Groundmark Learning

Groundmark Learning

We have made use of Groundmark Learning for several years. They are based in Leamington Spa and Coventry, so my children used to go to Ian Richards (founder) for maths. The idea was that they would be prepared for their maths IGCSE and they were able to join a group of home educated children for weekly tutoring, which was significantly more affordable than one-to-one tutoring. Ian is very highly thought of amongst home educators in this area as he does a great job of preparing the children for exams in a calm and methodical manner.

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ian took all his tutoring online, which means that classes can actually now be accessed from anywhere. When all exams were cancelled, my daughter was able to go ahead with her maths IGCSE as Ian was able to work with the exam centre to provide tutor-assessed grades. This was a huge relief to us in a somewhat stressful and uncertain time.

In the following year, with most exams still cancelled, I needed to ensure my son stayed on track with his plans to gain a couple of IGCSEs. He continued his tutoring with Ian, but we also signed him up with Elaine who tutors English for Groundmark Learning. Elaine was extremely positive and supportive, and was able to prepare my son for the tutor assessment process that summer (a period of about 5 months).

My son related well to both Ian and Elaine, and felt that they provided him with an organised programme of preparation which helped him to feel confident and equipped throughout the various tests and mock exams which would allow the tutors to assess him. We have made use of other tutors, but my son has felt that Groundmark Learning provided him with the best tutor experience. Ian and Elaine were both very accessible and responsive when any questions arose, which provided us with a stress-free and supportive experience.

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind: Part 2

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind: Part 2

In Part 1, I explored the importance of priorities and motivators in our home education approach, and cannot stress enough what a hugely positive impact it can have on you and your family if you take the time to work through these together.

Now we will look at other factors which are worth considering as part of your home education approach.

1. Emotional, physical, mental development
Every parent knows that children develop at different paces physically, emotionally and mentally. This is one of the main reasons why the “one-size-fits-all” approach of school will not work for many children. Physical size does not always relate to emotional age, or mental ability, and expecting all children of the same age to perform all tasks at the same level is unrealistic. I think it goes without too much explanation that we should take our own children’s unique individual needs and development into account in respect of our expectations of their abilities.
2. Readiness
Learning occurs most efficiently when a child is physically, emotionally and mentally “ready”. There is no magic age at which all children learn to read, or master specific skills. The wise parent waits until the child indicates that they have everything they need to want to move forward with learning a new thing (much like potty training). When the child is ready, learning happens naturally and without much fanfare. The child is given the tools they need, and off they go!
3. Learning Styles
While not everyone agrees on learning styles and whether they are a “thing” or not, in my experience some children learn more by doing, others by watching, or by reading, etc. As a parent it is useful to take time to observe what gets your child excited, or how they process new information, and factor this into how you facilitate their engagement in learning.
4. Motivation
As obvious as it might sound, it is pointless trying to force an unmotivated child to learn something they have no interest in, or no need to learn. Either you, or you and the child will invariably end up frustrated which tends to have the opposite effect to the one you were going for. On the other hand, a child who is excited and motivated to learn needs hardly any encouragement. Teachable moments can be grabbed and made much of while they last.
5. Positive experiences
Engaging with the world together, discovering and exploring in a happy and joyful way, creates many positive memories, which make the child eager to repeat the experience. The opposite of that is when outings and activities are associated with stress and unhappiness, which is counter-productive to learning.
6. Respectful relationships
Charlotte Mason famously said “Children are born persons”, challenging the idea that children are things to be controlled, possessions to own, or subservient, lesser beings. Maintaining an environment of respect encourages meaningful discussion between parent and child, and supports the child as they seek, within a climate of safety and security, to understand the world, nature, and society.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

As with most theoretical models, not all are in agreement as to the validity of the hierarchy of needs proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. However, I think we can all agree that a child’s ability to learn and engage in learning will be negatively impacted if their urgent physical needs are not being met, or if they are experiencing extreme anxiety, worry or fear.

The Wardrobe

This is a metaphor I like to use for understanding how children gather and retain information. Imagine your child’s brain as a wardrobe. If you simply throw information at the child, it is likely that much of it will end up in a muddle, much like a wardrobe where clothing has not been hung up properly. In order to find items in a wardrobe, we need a clothing rail, with hangers that the clothing can be hung onto so we can see everything. Your child’s brain is much the same. Their questions are like hangers, with their own frame of reference providing the rail for the hanger which holds the answers to their questions. If the child isn’t seeking the information for themselves, and is not curious about the subject matter, it is often unlikely that they will retain the knowledge at all!

