Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Rise of the Home "Unschoolers"

“I want my children to become independent lifelong learners and to know that whatever they want to learn, they can learn it. Lay on a feast of interesting ideas and children will learn – that’s what they do.”

Rise of the Home 'Unschoolers' - Where children learn only what they want to

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

No Pens Day Wednesday

My husband and I had a chuckle because the school he is on supply in this week are doing "No Pens Day Wednesday" today - an initiative by The Communication Trust encouraging schools to focus on speaking and listening activities. When he mentioned it to me yesterday, I thought it was a weekly thing - No Pens Day Wednesday - but no. Apparently, for this school, it is an annual event. I find this amusing, because it is billed as being such a radical concept for schools. But seldom do our boys pick up pens in our home education journey - sometimes, but not often. It is certainly not their preferred method of learning. Thinking about it, seldom do I pick up a pen and write in modern life - do you? In fact, one of the strengths of home education - whatever form is takes - is its focus on quality conversation between children and adults. Interestingly, this article came up on my social media feed yesterday about signage being used in supermarkets in America to encourage conversation between parents and children.

Whilst I chuckle because it seems so obvious and contrived, and such a small step in the grand scheme of things, the intention behind both this idea - and No Pens Day Wednesday - is, of course, good .... "The supermarket study is one seed of a much bigger idea about creating opportunities for children to learn in the wider world; to leverage caregivers as teachers and, in the process, try to level out stubborn inequities." It is my belief that quality conversation, as John Holt says, is a key means of learning about the world. What do you think? Do you prioritise quality conversation in your family?

I suggested to my husband and the boys that perhaps we should have "Pens Day Wednesday" at home ... They looked at me as if I was crazy! So here are a few snapshots of our No Pens Day Wednesday .... I wonder what they did in schools today?

Making play dough characters ...

Experimenting with clay figures and cocktail stick bones whilst discussing the purpose of our skeletons. Do you know all the amazing functions of our bones?

Exploring platonic solids ( ...

Can you spot the odd one out? (Clue: One is not a platonic solid!)

Brothers baking brownies ...

Sunday, 2 October 2016

How to Raise an Environmentalist

When our older boys were small, we lived in Ankara for a few years. Our lifestyle became urban, and I began to worry that our children were missing out on the experience of being in the British countryside I so loved and missed. Even then, I had heard that, unless children are immersed in the natural world before the age of 12, it will never be a real part of their soul; it will be harder to get them to care about the environment. This is the message conveyed by the article below, with research to support the argument.

When we returned to Britain, I worked hard to get the boys - then aged 6, 5 and 2 - out into the countryside, and they didn't like it much at first. They would pick their way across fields complaining about the sheep poo. But this week, as I watched the middle two in particular - now aged 13 and 10 - walk the coastal paths of Pembrokeshire, enjoying the scenery and the wildlife, I know that my efforts were not in vain. They do love it. They feel it. They care about it. Children need to spend more time outdoors.

How to Raise an Environmentalist

What the Modern World has Forgotten about Children and Learning

"Like wind and weather, like ecosystems and microorganisms, like snow crystals and evolution, human learning remains untamed, unpredictable, a blossoming fractal movement so complex and so mysterious that none of us can measure or control it. But we are part of that fractal movement, and the ability to help our offspring learn and grow is in our DNA. We can begin rediscovering it now. Experiment. Observe. Listen. Explore the thousand other ways of learning that still exist all over the planet. Read the data and then set it aside. Watch your child’s eyes, what makes them go dull and dead, what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light. That is where learning lies." (Carol Black)

What the Modern World has Forgotten about Children and Learning

Friday, 16 September 2016

Councils Seek New Powers to Check on Home Schooled Children

In this article in today's Guardian, Colin Diamond, the Executive Director for Education in Birmingham is quoted as saying, “We feel that any EHE (Elective Home Education) learning situation potentially puts a child in a very vulnerable position. We recognise that parents elect to educate their children at home for a very wide range of reasons, and in many cases they do a great job. But because the child is isolated, they are not visible to their peer group and professionals don’t keep an eye on them, we would like more powers to be able to make sure every child who is EHE is safe, well and learning well.” As a home educating parent, I object to his reasoning that because a child is being electively home educated, they are isolated and invisible. This is exactly the sort of uninformed and ignorant thinking which fuels suspicion and misunderstanding about home education.

On hearing our son was returning to school this September, a colleague of my husband's remarked, "Well, he's got to enter the real world sometime." How is entering the confines of the school building equated with the real world? How is not being confined to the school building equated with isolation? Home education does not mean sitting in our house alone all day every day. It means making the whole world our child's classroom. Home educated children have all sorts of opportunities to interact with their peer group and with other adults and professionals all through the week ... for example, in our family, at swimming, scouts, home ed sports and social clubs, swimming, church, youth group, music lessons, every time we visit the doctor, dentist, hairdresser, optician, on the community allotment, visiting friends, grandparents, neighbours, local shops .....

