A question of education – can anyone help?

This comment was left on my blog last week and I asked the commenter if I could post it on the main page instead and perhaps get more feedback than I can give on my own. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Thanks. 

We have been homeschooling our son from the beginning – he is now just 7 – mainly overseas. It has been the most wonderful, joyful experience for our family – it has given us peace, relaxation, the opportunity for academic rigour and depth and the freedom to explore interests without constraint (piano and fencing in our son’s case).

He has grown up kind, generous, happy and relaxed. We have avoided all the things we didn’t want for him – too much technology mainly and all the negative stuff that we thought happened at schools, competing about things and gadgets, anger from not seeing your parents enough and so on. He reads for pleasure and all the time at home and he is working several years above his age in maths and english.

I never really wanted to stop the homeschooling, however we decided (after taking exams in January at a UK school with a very good reputation where he did really well and got to interview, but just missed a place) that we should try a private school known for its success in exam preparation (we don’t feel ashamed of that – we just wanted to see if what we were doing in terms of academic level was ok and we were also curious about what happens in schools these days).

We joined part way through the year (a few weeks ago) and, socially, it has been fine for our son. Though he prefers it at home, he is such a kind mature child that he has had no issues and the other children are responding very well to him. However, academically it has been very poor so far (in a school that parents clamour to get into) – he is working so below his age. Only that would be fine – we expected and wanted him not to struggle. It is just the chaos and inefficiency and lack of care we see at the school – homework is set then not checked, it is given in pieces of paper and is all over the place, with misspellings, poor punctuation and very little thought.

We have always taught our son that whatever he does should have value and meaning – we have always been careful to value what he does. This school – though gentle and nice – simply forgets what it has asked the children to do. It seems to devalue learning much more than we expected. We know that a lot of children in a classroom is not the same as homeschooling – but I did hope that school would be even a little like it was when I was there, with focused teachers, a sense of purpose and importance given to school work. Here, everything is so relaxed that not much matters and not much is learned at all.

I am worried that my son is reading and writing less than he ever did at home – reading is assigned as an exercise and the implication is that children have to make time for it like it is a lesson. In our house, reading is a bit like breathing – we all do it without thinking.

The noise is also an issue – the teacher is nice but there is very little real discipline and lots of shouting and calling out.

I want children to be happy, but my view is that they crave boundaries and discipline and without it, lose respect for the teacher and the school. I know this school has a good reputation – its inspection reports are all ‘excellent’ in every aspect and parents seem to love it. But none of them have homeschooled. My feeling is that anyone who hasn’t homeschooled can’t know what wonderful learning happens there and how different your expectations can be of what childhood is like and what can be achieved – including relaxation. My son can no longer run to the couch with a book when he wants to relax and have some time to himself – it is now 6 hours of constant activity and (unlike in my time) constant noise. He is taking it well enough, but I think the novelty may already be wearing off. He is a naturally quiet, focused boy and I fear this will change him or make his life difficult.

I wonder if you or anyone you know has tried schooling and felt the same? Do you have any thoughts about our desire to return to homeschooling? I am a little (or a lot if I am honest) afraid – institutions make everyone feel the need to follow rules and to feel guilty when they don’t. Even after three weeks of school, I feel my grip on being the person primarily responsible for his education is slipping. I think that is a parent’s job, but the school is taking it from me and doing not a very good job in the process, sadly!

Thank you for reading this long message.

Image courtesy of winnond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.


10 responses to “A question of education – can anyone help?

  1. I feel that a private school, however good the reputation, is still an institution with an institutional agenda out side the requirements of the individual! So I would have no hesitation recommending home schooling. We took ours out of UK schooling to home educate and never once regretted it! We got our happy, smiling, creative and intelligent children back and their love of learning, cramped in school, returned. I write about it now to support others so you might find some help on my site;

  2. We did it the other way around. Our son is 13 and has been to public and top private schools all of his life. We became deeply concerned at just how slow the learning process in school was and how bored he was with it and that it was teaching him to hate learning and that learning is just something to be endured when forced on you. We started homeschooling a little over four months ago and cannot believe the difference. As you say, if he needs timeout he jumps onto the bed and reads (also like breathing for us) but equally, like last night he was studying until almost nine o’clock, simply because he has decided what he is learning and loves it. In four months he has done more and learnt more than in the last two years and it is just the beginning as so many more opportunities have opened up as he is no longer bound by school.
    Three weeks is plenty of time to see what you think – nothing about the school approach is suddenly going to change.

      • Hi Sam – Very happy to talk with you.
        We are relatively new to this, but have thought very long and hard about the advantages and disadvantages. I would be very happy to discuss whenever you would like – just contact me through the blog and we can work out a time via email.
        Fully understand the fear that you are feeling – my wife however was far more fearful than I was going into this and maybe her thoughts expressed here after a week of homeschooling will be of some use to you: http://unschooledfuture.com/2014/02/03/mum-i-want-to-unschool/

  3. We took our eldest out of private school in order to home educate – there is no comparison in my opinion. Private schools open doors but you are still only learning in a very directed way, at the same time and in the same way as 20 other kids, creativity and individuality is not valued. I think the only difference between private and state is that the children are worked harder, with more homework! You may have less kids in the classroom but your son will still be getting less attention than he would at home. Home education is incomparable in my opinion!

