In praise of the North-East

It’s no secret that I have, on occasion, dreamed wistfully of the big smoke. Ten years living in London is hard to shake off, and it is the longest I have ever lived in one place. The contrasts between Peckham and rural Northumberland could not be greater, but I think I am finally starting to realise the less obvious benefits to living in part of England that many people barely know exists.

Despite spending my secondary school years in North Yorkshire, I’ve never really felt that the North was my home. I was counting down the years until I could escape down the A1, where EVERYTHING HAPPENED. At drama school, surrounded by southerners, I felt it necessary to defend the North on occasion, my slightly flattened vowels giving me away. There is a sense that people in the North feel strongly rooted here. Rather than defending the great things about this end of the country, its inhabitants take it for granted that we live in the best place on earth. Perhaps that’s what gives me away as a bit of an ‘incomer’, this niggling need to justify our decision to live here.

A, who is certainly a southerner, takes huge pride in living in the North-East, which I would argue is the forgotten corner of the North. When the UK’s big cities are mentioned, Newcastle is often missed off the list. During the 2015 general election campaign, Nigel Farage assumed Hadrian’s Wall was the border between England and Scotland, dismissing most of Northumberland and part of Cumbria. George Osbourne clattered on and on about his Northern Powerhouse, yet it wouldn’t have done much for anywhere above Leeds. The A1 staggers around Gateshead and tails off into one lane for much of Northumberland, the assumption by Westminster being that no one goes there anyway. Tyne & Wear flexed its muscles on the eve of Brexit, by setting the tone for the result. For a few brief days, the spotlight shone on the North-East, but soon faded as the focus returned to the impact Brexit would have on the south. This of course meant the economic impact, because it has been shown time after time that funding favours the south, be it for the arts, education, flood defences – the list goes on.

No longer an industrial powerhouse, the North-East has had to find creative ways to prosper in the 21st century. When we moved back here from London at the end of 2008, A had no job. The recession was beginning to bite. Yet almost 8 years later, he works as a filmmaker with his own successful business. He can follow his dream of working in the arts and actually earning a living. There can’t be many places in the south where you can set up an arty business, have some babies and live in a house by the sea without having a trust fund.

The point is, it’s doable. I feel like I can live in the North and still rant on to my friends with a clear conscience. I don’t feel that I have had to sell out. It is still possible to live in a beautiful part of the country, connected by train to two major cities  – Newcastle and Edinburgh, and live amongst cutting-edge culture and fascinating heritage. The North-East will never compare to the South-East, and for that we should all be hugely grateful. we don’t want to be the same. We do things differently up here. There is space to breathe and a commitment to celebrate the important things. I used to mistake this for a reluctance to change, a plodding pace of life. I’m wondering now, though, whether I have been guilty of chasing an impossible lifestyle.

In Melvyn Bragg’s 10-part series for Radio 4, The Matter of the North, celebrating the historical achievements of the North of England, he claims that people of the North are non-conformist radicals, and that swings it for me. Responding to this radio programme in the i today, Grace Dent is spot on when she tells us ‘it’s time to re-examine the North…the North matters now more than ever’.  Over the next couple of months, as the nights draw in and it’s too cold to leap through the waves, I will remember this. The North-East represents more than just a cold corner of England, but a way of life.

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Toeing the line

I skipped a little when I came across this article by journalist Deborah Orr about her struggle to find an appropriate ‘education’ for her son. Miserable as it sounded for Orr as she trawled through various education models, it was heartening to have my own view that ‘not all children suit a highly regimented education’ backed up in a national newspaper.

I would go further and suggest that most children would benefit from a freer education (and not in the economic sense, although scrapping tuition fees would be another step in the right direction). I have long argued that a broader, ‘project-based’ approach to learning would inspire young people and nurture skills that are becoming increasingly necessary in the modern world. Rather than delivering a narrow curriculum, we should be focusing more on problem solving, independent learning, research and real life skills. We are so focused on the tiny things that we are losing sight of the big picture.

