Reflections on a Journey

Reflections on a Journey

This reflection I wrote for a family blog in 2017 when we stepped out of school. I rediscovered it again this week and thought I would share it here. It very much captures that sense of freedom that you feel when you step out of the system. It is a decision made five years ago that we have never regretted.

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2017 – So, we have finally taken the leap and are officially home educating our kids… I am aware that there should be a coherent answer to the ‘why’ questions which have already started to come – the dog walker we met as we flew our kites yesterday, the cashier at the checkout… I have not yet quite worked out quite what to say; other than knowing it is where we are meant to be right now!

The ‘what if school looked different’ thought process began when my son started school age four and half… I could see quickly that my little boy with boundless energy was contained and restricted in the classroom; so much of his energy was taken by trying to sit still, that school became something that needed to be simply got on with and out of the way. We decided quite quickly that one day a week out of school at a local Forest School was going to be good for him – and how he thrived; I would collect him wide eyed, covered in mud bursting with excitement after five hours of exploring ‘Hidden Woods’ with his ‘teachers’.

This stopped when we moved to a city and we decided to join the local school at the end of our street. As a family we have loved them being part of the community for three years. However, the more I read, the more I observed my children in school, the more I knew that it was right for us to exit the traditional school setting.  This spring we felt the time had come to take the leap.

I am not anti-school – I think school can be amazing.  So many teachers work so hard to enable young people’s learning journeys and there can be a lovely sense of community both for the children and adults. The bit that I struggle with is seeing the immense pressure put on teachers, and the subsequent pressure that children feel as they sit tests and are told what to learn. It takes a brave head teacher, like ours was, to fight to keep the extracurricular activities on the weekly schedule alongside the Ofsted assessed maths, literacy and reading.

In our journey, I know we are privileged to be able to make it work financially (although this comes at a cost, we are learning to prioritise different things). I am excited, but I am also a realist and know that some days will be tough and many will be chaotic! So, as we journey into the unknown of our kids learning and exploring life outside of the system, we will take a day at a time.

People keep asking me if I am a teacher, to which the answer is no. People ask, “but what about the curriculum? What about SATS? GCSEs? How will you teach Science and DT? What about Bunsen burners? How will your child be prepared for real life if they don’t navigate the challenges that school brings?” I feel starting with these questions is the wrong place to begin. We have chosen to start with looking at the big picture and ask the question, ‘what do we want our kids to be?’ Our thoughts are that we want to grow children who will be independent lifelong learners, who are creative, resilient, fearless, and fun loving. Kids who are confident in who they are; understanding what gives them life and excites them. We want a slower pace of life, with opportunity to reflect, to learn life skills as well as maths and literacy, to celebrate the lessons learnt through failure together, to encourage and support one another. I am not saying school can’t do that, I am simply saying I could see it was not doing this for our children and the individual personalities they are. Already I have found it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and start to wobble and feel overwhelmed by ‘curriculum’ and what our children ‘should’ be learning.  In these wobbly moments, I am finding I have to remember to focus on the ‘why’ and the daily freedom we now feel we have as a family in this journey of learning.

This week gave me a wonderful example of the freedom we now enjoy. My son has spent the week building puzzle boxes from Lego. He has set his own challenges by making three dimensional boxes with so many moving pieces. He has also learnt to do the Rubix cube watching YouTube.

At school these past two years writing had become so difficult for my son, he hated literacy. The reason being that he had to write cursive. Last year I chatted with his teacher one day and asked why he needed to do this – she said because ‘that is what Year Five kids need to do’. Yet for my son this does not work; he is left handed. To write cursive as a righted handed person, you pull your pen along a page, the writing flows as you move from left to right. As a left-handed person, you have to push the pen, it is slower work as you move across the page. Writing cursive was simply hard work.  My hope is he can continue to learn to write in a style that suits him.

