Sunday, 24 April 2016

Introduction To Home Education

This coming Monday, I'll be giving a talk on home ed at my church You And Me friendship group,  As I'm aiming for it to be an informative introduction for the general public, I thought I'd also put roughly what I'm going to say here.

The popular American term for home education is homeschooling.  This rarely describes what happens in families whose children's education does not include school as the approach taken in school is oriented towards large groups of children roughly the same age outside the wider community.  Although there are as many takes as families or even children, few resemble classroom learning.  "School at home" does sometimes happen but is unpopular and considered inappropriate and inefficient, and when it happens it's often a phase.  It's not home schooling.

Nor is it really home education any more than education in schools is school education.  Children and adults learn all the time and it would be very difficult to create an environment where humans don't learn.  People even   solve problems and discover things in their sleep.  Much of organic chemistry is based on something a scientist originally had in a dream and the Vai script in West Africa also came to its inventor in a dream, so educational premises could be seen as the inside of a child's head or the whole Universe.  Less flippantly, home education doesn't mainly take place in the home but in all sorts of places:  on shopping trips, walks, visits to grandma, in the park, in places of worship, at youth clubs and basically anywhere children and their carers might go.  On the whole, so-called "home education" takes place in the community, one reason why the fear that it could be used as a cover for child abuse is misdirected.  Some, though, think stressing home is important because they see the home environment as something which is being unfairly stigmatised and distrusted, which they might see, for example, as part of an attempt to oppose family values.

Another important idea to get past is that we are a group apart from the rest of society.  Almost all parents home educate and almost all children are home edded almost all the time.  Five hours of lessons over 200 school days a year and twelve years of school education, makes twelve thousand hours.  Childhood lasts 157 788 hours, so over 92% of a schoolchild's life is spent outside lessons.  Some of that is in school of course but most isn't.  Moreover, almost all children are educated at home full time for the first few years of their lives, and it's been argued that almost everything a child learns is in those few years.  Supposedly we learn 80% of what we know as adults takes place by our second birthdays, about which I'm sceptical but it still expresses an important truth about how people learn.  When you consider that during that time we became fluent in English, much of what else we might achieve later is not that much more of an achievement. It isn't us and them.  Almost all parents home educate, even after the children go to school.  If we're in a shop with a child who tries to take something without paying for it, it's more our responsibility to discipline that child than the police or the shop, and that's a form of moral and legal education.  In a sense, home education is just parenting.  We just carried on doing what everyone else did before their children went to school, adjusting as we went along according to age.  Parents don't just keep pre-school children at home.  They take them shopping, on holiday, to the park and to parent and toddler groups, and the same is true of us.  Also, when parents do take their children on holiday or to parent and toddler groups, they're generally trusted to look after them and there are plenty of other adults around to ensure that they do so, another safeguard against child abuse.

Universal compulsory education has only been around since the late eighteenth century anywhere in the world, and for the English only since mid-Victorian times.  Before, there were dame schools and ragged schools.  Although these have been much maligned, it's important to remember that history is taught by the winners.  Before that, children learned on the job, and although this involved appalling exploitation and wasted potential, it still brought us through from our earliest stone age beginnings to a fully-fledged industrial society.

Responsibility is one motivation for home education.  Few people think twice about feeding, clothing or providing shelter for their own children because we just are responsible for them in this way.  A parent wouldn't expect others to take responsibility for their child in these respects.  Similarly, we  didn't consider it the responsibility of other adults to take care of our children's learning.  That doesn't mean that they shouldn't be taught if the need arose.  Even so, the law states that parents, not schools, are responsible for their children's education, and also according to the law, the school system is an opt-in system, not an opt-out one, a point which is obscured by the fact that most people do in fact opt in, sometimes because they're unaware of the fact.

One very important and valuable function of schools is that they take care of children while parents are doing paid work incompatible with having their own children around, so it's clear that schools will sometimes be needed.  Moreover, we all benefit from people who have been through the school system in all sorts of ways and our society depends on such people.  That doesn't mean, however, that everyone or even most people should go to school.  If they didn't, society would have to be very different from how it now is and parenting would probably have to be more evenly divided and probably also shared with other relatives and neighbours.  Workplaces would also have to be more flexible in their acceptance of children, more people would have to work from home and more people would probably be self-employed.  There would have to be all sorts of changes, but I see most of these changes as good.  Nonetheless, society being the way it now is doesn't stop home ed from happening.

