Sunday, January 26, 2014

Thoughts on home education

This post - Homeschooling and Bigotry - from a long-term email friend got me thinking again about our reasons for home education, and how I see the whole educational process, from my current perspective several years after our sons have grown up.

I too find it sad that there's sometimes bigotry (often founded in ignorance) about home education, but then some home educators are equally negative and judgemental about schools. I think the problem is that each 'side' (if there must be a side) can feel threatened, needing to justify their own decisions which - in many cases - apparently means taking a negative viewpoint towards those who think differently.

This kind of thing happens in all kinds of circles and relevant to a wide range of topics... I've seen Baptists condemn Anglicans and Anglicans condemn Pentecostals and Pentecostals condemn Catholics, and (here in Cyprus) Greek Evangelicals condemning Greek Orthodox... and Greek Orthodox condemning pretty much any Protestants. Much of the rhetoric is based in ignorance, and - inevitably - the occasional truly negative example of whoever it is they are arguing against this week. It makes no sense to me that, we can't all agree to differ on doctrinal issues and love and respect each other as Christian brothers and sisters with different preferences in worship, and different understandings of some doctrines.

That's a whole other issue, of course, quite irrelevant to home education. But if even those claiming to follow Jesus (supposedly known by our love for each other) cannot speak nicely and with respect about those with different viewpoints, I don't think there is much chance for the mostly secular world of home educators and school adherents. Yes, I know that in the US many of the pioneers of homeschooling were fundamentalist Christians, but in the UK the reverse is true - most are, for want of a better word, secular.

So, looking back on our years of home education, and pondering on the people I've met, I suppose I can make a few general statements, but they're mostly just my own opinion - anyone is free to disagree.

Research regularly shows (and yes, I read a couple of articles very recently) that young children learn the most through positive interactions with parents, and a wide range of play activities. In countries where formal schooling does not begin until children are six or seven, with minimal homework, they almost invariably do better academically in the long run.

(See, for instance, 'Give Childhood back to the children'.)

Sadly, in the UK and elsewhere, the emphasis seems to be on school at a younger and younger age, with increased work to do at home in addition to seven hours in the classroom. When my first son started school, aged just five (22 years ago now) there was no expectation of pre-school or nursery education. He had been to playgroups, and did actually go to an informal nursery school when he was four, but it was only a couple of hours each day, and the focus was very much on learning through play.

The school he went to was small and friendly; the Reception class was mostly play-based too. They were assigned reading books based on their interests and abilities, and the classroom teacher did short sessions of phonics, or handwriting, or basic number/shape skills during the day, but they also did a lot of guided play - handling play money in a toy 'shop', for instance - and plenty of art, craft, music and sport. The teacher or classroom assistant read aloud to them regularly.

Nowadays children are expected to go to a nursery school - often full-time - from the time they are three, and National Curriculum work begins almost at once. Yes, there's some play but it's much more guided, and there's little time for imagination and free play - things which, in my view, children should be having at home, not in a classroom environment.

All of which is to say that, when parents decide to keep their children out of school for the first few years, I would support them wholeheartedly. There is absolutely no reason for any kind of rigid structure at this age, or formal learning. A few years ago my younger son started training as a classroom teacher in the UK... until he discovered some of the idiotic ideas the government are now imposing on classroom learning, with today's children as guinea-pigs. If there is an involved parent (or grandparent) at home, a variety of books and construction toys, and access to a library, pretty much any young child will learn a vast amount and probably learn to read (etc) without any formal instruction.

Note again the last sentence of the previous paragraph. A great deal depends on the parents and the home environment. If there are interested, involved parents, and if the child gets good food, and has time to play at home, and has adults or older siblings who answer his questions, then he will most likely do well, wherever he is educated. Parental involvement is hugely important at every stage of a child's life. Sadly, many parents are not involved, either fobbing their young children off with electronic devices (even tablets such as iPads, apparently) or sticking them in front of TV/DVDs.

I heard of one inner-city school where children started, aged 4, unable to form a complete sentence. Most of them had never been read to; some had hardly ever been spoken to. I suspect this is not a unique situation to this school. It seems intuitively obvious that children from educationally neglectful homes of this kind should benefit greatly from school. Indeed, few parents of this genre are likely to consider home education anyway. Yet, as someone working in the school commented, most of the children have no motivation, no interest in learning, no reason to care. If their parents were living on benefits, sitting around all day watching TV, why would they want anything different?

