Matt and I are adoptive parents to three wonderful daughters all of whom, if they were in school, would be in secondary education. But they’re not in school. Our story is a familiar one of initially buying into the traditional way of education by entrusting our girls to the school system in their primary years. At first, all seemed well and we enjoyed being part of the school community and had a good relationship with the teachers and leaders. But it soon became clear that the emotional and educational needs of our daughters needed more support than the school could offer. And so the ‘home education’ niggle was born……..
Oh, how I tried to suppress that niggle! I’m not a natural revolutionary and I really did want us to be ‘normal’ and to follow a ‘normal’ school route – I had been a secondary school teacher for many years, so the school system was my comfort zone! But it was not to be. When your children so obviously need a different provision, it’s hard to keep pushing on, hoping that next year, with a new teacher, it will finally all fall into place. As Einstein so helpfully pointed out, ” The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” And we were all definitely becoming insane!
In the book ‘Another way to learn? Discovering the Beauty of Home Education’ I tell the story of how Matt and I finally gave into that niggle and jumped into home education. We are now four years on and despite many wobbles along the way, we are so incredibly thankful that we are able to live our lives as a home educating family. There is, after all, no ‘normal’. We are all parents, home educating or not, who just want to find the best path for our children that will enable them to thrive and grow into who they were created to be.
In the following extract from the book, it picks up the story following our eldest daughter’s deregistration from school at the end of the summer term. The start of the autumn term is fast approaching and Rosabella (not her real name, but chosen by her!) will not be returning to school. I take some time in this part of the chapter to pause and reflect on other people’s responses to our decision to home educate.
Navigating questions and comments
The summer came and went, and in all honesty, I didn’t give an awful lot of thought as to what I would be doing with Rosabella come the start of the autumn term. She had left school, but her sisters were going back; Matt and I were still dealing with our own response to that as well as fielding all the questions and comments that came our way from friends and family, most of which we didn’t have answers to! And breathe … Maybe here is a good place to pause and say a word or two about those questions and comments.
If you choose to home-educate, get used to it: questions and comments from other people will be a part of your life – even from complete strangers! In our experience, most of the time, comments come from genuine curiosity and some have been wonderfully encouraging and affirming. It would be a fun exercise to gather from UK home educators a Top Ten list of the most frequent comments they have received! The most common we hear is “I could never do it”, a loaded comment driven either by fear, or by admiration, or a mixture of both, depending on how satisfied that person is with the mainstream education system. “You’re so brave” is another, to which my response in the early days was “Yes, I am!” followed by a slightly hysterical giggle. “I couldn’t spend all day with my children” is another favourite, and one that I’m still never sure how to respond to, so I don’t. “You’re a teacher so you can do it, but I wouldn’t know where to start” is the one that makes me laugh out loud, because it should make perfect sense. “No, no, I don’t know what to do!!” is what I wanted to scream in the early days, knowing even then that being a home educator would be a very different thing to being a secondary state-school teacher. Reluctant teenage learners taller than me I can cope with, but home education?!
What about friends; what will you do with them? How will you follow the school curriculum? What about socialisation? What if they fall behind? What about GCSEs? What about Art? How will you teach science? Where will the whiteboard go?! The list goes on and on. But at the end of the day, whether these questions are asked from concern, curiosity, or just undisguised criticism, as a new or imminent home educator, they can be unsettling and unnerving. But remember this: when you step outside of the norm, it can be unsettling not just for you, but for those around you as well. I’m not great with change; I’m better than I used to be, but generally I like predictability and familiarity and I’d prefer it if everyone else would just stay the same as well, thank you very much. I don’t know about you, but if a friend moves away, I struggle. I want to be happy for them, but the truth is, I liked them living where they lived, near me. If they’re moving, should we be moving? Are we missing out or are we OK where we are? Maybe this inner questioning just highlights my own insecurities, but I do wonder if, when someone else makes a change or steps out into something different, it provides us with an opportunity to review where we’re at in life. This is how I choose to view the comments I receive about home education.