 

Orr hits the nail on the head when she states that ‘rebellion can be lonely’. It takes a huge leap of faith and a great deal of courage to step outside of the mainstream. Deregistering B for a second time in June was only marginally less terrifying than it had been 3 years earlier, as I felt forced to justify another wacky decision. However, when I look at the progress being made by B, and the comments I receive about her happiness, her ability and her passion for learning, the only thing that seems wacky is why the hell more people are not demanding a similar education for their own children.

My children are only very young, so I have not yet considered what will happen if B is still educated at home when exams loom on the horizon. I like to think that we will be able to work in collaboration with the local high school to take some GCSEs – we are certainly not in the position to privately fund them. Orr claims that ‘people without a couple of grand to spare will just have to put their children, and themselves, through it all…the start of every school day a battle’. This depresses me hugely, this assumption that home educators must be wealthy. This summer, A and I have travelled around the UK with the girls, falling briefly in love with Cambridge (until we looked at the house prices), trawling Rightmove for affordable houses in Bristol and wondering why motorways stop so many miles south of our home in Northumberland. After much soul-searching, we have had to conclude that we are simply outpriced – the North-South divide has become such a huge chasm that after 7 years (and several babies) in the North-East, we can only afford to move south again if we swallow our morals deep down. It makes sense to live by the sea, far away from all that competition and furious tail-chasing. Home education is possible, but if you are not very wealthy you may have to make big sacrifices.

A miserable little girl was the catalyst for our roller coaster journey into home education, but it’s a journey I wouldn’t want to have missed. I am pleased that I question the blinkered approach to education taken by our government, who must tick a box at every opportunity. I head back into the SEBD school as a teacher in September, armed with schemes of work and CDs for the whiteboard. Not so much a teacher, as a curriculum-deliverer. I hope some of what I have learned as a home-educator will translate to the classroom and inspire some of the disengaged children I will be working with.

 

This autumn, I will continue to consider how the child-led approach taken by many alternative educators might inform mainstream education. We need to begin by questioning how we measure success. Orr’s son’s experience of school is not uncommon. She should be proud that he was strong enough to question the system – it is that resilience and individuality that will take him far in life, not 5 GCSEs.

A history lesson

The anniversary of the Battle of the Somme has sparked off a fascinating research project for B. We had planned to learn about the Romans this summer, but that topic has been sidelined in favour of World War One.

B is interested in poetry and wanted to read some of the war poets’ work, as I wrote about last time. As well as considering the form and language of the poetry, B enjoyed using a dictionary to look up words or phrases she was unsure of. She began to notate the poems and we had some interesting philosophical discussions about war.Poem pic

It was great when my brother sent us his own poem about a relative in the war because it really put things into context for B. I love it when our home education journey involves people outside of our immediate little family unit – it reminds me of the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ quote and makes me feel supported in our quest!

My mother’s cousin wrote a book about the history of our family, and we decided to see if we could find details of any of our ancestors who might have fought in the Battle of the Somme. Sure enough, my grandfather’s cousin had died fighting in the Somme in 1916, so B and I went online to research further. Excitingly, we think the Imperial War museum may be holding his diary in their collections (the name is unusual and unlikely to be anyone else). We are planning a trip south soon so we can spend time at the museum and actually read his words.

Discoveries like these have really engaged me with my own history. I could never quite feel excited about history at school, and I think it was because I didn’t study anything that made it relevant to me. B and I have both been drawn into another world and have become detectives, searching for clues to our past.

Yesterday was bright and warm. The previous evening I had spent some time thinking about what to do with B. Our local museum had a page on its website about WW1 and informed me that several soldiers from the town had been buried in the cemetery only ten minutes’ walk from our house. A list of the soldiers was provided, so B duly printed it off and we strode out into the (rare, this year) sunshine. Baby F chattered in the buggy and little M tripped along beside me. B had packed her rucksack with paper, crayons, pens and snacks. While B wondered along the rows of gravestones, little M hunted for feathers and leaves. We stroked the surfaces of bark and stone and used crayons to make rubbings of the different textures.

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At last we found our first soldier, Sergeant James Allison. Born in 1886, died in 1917, age 31. ‘That’s not very old, Mummy’. And he was one of the older ones. We found another seventeen soldiers, some buried, others remembered on the gravestone with other members of their family. Often, the place of death was mentioned – France or Belgium – which correlated with the research B had already done and confirmed her knowledge. Little stories came to light – one was a prisoner of war, another died of his wounds only a week before the end of the war. This real life investigation made a profound impression of both of us.