This raises the question of whether home education is time-consuming.  To answer that question I want to assume for a moment that we actually had done school at home.  Going back to the thousand hours a year spent in lessons, we can think about the traditional two-parent family with one home educated child, which however isn't the only kind of family that does this.  A thousand hours spent a year in lessons, which are 365 days a year rather than two hundred, makes two and three quarter hours of lessons a day.  Since there are two parents, dividing this workload between them gets us to one hour and twenty-odd minutes a day per parent.  Add to that the fact that the child gets much more attention than they could ever get in class from teachers and teaching assistants and that not all teaching is input and the situation looks even easier.  This scenario is rather unrealistic though, because as I've said, most parents don't do school at home and they don't do things in isolation, so there will be all sorts of other adult helpers out there among family friends, people running activity days for children and even private tutors if that's considered necessary.  This means the workload really wouldn't be very heavy even with school at home.

As I said. few people do school at home.  Our structure was largely in my head and partly in Sarada's, but not really presented to the children as structure.  What I mainly did was to plan a whole load of possible educational programmes in my head first and wait until the children expressed an interest.  When they did, I could launch them on their way with a few ideas, activities, discussions and the like and because the interest had come from them, they would learn very efficiently due to being highly motivated.  It's also possible to make connections across subject areas more easily, meaning that rarely would such an interaction merely involve, say, geography, science, language or history, but more often all of them at once, again motivated by their interest.  Thus although we didn't follow the National Curriculum, I did have it in my head as a sort of bingo card where I was able to fill in the blanks.  What I found was that topics in the National Curriculum were covered so fast that a year's worth of work would take a maximum of about six weeks, meaning that if I had just followed the National Curriculum I would be twiddling my thumbs most of the time.  This is because there's no need to proceed at the rate of a whole class of children and do so regardless of interest or motivation, which are other factors in rendering schooling quite inefficient.

It's neither necessary to be an expert or a teacher to do this, and it's not required by the law either, although it so happens that Sarada is a qualified schoolteacher.  We are instinctively capable of helping others learn, particularly our own children, and they are instinctively capable of learning, because those two things are part of the human condition in the same way as migration might be for a bird or gathering nectar and spinning cobwebs are for bees and spiders.  We just are capable of doing these things.  Teacher training is necessary and important for the kind of education which takes place in schools, but learning otherwise than at school doesn't have such constraints and happens much more fluidly.  Studies show that home educated children are on average about two years ahead of their contemporaries at school.  They also show that adults who have not been to school are more likely to be successful entrepreneurs, are more motivated and productive in their paid work, are better adjusted psychologically and more active citizens socially and politically.  They also earn more.  If you want to look at it this way, home education is in some ways like private education compared to state education.  It also shares with much private education a full-time learning environment and small staff-student ratios.  Unlike that, it's accessible to even the poorest while giving them the same benefits.

A home edding parent needn't be an expert.  Children learning by osmosis continue to do so.  In particular, with online resources, museums, public libraries and other institutions, plenty of resources are available.  Where parents do teach, it often becomes clear that it's superfluous.  As with many educational situations they are learning just ahead of their pupils and then passing it on to them, and this can sometimes be helpful but it often becomes clear that you should just cut out the intermediary and let the children get on with it.  Where experts are of benefit, they are often available through social contacts because in general adults do use their education in work, so if you don't know someone else very often will.  I offered various sessions during my time, such as natural dyeing, nature walks, cookery, classical languages, German, biology, chemistry, physics and maths.  Other people offered other things such as literacy, music, French, Spanish and pottery, some at IGCSE level.

This brings me to the question of interacting with conventional education.  It has been possible to get into university via testimonial or directly by interview, and to get paid work in similar ways.  Home educated children tend to access higher education earlier or later than children who have been through the school system.  In terms of formal qualifications, there are a number of options.  One is to do IGCSEs, which are the international equivalent of GCSEs and have no coursework element, making them easier to do because of no need for official supervision of the work.  I made a point of splitting the science into three subjects, or more precisely biology and the two others, in order to account for people unable to reconcile evolution with their belief systems.  After a short period, I found that even separating the subjects at GCSE rather than doing simply science only occupied us for a couple of months.  There is also the problem of mistakes in the curriculum having to be taught and the lack of emphasis on scientific method.  Science at GCSE level tends to be about a series of "facts" rather than science itself.

It's often asked how home edders can do science or maths, but these are in fact extremely easy.  Maths in particular is one of the easiest of all subjects to study as it requires no special equipment at all but simply clear thinking.  Something I would have liked to pursue more but lacked the chance to was the possibility of approaching maths as intuitive rather than relying on conscious thinking and methods to arrive at results.  I'm still sure this can be done for various aspects.  Science can require more equipment but it's still possible to get quite a long way by choosing carefully.  For instance, it's possible to make copper sulphate from electrical wiring and a type of sink unblocker, and from this, the principle of exothermic reactions and water of crystallisation can be demonstrated.  If there is any special equipment, it can be borrowed or bought second hand from other home edding groups which have got further than you.  Learning in groups is generally about socialising for the children but they do pick things up quite readily even so.

