Friday, 20 February 2015

Question and Answer: Home Education

Here are the questions you asked, and here are the answers.

Q: Why did you decide to home educate your children?

At which point does a parent make a decision about their child? Is it in a great moment of need where the imperative to act comes without thought of consequence? The decision made. Life changed.

Or is it time accumulating, gathering experience, observation, thought? A slow, creeping, half-conscious growing, where no point is greater than any other but which leads to that same end. The decision made. Life changed.

In me, there was no sudden revelation, no conversion, no bright light of illumination. But a gnawing gut that 'things around me do not fit together'. I cannot now recollect the order of events which led to 'the decision', and I cannot make a sensible start to order events.

Should I start with my own experience of school? My work with adults who left eleven years of school behind them, yet still unable to read and write? My practical classroom work on my teaching practice? Reading Ivan Illich? Talking with people, more experienced than me, about education around the world? Thinking about what I saw and what I felt? Watching how my child learned?

All helped make the decision to home educate my own.

But I expect your task is made easier with soundbites and bullet points. They are quick currency to trade opinions in an instant. Then have soundbites and bullet points. They are in no particular order, and I stop typing at twelve o'clock.

1. My children went to nursery aged four. One year of 'things do not fit together'. The experience made up my mind, and I took my children home on the last day of nursery with a happy heart.

2. Once, on teaching practice, before I had children of my own, I saw a teacher separate two friends at primary school. They were to sit on separate mats. They didn't want to be parted. They cried. The teacher raised her voice. She instructed them to follow her commands. She said, 'Everyone is waiting for you'. It was a humiliation of their emotion, of sorts. I wanted to know, Why were human relationships considered less important than a procedural classroom task? But I could not ask this question in school. It would be a question for which there is no answer. But the question came back again and again. What if we created a way of learning that prioritised relationships? This seemed crucial for me with a child aged four, when her social relationships with her family were more important than anything in the world. So I home educated because I wanted to ask questions about learning. I wanted to watch how she learned; I wanted time to observe, and find answers; I wanted to think and grow, and in this, I knew that I was just like my child. We were starting from the same base and a mission for both of us was to discover how the world worked; why people act the way they do.

3. I could see the practical reality of school, looming. How my children rarely wanted to leave what they were doing to take the drudging, grudging, slow walk to nursery. At home, one child would confess that her sister hid in the toilets. I thought 'Why have I taken these children from what they were doing - playing happily together in the garden on a sunny day - so they can be miserable and scared in a closed room hiding from people they don't know'?

4. I couldn't suppress this instinctive feeling - that a single room was a physically unhealthy place to put a young child. And for several hours each day? This seemed to be the opposite of what I thought a young child should have. I think of that steam of childhood. It should be free to run about, jump up and down, the trial of bodies against sky, rain, wind, stretches of grass - every blade of it a journey to the stars. I wanted my children to do this: to exercise their limbs, express themselves physically, move from one place to another under the restless energy of their own being. How could I tell them we can no longer go out every day to know wildness; they must now sit still for hours at a stretch, move only when they are told and, when playtime is over, they must tuck away their limbs, shut up their restlessness, and suppress what nature compels them?

5. One day I went to pick up my daughter from the nursery. She was piling up blocks on a table. The teacher was sat next to her. As I entered, the teacher covertly slipped the clipboard she was holding so that it was hidden, under the desk. On the clipboard was a tick-box assessment of my daughter's capabilities in moving her hands; her gross and fine motor skills. I thought, No. You don't teach my child that the role of an adult is to silently watch and assess what you're doing; to quietly test you against a list of criteria that you have no knowledge of, are powerless to interact with, and with what purpose of collation you don't understand. That is not how I want my child to understand her relationship with adults - one of surveillance and accountability of knowledge. I want her to be able to speak to adults eye-to-eye, level-to-level, to ask an honest question and receive an honest answer.

6. The first day at nursery we ended up in A&E. The nursery staff had shouted 'Who wants to watch a video?' My three all sprang up at once; one knocked the other into a table; she cut her eyebrow. I did what I was told all the way down the line. We ended at A&E for three hours. At bedtime, I thought, Why did I do that? Why did I obey everyone? Why didn't I take my daughter home, douse her in Dettol and strap bonding tape to her wound? How come I had been so swiftly institutionalised? If that happens to me - if I give up my power, my decisiveness, my independence - all so readily, then this will happen to each of my children. Do I want that they will be submissive to the command of others in the world? Or do I want that they will grow as people who feel they can judge the world for themselves, make their own decisions, and make the world?

7. On another day I went to pick up my whimsical wondering child. She asked a question - one of those questions that whimsical wondering children ask - why is the earth round why is the sky blue - and the teacher said 'It is because it is'. The teacher meant: 'accept things the way they are'. The context said: do not ask questions for which there is no time or inclination to answer'. Of course the teacher did not have the time to say, 'That's an interesting question! I hadn't thought of that before. Let's experiment with soil and see if it glues together in a ball. I wonder why little things glue together in spherical shapes?' The school context does not have the time to respond to individuals. It cannot stop to spend two hours playing, and wonder why the earth is round.