On our return, B created a table detailing all of the information she had unearthed. Screenshot 2016-07-14 21.52.15

Today, we walked to the nearby war memorial to try and match the soldier’s names with corresponding ones on the plaque. We also found a bench that had been dedicated to those who fought in the Great War. Once more, the two littlest girls got out their crayons and Little M chattered about the different textures of the stone and the metal as they rubbed over the paper.

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The clouds gathered overhead and we headed home up the hill. Armed with a notebook and a slice of cake, B watched some footage from the amazing documentary, Battle of the Somme, on Youtube. We wondered at the absurdity of German and British troops helping each other through the French fields, only to shoot at each other moments later. B used her notes as a basis for some ideas for her own poems. I created a template for her, suggesting she write down descriptive sentences based on the senses – what could she hear/taste/see etc in the trenches? She came up with some beautiful lines – ‘wisps of smoke dancing in the air’, ‘tangles of barbed wire, like spaghetti’.

Tomorrow, B wants to make a war memorial and paint it. She is going to make 3D shapes from cardboard (there’s your number work) and create her own sculpture. So much to learn…

Think outside the box

I was interested to read about a school in Germany that offers a radically different style of learning. Students at the Evangelical School Berlin Centre (ESBC) work without a timetable, no grades until the age of fifteen and no formal lecture-style instruction. Pupils decide for themselves which subjects they want to study and when they want to take an exam. By taking this approach the school hopes that students will be more self-motivated and better prepared for the fast-changing labour market, whilst acknowledging the effect the internet has had on the way people process information. The headteacher talks about the importance of students discovering things for themselves as the key way to achieve self-motivation.

From my experience as a home educator, there is much to learn from this school. I have written many times about the importance of young people finding their passion in order to succeed, and this need not exclude our schools. The clear advantage of less structured learning styles is that children are able to see an activity through to completion at their own pace. I have argued before that a set curriculum with a list of learning objectives leaves little room for manoeuvre in terms of creativity. The likelihood is that, even if a lesson is imaginative and engaging (which many are), the subject may not be revisited again for another week. A week is a long time for a child. Seizing the moment is key to success for our family, and whilst it can take time to get used to a less formal way of working, I trust now that the children really do know best when it comes to what they want to learn.

I have become increasingly keen to use my experience as a teacher, parent and home educator to inform how children are educated in mainstream schools. The first step, surely (apart from putting more money into the system), has to be the eradication of levels and standardised testing. We must stop applying numbers and grades to pupils and measure their success more imaginatively. Of course, there will always be children who require extra support and have additional learning needs, but we must work harder to accommodate all pupils’ learning styles. It just isn’t acceptable to ask a group of 4-year olds to sit still on a carpet and learn phonics for a period of time every day. Some children will learn them very quickly and become bored, creating the possibility that they will not develop a love of books because they associate it with a formal, scientific approach rather than a magical world. Others will struggle to sit still and listen because they are still too tiny and would rather be digging in a sandpit. The ones in the middle will learn to read this way, but they could also have learned to read by being given more creative book-related activities and plenty of access to the library (remember them?). I just feel that we take a one-size fits all approach to education in our schools that lets down the students and does not inspire the many, many excellent and committed teachers working with them.

This school in Germany ticks a lot of the boxes I think we should be addressing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea – it’s not a state school for one, so not everyone can afford to go there (although it is trying to address this through means-testing, and a small proportion do not pay fees at all); it’s also a religious school although not all of the families attending are baptised. Having said that, M attends a community school now and still comes home most days singing about climbing Jesus’ ladder.

We do need to accept, as a progressive society, that children in the 21st century do not need to have their educational success measured in the same way that I did, leaving school twenty years ago. When I left school, you either did a degree after your A-levels or finished at 16 and took a more vocational course. This is simplistic of course, there were variations in between, but the difference was that all of those options were funded and you were more likely to get a job at the end of it all. Today, tuition fees have put many potential university students off. The internet has created information for free and, along with globalisation, spawned a generation of entrepreneurs and freelancers. Whether this market will still exist if we leave the European Union remains to be seen. Those doing vocational courses (and in Northumberland these young people must find the money themselves to travel to college because there is no funding for that now) must hope that they will find a contract on leaving, or a company where they can hope to work their way up. Everything is more competitive.

