The freedom to learn

When I took my 9 and 12 year olds out of school it was an emergency temporary measure. They had been bullied and were suffering. They were angry and hurt and as a family we were on eggshells and it felt like the only way out of an awful situation.

No family should ever be made to feel like that, it is demonstration of serious failings by the education system. Failure to provide adequate services, failure to keep children safe, failure to comply with their own “home/school agreements”. Home education hadn’t been on my radar up until the point when it was there staring me straight in the face, but as soon as we took that huge leap into the unknown suddenly lots of people began asking me questions. I wrote this post at the time back in 2014 to try and answer some of the most commonly asked questions as best as I could.  But back then it was all very new to me, we as a family had been thrown into it and we have all learnt so much along the way.

I know now that we would not look back, home education has been wonderful for us as a whole family but still people ask questions. Still people appear shocked that the younger two children will not be going to nursery or school “just to try”. The older children have thrived and are growing into wonderful young adults. They have their interests and passions and work with those, they have experienced so much and gained so much knowledge and gained practical life skills along the way.

There still sparks interest and confusion at the apparent lack of formal subject work that the children have done over the years. Because society seems to want us to believe that children learn only from formal lessons and books. It is hard to imagine a child learning and working o important English skills by writing about a subject of their own choice that they are passionate about instead of a set task. The common idea still places English, Maths, Geography, Science into their own boxes far from fun and social get togethers.  A common idea that children need to be sat at a desk to learn then leads to the  question about the all important socialisation. And then, if you get past all of those questions you get the “children need a routine so that they learn to function in the adult world, how on earth will they learn how to get up in the morning and do as they are told at work?”

The idea of unschooling hit the headlines a few months ago with the channel 4 documentary and cries for law changes and stronger measures and more powers to monitor home education within parliament and the house of lords brings all the negative media to the forefront once again. So I want to take this opportunity once again to reflect on where the last 3 and a half years have taken us, the lessons, the improvements and to answer some of these questions and expectations once again.

So, firstly unschooling is not for lazy parents who can not be bothered to discipline their children, Nor do children grow up wild and disrespectful. Its a total misconception that is easily resolved by taking the time  to talk with some of these families. Children learn to be respectful because they are respected! Its mutual, they are allowed to make decisions and learn from their mistakes in safe and supported environments. Parents facilitate learning opportunities around their childs (at times fleeting) interests. Far from that learning being table top bookwork based it may come in the form of screen time, computer games, watching films and documentaries, stories, trips out and the often forgotten yet most important learning resource: conversation!

A simple trip to a local zoo in our case incorporates masses of learning opportunities, seeing the children engaging with and talking to staff about the animals, getting their questions answered while also building their speaking and listening skills. Practising not only their reading but their comprehension by looking at the animal fact sheet boards around the enclosures. Basic map reading skills, prioritising and time keeping to be able to work out where to be and when to be able to attend the various feeding times and talks which in themselves offer so much knew knowledge to be absorbed.  Make it a visit to London zoo with friends and there we also have some social time, more map reading and time table reading and navigation. All important learning.

We have covered so much of British history through various documentaries and drama series. From the back in time for dinner series,  to call the midwife, reign and tudors to spark an interest and then fact checking and documentaries about British castles which we then visit to enhance that learning. But this time is bursts of an hour or so in an evening usually on the sofa after dinner.

We have done so many trips and visits, some have included work sheets, some have been followed up with certain viewing, seeing a location in a movie and then seeing it in person sparks a greater interest in both scenarios. Having fun in optical illusion houses cover the same science of light and reflections etc without the text book diagrams, and taking a visit to the coast in less than ideal weather can show so much of the water cycle in one go, accompanied by conversation as children see the water running down the rivers and streams back to the sea and that’s a whole chapter in the school geography text book covered. Children learn so much more successfully when interested, engaged and receiving the close attention that just isn’t often possible in a school environment.

There was a calculation I read in the early days of our home education journey, all about how much work should the children be doing to class as full time education. I will try to recreate it here from experience and memory.

