One of the home ed questions I’m asked a lot is about exams, university, the future. So I interviewed author Marie-Louise Jensen whose home educated son is heading off to university this year.
The school starting age. With two boys who were summer birthdays, they’d barely have been four when starting full time school. They were not independent or resilient at that point and I couldn’t possible imagine it. I was also aware boys need to be running around still at that age, not sitting still trying to master fine-motor skills that were still beyond them and possibly being called naughty if they found it challenging.
I’ve also lived for spells in Denmark and Germany. Living elsewhere gives a perspective. Children start far later there and do just as well.
What reaction did/do you get from friends and family?
Really, really hostile. My own parent/step parent were really concerned, my in-laws freaked out completely. All four grandparents were teachers, which didn’t help. My father-in-law referred to home-education as ‘aping the aristocracy.’ I pointed out I wouldn’t be employing a governess. I didn’t get the worst of their badgering, the children’s father did and it made him go behind my back to look at schools. I only found out afterwards when I came across brochures hidden in his sock drawer. I found that very disloyal, because he had initially agreed with me, but I did understand he was getting a lot of grief.
It didn’t change my mind. I’m not easily pressurised, but it was unpleasant. They all four put pressure on over the years about maths. They knew I wasn’t great at it and when the children got ‘behind’ (even though I wasn’t attempting to work to the National Curriculum) they all pestered me with their worries. My mother and stepfather came round to the notion of home-education and became extremely supportive as they saw the children thrive. My in-laws became increasingly hostile and used to test the children’s maths whenever they visited and tell them they should know more. This has become quite a joke in retrospect (you’ll see why later in the interview) but it was distressing at the time.
For a little while, I wasn’t all that welcome in the NCT and other groups I’d gone to up to then as the other children were being told things like ‘you have to go to school or the policeman will take mummy away.’ Obviously the fact I was still around even though my children didn’t go was highly inconvenient. I think they also saw my decision as a criticism of what they were doing, which of course it wasn’t. But everyone finds this a difficult time and feels insecure about their decision. I did too, of course. I had doubts, but I didn’t want the alternatives and having the children at home was so much fun.
Luckily we found lots of home-educated friends through EO and this filled the gap. Also, once all the schooled children had settled into their schools, the parents relaxed again and it was no longer such an issue.
What does an average home ed day look like?
Ours were really rather unstructured! And changed a great deal through the eleven years we home educated, as you’d expect. We were members of a group for most of the time, so we had regular meetings in a hall, clubbed together to get sports teachers, art teachers and drama teachers at different times over the years. We met in the park one day a week a lot of the year to play. We booked workshops and activities in museums and other places of interest. Learning to read and write was fitted in around those activities. We generally did some work in the mornings, especially if it was raining or we were bored. But I was a great believer in ‘learning all the time’. We played, we built lego for days, we baked, we shopped, we modelled, we crafted, we talked. I read to the children extensively. They learned to read and devoured books, so the library was a regular outing.
As they grew older, structured learning had to become a bigger part of the day. By secondary age I was on my own with them and needing to work part-time so it got less relaxed and fun. They started Kumon (which was brilliant! A positive outcome of my mother’s anxiety about maths – she kindly offered to pay the fees), they studied in the mornings, either with me or alone or with other home-schooled children. They progressed fast and quickly caught up.
How do you make sure your children are socialised and get other people’s perspectives on life?
A home-education group is great. There is always a real range of people in those groups! A mix of class, race, religion, reasons for home schooling and outlook. There is also your extended family. My two children went to swimming and gymnastics throughout the years they were homeschooled and for many years they did drama and dance too. Later they played golf – the junior fees are much less than you’d expect and they are out on the course with other juniors for hours. They often played with the other children in the street after school. It wasn’t a problem. I never had to think much about it until they got to about 14.
How do you prepare your children for the future: having to have a job, sticking to rules, dealing with authority/bullies, etc.?
I was a reasonably strict parent (as long as they didn’t make me laugh!) so rules were fine. They’ve both gone into school without problems, one at 16 and one at 14, so I think the need for adjustment to the ‘real’ world is a bit of a myth. Neither of them has ever been bullied and both have made friends easily. They both got a part-time job as a helper at the Kumon centre they’d studied at, which has been really good for them.
How do you make sure your children learn the value of doing things they may not want to do? (Assuming you *do* think this is valuable. If not, why not?)