What we need to instil in our children is a sense of creativity, resilience, motivation and passion. We need to nurture independent young people, not try and squeeze them into boxes. I like the idea of children taking exams when they feel ready. I can see that M would thrive on that approach, being academic and enjoying formal learning. But B would also benefit; she prefers to learn by making things and reading, but when she realised she could take an exam in singing she jumped at the chance and passed with flying colours. Now an exam in singing won’t get her a job, but is has taught her to be self-motivated and to work hard to achieve a high standard. Maybe that will give her the confidence to do another exam one day. I can see that if she was bombarded with formal tests she would clam up and feel threatened. Then there’s little M and baby F – who knows what their paths will be? My little family is a microcosm of all the children in the country, which sounds very grand, but is just a way of saying that we need to be better at meeting everyone’s needs. Including the teachers, many of whom are striking today, and that should tell us something…

Adjusting

After the heightened emotions of last month, it has been a relief over the last fortnight to settle down a little.

M has spent three weeks at the school across the park, and it has been a mainly positive experience. She enjoys spending time with other children and is enthusiastic about the new activities and routines. M quite likes a routine. Not the type of routine where I would rigidly illustrate timetables to try and reduce B’s anxiety when she was younger, but in a more straightforward fashion: she likes to know what she is doing and just get on with it. M throws 100% into everything she does and, as a result, has been exhausted. New experiences are tiring and require us to be more alert than we might perhaps otherwise be. A friend of mine, a teacher, advised that whilst M might well be ahead academically, she will need her energy to adjust to the very different environment on offer at school. He was right, and I am pleased that the work has been sufficiently challenging but also not overly rigorous. She has enough to get her head around at the moment.

Despite being very sociable, M could spend hours on her tummy with a book when she was home educated. I sense that she still has a real craving for this quiet time, and often she will come in from school and dive into a book, plonk away on the piano or quietly draw at the kitchen table. This has caused some frustration for her sisters, who are excited that M is back in the fold again and want to play with her. But M has been sociable all day and needs some time inside her own head. Hopefully when the tiredness wears off (does it wear off? Or are school children always knackered in the evening?!), things will change. Certainly we are looking forward to the holidays so that we can all enjoy a freestyle existence together again.

B is a tricky fish, and has been a little teary and tired after all of the emotional upheaval, but certainly happier and pleased with the decision to be educated at home. Any change is a challenge for B, and she has felt very keenly the absence of M during the week. I can’t deny that there is a large M-sized hole between 8.45am and 3pm. It wasn’t always easy to meet her needs, but we have been a tribe for several years and it is not surprising that it feels strange now. My friend described M as ‘brave’ the other day, and it was nice to hear. M is such a little warrior, fearlessly flinging herself at the world – I hadn’t considered that she might feel especially worried or intimidated, but I guess it is a big decision to choose to be different to your big sister when you are only six years old. I hope this courage to be herself will stay with her as she grows. Maybe a couple of years standing apart from the crowd has shaped her in ways I can’t yet see.

Emotions aside, B has produced some beautiful, interesting work. She has spent time walking with her grandad, talking about the world and observing nature. This is part of a wider plan to help her with map reading and geography, but perhaps the thing that will stay with her for longer is this special, quality time with her grandfather. She has spent time learning to build websites with A, and this gives me valuable time where I can bob around with the two little girls. Watercolours are a big feature of B’s days at the moment, and we talk about politics often as well. It has been impossible not to share with the kids the enormity of our current political situation, and B in particular is keen to participate in our debates (choice quote: “does it take two years to leave Europe? Maybe they’ll just forget about it!”). Today I had an hour or two while baby F slept and little M was at nursery, so we watched some online videos about the Battle of the Somme. This led to a discussion about the impact of the war on women’s voting rights. We learned about shell shock and Siegfried Sassoon and studied a couple of his poems. B’s uncle, also a poet, shared with us a poem he wrote a few years ago about our great-uncle, who died in the second world war. B was articulate and thoughtful, showing maturity that I thought was impressive in a nine-year old. The opportunity to have extended periods of time to follow interests and passions is one of the things I love most about home education.