PLAY! PLAY! PLAY!

Maria Montessori said: “Play is the work of the child.”

In this video Randa Grob-Zakhary, former CEO of the Lego Foundation, explains the benefits of play for children.
The importance of play for a child cannot be underestimated, and in the primary years, play is to be encouraged and facilitated as much as possible. Play is essential for:
1. Cognitive development: how children think, explore and figure things out. It is the development of knowledge, skills, problem-solving and dispositions, which help children to think about and understand the world around them
2. Socio-emotional development: the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others
3. Content knowledge and skills: The child’s play may involve gaining new knowledge, and practicing new skills, imitating adult interactions and conversation. For example, building with Lego blocks teaches the child basic engineering skills.
4. Physical Development: through play, a child improves both gross and fine motor skills
5. Whole-child development: A child who is completely immersed in games and play is having all their needs met, and will be 100% engaged physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally
6. Productivity: Children love play where they are able to make and create and be productive. This encourages feelings of success which builds up confidence.
7. Understanding cause and effect: Many games help children make the connection between action and reaction, consequences, and overcoming failure
8. Critical and creative thinking

Play and learning are not separate things.

Learning happens best when we:
• Do it for ourselves
• Involve the whole personality
• WANT to learn
• meet some personal need
• want to make sense of a subject
• build or make things
• think things
• want to survive and thrive

Checklist for parents:

 Know your child’s character/temperament/ability/gifting
 Know your own strengths and weaknesses
 Know your priorities
 Understand what influences you and why
 Understand how learning happens and the role of productivity in learning
 Understand how learning happens best for your child
 Live life, and let your children live it with you, witness your learning, and be released to learn for themselves.
 Expose children to the world they live in through dialogue, where they can engage in discussion in a safe environment
 Be ready to support and facilitate when needed
 Create an environment that is supportive of learning, and stimulates it
 Practice faith/beliefs in a meaningful way with children
 Don’t be afraid of the hard questions, but seek to find the answers together

Deschooling myself

Deschooling myself

“Do you remember when we learned all about the Sumerians when you were younger?” I asked my 18 year old daughter. “We dressed up, made different foods, and even did a puppet show?”

Looking at me blankly, she responded “No, I don’t remember doing that!”

We used to get together with a couple of other home ed families every week to cover different civilizations from history. The mums went to a great deal of trouble to prepare activities, and engage the children in a fun and positive way. But years later, I was to realise that even when a parent manages their child’s learning activities in what appears to be a meaningful way, if a child is not particularly interested in the topic, and their own curiosity is not driving their learning, it can have the same result as if the child had sat through a dry and boring classroom session. This was somewhat of an epiphany for me!

Further proof came during another conversation with the same daughter. We were talking about Ancient Egypt, and she made an offhand comment about Cleopatra being Greek. I didn’t recall us ever covering Cleopatra in any detail in our history sessions, so I asked her where she had come across that knowledge. “Oh, Horrible Histories!” was her answer.

One of my tactics to encourage the children to read was to leave a variety of different books in baskets around the house, hoping that they might pick one up occasionally when bored. This was how she had come to read about Cleopatra’s Greek heritage. This random bit of reading had stuck with her, whilst our very engaging and fun history session had not!

This is why as I have continued with my home educating journey (now in our 23rd year), I have become more and more “hands-off”. The non-negotiables remain “Please make sure you do some maths and some english every day”, but pretty much everything else is about noting the child’s interests, doing what I can to feed it (and fund it, in some cases!). We have attended home ed groups over the years, and the children have still participated in whatever activities were on offer, sometimes exploring more on those subjects after. We still have many educational chats, encourage our children to expand their horizons, and “go and look it up!”, but have abandoned most of what would be considered traditional schooling, particularly in the primary years.

Based on my years of home educating 7 children, my approach now is so very relaxed that I am barely involved, unless the children have asked me to be. During the primary years, I encouraged my children to learn to read and write by reading to them, and as they got older, giving them workbooks to do so that we knew we had covered the “need to know” stuff. We did the same with maths. I view these subjects as needing to be a steady building of a wall, row by row, making sure the foundations are solid. I didn’t tend to get too formal until they were around 8 years of age, and then we eased into it. Most of them were already reading by that age, learning fairly painlessly and as they were ready. But most of all, I wanted them to PLAY!