    • Dear David,
      Thank you for your reply. Would you be willing to have a chat about this by phone at any time – I would be grateful? I felt that our position might be unique, but it sounds as if it isn’t.

      This London school he is in is desirable – people clamour and tutor and do anything to get a place. Am I missing something – depriving my son for the future, lessening his chances later? Will I regret it, when we want to teach Latin or chemistry in high school, that from this, well-connected pre-prep he had the best chance to make it to a top school with teachers expert in these subjects? I am weakened by that, though I dislike everything about what we are doing (except the chance to present to a group – which we loved with piano and has a similar motivational effect in a school). He comes home drained, says he hasn’t learnt much and that, though he is popular, what the boys talk about doesn’t interest him. Worse, the social scene – rudeness, preoccupation with money, nannies, entitlement – will carry through to the next school, even if the teachers there are better. Intellectual rigour – that is all that we were hoping for.

      I also have a fear of the effect of technology on my son. I Yesterday I wrote to Nicholas Carr about it (who wrote ‘The Shallows’ – an important book). I seem to be consumed with indecision and fear about what is right – I have just been teaching our son ‘Hamlet’, so it must have rubbed off!

      I hope you don’t mind the excerpt below of my letter to Carr – he in particular, mourns the loss of reading, which is why my letter addresses it in detail. Your child is older, so I would love your perspective on technology – perhaps you might tell me I should not worry? I am glad to find a few people here who have tasted both worlds and find homeschooling ‘incomparable’ – that has always been my belief.
      Dear Nicholas,
      I want to start by saying thank you for writing what you have about technology and given those like me a voice. As a former journalist with The Economist, I used to have one. As a stay-at-home mother and homeschooler, I don’t exercise one now. Could you bear with what I write below? It is long.

      My son is why I write to you. For seven years, until three weeks ago, when we started at a school in London, I have had this person, someone I love entirely, at home with me all the time. I always had an instinct to resist putting our son, now 7, into school – and when we moved to New York I had an excuse. However I learned quickly how wonderful it was to teach him myself. It was a natural extension of parenting. My husband and I read to him from when he was a baby – instinctively because we loved him. We have read to him every day of his life – literally – and he reads to us now and to himself of course. Our son reads to relax – between lessons at home he would grab a book and put his feet up. He reads over lunch, breakfast – anywhere. Just as instinctively, I rejected computers for him from the very start. I could no more give him a computer when he was young than give him a cigarette or heroin. Just as we knew that books were essential to life, we knew that computers undermined content – undoing harmony and peace and the delicious solitude of a book. In our bones we just knew that. For all the reasons that you understand so very well.

      As a homeschooling mum my biggest pleasure was choosing the next book. I dislike many modern children’s books. I find all I need on ebay and rescue old editions. Together my son and I have read so much by Enid Blyton – particularly her expert nature books. I suspect that no other child in the UK has been exposed to a greater variety of her books – and I celebrate every one for their values, their wisdom, their passion. For great writing, we go to many other places – but I am secretly a defender of her writing too. I taught history to our son (partly) from Charles Dickens’ ‘A Child’s History of England” – in use in schools until the 1940s – it is rich and detailed and original and exciting and wonderfully written. It could not be written today. Nor could the works of Darwin – who threw lizards off “The Beagle” as he sat alone and thought. Had computers existed, his head would have been full of detritus – fragments of a thousand other people’s thoughts.

      Homeschooling allowed us to completely avoid technology. My son has touched a computer maybe a dozen times. He has only typed on one perhaps three times. Instead we read – we learned from books and we wrote in books. More important than the academic benefit even is that it produced a relaxed, calm and happy boy. One who knew – and knows – the utter peace of being quiet and alone. That is the feeling that all 7 year olds knew 40 years ago. When you read Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” you meet a child whose every sensibility was founded on being alone.

      Now we have returned to the UK and have just put our son into school – as of three weeks ago. Our motivation is shaky – and based on a fast fading notion we had of academic excellence in school; to prepare for some exams that we think we want him to pass to get to school that we had thought we wanted him to go to. For the last three weeks since he started school, Tris has read less than he has ever read, written less than he has ever written and watched more videos and used more computers than he ever has. Every lesson has a video attached. Children sit passively while teachers mark exams – or simply chat.

      I feel afraid each day that I see him in this environment. This school is considered top-notch. And it is undoing some of the most precious parts of his education. Reading now is ‘assigned’ in a ‘reading diary’ – it is not assumed that a child will read for pleasure or naturally – it is assigned. I cannot accept that is how teachers regard reading. There is no time in six hours for my son to escape the constant noise and activity and read or rest. It seems cruel actually. The library is full of noise and computers – there is no peace in libraries in schools anymore. And there is no peace and harmony within the boys. Their parents give them ipads as presents and spend their time looking into screens not into their children’s faces.

