I’ve written this in response to many of the conversations that I’ve had recently with people considering or new to home education, and based it around the questions that people have asked. Some of the content has been copied/adapted from answers I’ve written to people in the past, and much of the content on socialisation is copied from another blog post that I wrote recently. I hope that it will be a valuable starting-point resource to those that are considering home ed but not sure where to start or whether it would be possible for their family.
I realise that it’s excessively long for a blog post, but I want to post it somewhere so that it can be easily shared, and I don’t really have anywhere else to put it.
Apologies for any typos/repeated words/etc. – having been staring at this for a few days I can’t quite bring myself to proof read the whole thing, so I’m going to do that at a future date when I’m a bit less bored of looking at it.
Could I do it?
What if I can’t understand their work, or don’t know something they want to learn?
This is a really common worry among people considering home ed for their children. What I would say is that as a home educating parent you won’t, and don’t need to, know or be able to teach everything. You just have to be willing to figure things out with you child, to be patient and to be committed to helping them find ways to explore the things they’re interested in. My mum left school with two CSEs, and has home educated me and my brothers. Much of the stuff we’ve done is not stuff that she’s knowledgeable about (as examples, I’ve done a lot of maths/science, which is an area she’s pretty weak in, and my younger brother has been doing really well recently at teaching himself piano with YouTube tutorials, despite none of the rest of us playing any instruments). She’s always said that she considers herself more of a facilitator than a teacher – helping and encouraging us to find ways to learn about the things we want or need to learn about, but not necessarily teaching in any formal sense.
I think children naturally explore the things they’re interested in, and can learn a huge amount (and often have a more positive attitude towards learning) from exploring their own interests and doing things that feel meaningful to them. My English, for example, got a lot better through spending time debating with friends over Facebook, and my little brother, who’s dyslexic, got a lot more comfortable reading and writing through chatting to people on Minecraft, after having been quite resistant to learning to read. I also think learning that comes about naturally and in context like that can often stick a lot more than information that’s memorised for tests or homework but not really understood in context.
I also think there can be benefits to parents and children learning together or to children learning independently – the child gets to see that it’s okay not to know things, and has company in learning and figuring things out, and some ownership of the process of exploring together and helping each other. There’re lots of books designed to help parents learn and explain things like maths, too, and lots of free educational resources online too.
To look at things a bit differently – if you don’t understand the homework a child is bringing home from school, there’s probably a fairly good chance that she doesn’t understand/isn’t learning from some of it either. Often a consequence of learning in big groups with a lot of pressure to meet targets is that children memorise a lot of key terms and procedures in order to pass tests, but don’t really understand what they’re doing, and so are unable to really use the things they’ve memorised or adapt the knowledge to different situations. I tutor maths, and I’m frequently amazed by how often people know lots of rules for doing different types of questions, but don’t really have any idea how to use maths in any practical/real life way.
The fact that lots of parents who went through the school system don’t feel able to help with the work their children are doing at school probably also says something about how relevant a lot of the stuff children are studying is to adult life, and how much of the stuff most people learn at school actually sticks!
What if they won’t work for me or don’t want to learn?
Lots of people worry that they would have trouble getting their children to do any work.
I think one thing really worth considering is that the children that are really struggling in school are often very, very stressed out and anxious. Anyone that’s in a high state of anxiety will find it a lot harder to concentrate on activities, and may be confrontational when they’re asked to do things that they find difficult in order to protect themselves from further anxiety. Without this level of anxiety, many children may find it a lot easy to approach work, and thus be less resistant.
A lot of children also develop really negative feelings about learning based on their experiences in school – some may have struggled to understand the work they were doing and have mental blocks towards it, and others may have found the work repetitive and uninspiring and so ‘switched off’ to the idea of learning. Given time, they often discover interest and confidence in learning in a way that is more interesting and/or accessible to them.
For all these reasons and more, families new to home ed – especially those who had traumatic experiences in school – are often advised to ‘de-school’ for a period of time before trying to do any formal, school-style work. This involves essentially spending time doing whatever you would do if school didn’t exist – perhaps some of the same activities that you do in the Summer holidays – and generally spending a lot of time relaxing, de-stressing, confidence building, and informally exploring anything that you find fun and interesting. Over time, children often start to get interested in things again and to explore and learn from those interests. At this point some families start to do more structured work, and other families continue to learn by following the child’s interests as they develop.
Being able to get children to do educational activities is often a particular concern for parents whose children are particularly demand avoidant. The solution to this will depend on the individual family, and lots of people will have different thoughts on it, but this would be my answer: don’t try making them. If a child has a strong need to be leading what they’re doing, allow them to lead their own learning and to direct that energy into doing whatever they’re interested in, rather than spending a lot of time and energy on battling (see ‘autonomous education’ later on for a more in-depth discussion of how this style of home ed can work for people).
Can I home educate if I work/have health issues/am a single parent? (Also, how long should I teach for each day?)
The short answer here is that it depends on the details of your situation and what you feel you’re able to do, but that there are families in lots of situations that have found ways to make it work for them, and our local home educating community does include multiple single parents (some of whom also work), working parents and parents with chronic health problems.