8. The language of school is duplicitous. At the nursery, the staff always referred to the playground as 'The Garden'. The first time, we all went to see in great expectation. There were no plants. No grass. No garden. There were iron railings with spikes, a concrete rectangle, and some plastic trucks. This is language teaching black is white and white is black. I live in a reality, and I strive to articulate my reality. I do not want to adopt false and misleading language; I do not want to impose what I know to be a lie on my child for the convenience of others; it would be to allow others to take power over me, my language, my reality and my relationship with my own.

9. I observe the fracture between the language used in school and the reality I see. I hear what is said: You are all individuals; you all achieve according to your work and your effort. Then I see hundreds of children sat in rows wearing identical clothes, modelling the behaviour of limbs demanded by the physical space and the discipline of the staff. The encouragement given is not so these people can become different from each other, but that they settle into a norm. Difference, uniqueness, individuality of ideas and expression, these are not encouraged. The language says they are, but the visible and lived reality says they are not.

10. Perhaps we parents are simply difficult when it comes to fitting in. We looked at what school offered us as adults and we didn't want it. We were not prepared to have ourselves, our family time and our home time dictated to us by the administrative requirements of an institution. We would not, as parents, have been compliant with paperwork, clocks, demands for black trousers or reprimands about zipping bags and apples. We would probably have received letters about our behaviour.

11. I do not believe in school league tables.

12. I do not believe in uniforms for primary children. I think uniforms crush individuality and force a character to submit to a visual language which is not theirs.

13. I believe the National Curriculum crushes creativity at primary: I heard art was consigned to indifferent doodling on a Friday afternoon; dance disappeared; listening to music was not there. But we live in a rich and exciting world where all these sensory experiences are there. Why not live in this world and immerse ourselves in it? How can it make sense to deprive a growing child of these sensory creativities? An education in the arts is too important to trust to a school.

14. I wanted my children to learn what they wanted in the way that they wanted; in a way that made sense for them. Even if it made no sense to me.

15. One day, shortly after we decided to home educate, I spoke to a friend whose daughter had gone to school. She told me how she had gone to pick up her child; the children had been doing a project on owls. There, on a tray, were 30 owls made from cardboard cut outs. She said it was the most depressing moment of her day. All the owls were exactly the same. She could not tell her daughter's owl apart.

16. I do not believe in excessive health and safely and risk assessment requirements which reflect a school's insurance position but bear no relevance to my child's life. I want my children to take risks. I want them to climb trees, play in rivers, do stupid things to their thumbs with hammers, and I expect to be with them when experimenting with fire requires a bucket of cold water and a tub of burn cream.

17. I wanted my children to play, freely. Hours of purposeless rambling play with unicorns and feathers and buckets and whatever came to hand. I did not want to direct their play. I wanted their play to be theirs, possessed by my children as special and unique to them. I believe it is not the role of an adult to impose routes and pathways and outcomes and assessments on a child's play.

18. I wanted us as a family to eat together, get round the table together, and share food everyday. I did not want to be pushed into the routine of school: provide a kiddy tea time so they can do homework and get to bed early. This is for the benefit of school. It is not for the benefit of our family life.

19. I do not believe in homework at primary school.

20. I wanted my children to learn the society in which they are a part, by taking part in that society - by shopping, visiting libraries, community centres, museums, galleries, public spaces; by accompanying me when I needed to pop in and out of offices, drop things off, make deliveries, talk to people, run a household. I wanted the children to see how we spent time and used our social and business spaces. I wanted to explain things I saw in the street and on our journeys. I could not see how sending my child to school could ever involve them in the same detailed experiences. How can it, when the local school shuts everyone inside and keeps a padlock on the gate?

21. I did not want to waste my emotional and intellectual energy trying to circumnavigate rules, regulations, and restrictions over ultimately pointless issues of the school system like 'What is in your lunch box?' This is wasting time when we could be exploring the world. I think the school system is designed to waste time: it fragments tasks, disrupts time, introduces non-controversial controversies and, in effect, stops people inquiring. In this, school is an anti-educational system.

22. School is a service offered by the local council. It is not a compulsory service. There is no legal requirement on me to send my children to school. I have the choice as a parent. I want my children to know the same: they can choose how to live their lives; they do not have to feel they must do something just because everyone else does it, or because they are told they must do it. They need to know the law; their duties, rights and responsibilities as a citizen, and set about a course which balances these demands.

23. I wanted to be able to sit up reading with my children when they wanted; I wanted the children to play late if the mood took them; what if they wanted to go out at dusk and find bats? I wanted my children to find their own rhythms of sleep and wake, of play and rest; their own clockless patterns of inquiry and purposeless footling. This is a joy to me, to have the sway of the day led by a wondering. 

24. Childhood is such a short and valuable time. Why turn a child's interest into what an adult thinks they should be doing?