This still sounds like school, but a popular approach is autonomous education as inspired by John Holt and John Taylor Ghatto.  This involves little or no input from parents and trust that the children will learn as they go along.  This formed a substantial part of our educational philosophy although we were probably more structured than most.  Other influences include Montessori, which we didn't pursue, the Rudolf Steiner approach, based on Goethean thought, and the Trivium, popular among Christian groups.  The Trivium as approached today is based on classical education as found among patricians in Roman times but differs from it in that it doesn't use the Quadrivium and uses grammar, logic and rhetoric arranged chronologically for three stages of education, the first involving the learning of facts, the middle their mental processing and the final the nature of expression and persuasion.  For all I know there are also people who use classical education as such, but I haven't come across them.  This may be more popular in North America.

Motives for home education vary.  In the UK, religion is seldom the reason families choose it although it's quite common among Muslims.  Whatever the faith, the choice often arises from objecting to the values seen to be instilled among children who go to school, and this does sometimes include sex education.  Having said that, those who object to the idea that children are being kept away from school by their parents because they prefer them to be homophobic and transphobic might want to consider how they would feel if things were the other way round, as was the case when Section 28 was in force.  From the late-1980s onwards, when teachers were banned from promoting homosexuality, which was clearly homophobic, and it would be entirely understandable for a child to be removed from school for that reason.

This raises the issue of bullying, which is another reason for home education.  If parents feel that a school will not address it, they sometimes withdraw their child from school.  This relates to the LGBT issue if it's motivated by some form of non-conformity such as gender.  On the subject of bullying, this has been known to happen between all groups at school - of children by teachers, of teachers by children and between staff and parents, and preventing it was one motive we had for making our children aware of their choice to attend school or not and to change that at any time.  Non-neurotypicality or special needs are other reasons parents choose not to send their children to school or withdraw them.  The general idea with all of these involves the thought that parents understand and know the needs of their children better than strangers even if those strangers are educational or healthcare professionals, which opens up another set of concerns regarding choices over healthcare and medicalisation which are too complex to go into here.

Another set of people are those pursuing the continuum concept.  This begins with contact parenting, co-sleeping and breastfeeding which is perceived as long-term by some others.  Many such parents find it feels very unnatural to have the children go to school after they've done that.

People often ask "Is there a problem with socialisation?", to which the flippant answer is "yes, there's too much of it!".  Home edded children are not socially isolated at all.  They are out in the community, they see their extended family, they may go to youth groups such as the guides and the scouts, they have after school clubs, places of worship, gym, dance classes or simply their neighbours.  Within the home ed community there are regular social get-togethers, sleepovers, educational activities pursued together and they make friends at least as readily as other children do. Less prevalent are bullying, cliquishness and anti-intellectualism, which helps both socialisation and other kinds of education, although these can also occur.

It might sometimes seem that this can only be done by people able to rely on a large reliable income or staying out of paid employment, but this is not usually so.  However, it is the case that I have personally lost opportunities due to the situation, although this may be more down to my own attitude than anything else.  

Personally, the situation was as follows.  As a child, I went to a primary school with very large class sizes. Mine had forty-six pupils.  This meant that much of what went on in the classroom was management and discipline rather than learning.  I seem to be unable to perceive what conformity is and even less able to conform,  Consequently, the teacher used to discipline me in various ways, such as locking me in a cupboard all day or making me stand out in the snow in my underwear.  There was also a problem in that none of the content of the curriculum was unfamiliar to me and they didn't teach anything I hadn't already found out years previously.  I was later moved to another school which was much smaller and less problematic and of course later went to secondary school.  The chief benefit of secondary school was that I made friends and was able to have some independence from home life.  Consequently, my view of school education became that it tended to aim very low academically and was a distraction from proper learning.

Sarada's experience seems to have been more on the side of teaching.  She was subject to a lot of workplace bullying when she taught and eventually left school teaching altogether.  Therefore, when we got together, we were both very much against the idea of our children having to go to school if they chose not to.  They eventually decided to go to college at about the age of fourteen, so they did.

I freely admit that another motive of mine for home edding was the fact that I was the children's father rather than their mother, which meant there was an enduring sense of longing and bereavement that I had neither carried nor breastfed my own children.  This is clearly unusual and influenced my decision but at the same time, although the motive of compensating for not being their mother existed, I see it more as something which helped me discover the right choice for them.

Our daughter is now in her second year at university reading for a bachelor's degree in English Literature with Creative Writing.  Due to the fact that she only started formal education a few years ago, she has not undergone the commonly seen steady decline in enthusiasm found in some other students and she has chosen consciously to do a degree rather than it simply being the next stage and what everyone else does.  She's involved in student politics, has a job and lives with her partner of three years.  Our son was able to start college a year early and achieved a lot, but his progress has been waylaid somewhat by succumbing to a critical illness which involved long-term hospitalisation.  It's impossible to know how things would've turned out had they gone to school but we don't regret our decision at all.