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How to home educate

Mike Fortune-Wood

15th March, 2009

Letting children learn flexibly and organically creates rounder, more educated human beings, says Mike Fortune-Wood

Home education is nothing at all like school. There is an old home-education joke (not a very good one) that goes:
Q: How many home educators does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The kids would far rather sit in the dark than have yet another conversation about electrical power generation.

That’s how it goes. It’s all about opportunity, using the context. The whole school approach of set curricula and things children should learn at particular times is anathema to the way most parents home educate.

School can hold children back. If a child of seven asked what an occlusion was because they heard it mentioned on the news, even if the teacher could answer they are far more likely to say: ‘I’m afraid we have to do the literacy hour now so open your book at page…’ – so another opportunity for real learning is lost. To be fair, though, 30-plus kids all asking questions would be a nightmare scenario for a teacher, and no learning would take place in that class either. Still, one teacher does not and cannot meet all the personal learning needs of that number of pupils.

It is difficult to know how many home educated children there are in the UK because there is no requirement for home-educating families to register with the authorities. Broad estimates vary between 30,000 and 150,000, but the most convincing suggest there are 50,000 to 70,000. One thing everyone agrees on is that numbers are growing quickly – perhaps by as much as 15 per cent per annum.

I have been home-educating my four children for 18 years. There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ home-education day. For many the attraction is its flexibility: for example, a family may have an ongoing project, but if they get up one morning and fi nd that it’s snowing then that can be abandoned and they can spend the next week building toboggans or studying the properties of ice. Only rarely do families conduct anything that looks like a formal class.

Most learning takes place in the form of conversations, but these are just more focused versions of what any parent does with a child. They might go on longer as well (anything up to a couple of months or more – seriously) and they would range wider and deeper in subjects, depending on how the child’s mind works through it.

General knowledge tends to deal with many questions children ask, of course, but if a child wanted to go further into a subject we would go to a bookshop and start from there. A while ago we bought encyclopaedias, but these days the internet is a great source of information. For factual information Wikipedia is a good source these days, and often has further useful links, but for politically and socially sensitive data you need more sources.

If something comes up about which we know nothing at all then we ask around. There are extensive networks of home educators, which gave us access to literally thousands of people. A few years ago I spent a day with a family whose young teenagers had asked: ‘why can’t the Government just print more money if it needs to?’ My degree is in economics, so their parents approached me and we spent a day sat in the garden drinking tea and learning about the circulation of money,  inflation, taxation, fiscal control, what money is and different measures of money supply. We did not routinely share educational tasks, but from time to time we have teamed up to deal with an issue that has arisen.

There are as many ways to home educate as there are families, but many home educators follow a more or less child-centred approach, often called ‘autonomous’. With this approach parents facilitate their child’s own interests. Some families may follow a more formal, schoollike route, but this is comparatively rare.

Autonomous home education is based upon Karl Popper’s idea that real learning must be intrinsic; that is, the subject must lead the process. That way, the child will learn and retain those things it wants to learn.

An example: our eldest used to play a PC game called Civilization, in which you can replay moments in history. When he was seven or eight he became fascinated by the 12th-century Mongolian invasion of Europe, one of the scenarios of the game. From that he got an interest in comparative political systems and religion; from there to politics and philosophy, and then on to Utopian writing. He is now finishing his MA in creative writing and has a novel close to completion, along with a collection of short stories, for which he has already been offered publication. It really is that unstructured. Another thing: we never tested him on spelling or on grammar but he now works as a professional editor.

We do not teach or think in terms of subjects that are social constructs. Maths comes up when trying to solve a problem and questions about mountains arise when trying to cross them, but we do not study them in isolation, unless of course one of the children asks ‘what made mountains?’ – otherwise why bother? They won’t remember it. And it would be an interesting point of conversation.

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What you need to know

Home education is and always has been legal in the UK. Local authorities have no duty to monitor home educators and can only investigate when they have reason to believe a child is not being educated. In practice, however, most will want some contact, particularly in the beginning. There are plenty of places families can go to get advice on how to respond to approaches by their local authority.

There is no financial help of any kind for home educating, but the cost is far less than one might think.

If your child is already registered at a school, in order to home educate you must first have them deregistered (for details, see www.home-education.org.uk).

Home educators rarely consider socialisation a problem. As well as being members of local support groups, homeeducated children often attend other organisations, such as Scouts and Guides, as well as interest groups, such as archaeology and the like. Families often meet up informally to share resources and socialise. In all likelihood there will also be a locally run group nearby that meets regularly.

Parents do not need to have any specific qualifications, such as a teaching certificate or university education, in order to teach their children at home. The best qualification seems to be having an interest in your children and being engaged with them on a day-to-day basis.

Home educators do not have to follow the national curriculum, or indeed any curriculum. A parent’s legal responsibility is to provide an education suitable to the child’s particular needs and abilities, and appropriate to life in the community in which the child finds him or herself.

For families new to home educating, it is worthwhile going along to a local group to see families interacting with each other and talking to them about how they go about home educating.

Being home educated in no way prevents children from taking examinations as external candidates. A growing number are using Open University courses as an alternative, which are cost effective, at least as academically rigorous as traditional GCSEs and often felt to be closer to the style of learning home-educated children are used to. They can also be used to count towards a degree further down the line. Home-educated children have no problems getting into university.

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Resources

For further information on starting out in home education, see:

Home Education - a huge resource on home-education issues and a gateway to other resources.

School House - information on home education in Scotland.

Winning Parent, Winning Child by Jan Fortune-Wood (Cinnamon Press, £11.99). Autonomous parenting and home education.

Can’t Go Won’t Go by Mike Fortune-Wood (Cinnamon Press, £11.99). Home education and school-phobia.

Free Range Education, edited by Terri Dowty. Home-educating families’ stories.

Home Education Journal by Mike Fortune-Wood (Cinnamon Press, annual subscription £11.99). Triannual publication.

photography: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009


 

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