Unlike some home educators we are extremely lucky to have supportive family and friends. We have not experienced much negativity about the education we have chosen for our children (apart from the odd slightly raised eyebrow) despite it being a less than conventional path. My mum in particular has been tremendously supportive and has championed our home ed choices to a few of her more sceptical friends. Last week she told me how a friend of a friend, a teacher, had commented that most home educated children she had come across during her teaching career had struggled to settle at school, lacking some key skills and knowledge expected of their peers. My initial reaction was to shrug the comment off in a ‘what does she know’ kind of way. Then I got defensive. Then I started to really think about her comment, and finally here I am writing a response, because sometimes that’s the only way I can get my thoughts in order.
So what exactly did this lady mean? I like to believe that her comment came from a genuine place of concern, that she had seen children have problems in a particular environment, and she had not liked seeing them flounder. And do you know something? She is right. A very large proportion of the home educated children I know WOULD struggle if they had to attend school tomorrow, including my own. That’s awful right? It must be the parents doing something wrong surely? Actually, no. It is just plain common sense.
For a start, many of the children I know who are being home educated have BEEN to school already, and have struggled, either academically, physically or mentally. Many, many children every year are being forced out of state education because the one-size-fits-all model just can not support their needs. Some of the luckiest ones have never entered the schooling system because their parents recognised early on that they would struggle with school (or should I say school would struggle with them) and so chose not to send them. If one of those children decided to enter school at a later stage, or was forced to due to changing circumstances within the family, the chances are that they would struggle, irrespective of the quality of education they had received at home. For example, a child who is on the autistic spectrum, who finds school far too overstimulating, chaotic and stressful may end up refusing to attend or their parents might choose to remove them to preserve their mental health. If, at some time in the future that child were to re-enter the system the chances are that they would continue to find those elements of school-life challenging.
But I’m not sure this is exactly what the lady meant. I ‘think’ that what she was saying is that neurotypical children who have been educated at home find that they are not academically in line with their peers upon entering school. And again I have to agree. If my children had to start school tomorrow, they would not know the same things as the other children in their class. They would not have the same skills set as their peers. They would not pass the tests being thrown at them. This is because my children follow their interests, not the national curriculum. We read and talk about the Tudors, for example, because they have been on a visit to the Tower of London, not because they have reached a certain age. My children know a surprising amount about lots of subjects that are not covered at all by the primary curriculum. Recent topics we have discussed or found out about range from architecture to gold mining, and Frida Kahlo to the Big Bang.
But again, I feel I am being obtuse. Because that isn’t really what she meant either is it? A rich and varied general knowledge isn’t actually the focus of much of today’s schooling unfortunately. Nor are skills in sport, music or art. What she probably meant is that these home educated children were behind in the 3 Rs. Their reading, writing and numeracy skills were not at the ‘expected level’ for their age group. And here lies the problem, because this is true. But it is true because what children in school are being taught is ‘schoolwork’ and they are taught it using the language of ‘school’. My children would be mystified by the language of learning that is expected of primary age children. They are not learning to read digraphs (be them split, consonant, vowel or any other kind), just sounds and words. They do not know what suffixes are, let alone determiners or subordinating conjunctions (anyone?!) We do not ‘teach’ them what verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs are, but they can use them just fine. I’m not sure that Miss G’s ‘fantabulous’, ‘terrifical’ unicorns would go down too well in a writing test, but they get the message across quite well. It’s not that we actively avoid the language of grammar, it’s more that we use it only when it is relevant. We play around with words a lot, and recently spent time discussing the difference between rhymes and alliteration; but only because we were trying to sort the funny bunnies from the silly snakes! My children, at age 6 and 8, know the difference between specific and pacific, but wouldn’t be able to spell either. Apparently my 6 year old should be starting to use apostrophes correctly… you only have to scroll through Facebook to see that even after another 12 years of schooling many have still not grasped that one!
We don’t do any formal maths (gasp, splutter!) but just by going about our daily activities our children are being introduced to all sorts of mathematical concepts. We frequently talk about probability, fractions, percentages. We count things and measure things. We share things out. We use real money and allow them to pay for things in shops. We have written out a googol and looked up what a googolplex is. But at the moment we don’t use mathematical notation. I would rather they had a feeling for number first, a grasp of real life application before getting bogged down with how it looks on paper. So again, much of school maths would be strange and nonsensical if the girls entered a classroom right now. I am glad they don’t get a sense of how good they are at maths by which worksheet they are given or what table they sit at. I know many people who have struggled all their life with all things mathematical purely because of self-labelling themselves ‘rubbish at maths’ as a child.
The fact is that what a child is expected to be able to do and know in any given year is fairly arbitrary and changes frequently. I spent 10 years teaching in primary schools but if I landed in a classroom tomorrow I would be clueless about what needed to be covered to prepare that group of children for their next test (because like it or not, that really is what teachers are expected to do). So is it any wonder that a child entering school after being out of that system for any given time would struggle? Wouldn’t it be lovely if a child who enters the school system from a very different learning pathway was celebrated for what they could bring that was new and refreshing. Maybe they could teach the children in their class to recognise trees by their leaves or introduce them to their favourite artist or show them how to make a handbag out of a pile of alpaca wool (yep, that last child would be Miss E)?
Am I being negligent though? What if my children choose to go to school, or they have to go because of health or financial reasons? Am I setting them up to fail? I have to admit this is a real worry for me and for most families who choose a similar autonomous approach to education. But I would explain to them what I am explaining to you. I would make sure they knew they were entering a different system with it’s own unique language and I would remind them of all that they DO know and all that they CAN do. I would offer them the chance to have a look at what their peers would have covered so far, and do a bit of cramming if they felt they wanted to. And I would make sure that they knew they were more than a test score or reading age, that comparing yourself to others is never very helpful and that no one is ‘rubbish at maths’, they are just at different points on a journey.