I believe that our society today vastly underestimates the great value of play for a child. Maria Montessori said “Play is the work of a child”, and it is how children learn and make sense of the world. For many home educated children, play eventually leads to interests, and developing of those interests can lead to a vocation. I would let my son have 3 day Lego or Duplo building marathons, watching as his building and thinking skills developed in huge leaps as he figured out better ways to build things.

Through play, a child figures out problems, comes up with creative and imaginative ways of filling in gaps, practices relationship skills through roleplay, comes to terms with feelings and emotions, and so much more that might seem intangible, yet lays the foundations for who that child will become as they grow older. And then of course there are other benefits like improving eye-hand co-ordination, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, etc.

Former CEO of the LEGO Foundation, Randa Grob-Zakhary, states in this presentation that play is essential for “whole child development”, and that some of the things which are developed through play in the preschool age are “more predictive of life success than your ability to read when you’re four”.

Through my now many years of home educating, my approach has gradually shifted from a more formal, planned format for my children’s education to a model that encourages my children to take ownership for their own lives and their own learning. My role as a parent is to keep them safe, guide them when necessary, but otherwise to not restrict their natural ability to learn, their natural curiosity. As a result, my younger children have benefited from my more relaxed but supportive approach, pursuing subjects they are excited about and planning their own route to chosen careers.

I sometimes wish I’d had someone to talk to back in those early years when I was starting out: someone who might’ve helped me to take a step back and consider learning as a far broader concept than “schooly” subjects. Home education offers so many amazing opportunities for giving our children freedom to just “be”, to discover the joy of mastery, and to have the thrill of heart, mind and body fully engaged in learning curves. If you haven’t taken that step back – I hope this story will encourage you to do just that!

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind: Part 2

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind: Part 1

People home educate for different reasons. Some parents know before they even have children that they want to educate their children themselves, whereas others find themselves home educating because a school environment is simply not working for their child, or they believe they can provide their child with a more personalised, supportive approach. Regardless of what gets you started on the journey of home education, many parents find themselves uncertain of the best approach to use – should they try and retain the structure of school? Should they buy workbooks? Should they have a curriculum, and hold their child to government-imposed standards? Our reasons for home educating are often what defines our ideas about what that education should look like. If you’ve had time to prepare yourself and do a lot of research on home education, you may have a very clear idea of what approach to take, but very often we come to home education with preconceived ideas and stereotypes ourselves.

Understanding our ‘WHY?’ Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Why have you chosen home education?
  2. Why do you follow the approach that you do?
  3. Why do you use the methods you use?

And the ‘WHAT?’

  1. What motivates us to home educate, or motivates us to home educate in the way we do?
  2. What drives us?
  3. What frightens us? What fears are shaping how we educate/raise our family?

When you spend some time exploring your WHY and your WHAT, you might find that there are some NEGATIVE MOTIVATIONS behind the approach you have chosen. Here are some examples:

  1. Pressure from friends and family – Do you find yourself making sure your child does certain types of work to ‘prove’ to others that they have “done schoolwork”?
  2. Fear of failure – Are you concerned that your child will ‘get behind’ and that others may criticise you if your child does not appear to be performing according to a school-defined standard?
  3. Comparison – Are there others around you that you compare yourself to whose children may be in school or home educated? Are you being drawn into unspoken ‘competition’ with others?
  4. Emotional “baggage” – Consider your own experiences, fears and regrets and whether they affect your educational approach
  5. Fear of authorities – Are you concerned about needing to prove yourself to your Local Authority, doctors, etc? Is this informing your educational choices?
  6. Feelings of inadequacy – Some parents are told they are ‘too thick’ to educate their own children successfully or have experienced educational failure themselves. This need not impact your ability to educate your own child.
  7. Desire to please others – This links to some of the other points above, but could result in you making certain choices because you are trying to make others happy.

It is really important for you and your family to ‘clean up’ your WHY so that you can make positive educational choices, uncorrupted by these negative motivations. It can be beneficial to examine these negative motivations and baggage we carry around with us, and work through some of our own issues. How we process these depends very much on personal beliefs, philosophies and upbringing, and sometimes we might even need someone we trust to help us. It can liberate us for the journey.