Amidst all of this activity, I wonder what the future will hold for me, A and our children. My restless nature will not let me settle for long. We spend evenings dissecting our dreams and wondering how we can alter them to fit the needs of four little girls. With time off as a family planned for the summer months, it will be fun to see if we can find an adventure that suits us all…

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One of B’s watercolours – a Red Campion

 

 

 

 

 

Between two worlds

A lot has happened since I last blogged only a few days ago. Yesterday, we deregistered B once more and transferred M to our local school, just five minutes walk from our house. The little school in the hills is no more. An awkward early morning meeting (was it only yesterday?!), where I hardly spoke for fear of bursting into tears or spewing out a tirade against the school system, was difficult but essential. The head was fair and professional. She wondered, as I knew she would, why we were not giving B longer to settle; she told us, as I knew she would, that B was absolutely fine in the classroom; and she asked us what would happen to B in the future, as I suspected she might. A was in control of the occasion, and said just what need to be said in order for us to hand over the deregistration letter and get out. I felt flakey, confused and slightly sick as we left the building, knowing I would have to return later to collect the girls(we felt that they should at least finish the day there and say goodbye to the children and teachers). The first time we did this, I posted a letter, and it was easier and more exhilarating.

I had a visit to the local school booked for the end of this week, but was concerned about issues regarding absence if M was in a no-man’s land for the days in-between. As soon as we left the first meeting I was on the phone to the new school, and the excellent office manager booked me in for later that day with a promise that there would be a place for M to start the next day (today). This meant I had to return to the little school in the hills earlier than anticipated (on my own because A had to work), where I was met with slightly stony-faced staff, reluctant to make our exit any easier. Chasing baby F around and with little M clinging to my leg, I tried to scoop up the older two girls, thank the staff and look apologetic at the little faces who seemed confused about B & M’s abrupt departure. I’m happy not to repeat those five minutes anytime soon.

Happily, M was delighted with her visit to the school across the park and today threw herself into her new life with a smile stretched across her face. The only bad thing about school, she teased  me just before bed, is that you have to come home. Then she squeezed me tight, and I felt lucky to have such a robust and cheeky little girl. M is a beacon of positivity and will see the good in anything, but I can see that, for now, she is exactly where she wants to be. This makes the transition easier for all of us.

As we drove away from the little school in the hills, B didn’t allow herself to relax immediately, but by the time I had got home from the new school visit, she was in her cosy  trousers making herbal tea and curling up with a book. My daughter was back again. That night, she slept for twelve hours. No Rescue Remedy, no tears, no searching looks. When she woke up this morning, I watched her arrange her long hair into an intricate coil on her head, using clips and butterflies. M was next to her in her uniform, her fizzy white hair escaping from its ponytail. Two sisters, so different, and yet both looking so comfortable in their own worlds. I look at B with renewed understanding now. It makes sense to me that she learns at home, freely and without pressure, away from noise and crowds. I like being quiet, she told me today. She is in bed now, devouring books and cuddling Tiger. She is happy again.

And when people ask me what B will do, I care less now than I used to. What will any of us do? And indeed, what will anyone achieve if they are miserable, anxious and uncomfortable? B will follow her passions and her dreams and she will do something wonderful. She might not do it in the same way as most other people, but she is learning  that does not matter. As a family, we truly know now that each of us is different. We will not all be successful by following the same path. It is healthy for us to try new things, and to question the mainstream.

I am hopeful for M as she begins her journey into school. School was kind to me. I understood how it worked and enjoyed the challenges it presented. I can only hope that she will have a similar experience, however long she is there. Honestly, I wonder whether a school education can offer many of the things I value about the freedom of home education. I fear not. But I am trying to be open-minded and will throw everything behind M to ensure her success. It will be interesting to witness this juxtaposition of educational approaches. Can school nurture M’s love of learning? How will our family dynamics shift? Will I be biting my tongue or eating humble pie? After a traumatic couple of weeks, we have found a calmer sea. I’m excited, intrigued and a little nervous to find out what will happen next. Most of all, though, I am relieved that all of my girls are smiling again.