On 5th January 2015, The Guardian reported HERE that: "The Westminster education committee inquired into home education in 2012. It found no child protection issue. The chair, Graham Stuart MP, recently wrote that “the conflation of home education with a child safeguarding risk amounts to a serious stigma against parents” and that he had never seen either “any credible evidence that home education is a risk factor … nor … evidence that home education effectively hid abuse from the authorities”.

You can read today's article, including Mr Diamond's comments here: Councils Seek New Powers to Check on Home-Schooled Children

New Beginnings

My eldest son has started school this week. He isn't four .... He is fourteen! And I was still wracked with anxiety on his first day, wondering how he would fare. He is the most 'schooled' of my four boys, having attended nursery as a preschooler, followed by a few years in early educational settings in Turkey, where formal schooling starts later. Returning to the UK at the age of 6, he went into Year 2 of our local primary school, having had minimal reading and writing tuition, but a rich experience of living in another culture and learning another language. With a super teacher, who appreciated his quirky personality, he thrived in his SATs year, and did well, which in itself is an interesting comment on the necessity of formal education before the age of 7.

At the start of Year 3, I became concerned that our lively, chatty and inquisitive son was becoming subdued and anxious, seeming uninterested in starting anything new. His head dropped, he stopped talking to people and seemed unable to look them in the eye. The school did not share my concerns, but a few things were said which shed some light on my son's frustrations .... He told me he didn't have time to write enough and so was having to miss his break. Either his writing wasn't neat enough - or there wasn't enough of it. He couldn't win. I didn't like the fact that lively boys are prevented from having their break times, running around in the fresh air, but instead must do enough writing. He was already beginning to hate writing. When I asked if he had to do cursive writing, I was told it counted for marks on the SATs test, but I knew he wouldn't be doing another SATs test until Year 6. The school's priorities did not sit well with me. I was also told he must learn to sit down and keep quiet. I understand that it can be difficult for teachers to deal with children individually in large classes, and that a constant stream of questions can be annoying when you have to manage a class of 30 - and meet the requirements of the curriculum. But I have also since learnt that my son's primary means of learning is talking, discussing and asking questions. He is very verbal. So, by telling his to sit down and be quiet, school was actually shutting down his primary means of learning. How can that be good?

Around that time, I began to research alternatives, and discovered that school is actually not compulsory in this country. I had never realised that. A child's education is the responsibility of parents. This is a responsibility which can be passed to the school, but it doesn't have to be. Alternatively, parents can take responsibility for educating their children themselves. "The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable — (a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b)to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." (The Education Act, 1996) This was a revelation to me, and the more I read, the more intrigued I became. After the Christmas holidays and just a term in Year 3 - following just 4 terms in a British primary school - my husband and I made the decision to de-register our sons from school and to take responsibility for their education ourselves. This is simply done by writing a letter to the school informing them of your intention.

Some years later, when he would have been in Year 6, he flexi-schooled for a term, attending a small village primary school a day a week - mostly so he could play football at break. But that all went wrong when he went on a school residential trip and fell foul of the fact that the rules and expectations of teachers were different from those at home with me - and at scouts. He was too independent, a loose cannon - and I had to go and fetch him home. It was difficult. I understood the concerns of staff who have responsibility for a large group of children, and health and safety requirements to follow. But I understood my son's upset, too, because he hadn't understood where the boundaries lay in very different contexts. I wished I had prepared him better, but hindsight is a great teacher.

Next, there was Year 7. He sat the 11+ (at his own request, and without preparation - I think primarily to challenge himself and to measure himself against his peers) and, to his surprise, he was offered a place at a local grammar school. Excited at the thought of an independent train ride to school every day as much as the desire to try secondary school - a new experience - he desperately wanted to give it a go. My husband reckoned he would last around 5 weeks and, sure enough, half a term in, he came to me and said, "I have made a terrible mistake. Please let me home educate again and I promise I will be the best home educated boy in the world." So, we took him out. He left with an exceptional reference from his Year Head, which said amongst many things that "he threw himself at every task given to him showing great independence and a desire to learn and develop".

He has not always been the easiest boy to home educate, mainly due to clashes in my personality and his - or perhaps because we are too similar and both want to be in control. But he has always been a motivated and independent learner, with plenty of his own ideas and projects on the go. We will miss his energy and direction. What he has experienced really is a very play-based education, with plenty of time and space to pursue his own interests and to discover his own passions. I say that because those passions are not interests that I share, nor things that I am good at. We have tried to facilitate his project work as best we can and to provide resources, visits, people who have stimulated those interests. In the last year, I have found it hard work having him at home. He has all the arrogance of any 14-year-old boy and responds to most of my attempts at directing him with an impatient, "Yes, Mum, I know".