25. We had everything we needed for a rich primary education at home. Books, talk, a kitchen table, a casual approach to mess, running water, a sense of humour, places to visit all around us, and time.

26. Many, many, people home educate. There are dozens of local groups: we have several in a small area with parents organising the most tremendous activities. I had confidence that I would meet parents who were were lively, directed, well-organised, independent minded and filled with ideas about childhood and the possibilities it offered.

27. Home educating seemed to make sound economic sense when we looked at the family outgoings on an annual basis. We did not need to buy uniform, make a contribution to a school fund, provide on-going school items, nor take holidays at the most expensive time of the year. We could holiday at the cheapest time of the year and wear our old clothes.

28. I wanted my children to remember their childhood as fun, ridiculous, silly, brave, adventurous, wandering, playful. I wanted them to remember how they could spend hours playing and following their passions. I never wanted them to stop saying to me, 'I don't want the day to end'.

29. Experiential education is not a new philosophy; the Ancient Greeks nailed it by advocating learning through experience. I do not think Aristotle had in mind 30 kids in a room looking at a picture of a river in a geography text book. The river? We can go play in it, swim in it, and try building a raft for it.

30. I wanted to show my children the world. The world could be Australia or Wales, it didn't matter to me; I wanted to point to the world, and talk about it, how it worked, how I didn't know stuff, how a person could make an impact in it. How everyday is a place of mystery and surprise and wonder and delight. Why would I give up all that amazing world to a teacher in a school who couldn't leave the classroom?

31. I knew we would not be at home all day. Why do people think we are? Should I list the places we have visited from the corner shop to the streets of the old town in Sana'a? The world is our classroom. I wanted to be in it, with my children.

32. Gender politics raised its head at an early age. At nursery, my daughter wanted to play with the plastic trucks. She never felt strong or brave enough to take them from the boys who monopolised them.

33. My daughter was fearful of the staff. They had inexplicable and apparently arbitrary authorities. They commanded bells and whistles, pointed and shouted. It made no sense to her. Often, the rules made no sense to me, either.

34. I taught in a secondary school. Take these events as typical: One child set a table on fire; another brought a replica gun to school; I found that my book cupboard was used as a place to stash heroin wraps; one girl got pregnant; another routinely disrupted the class by throwing furniture; one boy deliberately got himself suspended so he could spend time at home with his dad; the language from the children could be foul, brutal, demoralising. Schools can be tremendously forgiving places; they can be great places with strong team spirits; fun events can happen there. They can also be places where intimidation and brutality is a daily experience for administrative staff, classroom teachers, and children. They can be sink or swim places. A strong school can swing to become a weak school within a term. It's chance, haphazard, a muddle-through environment. Why should I chance it with the people I love most in the world? Why put my children into what can become a brutalising anti-social environment?

35. I observed how children teach themselves. I can speak now, at the other end: my children are aged 15. They have each taken an IGCSE to find out the exam system; to help focus their thinking on what they want to do next. They all taught themselves to the exam. As students, they are self-disciplined, they organise their time, they manage their approach to learning, and they arrange their resources appropriately to a deadline. My job is not to 'teach' them their subjects but to support them in their life choices; to provide the structure and the safe background in which they can trial ideas, approach problems, and come up with novel solutions.

36. Here is a motto which has guided me: Be imaginative enough to think what you'd like to do in life, and be brave enough to carry it out. I wanted to spend time with my children. I enjoy their company. They are a source of constant delight and intrigue. They annoy me, and get in my way. They make me laugh more than anyone in the world. They have led me into amazing adventures and taken me to places I would not have otherwise have gone. They illuminate every day. They are obstinate and wilful. They take after their father. Working the days together in the way that we do gives us plenty of time to be together, laugh together, talk through problems, think of approaches to issues, share ideas and discuss things of our everyday. What more could I have asked from a family?

Q: Have they ever been to school? If not why not, if so why did you take them out of conventional schooling?

I think I answered this above.

Q: What has been your experience of home educating your triplets?
I think you can see the nitty gritty of life inside the grit's day blog. That is one reason it is there; for others who may be considering home education to wrestle with some practicalities.

Q: Do you think they have missed out on anything by home schooling them?
Do you think children who attend a conventional school have missed out on anything? 

Q: How have you coped as a parent? Have you ever struggled to challenge them academically or with having your children at home all day?

We all 'cope' as parents. We all face days which are crap, anxious, fearful, horrible, when the gin can't pour quick enough and a rope in the woods seems like a workable solution. We all have days which are joyous, frivolous, bizarre, enervating, wondrous, when we don't want the day to end. Why does home education make any difference to parenthood?


Fiona said...

Calling the playground the garden is appalling. Incidentally, I was casually going to sign in with my new blog account but I now realise I can only sign in with google so now I can't link to the blog for fear of looking like I only replied in order to promote myself.

Deb said...

Oh, Grit. I do so adore you.

Yes to everything.

Maureen said...

Ugh. At 8 and 12, is it too late to try?