoy as a means to an end. L doesn’t really enjoy maths, for example, but recently she has decided to work on it as she understands it’s a subject that could be helpful in her getting into college, which is something she’d like to do.
T has always spent lots of time inventing things and drawing. He likes science too, especially fun experiments. He likes his learning to be experiential and has enjoyed lots of field trips over the years. He researches anything that captures his interest on the computer. He loves to go swimming and play tennis at a club. He also loves to chat: I can’t think of much we haven’t covered through ‘chatting’. We go on long walks with the dog and put the world to rights. He always says he loves his life!
My children both attend home education groups where they have opportunities to learn new skills and play with their friends. They have recently taken part in Arts Award at one of the groups and another they attend is focused on learning outdoor skills. They are both quite sporty and go to a weekly multi-sports group with lots of other home educated children. They also play outside with children in our local area most evenings and weekends and, like many children their age, they love to connect with their friends online via Skype and gaming. Socialising has never been an issue for them; they’ve always had plenty of people to hang out with. They both love animals too and we have welcomed a few waifs and strays into our home along the way.
How do you feel about the education system?
If I think back in time to our decision not to send our children to school, I remember my instinct that it just wouldn’t be right for either of them for different reasons. I know some people say that ‘school isn’t for everyone’, but I think an education system should be a place where any child can thrive and feel supported, otherwise it’s not fit for purpose. The rising numbers of home educators is an indicator of a system which is not inclusive; a system which appears to be alienating many of our more neurodiverse and creative children. The UK education system is a post-code lottery too. The difference between schools in various areas is quite stark. I often feel guilty that we had the privilege of choice and were able to opt out. I realise it’s not a choice afforded to all families.
I feel very strongly that we need to support teachers and schools better; not just with more funding, but with increased autonomy. I know lots of disillusioned teachers who have left the profession and who are home educating now. I also feel passionately about making our schools more democratic. We seem to be obsessed with children’s futures and what they will be ‘some day’, but what about taking the time to listen to their view of their needs right now and understanding the person they are today? If we could only step back and trust children more, instead of feeling we need to control them.
I believe that our education system in the UK is overly dominated by the acquisition of very narrow academic knowledge and sidelines creative thinking, problem solving and real-life skills. It is focused on learning in a competitive environment, pitting each child against the other and disregarding their mental health.
We desperately need an educational model that fosters a love and connection with nature; children need lots of free time in wild spaces. School is essentially a lot of time indoors, sitting at a desk, but it’s not who we are as humans. We are an integral part of nature, and, currently, our schooling system intensifies our alienation from it. I find that very sad.
How do you feel about the prospect of home educator’s being monitored?
As a family, since L tried school, we are now on the register with the Local Authority. It is our right to refuse visits. Our home is our children’s ‘safe’ space. We do not need or want strangers, as ‘nice’ as they might be, coming and checking on their education. For a start, I doubt they have done all the research I have done over the years and, more importantly, how on earth is a stranger going to know what’s best for our children? How is someone with no experience of home education going to understand self-directed learning? I have a very supportive family and a great home education community with lots of people whom we can call on for help or advice, or to gain perspective.
As my son so rightly says, ‘My learning is private’.