 

 

 

Empty nest

I’m suffering from a premature case of Empty Nest Syndrome. After almost three years of being surrounded by my gaggle of girls, the days have grown so quiet they are unrecognisable. Rather than relishing the peace, I am struggling to forget how productive and busy our days were before school came back into the equation. And tiring. I keep reminding myself how exhausting it was to keep everyone happy day in day out, that it will be good for me to have a little more space and time for myself. Then I glance at the back lane as I hang out the washing. The shadows of the towels flutter over the grey tarmac, rain has washed away the coloured chalk that used to be scrawled there, no time in our day to decorate it again. At a pre-school group in the library with baby F and little M this morning, baby F pointed at M’s favourite books and said her name. Stupidly, as all the other parent sang songs about the sea, I swallowed hard as tears pricked at my eyes. The library is our second home, and it wasn’t the same without my big girls, without M sprawling across the carpet engrossed in a story and B scouring the shelves for books she had not yet read.

Yesterday, B sat next to me upon the piano stool sobbing. ‘We don’t have time to sing anymore, Mummy’ she wailed, as I gamely sang along with M and little M, like a manic Maria von Trapp. I had picked the girls up at 2pm from the local swimming pool, stealing a precious extra hour or two instead of them returning to the school in the hills on the coach. We sat on a rug in the garden and ate ice lollies. M lay on her tummy, designing clothes for me, then sidled off to tinker on the piano. B planted seeds and weeded the flower beds with little M, while baby F created chaos and tipped soil all over the path. It was brilliant.

Everything is made harder by the fact that schools offer so much less in many regards than home education. A lot of work seems to be repeated, there is little creativity or time for independent learning. A friend asked me recently what I expected from school, and it made me think; I want some help with childcare occasionally (sorry teachers), I want them to have opportunities I can’t provide, like sports days and instrumental rehearsals, and all the activities that are only open to schools (today they are on a farm day with hundreds of other Northumbrian school children). For M, I want her to be with other children, because I can see she enjoys that. I think she also wants to be more like other children and feels she is missing out being at home with me. But having home educated and been immersed in alternative education practices for some time now, it is impossible to forget what I have learned myself. I have seen with my own eyes how effective it is when children are allowed to learn independently and follow their passions. I believe in children having freedom to play and spend time outdoors. I want my children to feel strong enough to stand up and say it is ok to be different, to have a strong opinion and step away from the crowd. Do I make that choice now for M? Or will she resent me? I feel hypocritical and have to really dig deep to sound interested when they report back on some of the activities they have been doing.  When do you draw the line and say that you know best?

After yesterday night’s tear-fest by the piano, I was all set to keep B at home and say that the experiment was over. A, though, says we must stick to our guns and at least finish the week before making rash decisions. I am the queen of rash decisions, which is how we have ended up in this mess; too knackered and ill to protest, M persuaded me that school was the answer. There’s no denying that home ed isn’t perfect, but it’s an approach to learning I much prefer to what is currently being offered in our schools. And I think it might be preferable to the sick feeling in my stomach when subordinate clauses are mentioned, or the girls are too tired to do anything creative after being hot-housed all day. I’m being unfair to schools in this post, I know I am, but I am sad and frustrated and need to rant.

Is it time for me to settle for something I don’t believe works for our children, or do we become outsiders again and pride ourselves on being different? Or is there a place where we can meet in the middle? Another sleepless night beckons…

 

Turmoil

It’s fair to say that several of us are struggling with the transition from home education to school.

On the plus side, M is delighted with herself. School is, according to her, ten out of ten and so much better than learning at home. Whilst obviously privately taking offence at her breezy dismissal of the last three years, I am glad that she is happy and enjoying spending time with other children.

Little M and baby F are enjoying having a little more space and time with their mummy, although I think F wonders where her big sisters are and talks about them often. It has been nice not having the pressure of having to ‘educate’, although with the benefit of hindsight and a second to think, I wonder now how much of that pressure I unnecessarily placed upon myself.