Within your school community, some parents will be perfectly happy with the provision for their children and so will either think you have lost the plot, or simply be very happy for you. For others, it will cause them to consider in greater depth their child’s school experience and what they want for them; having paused to review it all, they will either happily continue as is or watch you closely to see how you get on. And for others, there may just be plain regret that this is something they are not able to do right now. Whatever the response, my advice is to try to respond with an awareness of what may be going on for that person. It’s very much a relational thing.
Back then, with those who I knew had our best interests at heart and who mean a lot to us, it was good to take the time to talk it all through, remembering that ultimately it was our decision. With others whose motive for questioning I was less sure about, a quick “Oh, it’s just something we want to try to help Rosabella with her confidence – we’ll see how it goes” was sufficient, followed by a change of subject if needed. I tried hard to be me, to not hide my nervousness, to be real, to say “I don’t know” when I didn’t. “If you see us banging on the school doors come October, let us in!” was my parting plea as we finished the summer term. Most people respond well to vulnerability, I find, and boy, did I feel vulnerable.
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.You can find out more about the book and pre-order a copy here: https://www.anotherwaytolearn.co.uk/
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.
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.
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.
On 17th January 2022, we started our journey and adventure into home education and officially de-registered our son from secondary school. He is 14. We initially described it as jumping out of the plane! 10 weeks into this new approach to learning, we feel like we’re slowly settling into our new life and routines. I’ll be honest – it was harder for me than it was for Thomas. He took to it like ‘duck to water’. I initially spent a lot of time crying and letting go. We both said that it felt like breaking up with school.
Here are our four take-aways so far:
FOLLOW YOUR HEART
As I said in the intro, it took us several months to finally make the decision to de-register Tom and it wasn’t an easy one for us to make. That said, my heart knew long before I allowed my head to ‘catch up’. My challenge is I am an overthinker. A pure product of the academic system in France and in the UK, I used to believe that I had to use my logic and to ‘think about things’. My final decision was made when I watched my son’s face as we were heading home after having a chat with another home ed Mum and her son in early January; Thomas asked me: ‘do you think it’s possible for me to leave school? Do you think there is truly another way?’ Sometimes as parents we know in our ‘heart’ what the right answer or the next move is. We just need to give ourselves permission to follow our hearts. Taking this step for Thomas and starting the journey has enabled my ‘head’ to catch up.
Our decision to home educate coincided with my own year-long sabbatical and stepping off the ‘hamster wheel’. Combined with Thomas becoming self-directed in his learning, this means that we are both discovering the power of agency – that feeling of freedom and choice. We can decide how we schedule our day and what we explore. We can be open and flexible and that feels good. And the exciting thing is that as we develop our sense of agency and we explore new skills, we build a sense of competence too.
We were very lucky that we connected with a local group of home educating families. We join their regular gatherings two days a week. With a range of ages from 10 – 15, all the young people have been so welcoming.
With Thomas’s help, I started sharing my French and Spanish skills one day a week offering an immersive languages day. The young people have embraced this learning opportunity and every week I feel so energised. I feel so lucky to be able to spend time with these young people. They are all so different, so friendly and always willing to share. What I love the most about this group of adults and young people is that they are so life-giving and life-affirming. They have created a real safe space for us all to learn, grow and evolve.
I feel like I am also getting to know my own child. I am discovering who he is, what he likes and doesn’t like and what he stands for. Last week, Thomas and I commented on how we both feel that ‘we have found our tribe’ and how lucky we both feel to have access to this amazing community and self-directed learning hub. Everything in life is relational and interconnected and we can feel the real benefits of the sense of belonging and the positive relationships we are establishing with every single individual in the group.
