Schooling and Unschooling (Cecilia Peartree)

I've been reading with interest some of the reports and social media jokes about home schooling during the pandemic. My sympathy goes out to parents who have been suddenly forced into this situation, although I think in many cases they and their offspring will benefit from spending more time together. Two of my work colleagues are finding it a struggle to work from home, as we are all supposed to do, with children around all the time, and I feel for them particularly.

When we were plunged into home education, as it is more often known here by people who choose it rather than having it foisted on them, the circumstances were rather different, partly because it was forced on me not because of an unexpected and sudden government decision but because I had a child who voted with his feet not to go to school. I mean that more or less literally - it was even possible to drive him to school and then have him refuse to walk the thirty metres or so to the door. If we ever did get him inside for an hour or two he was quite capable of ducking out at morning break and going home, once he was old enough to do so.

We went through variations on this theme over several years, but my personal breaking-point came when my son had to choose his subjects for the following school year. One of the subjects he chose was drama, which was his favourite out of school activity, but we were told there wasn't going to be a drama class after all so he would have to take accounting and finance instead. I think this was when I realised that in some ways the entire British education system was geared towards preparing students for life in Victorian style counting-houses. We walked away from the school together that day, never to return.

Although the circumstances were far from ideal, I was fortunate in having more time to prepare for home education than most of the people who have started in the past few weeks. A while before the accounting and finance debacle I had joined an email list for home educators, hoping to learn something about this in case we had to start doing it urgently, and started reading up about it and getting ideas for projects. It became evident from the content of the email list that many home educators chose to do this because it fitted in with their philosophy of life. In a sense the home education movement, if it was indeed coherent enough to be a movement, was generally anti-authoritarian. I found myself sympathetic to this in some ways and not others. For instance, I came across quite a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment which I completely disapproved of, having seen my younger brother rushed to hospital as a young child with complications from measles. But some of their ideas, even the more unconventional ones, were really useful. There was the concept of 'unschooling' whereby children decided for themselves what to do, and it didn't matter if they watched cartoons all day or played with sand or whatever. That wasn't the way we operated but I could see the sense in relaxing a bit and letting things happen, and certainly we worked together to try and cover topics he was interested in. I had always felt as well, when my other son was at the same age, that what he actually learned at school between the ages of ten and about fourteen could probably have been compressed into one school year. Such a lot of time seemed to be wasted on the containment of trouble-makers and on bureaucracy.

Unlike some online commentators, I don't really have much advice on how to go about home education, except to say that parents should not waste one big advantage they have over professional educators, that they know their child. If indeed they do! Of course another advantage is that they almost certainly won't be expected to teach thirty pupils at once in their home, although in  some cases two would be too many. It was a fortunate coincidence that the child I had to practise on was actually quite like me in his interests and abilities.

A big benefit of getting in touch with the home education movement was that we got the chance to join in with some special home educators’ events. We even travelled almost the length of the UK to go to a seaside festival run for home educators at a site on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. The first 'highlight' of the holiday for us was that we arrived at the station to catch the only train that went anywhere near our destination to find it had been cancelled, and we embarked on rather a nerve-racking journey in the course of which we had to change trains 4 times, gradually working our way southwards until we reached Exeter, from where the train company organised a taxi to take us to the station we should have arrived at, and from there we managed to get a ride in a complete stranger's campervan the rest of the way. It was a long day's journey. The real highlight was going fossil-hunting on the beach. We didn't exactly mingle much with other home educators but it was interesting and at least we felt part of something larger!

We also joined in with some local events, including a march to the Scottish Parliament to publicise home education. It was rather ironic as I had taken part in a march to protest about school spending cuts not long before. The main thing I remember about the march was that I had to hastily look in the other direction when we spotted the television cameras in case my mother, who was a retired teacher, saw us on the evening news. She never did find out we were home educating, thank goodness. She would never have understood.


misha said…
Once many, many moons ago, I contemplated home educating my kids. In the end I didn't and, in spite of blips along the way, they all survived the UK educational system. Having been a teacher I can quite see that the education we have in this country does not suit all children, but home-ed is not always a better alternative. I have a friend who does it brilliantly. I've also run drama workshops for home-ed kids some of who can't tell the time and have trouble writing their own names, not because they have special educational needs, but because their parents haven't taught them. Even more than at school where the quality of teaching makes all the difference home education depends on what the parents are prepared to put in.
Susan Price said…
I have very mixed views on home-education. I have great sympathy with the children. I hated school and would have loved to be home educated! I have a much younger relative who also 'voted with his feet' against school and, as an adult, he certainly isn't lacking in education or intelligence.

Home schooling can be far, far better than a school education: less boring, wider, deeper. But it also often adopted by people who actively want their children to have little knowledge of the world so they can be more easily pushed down some narrow path of dogma.

But this enforced break from school has wonderful opportunities for real education: how to cook! How to garden! Reading aloud -- telling fairy-tales and illustrating them. The sharing and passing on of any interest, from football through astronomy, car mechanics, garden birds, history... It's all education.
Yes - there are quite a lot of different issues around choosing home education, and it took me a long time to realise that it was the only realistic option for us at the time - actually I wish I had given in and started sooner as we wasted a lot of energy trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. In the end I don't think my son's education actually suffered as a result of the decision. I insisted he should try and get university entrance qualifications, which he did by distance learning from one of the local colleges, and eventually he went to university and did very well there. He also made a fantastic group of friends at the local drama group and made some award-winning short films with them.
Umberto Tosi said…
I went to regular schools as a child, but I still learned a lot at home - a lot of it terribly dumb, and uninformed, unfortunately. We all need contact with wider worlds - wheter via books (most of all), or electronic media or all of the above, to be truly educated. Parents and teachers can be guides, but it is the wider world that hold the really enlightening and useful information without which life would be narrowed pathetically. That's just my take. Your post reminds us to use this crisis as a way - at least - to better understand the experiences of others with whom we now find ourselves in common straits.

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