If you had told me when my son started school in 2011 that we would become home educators, I honestly would have laughed out loud. Coming from a family of teachers, the thought of home educating did not even come onto my radar. I will also confess the term ‘home school’ would bring up images of feral children in tie-dyed clothes – ‘an irresponsible way to grow your children’ would have been my initial thoughts. In hindsight, I am now sorry for those unfair presumptions!
When my son started school as a small 4-year-old, he was full of beans, excited to go and bouncing with energy. He is not one to sit still, yet over the months that followed, we noticed he became quieter and more withdrawn; he was constantly tired. My wife kept asking do you think he is happy? He feels different, less bubbly…? My response was always, it is just school he will get used to it and he needs to toughen up and learn to manage it (after all he had another 12 years in the system!).
My wife started to question if he was in the right school (not so much questioning actual school as a concept but, more, was a two form entry large primary school the best for him?). At the same time, she discovered a new local forest school who were keen to have kids who were flexischooled. A new term to us, but one we quickly embraced. One day a week he would run free in the forest under the guidance of a couple of leaders who encouraged risk, taught him to use tools, light fires and play imaginative games. To say he loved it was an understatement – he would come home beaming, covered in mud, the sparkle back in his eyes. And yet with this small decision came the slow trickle of ‘concern’ from friends who were worried he would miss out academically if he missed 20% of his school week. Something at the time I could not answer with a confident rebuttal, more just a smile knowing how happy he was and a growing confidence that was a critical part of being able to enjoy learning.
Then parents’ evening came, and his teacher informed us he was doing well, he was settled and she said ‘to be honest he’s so well behaved we don’t really notice him’. This of course was meant to be a compliment – he didn’t stand out academically yet neither did he cause trouble. However, the way I heard it was that my child was not a problem and as such ‘not seen’. It triggered further reflections (not angry or upset, more intrigue): in reality can a teacher with 30 kids in their class actually see each child and support their individual learning effectively? What about the fact that children learn differently? These questions coincided with the Education Minister removing the right to flexi-school which meant forest school was stopped. I had ‘moved’: from being a reluctant flexi-schooler to appease my wife, I had experienced the change in our son and now knew we needed a change. We decided to move schools and found a local village school which had only 18 kids in the class and focused on learning outdoors. We watched our son come alive again; lots of play, outside nearly every day, lots of moving around not sitting still, being quiet and listening…
Then we unexpectedly moved to a city, with a village school no longer an option, and so he joined year two of a nice city primary school with a good mix of international kids and a ‘Good’ Ofsted report. Our son was happy and we hoped the opportunities at forest school had restarted his enjoyment in learning. For the next three years we ‘did school’, his younger sisters joined and my wife juggled work in school hours, and after-school commitments. Yet, this niggle of ‘is this best for our kids?’ never went away – in reality I wish it could have stayed quiet!
There were a few incidents that led to our next decision. One of our daughters coming home, age six, saying she felt trapped at school, ‘what is the point of starting anything at school? Just as I get going, we have to stop and move onto the next thing!’. She was frustrated. For my son, there was a ridiculous conversation with his year 5 teacher who was adamant he had to do cursive writing. We tried to explain that as a left-handed writer cursive is more difficult for him, but cursive was the rule and he had to obey. His dislike for writing rapidly increased. Our school term would start quite well, but as the weeks went by, the level of exhaustion would increase, sibling relationships would break down, and home felt like a battle ground – particularly in the mornings, exiting the house to meet the ‘we must be not late challenge’. Mornings were full of stress as the kids – despite good friendships – were not keen to get to school! They were frequently trying to tell us they did not like school.
Finally in May 2017 my wife said ‘enough!’. Her avid reading of the alternatives empowered her argument to me that we had to at least try it for a year – so we did. To be honest I had been slowly worn down by the experience of the kids but also the idea (scary as it was) that there might be a better way. It felt more risky to step out, but whilst staying felt ‘safer’ it also meant pretending that we had no choice – and yet we were blessed with the responsibility of choice. So we left – or we jumped – or we fell … and in honesty we were totally ill-equipped to answer our own questions, let alone of those of our (mainly) kindly disapproving friends or family. In hindsight, that’s the hard bit about ‘stepping out’ – you leave the safety of convention and raise an unintended challenge to those for whom the safety of that very convention is itself reassuring and therefore not to be questioned. And yet… question it we did!
Fast forward five years and I am confident it was a decision well made. Over the months that followed our exit, I watched my kids come alive, their curiosity rekindled, their joy in play, their sibling relationships restored, no more early morning wake-ups and being squashed into uniform and dragged out the door. Our one year trial simple turned into our reality.
To be clear, I do not believe school is a bad thing. However, I do believe the education system needs to change, but that is a different story and not for here. What I do know is stepping out of the system has given us freedom to enable our kids’ own learning journeys. We don’t always get it right, we have good and bad days, we have friends/family who do not understand, we have had to make financial sacrifices, my wife has had to step away from her research work, we get the ‘what about socialisation?’,‘your kids won’t be toughened up ready for the world!’ questions… yet what I get to experience is three happy kids who play a lot, have friends of all ages, explore their passions, choose what they want to learn, and experience learning as fun (and does not start or end with a bell). Our family is richer in relationship and they are growing with a deep sense of self and a love of learning. On the wobbly days of doubt (being outside of convention, those wobbly days can come hard and without warning), I need to remind myself and to be encouraged that even conventional wisdom (in the main) agrees that the purpose of education is not just about ‘leaning a curriculum to pass exams’ but about cultivating a joy in creating lifelong learners (albeit that is harder to standardise as an assessment). My kids have this joy and a freedom to pursue their passions, for which I am grateful.