Home Education – the first year (well, sort of).

The school to which I would have sent my youngest, had I planned on sending her to school, finished yesterday for the academic year. And of course, it made me think – wow, I’ve been home educating for a whole academic year now!

Of course, that isn’t entirely the case. One could say that she has been home educated from birth (because in many ways all children are ‘home educated’ at first) or one could say that she has only been home educated for a term (‘school age’ actually starts from the term after the child turns five, which means that she was only ‘officially’ home educated for that summer term) or even that she’s only been home educated since January, which is when I started keeping a record of what we’d been doing day-to-day.

A wall covered in chalk writing including phases of the moon, various trips out (e.g. Walker Art Gallery, World of Glass) and pieces of music listened to.
The wall in our back room doubles as a chalk board to record some of the things we’ve done and have learnt about during each week.

But even in cases like this where a child has never been to school (or nursery), it’s hard not to think in terms of, well, terms, and academic years. I have an older child, too, a teenager, who does attend school, so even though my youngest will continue to be home educated over the summer, it’s definitely the case that we’ll still have a bit of a ‘holiday’ vibe; how could we not, when her big brother will be around a lot more?

In some ways it’s really hard to compare what we do to what’s done in school. In other ways, there are similarities. We do, for example, have a very loose ‘timetable’. My youngest – and I – thrive on structure. That said, unlike in a school, it’s a timetable we can abandon at any time if – for example – the weather is windy for the first time in ages and we want to fly the kite we made a while ago and never had chance, or – again, for example – she’s having too much fun pulling socks out of a pillowcase and trying to predict how likely, or not, she is to pull out a pair of blue socks if there are two blue and six black socks. And when you home educate, where does it start, and when does it end? In some ways, one could say that home education is just having more time to do the kind of stuff with your kids that you’d do with them of a weekend anyway (there have been a few occasions now when my son has walked in after school, seen the activity his little sister is doing and said, “oh, I remember when we did that”). In other ways it’s quite different; you as parent/s are solely responsible for ensuring your child has adequate knowledge of what used to be called, jokingly, the Three Rs – Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. The ‘buck’ stops with you.

It’s been a bit of a learning curve for me, and of course, I’ve had to ‘learn on the job’ what suits us and our family best. I obviously read everything I could about home education beforehand, but nothing completely prepares one for actually taking the plunge. Children are so different, too; what might have suited my eldest doesn’t necessarily suit my youngest. (My eldest would have absolutely thrived on ‘unschooling’; my youngest less so.) There are also challenges to home educating during a period of time when people are sick more often meaning cancellations are more likely to happen. Plus I do also feel that due to various lockdowns and restrictions she missed out on some of the normal day-to-day activities her brother got to do when he was a pre-schooler, so I’ve felt like I’ve also had to try and make that up to her a bit (I don’t want to say much more about covid than that – too divisive). But we’ve sort of settled into a way of doing things that seems to work for now, though I am seeing how much I can add for when more classes and so on become available in September without overwhelming my youngest. (I’m especially keen on finding her a class where she can dance without the pressure of lots of exams, strict dress codes and so on).

I don’t want to write a report for her, but if pushed, and using a somewhat crude ‘yardstick’, I would say that she is ‘achieving and exceeding expectations’ in those ‘three Rs’ I mentioned earlier.

A page from a booklet written in a 5yo’s hand. The text says ‘so he decided to make up a simmer dance. So he danced all the time figuring out how to make it.’
A page from ‘The Little Summer Piglet’, a booklet written by my youngest.

What I will say is that this year she has really developed an understanding of the natural world around her. This, I think, has been our biggest focus and it’s the one area where we (very loosely) follow a curriculum; Exploring Nature with Children, to give shape to our nature walks and talks. Some areas she’s really loved (she enjoys being able to name wildflowers and ‘weeds’ in our local vicinity, and has a knowledge of endopterygota that I think is probably beyond that of the average five-year-old) and with others she’s not particularly engaged (so we haven’t pushed those areas).

We’ve had a huge focus on art, both on making art and looking at various works of art; we’ve done lots of – I suppose one might call it – ‘mathematical thinking’ (some of it inspired by Zvonkin’s Math from Three to Seven); we’ve listened to famous and less-famous pieces of music; we’ve also had ‘poetry teatimes’; we’ve used the ‘Let’s Move’ archive on BBC Sounds (some older readers may remember this as ‘Music and Movement’); we’ve watched an awful lot of David Attenborough documentaries and one or two ballets; we’ve made use of a handful of apps and decided others were worse than useless; we’ve visited museums and galleries and various nature spots; we’ve sang and played instruments… and we’ve played. Quite a lot. (And it goes without saying – given those ‘three Rs’ above – that we’ve read probably at least half of the children’s books in our local library together!)

A tiny bag of grain, a paper boat, a knitted chick, a wooden fox toy and a wooden peg doll all line up in front of a river drawn with chalk.
The Fox, the Grain and the Chicken

And she’s played with other kids. She’s attended a few groups (including, recently, one for French) and she has started to make friends. This is definitely something I am already starting to focus on more for the next ‘academic year’, as I do want to ensure she has a sort of ‘steady stream’ of friends with whom to play; at the moment it can be a bit patchy, especially if someone is poorly or has other plans.

I do think it’s harder to home educate if you don’t have a car, which is the case for us (well, my spouse has a car but isn’t here during office working hours), and living as a family on four, on one relatively low salary, during a cost of living crisis, after years and years of austerity is… a challenge. And having the government determined to make home education harder than ever and not even offering anything financial in the way of a ‘carrot’ is… interesting. None of this takes away from the fact it’s still a privilege inaccessible to many (I couldn’t have home educated my eldest for various reasons) but I do think some people do think we must be raking it in (if only), or even assume we get some kind of financial help from the government (goodness me no) and it just isn’t the case. But… at least for now, we will continue to find a way to do it. Because it works.

It would take several blog posts if I were to try and describe the reasons we home educate. Plus one has to be very careful; if not, it can start to come across as ‘anti-school’ (and after all, my eldest attends school), or annoy people, or have them misunderstand, and either make accusations of ‘hothousing’ or whatever the opposite is; being too ‘lax’ and permissive. So I will avoid that by saying very little, except that one cannot underestimate the benefits of one-on-one or one-on-few (as is the case with people with several children) learning. Especially with children who aren’t necessarily as suited as their peers to a school environment (which describes my youngest for reasons I won’t go into here).

As I said earlier, we don’t really run to school timetables and term/holiday dates, but it is still impossible not to think of this in some ways as ‘the first year of home ed’. And if it is, if it was, I think we’ve done okay. Pretty well, even.

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