The pandemic forced many parents to become, albeit in most cases temporary, home educators. It was the result of a crisis and the circumstances were far from ideal. Unprepared and, especially in the first UK lockdown, under-resourced, many found themselves juggling their employment with the demands of a school curriculum they had little prior knowledge of. Teachers worked hard to create material that was accessible for remote learning and classes were conducted where possible online. This type of learning tries to replicate ‘school at home’.
I was often asked for advice by parents who saw me as an experienced home educator, but my assistance would be limited to an attempt to reduce expectations and a line from our local public health director, Greg Fell:
“Be kind to yourselves as parents/carers. Your children will not remember how good you were at algebra but they will remember how you listened and helped make them feel safe.”
It seemed to me, early in the pandemic, when understanding of the transmissibility and severity of the disease in children was lacking, the most important thing any parent could do was simply be there for their children and enable them to relax and avoid unnecessary exposure. The thought of continuing at pace with school education, to my mind, was low down on the priority list. If the health crisis would teach us anything, it’s what our priorities should be. Understandably, there would be concerns regarding the safeguarding of vulnerable young people at a time when entering others’ homes had to be minimised, but that is a separate issue, or so I thought.
There is often a conflation of school-based learning with the protection of health and wellbeing. Yes, there are children and young people whose visibility through schooling enables abuse to be detected by adults other than their parents, but that is not to say no school child suffers undetected abuse in the home, or that children out of school are more likely to be abused. Often when politicians talked of the need to get children back in school they highlighted the detrimental impact on their wellbeing, but how is this measured? I struggle to find thorough research on the topic. Within the regular home education community there are numerous instances of children who left school precisely because it was detrimental to their mental health.
In a household where parents are busy working from home and children are immersed in schoolwork designed to ensure they don’t ‘fall behind’ (a pejorative term referring to the need to learn subjects in tandem with their peers), you would expect some tensions to arise. If this describes home education, then I am not a home educator. Of course, it makes sense for children to be in school when parents cannot prioritise time with them over the demands of their employment.
I am not employed and have no specific demands on my time, other than helping my son when he requires it. I am incredibly lucky that I have been able to make this choice. For some, there is no choice. If the financial outgoings can never be reduced significantly below the level of the incomings then work has to take priority. Others have a choice, but prefer their children are in school, and it is their right to decide. For me it is just important that those who CAN choose recognise there is a choice, that school is not a legal requirement and, despite politicians’ rhetoric, children who don’t attend school are not all miserable and unhealthy.
There is also no legal requirement for non-school-registered children to follow the national curriculum and I believe there is a very good reason for this. There is nothing wrong with having a list of subjects and topics to spark interest, further study and understanding and at its essence this is what the national curriculum is. However, it is designed as a tool to ensure ‘progression’ in a sequenced manner. It is a systematised method of imparting information; a way to teach large groups of children, ie. we can’t move to the next ‘stage’ until everyone has reached this one, and thus people are ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’.
When you only have one learner, there is no-one to be ahead of or behind. Indeed, my son’s knowledge and skills would be very difficult to measure by the standards of an age-based, curriculum-defined organisation (although it’s fair to say, many non-schooled children do make this transition) and would make the life of any professional teacher difficult in this way.
The UK law actually states that children who are not registered with a school should be provided with an ‘efficient, full time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs’ (Section 7, Education Act 1996). ‘What is an efficient education?’, I hear you ask. Well, UK government (non-statutory) guidance clears this up. It is education which ‘achieves what it is intended to achieve’. Who is doing the intending (the parent or the child) is left open to interpretation. If the intention is that a child will grow up happy, healthy and capable of finding a positive place for themselves in society, then the child’s education is deemed efficient.
The guidance also states that while the education should amount to school hours, it does not have to be within them. Thus, it is acknowledged that children have the potential to learn at all hours of the waking day, at weekends and on holidays. So, a home educated child’s learning could amount to an average of 1.75 hours per day, every day, and maintain the same amount of learning time as a schooled child.
There is also no requirement for home educated children to receive ‘tuition’, they must just be ‘learning’ which could be self-directed research using books or internet based resources, gaining knowledge from activities, days out or educational visits. Of course in practice this is almost impossible to measure. Schools attempt to measure ‘amount learnt’ through assessment, although motivation to learn for a test does not necessarily amount to motivation to attain knowledge and gain a comprehensive understanding of a topic. There is no requirement for home educated children to sit any assessments, tests or examinations.
So, I am not a home educator in the emergency-driven pandemic sense. I value education highly and love to learn and I believe my son does too, but we have taken a number of important decisions to get to the situation we are in, it has not been forced upon us through circumstance. We were lucky enough to be able to make a conscious choice to live with one income by keeping our outgoings low, to follow a project-based, interest-focussed education and to do things differently from the norm.