The work that home ed children do doesn’t have to fit into school hours/days/terms, and can change from day to day to fit around other things that are happening with the family, which can make balancing things more possible than people sometimes initially imagine. There are also lots of free and paid resources that can be good for enabling children to do curriculum work independently, including lots of the ones I talk about below – Khan Academy, YouTube videos, distance learning courses, online learning programs like Conquer Maths, and so on.
When you’re thinking about how much work you want to do each day, bear in mind that a significant chunk of the school day is taken up with organisational stuff (moving from class to class, getting settled, packing away, assemblies) and dealing with any behavioural problems in the class. There’s also a lot of time when a child isn’t learning because they don’t understand the topic and don’t feel able to ask for help, because they understand the work already and have to wait while it’s explained to someone else, or because they aren’t engaged/able to focus because they’re bored, distracted by others or anxious. Most of these things aren’t an issue for a child at home, and home educating families also have the freedom to stop and switch to something else if something isn’t working, to spend more time on anything that’s hard to understand, and to skip over the things that the child is already confident in. Because of this, families also often find that even if they want to work in a structured way and follow the curriculum, the work that would take a day to cover in school can often be covered easily in a couple of hours at home.
It’s also worth noting that home educators don’t have to follow the curriculum or have any set lessons/timetables/etc – and many don’t! As mentioned above, some families work in a way that is completely autonomous, where the child leads the learning by exploring the things that they’re interested in as they want to, and the parent’s role is just to be there to offer support/help with finding resources as necessary. I’ve written some more about this approach and how it works later on.
In terms of work, if it isn’t an option for one person not to be working, many parents opt to be self-employed and/or work from home if that’s something they’re able to do – my mum’s a childminder, and others in our community pet sit, make and sell candles, do editing on a freelance basis, tutor online, etc. Other people do part time work or night shifts if they have someone else at home able to stay with children or children that are old enough to be on their own.
The following Facebook groups may be useful to some people:
Working Home Educating Parents – https://www.facebook.com/groups/workingHE/
Single Parent Home Education UK – https://www.facebook.com/groups/Singleparenthomeed/
Can I home educate a child with SEN?
In short, yes – and many people do. The home ed community is generally very open minded and accepting of SEN, based in part on the number of children with SEN that are home educated due to struggling in the education system. Many parents find that home education works well for their children with SEN due to the freedom that the family has to completely tailor what they’re doing to suit the child’s needs and strengths, and a community that generally embraces difference. One of my brothers was diagnosed with autism a year ago, and the psychologist that we saw actually commented that he didn’t have the problems with mental health/confidence/self-imagine that she typically sees in the children she works with that are in the school system.
There are lots of groups on Facebook dedicated to sharing experiences of home educating children with SEN.
(note – the procedure for deregistering from a special school is different to the procedure for deregistering from a mainstream school. The Education Otherwise website is a good source of info on this.)
How does it work?
Home educators are not required to follow the curriculum, to work according to timetables, or to study in any particular way. Because of this, each home educating family has the freedom to approach home ed in whatever way they feel will be best for their family, and to adapt how they do things as their ideas change.
The approaches that people take are very varied – some people opt to work in a style similar to schools; following a curriculum and a timetable, and working in a structured way using resources like textbooks, package curricula, distance learning course, or private tutors. Others are completely autonomous, and are lead entirely by their children’s interests; allowing them to decide for themselves what to learn and how to learn it (also known as ‘unschooling’). Many other people (probably the majority) are somewhere between the two – perhaps working on projects inspired by their children’s interests that incorporate different subjects, or spending some time doing structured work to cover certain subjects in addition to spending lots of time learning in more informal, child-led ways.
How does autonomous education work?
Autonomous education (known in the states as unschooling) is a form of home education where the child leads the learning by exploring their own interests. The parents don’t plan lessons or structured educational activities, and they don’t ‘teach’ in any conventional sense. They are around to provide help with anything that the child wants to explore and to help find resources as necessary. Some family adopt this approach entirely, and many other families incorporate some of its ideas (like basing learning around the child’s interests) whilst also doing some more parent-led activities.
People often find it hard to imagine how this sort of learning can work. I often say to imagine what children are like before they start formal education, and how much they learn to do. They learn to coordinate their bodies, to crawl, and to walk (and typically throw themselves into the challenge of doing so with all the motivation, drive and ‘resilience’ that we often talk about trying to build in older children). They learn to understand the language or languages spoken in their home and society – an amazing feat, and something that’s a much, much bigger cognitive challenge than the challenge of learning to read that comes later (I think we often don’t realise how amazing learning to understand language really is, but think about it – babies/toddlers have to learn not only that these sounds having meanings, and to remember thousands and thousands of sounds and the meanings that they link to, but also the huge number of rules that dictate how those words are combined). They learn about what we mean by abstract ideas like colour, and time, and number, and they learn about people and how they relate to each other.
Children are biologically programmed to be curious, because for thousands of years – long before the invention of school – curiosity and play has been the way that children develop the skills they need to integrate into adult society. Autonomous educators essentially ask – why does that self-directed, curiosity-led learning have to stop at school age?
