Anna Dusseau | 2nd March 2020
This was definitely not the plan. Homeschooling happened to us, the same way it happened to most of the families I have met since, by surprise. And I mean birthday party surprise. Not the sarcastic surprise of a flat tyre, but the kind that lights up your whole face. Do you get that often? Because, since we started homeschooling, I always feel like the kid with a pocketful of jelly beans. We have fallen in love with this way of life, although admittedly I don’t think it is a universal approach that would suit all families. It happened, in any case, to us and here’s how.
Homeschooling has risen in popularity by a growth of 40% from 2015-2017 (BBC, 2018) and now stands at an estimated 60,000 children in the UK. Also known as HE (Home Education) or EO (Education Otherwise), this approach is perfectly legal and clearly set out by the Education Act of 1996 which states that all children must ‘receive efficient full-time education…either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.’ With this in mind, however, homeschooling was not an immediate choice for us and our eldest actually spent a relatively happy year in the Reception class at our village school, before issues with pupil behaviour, academic progress and poor management became evident. Regardless of your feelings about your child’s school setting, however, it is worth noting that homeschooling remains an alternative and, some might feel, extreme educational choice. Nor is the UK statistic an entirely helpful indicator of the homeschool landscape in the UK as, with permanent school exclusions rising to a giddy 70% above the 2012-13 figure (Standard, 2020), there is reason to believe that a significant proportion of the overall homeschool headcount represents a demographic who have been forced there and who, I would speculate, receive no education whatsoever. Indeed, the press we read about homeschooling tends to be strongly influenced by this lumping together of these two, radically different, categories and mostly has very little to do with the families homeschooling by choice who are, almost universally, an educated – albeit eccentric – bunch.
So why did we never go back? Because, it’s true, my initial aim for homeschooling when we withdrew our daughter was simply to give us all a year in which to gather our ideas and research a better school setting for our children. But in less than two weeks, that goal had changed. One of the most enjoyable aspects of home education is that no two days are the same. A good place to start when embarking on homeschooling is the EO website (www.educationotherwise.org) where you’ll find details of your local home educators’ weekly meeting and other scheduled activities. But this is only just scratching the surface, because in reality almost every sports centre, museum, music group and town hall has a timetable of activities with sessions taking place for homeschoolers. Who knew? So, Monday might begin with reading or maths, followed by listening to a Geography podcast while washing up the breakfast bowls. Then it’s off to a HE music group and choir, followed by afternoon swimming lessons and piano before dinnertime. But that won’t be what Tuesday looks like at all. Tuesday could be booked for an all-day Medieval battle reenactment. And so on, throughout the week. It’s exhausting, sure, and you need to be okay with eating sandwiches on the go, but the rewards are quite incredible.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How does anyone have time for all that? And I think this is one of the most difficult decisions to make when considering the option of homeschooling. It changes your life completely. In order to homeschool you have to, quite literally, change your mindset about education and move from the school approach, where learning is delivered by the teacher, to a model where the whole family are on a learning journey together. It’s as exciting and daunting as it sounds and, the important point here, is that you may have to revise your entire lifestyle around this new and powerful philosophy. For many families, it means operating on a single income while one parent manages the homeschooling. For us, it meant a more radical change, with both parents quitting their relatively high-earning jobs in order to work part time from home and share the homeschooling process. For EO families living in the UK, there are tonnes of amazing opportunities from weekly immersive science lessons at the STEM Discovery Centre to epic HE Forest School sessions, where children emerge at the end of the day muddy and full of marshmallows, having built a treehouse from scratch. It’s incredibly liberating, but here’s the rub. Home education in the UK is classified as private education and therefore, like a private school, it is entirely at your expense. Classes and entry fees are always discounted to school prices; however I cannot deny the double-sting of a reduced income alongside the cost of activities and resources. You have to really want it.
Since we began homeschooling, I would estimate that 50% of all families we have met contain one or both parents who were former school teachers. It’s a funny thing, no? In biology, there is a term ‘indicator species’ which describes a species that may be ‘unusually sensitive to environmental changes, and biologists monitor the indicator species for signs that something is amiss in the environment.’ (Sallie Borrink, 2015) The point here, is that in the world of education, homeschooling teachers are the indicator species and the government needs to look closely at why so many teachers – myself included – who have worked within the public school system for years, decide that this is not what we want for our children. In an era where teachers are leaving the profession in droves and the drive to recruit for key subjects has reverted to the desperate Teach First television campaigns I recall from a decade ago, we must ask ourselves what is happening in our schools to make them such a toxic place to work and learn. Because this is everyone’s responsibility. And, whilst homeschooling is a luxury for families who can afford it, it is certainly not a realistic national model for the structure of education in the UK. The 2019 election campaign saw both of the main opposition parties pushing to get rid of OFSTED with claims that the current system is one that measures poverty, not excellence (TES, 2018), a sentiment which every teacher I know agreed with. But what are we, as parents, to make of this? And how do we move things forward from here? Because schools matter.
Ultimately, whether you choose to send your children to school or otherwise, you are legally responsible for their education and I urge you to grasp that duty with both hands. Homeschooling is an exciting and life-changing adventure, for sure, but I sometimes feel as though I am sidestepping a bigger responsibility here and one that is – for me – both personal and professional. I do not want, in homeschooling my own children, to evade the importance of adding my voice to the voices calling for change in the current school system. With Pisa test scores ranking the UK well below China and the US, and mental health issues among young people at a crisis point, the changes must be both pedagogical and environmental. Our school system is our collective responsibility and we must all speak up for what we want, whether we are standing outside the gates at 9am or not.
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