So, we are home educators. We look forward to breaking down some of the stereotypes these two words can bring to mind; we are excited to be doing something I believe stirred in our hearts six years ago, again, a seemingly reckless decision made with confidence because we believe our children will flourish. ‘What if you fail?’ people have asked, ‘what if you get it wrong?’ In response to this I feel we can answer – at least we will have tried! And what if we get it right? What if this is the right way for our kids to learn and thrive? Our kids will always be richer for knowing we had the courage to pursue our dreams and explore a different way of doing life.

A Working Mum and a Home-educating Dad – How We Make It Work

A Working Mum and a Home-educating Dad – How We Make It Work

My wife and I are not ‘normal’. Amongst our peers and our family members we are the outliers, the ones that have chosen a slightly different ‘lifestyle path’ to everyone else. For a start, we are home-educating, but you’ve probably guessed that already. Nicola is, at the time of writing, a curate in the Church of England. This too, is not the norm. And even within our home education community we are unusual as Nicola is the one that is out at work, earning a crust, whilst I, Matt, am one of a rare breed of home-educating dads.

We started home-educating when Nicola started her training at Trinity College in Bristol. We moved there from Surrey, where I was a youth worker and Nicola was a part-time self-employed occupational therapist. Up until our move to Bristol, our two daughters had been in mainstream school (both in the same, really good, nurturing primary school) but we had started to consider home education as a viable option ever since our good friends had started home educating and we had seen their children thrive. We were possibly only going to be in Bristol for a couple of years whilst Nicola studied, so to minimise the disruption to our daughters’ lives we decided we would join up with our friends and home-educate our children together. Time goes quickly and we are now into our fourth year of this home education journey; what follows is a picture of how we have made it work as a family where the dad is at home and the mum is out at work.

How we make it work: tips and principles

Shared vision

The first thing is to have a shared idea of what home education is, a common vision as it were. More crucially, in our experience, it’s about working out together what you think is important for your children: what sort of people do you want them to be? What are the values that you want to expose them too and instil in them? Learning facts is actually secondary (in my opinion) and, as a couple, you may disagree on what’s vital in their formal education (times tables are one of those issues in our household). However, you can agree that you want your children to be (or at least have the opportunity to be) creative, kind, confident, curious, caring… Keeping these end goals in view puts everything else in perspective. And, that even includes learning times tables!

The cost

Ever since we have started home educating, we’ve been aware that it costs. It costs money. It costs time. It costs your original hair colour. But I suppose you can say that about parenting in general (and we can testify that it’s also worth every penny, second, grey hair and wrinkle)! It is worth taking time to recognise this. We all have to explore the financial implications and plan for this, this is obvious. The less obvious implication of following this path is the potential cost of being misunderstood by family and friends, feeling like you are disconnected from ‘normal’. On some days this is liberating, on other days you can feel “wobbly”. We have to recognise that these emotions are real. It has highlighted to us that this is not a road to walk alone but to find a community to walk with. This has been essential for us on our journey, particularly as we moved to a new city when we started home educating.

Playing to our strengths and not playing to our strengths

I’m a natural educator. I love learning and so it followed that I would be the one who did the home education. Our circumstances also determined who was at work and who was at home, although we ultimately did have a choice. I don’t find planning or budgeting easy, but Nicola is fabulous at both, so leads the way with those things. She is very organised – I am not – so it follows that she helps out with that side of our home education. For example, recently, Nicola has been producing monthly plans for our girls so that they know what is coming up.

There is a tension with just playing to your strengths, however, as there is great opportunity to be had in children seeing how their parents learn how to do things that aren’t in their ‘sweet spot’.

Additionally, it can be very beneficial for the non-home-educating parent to get involved when and where they can. Nicola’s present work schedule means that she can take the girls to different groups. This keeps their relationship going, she sees what they are up to (even home-educated children can be very minimal in their response to the question “How was your day today?”!) and it gives me a bit of a break!

 

This is an extract taken from the book “Another Way to Learn? Discovering the Beauty of Home Education” due to be published in September 2022. It has been slightly edited from the original (with the author’s permission).You can find out more about the book and pre-order a copy here: https://www.anotherwaytolearn.co.uk/

We got our daughter back!

We got our daughter back!