As one example of how this can work in practice: when my brother was about four/five, he was interested in almost nothing except dinosaurs. So instead of packing away the dinosaurs to do lessons, we let him explore them for as long as he wanted. During this time of intense exploration, he covered lots of different subjects. He lined up, arranged, and counted his dinosaurs, and talked about their relative sizes and different shapes – this was maths. He read books about dinosaurs, and spent a lot of time talking about them – English. We talked about the time periods that different dinosaurs lived in, and how long ago it was – natural history. We talked about which dinosaurs were carnivores and which were herbivores – biology. We talked about where the different species of dinosaurs had lived, and how the continents had shifted since then – geography. He drew pictures of dinosaurs – art. He acted out scenarios between different dinosaurs, and ran around pretending to be one – drama and PE. Neither he nor us thought of what he was doing in those terms, and we didn’t try to plan out what he was doing to cover those things – we just took opportunities to talk about and explore different things as they came along.
In my experience, this sort of exploration can often lead to more efficient learning that is remembered for longer – in general, people better when they’re interested by and engaged with what they’re doing, and when they’re led by curiosity rather than working just to get the work done, please a teacher or pass a test. Learning of this sort is often deeper, too – rather than learning lots of separate facts, children that flow from one activity to another see how the things they learn are connected, and how they can be used.
Another example of how autonomous education can work is the way many of us, children and adults alike, learnt to use computers. I think Carol Black puts it best.
‘We don’t know how to use computers because we learned it in school, but because we wanted to learn it and we were free to learn it in whatever way worked best for us. It is the saddest of ironies that many people now see the fluidity and effectiveness of this process as a characteristic of computers, rather than what it is, which is a characteristic of human beings. (…) How did you learn to use a computer? Did a friend help you? Did you read the manual? Did you just sit down and start playing around with it? Did you do a little bit of all of those things? Do you even remember? You just learned it, right?’ (the rest of this essay is here: http://carolblack.org/a-thousand-rivers)
A lot of learning in my house comes from conversation. One topic flows on to other, and there tends to be lots of googling of random things. As well as learning about whatever it is we’re talking about, we also learn directly from the experience of discussing. We analyse, and develop the ability to think critically, and we become more skilled in expressing our ideas and opinions clearly. I think that the mainstream education system puts a lot of emphasis on written English, but there is surprisingly little thought about the fact that communicating well in writing is in many ways an extension of communicating well in speech. As an example, I never needed to be taught many of the features of persuasive writing that schools teach, because I’d already learnt to apply them all in speech simply by observing and taking part in lots of discussion and debate. I also had a much deeper and more intuitive sense of when and how to use the techniques, because I’d developed an understanding through experience rather than simple memorisation of techniques.
But won’t they have gaps in their knowledge?
Well, they might. But what is ‘the knowledge’ that everyone should have – how do we decide what everyone should learn, and what they shouldn’t? Is the list of ‘useful things to learn’ the same for everyone, in every situation, regardless of their talents or aspirations? Is the National Curriculum a good guide to this list of ‘useful things’? How do we know, for instance, that the Pythagorean Theorem (which is typically taught in both foundation and higher maths) is more important than learning first aid (which often isn’t taught)?
This rap dissects and criticises some of the things that are and aren’t included in the National curriculum far more powerfully than I ever could, so I’m going to link it here and say to anyone thinking about these issues to watch it – it’s amazing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xe6nLVXEC0
Carol Black also makes some brilliant points on what is and isn’t covered in the curriculum in her essay ‘Occupy Your Brain’, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone thinking about alternative education. I’d like to quote bits of it, but if I did I’d end up quoting the majority of the essay.
Another thing worth thinking about, which I’ll talk about more a bit later on, is that a lot of the skills and knowledge that are valuable today, particularly relating to technology, weren’t thought about a couple of decades ago. In the same way, the future that we’re supposedly educating people for is unpredictable, and many of the children currently in school will go on to do jobs that don’t yet even exist, and to use knowledge that we don’t yet have. Bearing this in mind, perhaps one of the most important things is not to equip children with a set of memorised information, but rather to develop motivated, confident and analytical learners that are experienced in finding things out for themselves.
Often, parents recognise flaws in the education system and the value of independent learning, but are also aware that there is still set content that has to be covered in order to do any GCSEs, and worry that working so informally will leave children unable to achieve them. I think this is a completely understandable concern, and although there are paths to college and to work with few or no GCSEs, it’s also hard to deny that ‘ticking the box’ of doing GCSEs can make life a lot easier.
In my experience though, if a child has had experience of pursuing their own interests and managing their own time, and has developed the capacity to analyse information, think critically and so on, they can use those skills to approach studying whatever they need to take the GCSEs they need/want when they get to that point. They can also often cover any ‘gaps’ that they need to surprisingly quickly, once they’re equipped and motivated to do so. I’ve often known people to cover several years of formal work in a lot less time once they feel confident, are motivated to achieve something that is relevant to them, are able to work in the way best suits them and focus on the areas they need to focus on, are in an environment that they’re relaxed and able to think clearly in, and have that background of taking on and spending time on things that matter to them.