In situations like this, we discussed why it was important. They tended to discuss sensibly and ultimately trust my judgement and do the work even if they weren’t keen. They both resisted longer writing tasks, with the result that this was probably the hardest thing for them when they got into school. Greg still got As in his double English GCSEs though.
I always intended them to go into school at some stage. It got put off and put off because we were all so happy with home education. We considered it briefly when Greg, the eldest, was 14, but discovered the schools wouldn’t accept him a year behind his age group. It affected their league tables. So he did most of his GCSEs at home. We took the Edexcel IGCSEs in art (C), maths (A*), chemistry (A*), physics (A*), biology (A) and German (A*), spread out over three years. I taught him and another home-educated girl German from scratch. Art we did because we were offered a free shared tutor as a swap for the German, and at 14, it was a tall order. Maths and the sciences we had to get a bit of tutor help towards the end because I couldn’t teach all the GCSE material (though I managed up to the end of KS3). He did a lot of independent study too. English language and lit were taken with the retake class in his first year of sixth form, though we did some work at home too.
Taking exams at home is a big commitment. We chose IGCSEs because there was no coursework or controlled assessments. It felt like a mammoth task, because Greg was largely taking subjects I hadn’t taken myself and could offer limited help with. We found we couldn’t learn solely from text books and did need to buy in some tutoring which was a cost. But then you do get the teacher you choose for one-to-one, rather than a random teacher and a large group. And you cover the material very quickly and thoroughly that way. We’re low income, but we do without other things to afford the educational bits and pieces they need.
Eldest son opted for a three-year sixth form to give himself a chance to adjust and get used to exams and a different way of working, which was a good idea. He loved sixth form from the very first day and has been very happy. He got an A* in his maths A level last year (which is why it’s so funny that the family flapped about maths all those years!) and is predicted A* for further maths too. If he gets that and his A in physics, he will have a place at Bath university this autumn to study mathematics.
My younger son hasn’t been in such a good school, but still quite enjoyed himself. He’s taking GCSES there at the moment and is then coming out for one more year of home education (to take his modern languages IGCSES) before doing a two-year sixth form afterwards.
What do you feel are the most positive aspects of home ed?
The children don’t learn everything the schooled children learn, and they have a few gaps. On the other hand, they know many things that children who’ve spent their childhood in a classroom don’t.
I loved the very practical way of learning we adopted and I think the children really remember the things they learned out and about.
We did a three month trip to Iceland one summer, travelling up by ferry and driving around the whole island, camping and exploring the history, geography and wildlife of that fascinating country. We couldn’t have done that very easily if they hadn’t been home educated.
I love that they learned to relate to people of all ages as well as their peer group.
Taking responsibility for their own studies and managing their time. Both sons find schooled children (in general, not exclusively) less self-motivated.
You save years of school-run stress.
They are also still willing to learn with you if and when they go into school, which is an advantage.
I put this question to the two boys and they said the same things. Plus being able to catch up on sleep if you got tired!
Are there any negatives?
Post age 14, all but one of their friends had gone into school. So it was rather lonely. And you have to spend so much of the day studying, that the freedoms of home-education become less of an advantage. That’s why having seen my eldest become rather isolated in his final year, I put my more gregarious younger son into school sooner. Up to then, I’d say the only disadvantage was people constantly asking why they weren’t in school and then saying, ‘Oh, aren’t you brave?’ I had to grit my teeth. And of course as a parent, you don’t get a huge amount of time to yourself. Especially as a single parent. Apart from that, they were such happy years. I would do it all over again. They both tell me they are glad they were homeschooled.
Any home ed misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
You don’t have to be brave! You don’t have to be a teacher! You don’t have to be amazingly intelligent! School isn’t the only place you can make friends. You can be home schooled and do well academically. (My eldest is proof).
Middle class children perform very similarly whether at home or school. Working class children, if their parents are genuinely engaged, outperform their schooled counterparts.
Do you have any advice for someone thinking about home education?
It’s a lot of work, especially as they get older. You need to enjoy your children’s company (though you do get to hang out with interesting parents too). You need to be OK about your house constantly being trashed by baking, painting and den building etc. Even now we still have piles of workbooks, text books and paper all over the house.
Although home education doesn’t need to be expensive, it will incur more costs than school. Definitely join Education Otherwise and go out and meet as many other home-educators as you can. There are camps too. And enjoy!
If you’d like to be interviewed for this blog – or if you have a burning home ed question you’d like me to ask – either let me know in the comments or email me keris dot stainton at gmail dot com.