Three years ago, our daughter entered secondary school and, initially, seemed to thrive. It is a well respected school, the same one our boys had gone to with positive experiences. However, as time went on, we noticed her getting more insular and less excited about school each day. There were some relational conflicts emerging that were fuelled by the essential WhatsApp groups she was part of and one minute she was ‘in’ and the next ‘out’, like an emotional rollercoaster. It got to the point where we felt like we were losing our daughter and she couldn’t escape from the constant barrage of negative messages. It was tough to watch and hard to walk her through it.

Meeting with a close friend who we knew home educated was a major shift in our perspectives on home education, having had some previous ‘not so positive’ experiences in the past. She presented options in a manner that empowered us and gave us courage to walk away from the traditional methods of education and into the somewhat uncharted waters. So, we took the plunge and removed our daughter from school and enrolled her with GalileoXP,  an online learning community.

The shift in emotional wellbeing was obvious. Our daughter began to get her confidence back, reverting back to her bubbly self. The flexibility it gave her to pursue the things she loves rather than endure hours of classes that she has no interest in was great too. She then joined a local home ed group coordinated and facilitated by two parents; a group of 12 like-minded crazy kids who gather weekly to do group projects and drama. This has been amazing for her. She gets to interact socially with kids her own age, to be creative, to be expressive, to build friendships. Its a safe place to express who she is without the pressure that the school environment can create.

For anyone considering taking the plunge, we felt that our daughter’s mental and emotional health was more important than any academic qualification. Academic achievement is probably over-rated, with many of the world’s top leaders and entrepreneurs having few, if any, recognised qualifications. Those can come with time but nothing can replace good, positive emotional health and wellbeing.  Reach out for advice and be courageous! We took the risk and got our daughter back.

Taking the leap & no regrets!

Taking the leap & no regrets!

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 tied 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 with he was full of beans, excited to go and bouncing with energy. He is not one to sit still… 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, I heard it 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’, 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, 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 would go by the level of exhaustion would increase, sibling relationships would break down and home felt a battle ground – particularly on the morning, 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 ideas (scary as they were) 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 a 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 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, they play a lot, have friends of all ages, explore their passions, choose what they want to learn and learning is 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 this I am grateful.

Flourishing Grandchildren!

Flourishing Grandchildren!

“What are you doing to enable your children to flourish?” asked the school inspector of me – a newly appointed and very young headteacher. Since that wonderful and significant day I have spent a privileged lifetime with, and alongside, children and teachers from whom I have learned and honed my thinking and ideas: eighteen years as a headteacher, seventeen years as a school improvement adviser, an inspector, a trainer of headteachers and school Governors.

His question rocked me back on my heels as I stuttered to impress him with my best educational philosophy. I somehow succeeded but his question raised in me some of the profoundest inner searchings as to my vocation to teach yet asked of me; questions that had never been asked in my training nor in my former years as a classroom teacher.

Many other questions had been asked of me but here was the key question that began the release the core beliefs in me that had been latent yet had inspired me to become a teacher. My own education had been a disaster! I had grown up in a system of  weekly tests and bells, of regurgitating facts and information, of competitive routines and meaningless exercise  all punctuated by the barking of instructions and the cruelty of punishments that combined to drive the desires to learn and grow, to discover the world and life were all but beaten out of me.

All the while, my poverty of experience as a child briefing my inner soul to long for better for my life as an adult. Ideas, beliefs, vision and drive that had never fully surfaced or been expressed until that moment with the inspector now sprung into my thinking and became the driver for the next forty years in education.

I began to articulate and express my heart for children, my hopes and aspirations for my own two daughters and those I had the privilege and responsibility to teach and encourage in their learning. As I would say then, and believe even more fully now, I had the privilege and responsibility to increasingly release into reality a pattern of learning where these children were nurtured and cherished to demonstrate all the potential and gifts in them and so to flourish as human beings developing and enquiring new skills, attitudes and opinions.

Ever since that moment, way back in the early seventies, I have been on a learning journey about the nature of education, passionate about the purposes of education and discovering the best ways of expressing these hopes and aspirations in the opportunities we give to our children. As human beings we are not bottles to be filled from birth and then emptied out at the end of life but beautiful people with minds, souls, spirits and bodies that are so full of potential as creative, imaginative, thoughtful, inspirational individuals where each one is unique, different and gifted.