Over the last ten weeks, it feels like we have ‘freed’ Thomas. We have opened the cage and most importantly unclipped his wings. We are allowing him to explore new areas of interests. We are allowing him to stretch his wings and to see what they are for. He is discovering who he is and what he stands for. He currently thinks he might want to become an architect and so every week he attends a local architecture course, and he is loving it. He also takes part in a weekly woodwork workshop. These things wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in school. It’s so wonderful as parents to watch our child flourish. His passion-led learning is enabling him to soar.
And it’s not just Thomas who is becoming a self-directed learner. I am also allowing myself to explore my own interests and to become in charge of my learning – this is a truly liberating experience.
It feels like we are both discovering what inspires us – our sense of purpose and passion: architecture, design and technology for Thomas, educational reform and the link between being self-directed and wellbeing for me.
Together we are discovering our preferences, through experience and we are taking action. Empowered to do so.
And of course, it’s still early days – we are only just starting on this new adventure, but I feel that we have the right ingredients to move forward. My professional research has shown me that it all starts with ‘flourishing’. We have the five wellbeing essentials in place: intrinsic motivation (purpose), sense of belonging, positive relationships, agency, and sense of competence.
I am sure the rest will follow…
Fabienne is an educator, author of The Flourishing Student and co-author of How to Grow a Grown up, wellbeing expert and parent of 2 boys aged 14.5 and 12. She will share her learning from 7 years of action research and hours of conversations on her Flourishing Education Podcast in order to empower all to become flourishing lifelong learners.
We’ve been on this crazy home educating journey now for four years and let me tell you it’s a rabbit hole! What looks to be a simple premise on the outside; you educate your kids, at home, suddenly opens up into a whole new world of possibilities and choices and I’ll be honest it can be mind blowing.
Just a little background, we started out home educating after I stumbled across an inspiring blog post and hesitantly sent it to my husband saying, “I know what you’re thinking but read the article first, give it a chance then let’s chat about it.” To his credit and despite his initial reaction of ‘no way’ he gave it a proper read and was totally on board. First off, I understand we’re very lucky that we ended up on the same page here, I’ve read many a story where one parent wants to HE and the other is very resistant and it results in every choice being questioned and that seems exhausting so I think it’s hugely important here to have both parents fully accepting of the choice to HE in order for it to really work. One parent resisting and constantly questioning the other without being supportive is going to drive the main educator down and honestly, it’s already a tough enough job, trust me.
So, after happily embracing the idea of home education, the deadline for school registration came and went and we breathed a sigh of relief that we’d taken the leap. I followed a ton of home educating pages, including our local one which I’d highly recommend finding as a first step. They are great to find friends, get inspiration, find local meet ups, and just get support from others in the same boat as you in your area. Whilst you’re discovering various groups I’d also recommend joining the main HE groups, you’ll start to find your favourites and will find that some are more radical than others but you’ll be able to easily find a page or two that make you feel comfortable and supported in your choices.
Then we started our home educating, but if you even read a snippet into the world of HE you’ll realise that there are countless variations; Flexi-schooling, Home schooling, Home education, Unschooling, Self-Directed Education and, probably many more that I’ve not stumbled across yet. I’ve found that most people really aren’t stuck in one way but move fluidly from one discipline to another depending on their family dynamic, moods, what’s working at the time and children’s preferences. There are some purists but, I think, as with many things, they are fewer of these people that are just highly vocal on the topic – choose your own path.
After a few years of trying many things I’d say we’ve become pretty eclectic. I’ve tried a more disciplined approach with set topics, I’ve tried completely child led unschooling where they are in control of everything (save bedtimes and screen limits for us which some will argue isn’t pure Unschooling but I’m not a purist so…whatever!) We’re now on a self-directed path with my daughter attending GalileoXP online education which is working great for us right now.