There are also some GCSEs that don’t build on KS3 knowledge at all (psychology, sociology, business studies, law, etc. are all things you can start doing at GCSE age without having studied them previously) and, as I’ll discuss later on, the vast majority of colleges/universities/jobs don’t require more than five GCSEs.
What resources can we use?
As I’ve already rambled about, I think almost anything can be a learning resource. For the sake of brevity however, I’ve kept this list to some of the more conventionally educational things.
Textbooks and workbooks that link to the curriculum can be bought on Amazon, as well as in shops like WHSmiths. I’ve known a lot of people say that they like the CGP books, which I’m personally not a fan of (I quite like Letts), but if you go into a shop and have a flick through some different books (or use the ‘look inside’ option on Amazon) you can get a feel for yourself of the style of each book and what would work best for you.
My advice to those new to HE and wanting to work through textbooks would be to buy a couple to start with and see how you get on before spending money on loads of them – you might find that some books work much better for you than others, or that you need to start at different levels in different things because your child has big gaps in one subject or is advanced in another. Many HE families also start of working in quite a structured way when they first leave school, and gradually become more informal in the way they do things as they find that that works better for them.
Other educational books
There are loads of books, other than specific textbooks/workbooks, that can be valuable, interesting learning resources, both for non-curriculum topics or for more in-depth and interesting coverage of curriculum topic than is provided by textbooks. Which ones you find the most valuable will depend a lot on what you and your child particularly want to explore – I spent a huge amount of time as a child reading books on animals and animal care, for example. It’s also worth noting that if you register as a home educator with the local library you’re able to take out more books, and keep them for longer without fines.
You can type pretty much any topic into YouTube and find informational videos on it (to test my own statement I just searched ‘looking after snails’, which was the first random thing that came into my head, and sure enough I found a number of videos on snail care that would take days to look through). YouTube is a resource that my autonomously home educated brothers draw on a lot (I just asked them for a list of what they’ve used it for recently and got the following: piano, magic tricks, sign language, logic puzzles, modifying cars, making snowboards, drawing techniques, photography, and lots of research into various components of computers). It can also be a good way of making sense of anything that you don’t fully understand in any textbooks you’re working through.
Again, which channels/videos are most useful will depend on the topic, but these channels are some that I really love:
CrashCourse – very engaging video courses in lots of subjects, including all three sciences. There’s also a ‘Crashcourse Kids’ aimed at younger people.
Ted Ed – short, animated educational videos on lots of topics made by experts in their field. They also have a website for lessons based around their videos.
Kurzgesagt-In a Nutshell – very good at tackling big topics and making them understandable
I haven’t used it personally, but have known a lot of people to recommend it – and it’s free. From the website – ‘Khan Academy offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom. We tackle math, science, computer programming, history, art history, economics, and more.’
Past exam papers
Possibly the best way to revise for any formal exam is to practice doing past exam papers – it’s a good way to get used to the style of questions (in some subjects they’re quite predictable, sp getting to know how questions are asked and what the key points they’re looking for can make a big difference to how well you do), as well as getting used to the timing and finding any gaps in your knowledge. They’re available to download free from exam board websites – the most recent ones are normally locked from the public for use as mock exams, but older ones should be available.
A free website that provides activities, video clips, quizzes etc. on all of the curriculum subjects
Paid online learning programs
There are lots of different interactive online programs for different subjects. Often these work by starting with a diagnostic test, and then assigning video lessons and practice exercises based on the students’ strengths and weaknesses. Some have various motivational features, like credits that can be earned and used to ‘buy’ various things on the program. Some of the popular ones that I’ve heard of include Conquer maths, MathsWhizz, EdPlace and Reading Eggs.
Distance learning courses
Oxford Home Learning and The National Extension College are two organisations that provide distance learning GCSE courses. They send out material to read and work through, and assignments to complete and return to a distance learning tutor. The tutor then provides feedback on the assignments, and can be contacted for help with anything. There is also a home educating mum called Catherine Mooney who has written several distance learning English courses designed especially for home educating families.
What about GCSEs?
There are lots of different options for studying for GCSEs from home. Some families just buy GCSE textbooks and revision guides and work through them (sometimes a parent/guardian and teen work through them together, and sometimes the teen works through subjects independently – my mum really isn’t a science-y person, and I did chemistry (and psychology) just by reading through the textbook myself, answering the practice questions and checking them against the answers, and then used past exam papers (available free online) to revise and get used to exam style questions, so I’d say that it’s definitely possible to self-study. People that find it harder to learn from reading or people that are used to being taught formally are more likely to need more support (even if it’s just having parents working through the books and learning alongside them). Resources like Khan academy (free online tutorial videos and quizzes) and youtube videos can be really useful for supplementing anything that you struggle to understand as you’re working through things, and can be particularly useful for people that learn well visually.