A year ago, I asked the engineering academy if they would not consider taking him a year early. But that was a closed door. Looking back, I am glad he has had this extra year at home to move through the changes of adolescence in peace, including sleeping to his own schedule. Taller than me now, I decided early in the year that trying to get him to comply to my agenda was going to result in a year of continual conflict, so he has been allowed to follow his own ideas and interests - often with surprising results. The projects and ideas he comes up with are beyond my imagination and have stimulated his interest in ways I could not have manipulated. Often I am amazed at his ingenuity and creativity as much as I am dismayed at the junk cluttering his workspace and the mess in his wake. (I am a very tidy person, and this has been a real challenge!) However, my growing sense has been that it is time .... It is time for this young man to move on from the opportunities home education has afforded him, to have access to better resources and like-minded mentors. It is also necessary that he gain some qualifications, and we had long conversations about the best way to do that. There are a number of options for home educated youngsters. Together, we decided the local engineering academy was the best option for him at fourteen. And so, with a mixture of relief, anxiety and anticipation, we have watched him re-integrate into the system over the past week or so. And I have to admit, I have held my breath .... It is hard to go against the flow of conformity and to strike out on a different path, however much one believes in the path one is walking. It can be lonely, and the weight of responsibility is heavy. Home educating parents struggle with guilt and the fear that they perhaps are not doing the best thing for their children. The negative attitudes of the media and of others around us do not help with that. If you know any home educators, please encourage them! My guilt came from the fear that he wouldn't be able to readjust to the box from which I had removed him, that having offered him wings to fly, I was now requiring him to stay grounded. It turns out, I needn't have worried. As I sat in the parents' information evening last term, I did have a deep sense of peace that this was the right way forward for this young man and that the wings he has grown would not be clipped, but rather enabled to fly higher than he could with me. It is time ....

So, some observations from his first week in school .... Having pretty much refused to eat anything healthy in recent months, often opting out of family meals and tucking in to 'junk food' (to my dismay!), the new engineering academy student has thought through his own healthy breakfast and lunch requirements - "The canteen only sells really unhealthy stuff, Mum" - shopped with me for all the ingredients and got up in time to prepare a protein-enriched fruit smoothie and salad-filled sub-roll every morning. He is doing homework and organising himself to leave in good time under his own steam - "If I get a bus pass it will only make me lazy, Mum". He had gone in filled with enthusiasm, genuine interest and motivation to impress and to equip himself for a career he wants to pursue. And it has been interesting to hear his observations .... He is like an anthropologist studying a different culture, rather than a participant. He notices that many students do not want to be there, that they complain a lot. Some mess around and are disruptive. He notices other children struggle to draw, and to figure things out. "They wait for the teacher to show them how to do it," he says, "whereas I just figure it out." "Most of the kids look down, Mum," he observes, "so the teacher talks to me because I am looking up - and I ask questions." I ask if that is encouraged ... "Yes, it's not so much like a school, Mum. More like college or University." Good. I hoped as much. Long may his enthusiasm last. It is early days.

In his first week, he came home with the first University Technical College (UTC) Award of the year ... It was for a device he and a friend designed and made over the summer (to impress their teachers and make a good start) to enable people who have lost their hand to steer a car. He showed his engineering teacher his vlog of the build and - to his surprise - the vlog was shown to the whole of Year 10 in their 'assembly'. "Were you embarrassed?" I ask. (I would have been mortified!) "No!" he laughs, and I can tell he is chuffed. He is pictured with the Principal in the first school newsletter. This week he came home with a distinction for outstanding performance on a science test. "The teacher can't understand how I did so well since I haven't been to school!" Hmmmm, interesting that.

He is form rep, he is leading the class in merits, he has been given extra time to use the workshop and tools having chatted to the teachers and shown them his welding work. The vlog he made this past year (when I wondered what on earth he was doing with his time) has proven to be his project-work portfolio and has stood him in good stead.

I am not saying this because I want you to think my son is amazing. I am writing this to encourage you, if you are home educating, to trust the process, trust children - as John Holt so wisely says. And if you are not home educating, but are reading this out of interest in alternative ways of learning, then maybe it forces us to question just what we are doing in our schools .... because I am telling the story of just one child here, my eldest son .... but I feel a deep sadness for the children in class beside him who are looking down, who have lost faith in their own ability to figure things out. They are most of them boys. They did not start their school careers ten years ago looking down. That is a learned behaviour. And I do not believe that after 10 years of schooling, that is what our young men should have learned to do.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Instead of re-hashing failed educational policies of the past, why can't our ministers embrace a totally new vision for an educational system for the 21st century? Such a vision might include seeing schools as learning hubs where new technologies are used to encourage and support individualised learning, where adults engage with our young people as much needed mentors, rather than teachers, and where each individual child is free to follow a course of study best suited to their talents, interests and aptitude.

Grammar Schools: Life at the Coal Face