It seems, according to various sources, that the girls are streets ahead of their peers, which is pleasing from the point of view of personal achievement and proud parenting, but creates other issues. Neither girl has been challenged yet by the work, and I have (in my head) given the teachers a week to suss them out and provide something a little more thought-provoking. Having been absent from the world of formal schooling, both as a parent and then as a teacher, for a couple of years, I am slightly horrified by all of the curricular changes that have taken place. Grammar and spelling now seem to play a vital role in the development of our children EVERY SINGLE DAY, with B tackling clauses and high frequency words (that she knew two years ago) and, pointlessly, M being tested on phonics. I struggle to see how this will engender a love of learning or of books. When the two girls came home from school today, I could have wept with relief when they collapsed onto a rug in the front garden and read quietly for an hour. At least they still love books at the moment…

In other depressing news, B is totally gutted. Gone is the cheeky, bouncy, enthusiastic, artistic little girl, only to be replaced by a pale, weepy imitation daughter. Reading our cosy book at bedtime is now sandwiched between tears and lashings of Rescue Remedy. The only humorous moment was when she declared that her new school was almost as bad as the one Jane Eyre has to attend. Oh how we laughed! Except we didn’t. I cajoled and tried to reason why it was important of her to see this experiment through until the end of term, while she sobbed and railed at me, asking why she had to do something that made her so worried. I barely had an answer for her.

I wonder whether the little school in the hills is exactly that: a school, in some hills. Why do I keep mentioning the hills? They are not softening school for B or for me in the way I hoped they might. The staff are so kind and trying hard to meet our needs, but will B ever fit in? And should she have to? I’ve written often enough about how we are all different, maybe I should practice what I preach.

To conclude, because it’s nearly 9pm and I haven’t yet eaten, my main worry is B and her happiness, followed by M and whether or not she will be sufficiently challenged by the curriculum. Alongside that, my selfish concern is that I will have so much less quality time with them. They return from school knackered and hungry, only two or three paltry hours before bath time. I want them to have quiet time to themselves after a busy day, but wonder what will happen to the hours of tinkering with the piano, the dressing up and the crazy projects. I guess that’s what the weekend is for.

A week of turmoil with heads spinning and far too much thinking. Time to breathe and gather strength for another day…

 

Tears at bedtime

As the week drags on, B’s face grows pale so that the tiny freckles scattered on her nose stand out. She is quieter than usual and her eyes look at me searchingly. I have gone up to see her in bed when the other girls are sleeping and she is lying in bed clutching Tiger, her tears soaking into the pillow. I’m heading to the chemist after work for some Rescue Remedy and we are going to meditate before bed to try and help her relax. It’s so tempting to say to her that she doesn’t need to go to school on Monday, that we can carry on as before, but I feel that this tiny school in the hills is the best chance of her having a positive school experience. If she can learn that school can be enjoyable I hope it will open doors for her in the future when she might need access to more specialist education than I can offer. Two things have struck me this week; firstly, I am not sure that our society understands or deals well with anxiety surrounding school; secondly, is school attendance the measure of success for our children?

On the first point, when researching ways to support B to manage her anxiety at this transitional time, I read that it is common for children to be anxious about going to school after a period of absence. That makes sense. I begin to struggle when I read that anxiety surrounding school is to be ‘managed’ rather than avoided altogether. There is a fine line between helping a child to develop resilience and making them endure daily stress. I am familiar with the effect of high levels of cortisol on child brain development; during my years working at the SEBD school, I would witness on an almost daily basis children reaching crisis point, exhausting themselves, retreating into their shells, and finally being coaxed back to address the trigger that had caused the stressful situation. You can observe similar behaviours when young children have tantrums – M will often fall asleep after an explosion, having worn herself out. Clearly low levels of stress in children (positive stressors) are to be expected, and contribute towards normal, healthy child development. However, what is also evident is that prolonged periods of anxiety and stress can cause permanent emotional and developmental damage.

I remember a meeting I had with the head of B’s first school, when she was in reception class. I requested part-time schooling for B, to make the separation anxiety more manageable and try to reduce the symptoms she was presenting (bedwetting, tearfulness, low mood). The headteacher suggested that I was projecting my own anxieties onto B, and that after the initial crying and being forcibly taken into the school building, actually B was fine. I resented the fact that this teacher did not listen to my concerns, and then I questioned my own behaviour – was I making B anxious? As my confidence in my parenting grew, I realised I was more of an expert on B’s happiness than the school, seeing the negative impact school was having on her happiness and development.

