Sometimes, when we are out and about during normal school hours, people will strike up a conversation, often beginning with the question ‘No school today, kids?’.
Maybe they felt OK doing this because we were all smiley and laughing, and I made eye contact, or perhaps it was one of the other sort of days, the type of day that shows a deep shadow in that worry line on my forehead, and has my jaw grimly set while I repeat to myself, ‘It’s nearly PJ time, it’s nearly PJ time’. Maybe they felt an overwhelming curiosity to discover what could possibly be bothering me so much, and how they could avoid the same fate.
Most of the people who ask react positively to the fact that we Home Educate (even if they asked because of my scowling face), although I will only step towards talking about unschooling at this early stage with the most open minded and optimistic of folks.
We have had the odd not so positive reaction – You can read about those here. For now, here are some of the questions we get asked most often as a Home Educating family contributing our own little slice to Learning Anarchy in the UK!
“Really? Home Education – Is that legal?”
Nosy, sorry, I meant inquisitive people are often surprised to hear that, yes, it is indeed entirely legal to Home Educate in this country.
‘In fact’, I will explain, ‘In UK law, it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children receive an efficient full-time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude. Many (well, most) parents choose to do that by sending their children to the local school, but our family chose a different path.’
By this point, many people are realising that a) I’m probably telling the truth, so they can forget about making a citizen’s arrest and b) I could talk about this all day, and they’re not that interested after all. They’ll either ask more questions or smile and carry on with their day.
In case you want to make sure, the main Law regarding Home Education, which is section (7) of the 1996 education act can be found here.
If our rapt inquirer does go on to ask another question it tends to be…
“Do you have to be a teacher to do that?”
No, Person-I-Don’t-Know, you don’t.
Some people look a bit worried at this point, and ask how you can possibly ‘teach them maths’ and ‘well, how will you do science?’. Depending on what my spidey senses are telling me at this point, I might just mumble something vague and walk away. Some people have made up their minds, and don’t want to change them, and to them a gas ring could never do the job of a bunsen burner, and totting up your Ebay fees could never match a lesson on the cold, hard facts of percentages.
If someone is genuinely interested I might try to explain. I see it as doing my bit to, maybe, light a spark that will end up helping somebody, somewhere, down a long line of strangers. I’ll try something along the lines of, ‘Home Ed’s actually a lot different to teaching a class in a school. I’ve got the advantage of knowing if my ‘pupils’ have slept badly, just had a fight with their best friend, or are too hungry right now to take in a new concept’.
‘In fact, I think that helping my children to recognise these types of issues in themselves, and guiding them to work out a solution, is one of my most important jobs. I know them best, and am able to see patterns that teachers might miss, and I can be a better learning partner to them because of it. We can ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ and capitalise on their enthusiasms at their strongest, and we never have to put questions aside because of a timetable’.
As for how I will teach them X, Y or Z – doesn’t everyone, whether Home Educators or not, cross this hurdle at some point? How do you learn any subject you’re not an expert in yourself? I think most of us would find an expert; bushcraft, street-dance, jujitsu, horse-riding, coding, Mandarin Chinese, swimming, film-making – either in real life, or theough the internet. We’ve had expert help in all these and more! As for more academic subjects, there are experts in those available too. Friends, relatives, Home Ed contacts, tutors, online schools, apps and even good old books.
“So, do you have to follow the National Curriculum?”
Hmm, this question signifies that Rapt Inquirer is still hooked, but may not have liked the cut of my gib when I tried to explain myself. They could be thinking that I have clearly spent too much time researching Education Theory to be able to Home Ed my kids. The answer to this one isn’t going to nudge them gently back towards their teeny-weeny comfort zone either, I’m afraid.
‘What’s the National Curriculum?’ I’ll ask, and then enjoy the sight of their brain out-running their face. If, at this point they seem to be entering a brain-lock (which will most likely result in a call to ‘someone in Authority‘ for help) I’ll probably try to gentle them back to my side.
‘Only joking!’ I’ll grin. ‘Home Educators are a bit like private schools. They don’t have to follow the National Curriculum either d’you know? They’re frre to choose what they believe is the best way of educating their children, and most of them choose a different curriculum’.
As ever, the mention of any sort of tenuous link with the ‘better’ education everybody unquestioningly assumes you get in a private school tends to swing it. They don’t acknowledge that this must mean you get a ‘not so good’ education in an ordinary school., though, which would kind of explain the whole Home Ed thing really quickly.