So that particular school provided breakfasts, and basic teaching of spoken language, meaning it was constantly 'behind' as far as the National Curriculum was concerned. The teachers did a very difficult, stressful job with few rewards. The small minority of children from what we would consider 'normal' homes found it very difficult indeed to learn anything, and were also be in danger of bullying - or worse. By the time these children were eleven, many of them were already sexually active - and there was immense pressure on those who were not.

So, while it's undoubtedly a vast generalisation, it seems to me that bright and motivated children and teens usually come from families where there is plenty of parental interaction in the early years, and lots of support throughout the growing years. Whether the children of loving, involved parents go to school or are educated out of school, they will probably do well.

However, it is vital to take a child's needs into account, at every stage. Everyone is unique; each family is different. Schools, too, have a tremendous variation from excellent through to appalling. Some children are well-suited to classroom education and structured learning; others are not. Some learn easily from reading and listening in groups; others do not. Some develop roughly along the government expected paths; others learn in different ways altogether.

I know of rigid home educators who 'protect' their children in a hot-house way, and I know of relaxed, encouraging home educators whose children blossom and flourish. Thankfully the latter seem to be the norm, at least in the UK, but they are far less likely to be singled out for media attention. I know of several families who choose to educate their children at home until they're at least seven or eight and who then use good schools (where they seem to integrate happily, without problems). I know of others whose children go to friendly local primary schools until they are 11, and are then educated at home for the teenage years, so they can follow their interests and avoid the negative side of peer pressure.

Rightly or wrongly, the home education movement is growing, at least in the UK. I'm on several mailing lists and Facebook groups, and get the impression that home educators are roughly divided between those who choose the lifestyle from the start, and those who remove their children from school due to serious problems; often this is bullying, but sometimes the child just isn't suited to a classroom environment.

There are some very worrying trends in today's internet-savvy youth. Negative peer pressure and bullying show no signs of decreasing; teenage depression is on the rise, teenage suicide higher than ever. I'm very sympathetic to parents who care enough to pull an unhappy child out of a toxic environment in the hope of providing something better.

However, I'm more of the mindset of those who see home education as a positive option rather than a last resort, even if there are good schools around. We rather fell into it when we moved to Cyprus; I had to overcome many negative preconceptions to see that education is far more than a school curriculum, and that it's entirely possible to learn all one needs to know without structure or formal 'lessons'.

One deeply-held misconception about home educators is that they are socially incompetent. There was actually some research done in this in, I believe, the 1990s; the result surprised even the researchers, as it showed that on the whole home educated children were MORE socially able than their schooled peers. They got along well with people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures and did not have the need to 'fit in' or be part of the 'in-crowd'. This meant that they were more comfortable in their own skins, and better able to make a good, natural impression.

Obviously there are always exceptions. Some children are naturally friendly and get along with everyone; some are natural loners, or socially awkward. I have met some of the latter who went through school, often badly bullied. Classroom 'socialisation' did not help them at all; it may even have made things worse for them. Asperger's Syndrome is more widely recognised than it used to be - and there are quite a few Aspies who are home educated, often because they had such a difficult time with school. To blame home education for their poor social skills rather misses the point.

Over the years we have met many home educating families, most of whom we have liked very much. We don't always understand or agree with all their methods, but we absolutely respect the right (enshrined in UK law) for parents to decide, preferably in conjunction with the children, how education should take place. I am firmly of the opinion that home education (at its best) is a wonderful option. But it's not for everyone. There are some excellent schools and many children thrive in them.

We parents have a difficult, often stressful job, and all we can do at any point is attempt to find what is best and right for our children at each opportunity as they grow up. I find it very sad when we can't all support and encourage each other, no matter what educational choices we and our offspring make. Let's not pass judgement on each other, based on a handful of negative experiences; just because you happen to know an awkward, ignorant home educated child (or, indeed, an awkward, ignorant schooled child) does not mean that he is like this simply because of the way he is educated.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

I think I thanked you elsewhere for posting this, but I forgot to thank you here.

So, thanks for posting this. Some people really seem to get their knickers in a knot about it.