Many friends and family members have been so kind and supportive as we go through this transition as a family, but I have also noticed that the overwhelming view has been that school is the natural place for a child to be; school had to happen at some point, why not now? At times I have felt that, whilst people have been interested, inspired and intrigued by our home ed adventure, they have also seen it as something that other people do, because school is where children are supposed to be. This has made me wonder how engrained our expectations for our children are. We all say we just want our children to be happy, but when presented with an unhappy child it can be very hard to escape the norm and follow our own instincts as parents. B is very bright, which makes A and I have all kinds of grand ambitions for her; she is capable of achieving excellent academic results. But will this work for B? Should we be enabling academic success or nurturing her self-esteem? Are both exclusive of each other? My gut feeling is that B will make most progress, academically and personally, if she is in her comfort zone. I certainly felt that to be the case when she was six and we deregistered her, but the waters seem to become muddier the older she gets. It is more acceptable to home educate a little child – many parents agree that a later school starting age is no bad thing – but the further down our home ed journey we travel, the more I am asked ‘how long will you do it for?’, as if I need to wake up and think about joining the real world.

Well, we are trying to join the ‘real world’ next week, and only time will tell whether B belongs in that world, or whether she will continue to flourish being a little apart from the crowd. While M chatters excitedly about all the new things she will learn at school, B hangs back, lowering her eyes. What is right for one will not always be right for another, but I want B to be informed about her choices. It might be a big mistake, but we will never know unless we try.

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B leading the way

 

 

 

 

 

Limbo

Here in our little house, far north, a couple of miles from the sweeping Northumbrian beaches, we are living in a kind of limbo-land. It is half-term, there is no school, but things continue in much the same for us as they usually do. The girls tinkle on the piano throughout the day, they curl in corners with books, they ask random questions and begin little projects, heads bent down as they scrawl ideas and plans onto paper.

Hanging in the wardrobe are two small and two slightly bigger blue gingham dresses, waiting to be worn next Monday, when B and M will go to the little school in the hills. Today, B had her first wobble. She sat in tears at the dinner table, not sure why she was worried about school, but knowing she felt unsure. I tried to say the right things, told her about all the fun activities planned for that first week. M reminded her how much they had enjoyed their taster day last week. I explained that this school was very different to other schools she had attended and that we would reassess the situation at the end of July, when term ends. Inside, though, my stomach churned and I had to dig deep not to cry myself; if B is struggling with the changes ahead, I feel like I’m climbing a mountain.

Over the last two weeks I have been unwell, unable to eat much and exhausted. It has taken an element of self-reflection and the kind words of friends and family to point out that I am knackered and anxious – stressed out by all the decisions and the responsibility I feel to get things right. When I lie in bed at night – maybe I’ve just fed baby F and it’s the witching hour, or perhaps I can’t relax enough to sleep – I overthink and overthink and just can’t pinpoint how we got to this situation. I know that M had been talking about trying school, but she was cool about it, not nagging or miserable in any way. I know I was feeling burned out and desperate for some respite. I know that someone told me about the little school in the hills and it seemed different and maybe better in some ways.

But I also know that all of the misgivings I have about school have not disappeared; I am worried that the spontaneous love of learning we have nurtured in our girls will be sapped and squashed by pointless phonics tests and unimaginative curriculum targets. I wonder how other home educating families overcome the exhaustion, the lack of personal space, the financial pressures. Again and again, I return to the idea of community: if we had been  part of something bigger, would we be venturing into school next week? I wistfully browse home ed groups in other parts of the country, wondering if a move to somewhere less remote would make things more possible. But then I also consider how I might ever go back to any kind of meaningful career if the children stay at home with me for much longer than the norm. Home education is a lifestyle for the whole family, and just now I suppose it is not possible to meet everyone’s needs in the way I had hoped. My mind is tired and jumbled. If nothing else, the next few weeks will give me some time to recharge my batteries. Maybe the little school in the hills will exceed my expectations. Maybe the girls will be challenged by their work and inspired by their surroundings.  Maybe they will skip through the door every day and bubble over with enthusiasm. Maybe today was just a blip for B and I won’t see those worried tears again. Maybe.