Other families chose to pay for distance learning courses (where you’re sent the course materials and assignments to complete and send to a tutor who marks them and can be contacted for help with anything you’re stuck on), or for 1:1 tuition in person or over Skype. Sometimes a group of parents whose children want to work on the same subject arrange for a tutor to work with a small group to reduce the costs – this is something I’ve seen pop up more and more recently. I know some people are also part of online GCSE classes, but that’s something I’m less familiar with.
In terms of actually sitting the exams, you have to register with an exam centre or local school as an external candidate, and pay for the cost of sitting the exam and some admin fees. It’s then just a case of going in for the exam, sitting it, and leaving again. Most people chose to do IGCSEs instead of GCSEs in most subjects, which are recognised as being equivalent to IGCSEs but don’t have the coursework element and are therefore much easier to arrange to be assessed in than GCSEs that involve coursework or practical assessments. People also often decide do to less GCSEs than schools typically do – most colleges/unis/etc don’t require more than 5 GCSEs, so a lot of home educators chose to focus more time on the subjects that they need or are interested in, or on pursuing other interests (I only did six, and that was enough to go on do A levels and get offers to do vet medicine at uni). It’s also quite common, particularly for those that start home ed younger, to spread GCSE exams over a few years by doing the subjects that they’re more confident with first, which can be a good way to avoid some of the pressure of working for/sitting several exams at once.
There are also ways of accessing higher education without GCSEs, or with less than five – for example level 1 or level 2 college courses often accept people with no/few GCSEs and allow them to study maths and English GCSEs at the college at the same time as doing a basic course in the subject they’re interested in, which then eventually allows them to go on to the level three (A level equivalent) course in that subject. In some areas there are also colleges that accept home educated 14-16 year olds to study GCSEs and other courses.
What about socialisation?
This is probably THE most common question that home educators are asked, and often something that families considering home education are concerned about, so I wanted to really explore it.
I think to start with we have to think about what exactly we mean by socialisation. People tend to use it in two main ways, the first being ‘how will they make friends and spend time with people?’ and the second referring to a lot of things that can be grouped together under the banner of ‘how will they learn to live in the real world? I’m going to start by talking about some of the ways that home educated children socialise and make friends, and then include something that I wrote a little while ago that explores the ‘real world’ question in some depth.
How do home educated children make friends and spend time with people?
Home education groups
Most areas have communities of home educators that organise a wide range of social and educational groups, meet ups and outings, and each family is free to attend whatever they’re interested in, or to start up anything of their own. As an example, and off the top of my head, the things currently going on in my area that either my younger brothers or others in their community are involved in include regular classes in sports including football, gymnastics, trampolining, climbing, ice skating, and archery, informal meet ups for bowling and swimming, a book club, magic classes, a gaming group, forest school sessions, regular museum workshops and, I’m sure, many others that I’m not aware of. There are also frequent day trips to places of interest, several regular meet ups for informal play/conversation/activities, regular group trips to the park or the beach or the woods – I could go on.
These groups are often very accepting of neurodiversity, due in part to the number of children with SEN that are home educated as a result of particularly struggling in the school system, and it isn’t uncommon for new families whose children that are particularly socially anxious to arrange to meet up with another home educating family in a relaxed environment before joining any group events.
Other groups and clubs
Many home ed children also get involved with classes or groups outside of the home ed community. As examples – I was a cadet and was part of groups for swimming and table tennis at various points, one of my brothers is a scout, the other brother was a St John’s badger and part of a football team, and both brothers are thinking about joining a group for parkour.
Volunteer work and work experience
Some home educated children take opportunities to get involved in volunteer work in the community – one of my brothers, for example spent a day a week last year volunteering at a watersports centre, and I spent a significant amount of time doing work experience at a vet practice when I was younger. As a further example, one mum in our local home educating community is currently organising for a group of home educated children to visit a care home regularly and play board games with the residents.
Spending informal time with friends:
Outside of organised events, home educated children do a lot of what young people in school do with their friends – meet up, stay at each other’s houses, go down the park or the town, talk and game online, and so on. These activities could involve friends from the local home education groups, from other groups/clubs the child attends, from a school that was previously attended, or from community/religious groups that the family is part of or other connections they have in the local community.
How will they learn to live in the real world?
I told my 13 y/o brother what I was writing about, and he gave me a somewhat incredulous look and said ‘…because we were born in it?’ In some ways, I think that pretty much covers it.
As a home educated child, I went with my mum and younger brothers to doctor’s appointments, on shopping trips, and to visit friends. I was with my mum while she met new families to childmind for, and filled out contracts. I sometimes accompanied my step dad on gardening jobs, or my dad to events he was doing photography for. I was included in conversations about finances, and holiday plans, and other family decisions. I was around while my mum was helping to organise some of the many meet ups, clubs and trips that were on offer to our local home educating community, and as I got older I contributed to organising things of my own. I made meaningful choices about my own life, and real contributions to my family and community. I learnt to live in the real world by simply existing in it.
But it’s a very common query, and I think it comes from the misconception that home educated children spend the majority of the time sat at home, in a little isolated bubble, being lectured in school subjects by a parent or tutors. The reality for most families looks very different to this, and I wanted to explore that. There are lots of different things people have in mind when they ask about children learning to live in the ‘real world’, so I’m going to answer some of them in turn.