I won’t sugar coat it and say it’s been amazing at every step, easy and perfect. It’s been difficult, stressful, hard work and sometimes, yes, I have thought school would be the easier option – it would remove my responsibility and sometimes that would be nice as a breather as home educating and having your children with you a lot can be intense at times. This is where that support comes in though, when I’m doubting myself my husband steps in and boosts me up, the kids tell me they love being home educated and so I know I need to push on regardless, if any of these other things didn’t fall into place then it makes sense that I would be considering other options. And on that note, that’s totally fine to! Many people continue things they shouldn’t through pressure, perceived moral high ground or fear of it being seen as a failure. School, in itself, is not an enemy it’s a resource and should be treated as one. If you need your children to attend a school or they really want to go then do it, you can always pick up HE again another time when it’s better suited. Any decent home educator will agree that whilst they disagree with schools in principle, they are an option and HE isn’t for everyone, some people learn much better in a school environment. The beautiful thing to discover is that we have the choice. As parents we can choose who educates our children and that is an amazing power to have.
So how did we come to move to Self-Directed? Well last year there was an amazing home schooling summit online right around the start of the first lockdown. I sat and absorbed many of these inspiring talks and for the first time in a while felt fired up. It made me realise I’d lost some of my energy and enthusiasm and was wandering down an overgrown path which wasn’t feeling quite right, but I wasn’t sure why. We were in a rut and one thing that kept jumping out at me was the talks on self-directed education. How you act as a mentor to your children and facilitate them in learning exactly what they’re interested in. No purchased curriculums or making them be interested in the topics you’re wanting to present on that day, it’s like a lovely blend between child led and scaffolding. Again, it’s not a ray of sunshine, it can be difficult to ‘let go’ of what they’re learning all the time in terms of English and Maths and accept that they will learn in their own time, and it’s mind blowing in a way to discover that they are learning, that’s the magical thing, it’s just not in the way we’ve been trained to see education.
As a real life example, I’ve watched my 7 year old son go from hating the idea of reading to now suddenly and surprisingly being able to read early reader books. Yes, he’s later than other kids that are in school, but now he loves reading, I haven’t forced or coerced him into it and he’s done it for his reasons not mine. My ‘scaffolding’ has been the strewing of resources – BBC’s Alphablocks being a superb one, along with comics and I have to say Dog Man by Dav Pilkey was a great starter for him. Along with listening to him read, reading to him and sounding out words.
My daughter was very similar although she has always had a love for books which helped. At age 5 she started with Alphablocks, and admittedly I was a bit more ‘on it’ with her so she’d read a phonics book to me every night which lasted a few weeks, but then she just ran with it and 6 months in was easily reading chapter books, she can now read the likes of Harry Potter at age 9 with ease and just absorbs books for fun. It’s interesting seeing the different personalities, whilst my son was resistant to reading, the same can be said of my daughter when it comes to numbers. What I’ve realised from the self direction and the learning in their own time is that sometimes the kids need to be ‘ready’ for the concepts to stick, they also need some intrinsic motivation – being told you have to do something without full internal awareness of why is not a good motivator! Allowing them to have the time and space coupled with a loving environment and some carefully strewn resources is, for me, a great recipe for success.
So, when you’re starting out my recommendations are:
· Go slow, take your time and let the concepts and ideas have the time to be absorbed.
· Read lots, you can never have too many books! (Use the library too it’ll save a fortune.)
· Pick ‘n’ mix the bits you like and ignore the stuff that doesn’t fit your family ethos.
· Be true to yourself and your children’s needs not to the strict ‘criteria’ of certain disciplines.
· Be flexible, If you keep flexing when things aren’t working you’ll find things run a lot smoother, rigidly hammering away with one method is a sure fire way of causing meltdowns and resistance, whereas rolling with the natural rhythm of your family and their interests makes it a more enjoyable journey for everyone. Trust me, fighting disinterested kids with resources you’ve spent hours curating or worse making, is soul destroying (been there, tried it!).
· Relax! The biggest piece of advice I can give is this, if HE is something you really want to do and you’re ready for the wild ride, then relax! You’ve got this, you’ll do great as long as you’re trying and doing the best for your family (and yourself!) so enjoy the journey, you’ll be learning right alongside your kids and yes, it’s tough at times but also amazing and you’ll come out the other side stronger for the challenge.