Sunday, 28 June 2009

And just when I thought no one cared

Thank you, Maternal Tales, for the award.

Some weeks ago, I took Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to a workshop. We'd driven a long way, everyone was impatient to see friends and grumpy with the journey. I'd tired my passengers with This Sceptered Isle and we'd grown impatient with word games.

But then we arrived. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger bounced out the car and started off to their teacher and group. As they sprang away they came to a sudden halt, investigated a fluttering moth, trapped between dandelions, and ran on. Our learning is like play, and I doubt the children know much difference.

I sat on a bench to wait, along with other parents. Some had phones and diaries, busy arranging lessons, workshops, outings, social meetings. Some chatted. Several sat with younger children, scattering crayons, teddies, paper, workbooks, enjoying the summer sun.

A woman, about fifty, sat next to me.

We are like all mothers, when you wait at school gates, or in the doctor's surgery, or in queues, when you might be called forward. We offer the same things. Nice weather! How many children are you waiting for? Aren't the roads busy? Her name is Mary, she says, and her son is Don.

With a laugh, Mary says she'd point out Don to me, but he's already disappeared from view, because Jack's here, and when they get together, those two are as thick as thieves, but she doesn't worry about that, only about how expensive are Don's exams and she'll suppose they'll manage somehow.

Then our talk gently turns to how difficult it is to home educate right now, how things are changing and how betrayed we feel. And then Mary tells me her story.

Don went to primary school. He was happy. There were times when the balance went wrong and school overturned family life. Mostly because Don had trouble reading and writing and Mary gave up time she didn't really have to help him at home, more when there were too many tests to do. But on balance, she said, Don was well supported, the teachers took time, and the classes were friendly.

But then school went horribly wrong. Don moved to the big school. He needed to be out earlier every morning because he had to catch the bus. And when he arrived at school, he talked different. He looked different. His new shirt looked too big for him. His hair stuck out. His shoes were too clean. He didn't fit.

At first Don simply said he didn't like school because he hadn't friends and people weren't nice to him and he felt lonely. Mary did what many mothers might do; she had a part time job, a husband to attend to, a daughter to encourage with GCSEs, and two dogs to feed. She assumed it was first-term nerves and everything would be alright with a little encouragement. Do the first half term, she coaxed, then at the holidays, we'll buy a new game for your player. Your sister was alright and now look! Loving school! Keep going. Sometimes we all have to do things we don't want.

Mary's tactic didn't work. Don became difficult, reluctant at the morning routine. He was sick. He missed the bus. He didn't want to go. His stomach hurt. The family, because they are supportive, and close, and worried about their son, were tender and understanding, and sat with him and tried to find out what wasn't right. He was being bullied, that much they found out, but who or why, they couldn't understand. Don was worried that if his mum went to the school, everyone would know and it would become worse.

Mary was discreet, of course she would be. By now she was feeling guilty, anxious, troubled. She was worried about the future years and how things would work. But the school was supportive, they listened and said they would do what they could. For a short while things seemed to be better and everyone was hopeful.

But the bullying didn't stop. It became sly, insidious. Don was punched on a bus. A child grabbed his crotch. Another grabbed his breast and twisted, hard. Janet, the school's pastoral head, was appropriately concerned. She removed children from classes and investigated. Letters were sent, back and forth, and the bullying didn't stop. The terrifying bus journeys continued.

Janet defended the school and said they had effective anti bullying policies in place. She wondered had Don in any way been more involved than he said? In any case, said Janet, the bus is not school grounds and they cannot be responsible for discipline on board the bus.

Mary said home life became hell. She used that word again, and again. Over the first year at the big school, Don had changed from a happy, outgoing, growing boy, to one who was withdrawn, difficult, obstinate, aggressive, fearful.

During the long summer holidays, Don relaxed and his parents saw glimpses of him return. He was helpful, engaged, wanted to plan the car journey on holiday to Wales, helped pack, suggested outings, looked forward to the beach, wanted to climb mountains.

Then September came again. Immediately Mary's son shrank, grew small, cried. Mary worried late into the night, argued with her family, husband, older daughter, then followed her gut instinct and gave up her job. She withdrew Don from school, and set about working out what to do. For several months they played at nothing much. She took him shopping, gave him books at home, found websites, talked with him about what he'd like to do, where they should go from here.

And that's why she's waiting now, in a workshop about trees, or beetles, or mud, or whatever, because Don loves the outdoors. More than anything in the world he wants to be a gardener and run his own landscape company.

But it's not enough. Because here comes the news reports that insist Mary is not only wrong, she's dangerous. By changing her lifestyle, ambitions, changing who she is, what she does, she's not helping her child, she'll hurt him, hinder him, stifle him, possibly abuse him. And how betrayed she felt by that, and how angry she had become, and how she thought few people outside the world of home education, which was now her main support, how so very few people would understand what she felt.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger have never attended school beyond a summer at nursery. They've never been asked to stay in a situation of fear, physical attack, dread of loneliness. But I can understand how Mary feels now, and I want other people to understand too. I try and make sense of the criticisms of home education peddled through the media, whether they've been slipped in the back door by government-spun press officers, or written by journalists who shone at school, won awards at Oxford, have chips on their shoulders about religion or difference, or who are given a monthly pay cheque to write anything they choose that disregards all our families so casually and callously.

Home educators are not a threat. We don't deserve the whiff of suspicion. Right now many feel they are caught up in a battle; we have to challenge negative views, work together even though we are very diverse, persuade people of the consequences of this review for all parents of children any age - and all the time, with potentially damaging legislation hanging over us - compulsory access to inspect homes, our children interviewed alone, an obligation to deliver 'minimum standards', plans, assessments annually, in advance and in retrospect, requirements imposed on us by the state, regardless of whether the state education system has already failed our children. Recommendations like these may put off people like Mary from considering home education. And Mary's family, and Don, will suffer as a result.

If your children enjoy school, do well there, have no problems, then please consider what it is like if the opposite is true.

1 comment:

Rubberbacon said...

I'm glad this person was able to meet you and find solidarity in the decision to home school.