      I am afraid of what is happening. I can hardly believe that I am in a time when people question the value of books and of reading. I still cling to a hope that we are simply in a dark age intellectually and that there may be a reversal. If it was just me, the solution would be easy – find an escape and retreat (probably to a small town in Japan where I used to live!). But what do I do about my boy? Forced to emerge from our homeschooling cocoon by this school, only tonight (after a discussion with a tutor) has it fully dawned on me, how much technology our family will be forced to accept if we go into institutional school. I looked at ‘BBC Bite Size’ recommended by him and felt a jolt. This is how my son will be expected to learn? Is it the first dose of heroin on the way to video game addiction for sure? And there are no answers out there. Nobody is complaining or questioning much – on the contrary, most are celebrating this new way of learning. No matter the studies that show that taking notes on computers in lectures means you recall less than writing, no matter all the studies on the ineffectiveness of passive learning compared to book learning.

      My son is gentle, moral, kind, bright and polite. I don’t want him to change and immersion in technology will change him and our family. I want to return to homeschooling). Not because I think I am the greatest teacher, but because I am afraid. The schools that we are looking are stuffed full of so-called amazing teachers and experts. I am also afraid that he will miss out on knowing those teachers if he doesn’t go to school. To be swimming against a tide of mass addiction is very tough when your child is having to grow up in this world that we reject.

      I love my son and I will not do the wrong thing by him. It is just that nobody else seems to be as afraid as I am.

      Thank you

  4. Hi, I am happy to talk about it with you, my blog is http://www.educatingsausages.com if you wish to contact me through there. However, I do have a few points to make!
    1. From the number of doubts you have about his private school, it sounds to me that in your heart you know that home ed is better for your son – listen to your gut!
    2. Private schools are clamoured for in London, because the state schools (well, in our area anyway) aren’t that great, particularly when you get to secondary schools. Either you move out of London for a better school or you pay for private, this drives the competition up but high competition doesn’t necessarily mean the school is any good – SATs results are meaningless because all the children are heavily coached for them.
    3. If you want your son to learn something at secondary level that you don’t feel you have the skills to teach: a. get a tutor, or b. use an online high school.
    4. Don’t be scared of technology. There is A LOT to learn from technology. Bill Gates (I think) said recently there are 3 important languages in the world: english, maths and coding. Says it all really. In my view, if you deprive kids of something pretty major, from chocolate to computers, your kid will probably be bingeing on it later in life. Show him computers now. Let him learn to regulate himself. He clearly has a love of books so this love will probably continue regardless if he is given computer time.
    5. Learning at home will always better learning at school – he is being given one-on-one time from someone who loves him, knows him inside out and can allow him to learn at his own pace in whatever area he is interested in. Schools can’t compete with that.
    6. If you do decide to HE, you can always prepare him for re-entry at 11+, as a back-up.
    7. Why not ask your son what HE wants?
    Hope this helps!

  5. Thank you Lucy – all you say is true and thank you for writing back at such length. I love using tutors – experts to help. It is the very best way to create the sort of education that we – structured homeschoolers as we were – wanted. We did use tutors in New York to supplement me – and for the variety for our son – and obviously specialists for piano and fencing. I always said to everyone who asked me that I truly believed it was the perfect way to educate. Here in London, we have contacted a tutoring agency and met someone who has taught in the school we are interested in. I can have, on hand in London, someone like him to give our son a change from me, his daughter for Latin (she came today for a first lesson in Latin and was excellent) and we had our London-based piano teacher who teaches alongside our one in New York (it sounds complicated – but wouldn’t be if we didn’t have to spend six hours a day shut in an institution). It is wonderful to think that we could pick and choose from among so many experts to teach subjects. The hour of Latin today was worth about three weeks of school-taught Latin reckoned the tutor. In fact we took a day off the institutional school today – I felt really put out that I actually felt guilty at being seen by someone at the school (we live close by) when our son spent the day learning properly and in depth for the first time in ages! Already I am being sucked into the mentality that this place owns my son and his education – how can that be!? I was also shocked when they sent a huge package of half term homework. Here, finally, was some stretching work – and lots and lots of it. We hadn’t seen this kind of stuff at the school before. I finally realised why. The school shirks the tough stuff – keeping learning at quite low levels so all children can manage (which I understand in part – how can a big school work otherwise?) – and then in the holidays, the tough stuff is handed over for the tutors of these celeb, rich parents to teach – who “throw money at tutors” as our Latin one put it. Both the independent tutors I consulted this week said their busiest time for these over-driven children from the top private schools is the school holidays. So now, from a son who could relax whenever he wanted – I also have an overdriven son who has six hours of constant noise and no peace in school, then faces me and tutors teaching him what I think he does need to know in the evening. I hate myself for leaving him no time to just be, but I also hate seeing him coast and lose all that he had learned, since he loves learning and we have always liked structured homeschooling. It is only three weeks until we leave for overseas for a music recital – I am again taking time off so that we can all recover and find our balance again as a family. That truly has been lost. We can’t keep this up for long. I see this as an experiment – I now know what the other side is like. I miss our old life so much. Thank you for writing back and giving me so much to think about. I will look at your blog and contact you after reading it.

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