If people are still asking questions at this point, you can be pretty sure that they are either of a more open minded nature, or they really want to try to trip you up! If they are the former, the conversation can be really good. If, for what ever reason (probably my scowly face from earlier), the person still has some reservations, they may ask the million dollar question…
“Do you get inspected?”
This is a biggy, so you can read more about what really happens with Home Edders and the LA here, and here. But for the average Inquisition in the Street session, it goes like this…
‘No. There’s no legal basis for inspecting families, whichever way they choose to educate.’
The cognitive dissonance we may be dealing with at this stage can be pretty immense. This is a real hot potato of a question, and a humdinger of an answer for most law-abiding citizens. They just can’t justify the fact that here I stand in front of them; articulate, reasonably well-presented (just ignore the boots and biker jacket) and relatively – well, normal. My children look well fed, are clothed adequately, and during this long conversation have either been waiting politely, or trying to charm nearby wildlife, neither of which are quite the actions of Out Of Control Thugs.
But then, there it is, that thorn in the side again – I’m not being ‘inspected’. How can that be right?
Perhaps they would feel better at this stage if I told them that, yes, at random times throughout the year ‘the authorities’ use one of those door-defeating battering things the police have, to burst into my hallway shouting ‘Authorities! Show us your handwriting!’. Or perhaps that my children are forced to sit at the kitchen table each June while a stranger paces the lino with a stopwatch and they screw up their innocent little faces, trying to answer questions that don’t make sense in the actual world.
If that would make them feel better, perhaps they should also start a campaign for ensuring children are fed well. Jamie Oliver would help, I’m sure. There could be a whole new government department of Gastro Cops, who rappel into family BBQs and Sunday lunches, and god forbid, burst into ‘Friday night is chippy nights’ across Britain to tot up the nutritional value on the under 18s’ plates.
And yes, I realise I’m being facetious and child welfare is a serious subject. But the fact is that we don’t need Gastro Cops, because if we see a child who we really think isn’t getting proper meals, there is already something we can do about it. We can phone Social Services and they will go and check for us. In the olden days we would have given the kid a sandwich and a bag of crisps, but Ivan Illich has done a great job of explaining why we don’t do that sort of thing any more.
In a similar way, we don’t need a Handwriting Gestapo. Learning is a tricky thing to measure, and an even trickier thing to build laws around. The Handwriting Gestapo could be certain that Mum and Dad are trying their best to teach Johnny science. Heck, they even sent him to school and paid for private tutors. But he still doesn’t get it. We clearly can’t blame them. Should we prosecute Johnny? The teachers? The textbook author? The school? The guy who came up with the curriculum? The Government?
Its the same with Home Educators. By law we need to offer every child an education. As long as it is clear that the child is not being denied an education, there really is no more we can expect laws to cover. Not until we invent mind reading devices to quantify how much is going on in people’s heads, anyway, I suppose.
For some people (often hassled mums) the most pressing question is…
“But don’t you get sick of being around your kids all the time?”
This question makes me sad, as I think it is the wrong question to ask. Most times I’ll just say ‘No’ and move on.
Children are just people. They aren’t some special type of people who are somehow less than adults – they might need a bit of help at times, as they know less of the rules than older folks, but if you think of them as travellers in a strange land, and help them make sense of things, you should find you get along better.
Sometimes I get fed up of feeling undervalued by the world as a Stay At Home Mum. But this is a problem with society, not me, and very definitely not any fault of my childrens’. I only have to remember that my value is in my own and my family’s eyes; a few deep breaths, a flip through the family album to see how far we’ve come, a look at what is actually happening right in this moment, and I can be back to my usual, slightly uppity, self.
Other times I get frustrated with the ‘Groundhog Day’ nature of hoovering, washing up and dirty underpants. But again, these are nothing to do with being with my kids and, as a very wise lady, Sandra Dodd teaches, we always have choices. Wear the emergency knickers from the back of your drawer, eat chips out of wrapper for tea, ask someone for help, or just hide the mess in the back of a cupboard till tomorrow – and if these don’t sound like good options maybe it’s time to grin and bear it while cranking up the washing machine!
As for being around my children a lot – it is, most days, fun. We giggle, we act silly and we have some really deep and interesting conversations. They open my eyes to new things and surprise me regularly with what caring and perceptive people they are turning out to be.
It is a privilege to have people to share my favourite things with, even if they laugh at how old it all is. Don’t get me wrong – we argue too, and I’m sure that some days the kids get fed up of being around me all day, but I also think that learning to handle relationships, and grow from your mistakes is another really important learning process, and one that Home Education is really well placed to facilitate.