An average school day = 9 till 3 = 6 hrs per day.  5 days per week, 6×5 = 30 hrs per week.    But a lunch break is approx. 1 hr,  and most schools also have a 20 minute morning break, so I need to deduct 1. hr 20 minutes a day. 6 hrs and 40 minutes a week? Lets add on to that the amount of time it takes to get the class settled, in the morning, after break and after lunch. Say another 10 minutes each day? 50 minutes, lets round that up to another hour to make way for any other random disruptions in the classroom? Perhaps an assembly? another hour? So our 30 hrs a week – 8 hrs 40 minute = 21 hrs 20 minutes. Im going to take away that 20 minutes to allow for pencil sharpening, getting books from drawers etc….   But theres about 30 children in a classroom right? So 21 hrs divided between 30 students =  42 minutes.  Divide that by 5 and it gives you 8.4 minutes of 1-1 in a day!  (That’s assuming there are no students who require more 1-1 attention and the teacher is not distracted elsewhere) It is amazing how much a child can cover in a short space of time when they are engaged and inspired. Even without it looking like they are learning.

Our formal learning has ebbed and flowed, sometimes being very full on and busy, other times we spent more time on days out and hands on experiences. Yet their learning has never suffered.

So if you are just starting out, and worried about work books, and formal work, and your child not being motivated then take a breath and relax.




A February update.

I find myself in the middle of February and yet it feels as if I only blinked. How fast do these days and weeks fly by.

My daughter, at the age of 16 went and spent 4 weeks away from home in Australia. She was able to travel 2 weeks in the outback and see some amazing sights. She is back now and will be spending the upcoming months focusing on gaining qualifications in Maths and English before seeking employment. She has had a shift of focus and wants to work to save money to travel more, this is fine by me. For years her goal has been hair dressing, isn’t it funny how adults always ask “what do you want to be when you grow up?” this seems to come up more and more when you are home educating, this assumption that you have to be working towards an end goal, that all home educated young people are ambitious and career driven or else their education is failing. Isnt it odd? I reached 33 years old and still am not ambitious or career driven. When asked what I wanted to be when I grow up my answer was always “a mum” and now I just desire happy children, a happy family. Children with lots of lovely memories is my ambition. And yet when my daughter expressed to me that she was no longer all that interested in hair dressing, her dream was to travel more, she seemed as if she expected me to be disappointed. Far from it! I expressed that I have never met anyone who grew old and said they regretted travelling when they were young, I have met many who say that they regret not travelling, seeing the world is not something that people grow up to regret. This path does not leave us with no direction, focus on basic maths and English, CV writing and interview skills to gain successful employment alongside languages gives her something to work towards and we have found a learning centre nearby where she can be funded to gain qualifications and attend to study part time so we are hoping that it is as positive as it sounds talking to the staff on the phone.

J continues to work on his art, sketching for people on request. He is looking to expand this further and will be working towards his Bronze Arts Award to gain a qualification in Art. He continues with his main interest being animals and wildlife and he has been putting a lot of work into a project about animals of the world. He has looked at different species, their adaptations to different climates and habitats around the world. This has involved colour keys and colouring areas of blank world maps, he has looked at population rises and declines, zoos and the part they play in conservation. He has watched nature documentaries and written reviews and summaries of them.

He continues to attend his weekly science class, even recently describing science as “cool” which amazed us. I never thought I would see the day that he would be so enthusiastic about a “subject”. He is taking on a Sunday morning paper round in the village with a view to earn a little bit of money while joining the village community. He attends lego club fortnightly and both he and his sister attend the teen skills session run by connexions on a weekly basis. They completed their recording studio work and bought home their cds, and have spent the first half term of the year focusing on health and fitness. This has reignited Js spark for health and he is taking more care over what he eats and making the effort to be more active. He acknowledged that seeing less of certain friends meant he spent less time running around and went about resolving that by exploring our new local area.

The  small people are hard work but a constant source of enjoyment for us all. Both always learning new things. N is showing a keen interest in numbers, his independence is increasing and always something new to explore. M has learnt to walk, we get a very clear mum from him and his older siblings love the way he walks to them giggling.

We enjoyed a lovely few days away in Scotland, we learnt a lot about the Jacobite rising and the boys got to experience sledging in the snowy mountains and spotted red squirrels.

The snow drops are starting to peep out, spring is on its way, and with it, more adventures.