Education is lifelong but the early years of our lives are the time of significant equipping and developing, nurturing and encouraging the personal and social skills and attitudes, inspiring and refining the inner being of our children so that each one can flourish and find joy and fulfilment in their lives through relationships and through the fulfilment of a life well lived – a daily experience and not one in retrospect as life ends!

Each child will respond and relate to the circumstances and character of the family, the home, the society in which he or she lives. This can either be for the positive or the negative development of the child as like sponges there is an absorption of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, values and self-image that are birthed in us from the earliest of our days.

Young children learn through experience: we don’t learn by being told or exposed to other people’s experiences, and, when we provide different experiences to our children, they will learn. When we think of children as individuals who are learning and growing through their experiences then we can see them learn as they grow and grow as they learn.

Each child is full of potential and our task is both the release this potential and nurture it further. These children learn best through experiencing and exploring the world around them and our task as parents and teachers is to widen their experience of life with and through the people they will meet.

As children move from home to school, the learning experiences they will receive are as important to their learning as when in their early years. Every child is unique, every child learns differently but central to this learning are the personal qualities – the unmeasurable qualities, the spiritual development of each child, seen in her personal creativity, of her awareness of others, her qualities of feeling.

Few children will flourish in a competitive environment but one that nurtures the human spirit, that values the creative soul and is inspired by the beauty of the natural world, of the arts and of good literature while learning in an environment – the natural and the created, where the quality of relationships and the value of learning and personal discovery is at the heart.

Each one of us is born with creative abilities: the artist and the craftsman, be it in language or music. It is in the giving of dignity to the person and his or her gifts and skills when nourished and nurtured that the fullness of the learning we desire as parents will flourish. We will see children’s lives enriched, their personalities flourish, their judgement and self-awareness maturing as a rhythm develops in their lives through the security and safety of the environment that the home can give.

Our task as parents is to encourage learning in an environment that is welcoming and filled with wonder with a discipline that is self-motivated through a developing freedom of expression with responsibility.

Schools are the place the state provides for the education of the young but these are increasingly subject to pressures and conditions, both political and social, which home educators are not constrained nor controlled by. The scramble for results through testing is not an issue for parents. However, rigour and vigour in learning, the satisfaction and achievement from a learning activity well done are even more possible in the home educating environment.

The result of a quality learning environment will be a well-developed and well-rounded child, teenager and adult who lives in the vibrant fullness of personal creativity, of deep personal joy in discovery and learning, where given opportunity and encouragement, will have a lifetime of learning and maturing because their education is led and directed by their needs rather than the convenience of the state.

Character and personality; self-discipline, self-expression and self-motivation; commitment to tasks and a desire to achieve a personal best are qualities we wish for ourselves and for our children. Home education encourages and nurtures these human qualities through quality relationships, exciting experiences, interest-led learning and the opportunity for rich self-expression in a learning environment right for each individual person.

So, for my five grandchildren I rejoice! I never thought I would hold this view. After a lifetime in education, was I betraying everything I had worked for, every institution I had worked at, and every penny I’d been paid in salary? Now, as I have watched the children and even had the privilege of helping them, I am convinced that home education has the potential to deliver everything I hold to be of value in the education of our children.

In our society today, aims and ideas, times and circumstances have and are rapidly changing. For those who can home educate, these are exciting times! The pace of change is ever increasing and the best ‘equipped’ children will be those best able to live their lives to the full as flourishing human beings, both in their communities, and for themselves, able to adapt and use all their skills and attitudes, and therefore able to live together to the best advantage of themselves and their fellow citizens.

In this I am secure, my grandchildren will develop to the full as people and as learners in each phase of their growth and find fulfilment, not only as a preparation for the future, but for the NOW, and be fully able to meet the demands of what lies ahead because of the people they have become, are today, and are becoming, in their lives while giving and receiving the richest of experiences to both their parents and themselves …… hooray for children flourishing in Home Education!