But how will they learn to…
Often when people talk about respect in this sense, what they mean is: ‘how will children learn to follow orders?’ My thoughts in answer to that are that we should firstly think carefully about whether we actually want children to learn to follow orders without thought or question.
In the ‘60s, a psychologist called Milgram, seeking to explain some of the atrocities of the holocaust, conducted a famous experiment on obedience. He told his participants that they were taking part in a study on learning and memory, and assigned them to the role of the ‘teacher’ or the ‘learner’. He then explained that the ‘learner’ would sit in one room, and attempt to answer questions. For every question that he got wrong, the ‘teacher’, sitting in another room, would flick a switch which would deliver him an electric shock. With each wrong answer, the voltage of the shock would increase, from 15 volts gradually all the way up to 450 volts (for reference, the mains in the UK is 240 volts). Unknown to the ‘teachers’, the ‘learners’ were actually actors playing the part of real participants, and the electric shocks weren’t really delivered.
As the electric shocks the ‘teacher’ thought he was giving increased in voltage, the ‘learner’/actor was heard to scream out in pain, complain about a heart condition, and eventually fall silent, suggesting unconsciousness or death. Many of the ‘teachers’ showed signs of hesitation, confliction and stress, and some questioned or protested against the instructions. Despite this, with prods every participant followed the instructions and proceeded as far as 300V, and around two thirds continued all the way to the end and administered the 450V shock, which was labelled ‘XXX Extremely Dangerous’.
In Milgram’s own words – ‘Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.’
In my opinion, this tendency to obey orders, even when they contradict our own judgement, has a lot to do with the way that we are socially conditioned that to succeed, or even to be judged ‘acceptable’ we must follow the orders of those ‘above us’, regardless of whether we agree with their decisions, and simply because they are in a position of power. This tendency to obey authority has been horrifying visible in events like the holocaust, but I also notice it in lots of smaller, day to day things. Most recently, it has struck me how many parents are told things by ‘experts’ about their children’s education that they have serious misgivings about, but still feel compelled to comply with.
I do think that having respect for other people is hugely important, but I feel that true respect must be born not of obedience but of understanding. If I were to attend an educational workshop I would be polite, keep quiet when the leader of the workshop was talking, and abide by any rules. In short, I would be ‘respectful’ – not because the workshop leader would be in a position of authority, but because I would recognise what they were trying to achieve, and understand the ways in which organising a group of people can be difficult. That type of understanding might be developed through reflection, conversation or experience, but it can’t be forced by obedience.
…do things they don’t want to do?
There are situations all around us, in everyday life, that require children to do things that aren’t enjoyable to them, or not do things that are – walking home when they’re tired, going without something desirable because they’re saving up for something else, clearing up their room because they need the space to play, and so on. Even video games often require spending time on tedious tasks in order to achieve bigger goals. It’s near impossible to navigate though life without doing things you don’t want to do, unless you have someone willing to do all of your tedious tasks for you and provide you with limitless resources, which I don’t think would be healthy for anyone. The key difference between these things and compulsory schooling, however, is that even though children may not enjoy these things in their own right, they do want to achieve something (getting back home, having space to play, saving up enough money to buy something important to them, getting to a more interesting part of the game, etc.), and the unenjoyable things they do to get to that point have purpose and meaning to them.
In contrast, a lot of the things that children ‘have to do’ in school don’t carry purpose that is meaningful to them, other than the purpose of earning praise or avoiding punishment. Many children will have been told that their schoolwork will help them get a good job in the future, but for most children that’s a vague, abstract idea that doesn’t carry a lot of immediate meaning (not necessarily because they’re ‘childish’, but because even adults would struggle to be motivated to discipline themselves by something that was that far in the future). Many children also question the relevance of the things that they’re learning to their future – often with good reason.
I and many of the autonomously home educated children I grew up around made decisions about studying for exams, or working towards other goals, that required doing things that were sometimes tedious, difficult, or requiring of sacrifice. But we always had a clear sense of why we were doing those things, and believed that it was worth the sacrifice. If we started to feel that it wasn’t, or that there might be a better way of doing things that would make us happier, we were free to re-evaluate and change course. I think that’s something that we’ll carry forward into our working lives: the ability to get on with less than enjoyable things if they’re a necessary part of whatever it is we have decided we want or need to do, but also the ability to look around for other possible options if we start to feel chronically unsatisfied with what we’re doing.
…handle difficult situations, deal with bullies and ‘toughen up’?
It is a common claim that children struggling with bullying in school must endure it in order to learn to ‘deal with it’ and to grow a thicker skin with which to battle the adversities of life. I call bullshit.
People do not often learn to stand up for themselves in productive ways, set healthy boundaries, and have confidence in themselves and their worth, by being treated unkindly and cruelly, and belittled and shamed. They learn, if nothing else, to keep their head down and their thoughts and feelings hidden – or else to fight back in kind with violence and aggression. They learn that people don’t like them, and perhaps that they’re not worth liking. They may learn that they’re different, and they may learn to be ashamed of it, and to avoid showing the things that make them different in order to quell their fear of being ridiculed further.