In this blog I hope to share with you some ways you can flip to POSITIVE MOTIVATIONS which will lead to a more positive approach that will be in the interests of your child and your family.

We are going to ask ourselves the questions:

  1. Where do you want to go?
  2. What is really important?
  3. What does success mean to you?
  4. What outcomes do you want for your children?

Some of you may have heard of this powerful demonstration:

A speaker stood behind a table on which were a large jar and a container of rocks. He filled the jar with rocks and asked if the audience thought the jar was full. When they replied “yes”, he took a box of pebbles from under the table, and managed to shake them into the jar, filling the spaces between the large rocks. Was the jar full? The audience replied “yes”. But the speaker produced a canister of sand, and was able to pour it between the gaps between the large rocks and pebbles. Finally, he showed that the full jar could hold even more by adding water to it. The moral of this demonstration is that you must put the big rocks in first! If you started out by putting pebbles, sand or water in the jar, the big rocks won’t fit! The ‘big rocks’ of life must be dealt with first or smaller things will crowd them out.

As a family you need to decide what your big rocks, pebbles and sand (and water) are, so that you can consign them to the correct place in the order of priorities. Here are some examples, although, of course they will differ for every family.

There are so many activities, interests, opportunities and problems vying for our attention that we can easily get sidetracked if we don’t focus on what we regard as most important. If you make sure you fit your ‘big rocks’ into your day you can ensure that they don’t get lost in all the busyness of life. They will form the foundation and help support the vision you grow for your family’s home education journey.

In Part 2, I will look at other factors that might shape your approach to educating your children.

Tutors and Exams

Tutors and Exams

For home educators in the past, finding a way for children to sit exams has always been a bit of a challenge. It usually involved calling up one school after the other to find out if they would be prepared for your child to take their exam there as a private candidate. Sometimes you would get lucky and find a school that were willing, but more often than not, schools would decline, as it created more administrative work for them, and they didn’t want the bother. Other times, they might initially agree, but you might find out they didn’t offer the exam board you were after, or were unable to assist with assessments, or help with SEN requirements. And there was always the possibility they might cancel your entry, or some other issue would arise, leaving your child high and dry. If you were successful in locating an agreeable exam officer, it was to your benefit to keep the relationship positive to pave the way for future co-operation.

In 2014, however, Tutors and Exams opened their very first private exam centre in Coventry, UK, creating a whole new option for home educated children wanting to access exams. They now have five centres across the UK – Coventry, Bolton, Wimbledon, St Neots, Wimbledon and Doncaster – and are expanding to South Africa at time of writing.

My daughter sat her first exams through Tutors and Exams in 2015, and we have used them for all our exams since then. They have all found the experience to be positive and stress-free. In my opinion, having a centre like this has changed things significantly for home educators in the UK.

POSITIVES: Tutors and Exams are extremely helpful and supportive and aim to make the exam process as comfortable as possible for the candidates. They hold regular open days so that families can ask questions, have a tour, and speak to advisers. They are able to assist with setting up access arrangements if needed, and can also conduct assessment components of exams. They offer Functional Skills, iGCSE, GCSE, A-Level qualifications and A-Level Science Practical Endorsement, Professional qualifications and University distance learning (and many more) exams. They work with almost any examination board there is. Applications can be completed online, after which you are sent the invoice. They also use an online portal for communication, so you can access relevant information (including grades) there. In my experience, they respond to queries quickly, and will also seek to resolve any issues satisfactorily.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, and ensuing issues for private candidates entered for exams, Chris Spraggett of Tutors and Exams worked exhaustively to come up with solutions, even accepting other candidates who had been dropped by their exam centres.

NEGATIVES: Tutors and Exams operates entirely independently of any government funding, and is a private company. Maintaining premises and staff throughout the year is costly, and this is reflected in the exam fees. While the prices are quite steep, it is quite understandable that they have to charge what they do to remain feasible and sustainable. On the plus side, they do offer discounts under certain circumstances, such as booking several exams with them, or booking as a group. I always felt it was worth it, just to have everything well organised and efficiently managed.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Tutors and Exams as a private exam centre, even though you will probably have to pay more than you’d like for the exams. Home educators are able to have a stress-free exam experience, which is managed efficiently and supportively.