In some cases, they learn that they are ‘too sensitive’ and instead of learning how to navigate that sensitivity they learn how to put up a wall between themselves and the world, or between their emotions and their conscious self. This is probably the closest thing to what people mean when they talk about growing a ‘thicker skin’, and it sounds useful. But once we box away sensitivity, and separate ourselves from our own emotions, it’s very hard to get them back out again. With them we pack away some of our greatest assets – our ability to connect vulnerably with other people, our ability to empathise deeply, our ability to fully feel and connect with our own joys and sorrows.
On the other hand, if we are able to develop in an environment where we feel safe and respected, and are able to freely express our thoughts and feelings, we have the chance to get to know ourselves and to develop confidence that we have worthy and capable of making decisions that work for us – including decisions about how to handle difficult social situations.
I don’t doubt that it’s important to learn to co-exist with people that you don’t like, handle people that are hard to reason with, and navigate difficult social situations, but opportunities to do that are very much a part of everyday life. In the words of Idzie Desmarais (a grown unschooler with a great blog that I linked towards the end of this post), school unfortunately ‘does not have a monopoly on unpleasant people’. Life is full of opportunities to meet people that we don’t like or disagree with, and often, if these people are connected to something that is important to us (a club that we attend or are involved in working in, a group class that’s important to us, a partner whose family we don’t see eye to eye with, etc) we have to learn to co-exist with them.
The only difference is that children outside of school are more likely to have the freedom to handle these situations in the way that adults are free to – to make judgements about when to bite your tongue in order to get on with an unpleasant person in order to do something necessary or important to you, and when to get away from an environment or relationship that isn’t healthy for or benefitting you.
…deal with separation anxiety?
As a baby I was very clingy, and would rarely settle with anyone except my mum. As a toddler I wouldn’t interact with anyone unless I knew them very well, and as a young child I avoided spending time at friend’s houses without my mum. My mum was put under a lot of pressure by family, friends and associates to put me into nursery (and later school), all of whom were worried that I would never gain any independence otherwise. My mum ignored the advice, and didn’t push me into any situations I wasn’t comfortable in.
I stayed nearby her or one of the other adults that I knew well until the age of about seven (including sleeping in her room), and then started suddenly to get a little bit more comfortable doing things on my – I joined a swimming class, and spent time at the houses of some of my friends. As I got older my confidence and independence steadily increased, and in my pre-teens I was part of multiple groups/clubs as well as being happy going into town with friends and so on. As time went on I also babysat, run a maths club for children, and spent lots of time on various work experience placements.
At nineteen I started university (after a gap year), moved 300 miles from home, and dealt with the transition a lot more easily than many of my peers. I now work happily as a private tutor, with all the interaction and communication with new people that comes with that.
Both of my brothers were also clingy as babies and young children – my youngest brother to the extent that as a baby in a pushchair he would scream and cry if a stranger paid any attention to him. Now in their early teens, both of them spend time out with friends, are confident talking to shop assistants and other people, and are part of multiple groups/clubs. My youngest brother still finds some things difficult (scout camps being one example), but he is gradually doing what he and the rest of us have always done – making decisions he feels confident with and gently challenging himself to do the things that he wants to with the foundation of a comfortable place to return to and the assurance he can return there if things become too much.
I strongly believe that forcing ‘independence’ is not a good way to produce socially well adjusted, secure young people and that, given time, support and an environment they feel secure in, children will gradually challenge themselves and grow more independent at their own pace.
…understand and respect diversity?
This overlaps with some of what I wrote above, but sometimes it is a specific concern for people hearing about home ed, so I wanted to address it separately.
I think, again, it’s a concern that comes partly from a stereotype – this time of families, often religious families, that home educate in order to minimise how much exposure their children have to outside influences that contradict their beliefs. That may be the case for a minority of families, but it’s not true for the majority, or for any of the hundreds of home educating families that I’ve had contact with. On the contrary, the number of home educating families I know of who are religious are very much outweighed by the number of home educated young people who, especially in their pre/early teens, are quite strong viewed and vocal atheists (as a side note, I’ve also observed the children of the few home educating religious families I know respecting and supporting their LGBT friends, engaging in civil and articulate debate, and being curious and respectful about the beliefs of others).
So, how do we learn about diversity?
We learn to be compassionate of minority groups in part because we are one. We become used to being questioned about our educational choices, and through the course of being frustrated by people’s misconceptions, we learn that stereotypes are often misguided.
We learn to talk to socialise with adults as people without seeing them exclusively as authority figures, to learn from older children, and to have patience with younger children.
We learn to be aware of neurodiversity because a lot of neurodiverse children particularly struggle in the mainstream school system, and as a consequence home education groups tend to be more aware and accepting of neurodiversity than most environments.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we learn to respect people and their autonomy by being respected ourselves; by being given the freedom to explore our own thoughts and feelings and to live in the way that we find most rewarding. We learn to express ourselves freely with less fear of being bullied or ostracised, and we respect and defend others’ rights to do the same.
…deal with the world of work?
In many ways this is a very similar question to the main ‘how will they learn to deal with the real world?’ question, and so it overlaps a lot with my other answers, but I wanted to talk about it specifically too.
People that were home educated deal with any of the more tedious aspects of the work they go on to do (getting up early, sticking with a routine, doing uninspiring work, etc.) because, although they may not be conditioned to work in that way, they understand that doing that is a necessary part of whatever they’re trying to achieve (earning money, gaining experience, etc.) and are used to making informed choices and discipling themselves to follow them. As an example, I’m really, really not a morning person and never have been, but I spent a fair bit of time before applying to university volunteering on farms, which included some very early mornings in addition to a lot of hard, repetitive work that I wasn’t used to doing, but I was doing the work as a means to achieve something important to me, and so I adapted to it.
In a similar way, although I and many of the home educated young people I grew up around aren’t as used to following orders as our school peers, we are able to recognise when doing so, even from people we don’t much like, is in our interests or the interests of the project that we’re working on.
I also think it’s worth thinking about the fact that children in education at the moment will be working into the latter half of this century, and that many of them will be doing jobs that don’t yet even exist, based on social change that we can’t fully predict. An increasing number of routine and manual jobs are becoming automated, which is likely to leave more people doing the work that can’t as easily be automated – in short, work that requires critical thinking, collaboration, and connecting different areas of thought in order to innovate creatively. In other worlds, with information now both more readily available and more conflicting than ever before, what is increasingly more valuable than remembering information is knowing how to go about researching for information, how to think critically about and evaluate the information that you find, and how to use that information creatively. In my opinion the current style of mainstream education, which still focuses strongly on the memorisation of key facts and procedures, isn’t doing as much as it needs to be to develop those analytical and creative skills.
‘I want to home educate, but I’m scared that…’
This isn’t exactly a question, but I wanted to respond to it because I think it’s something also everyone considering home ed feels – the fear that it might be the wrong choice. There’s a few ways of thinking of things that I’ve known some people to find helpful/encouraging, and these are some –
- Home ed may be the wrong choice, but so may school. Education is legally the parents’ responsibility first and foremost, and parents can choose to delegate that responsibility to a school if they want to, but either decision is a risk in its own way. I think home educating often seem like the riskier option just because not as many people are doing it, when really it’s just less conventional.
- If your child is already really struggling in school, then while you do know how well home ed will work, you do know that school isn’t working for them.
- Home education doesn’t have to be a permanent decision, and if you or your child decides at any point that school would be a better option, you have the freedom to return to the school system. Many families start off home edding by thinking of it as a ‘trial year’ to see how things go, and some others home ed for primary school with the intention of their children going to secondary school
- Studying can be done and exams can be taken at any point (including as a home educated teen and as an adult learner in later life), but rebuilding your mental health is a much, much harder thing to do. It’s also very difficult to really concentrate and learn if you’re very anxious or otherwise struggling. For these reasons and more, I think mental health should always take priority over formal schooling.
- It is quite common for professionals to advise against home ed, and people often find it daunting to go against their advice, but it’s worth bearing in mind that very often the advice is based more on stereotypes of home ed than any real knowledge or experience. You may not be an expert, but you are THE expert on your own child.
Where can I find out more?
These websites are good starting points – they all have a FAQ section, and lots of other valuable info. The Education Otherwise site also has a directory of local groups, which can be a good starting point for finding out what’s local to you.
Education Otherwise – https://www.educationotherwise.org/
Educational Freedom – http://educationalfreedom.org.uk/
Home Education UK – http://www.home-education.org.uk/
These UK wide Facebook groups are all good ones to join (UK Home Education has lots of useful stuff in the files, including a template deregistration letter). It’s also a good idea to look for groups local to your area, to get an idea of what’s going on near you (if you’re struggling to find one, ask in one of the UK wide groups – they’ll very often be someone that knows of one).
Home Education UK FB Forum – https://www.facebook.com/groups/HEUKForum/
UK Home Education – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKHed/
Education Otherwise – https://www.facebook.com/groups/EducationOtherwise/
I’m going to put a list of some of my other favourite articles/blogs/talks/etc. below – most of these aren’t really starting points for factual info (although they do give an insight into some of the different ways that education can work), but they can be good for getting a deeper understanding of education, and a sense of how alternative education can work. Some of them also might be very encouraging to anyone wanting to home ed but needing some assurance that it’s the right thing for them.
A very popular TED talk about (the lack of) creativity in the school system, and some of the problems it causes – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY
A brilliant blog by an unschooling parent –
And an equally brilliant blog by a young person that was unschooled –
A blog by an evolutionary psychologist and advocate of self-directed, autonomous education –
An amazing TED talk given by a young, alternatively educated person – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY
A very passionate and insightful rap about some of the flaws in the curriculum and what it does (and doesn’t) cover – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xe6nLVXEC0
A beautiful video that explores some of the faults in the current education system using the metaphor of an ‘animal school’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8limRtHZPs
Some long but beautifully insightful essays on children, learning and education – http://carolblack.org/