Meeting in the middle

School is drawing to a close and I am reflecting upon how I feel about this term. It is a measure of how far we have come as a family that I feel more inclined to consider M’s progress at school than our learning at home. I am by no means immune to the occasional anxieties surrounding our choice to home educate, or the fear that I can not be enough to help my child grow. Sometimes I am I blinded by the glare of mainstream education; everyone else goes to school, what’s the problem? But now I am confident enough to know that schools do not offer the same experience to children that a freer way of learning can. That is not to say schools cannot offer that experience, we are simply living through a depressing era of testing and measuring, which breeds stress and inflexibility.

I want desperately to see the joy in M’s time at school, and here are the good bits: I have a positive dialogue with both the class teacher and the head. They have worked hard to respond to M’s needs when it became clear that she was working well outside her year 2 curriculum. M is now extended through her spellings, reading and numeracy, and after Christmas will be working on some research projects (similar to those she does with us at home). I really appreciate the extra work the teachers are putting in – the only thing that delayed the extension work being put into practice was the rigid assessment requirements. I am providing some work for M to do at school and am following their numeracy strategy to ensure continuity. I think all of this shows a healthy, rounded education for M, and demonstrates that learning takes place all the time, not just in the classroom. M has enjoyed the collaborative opportunities – the drama, the choir, the playtimes. Even I, with my tribe of many daughters, can’t put together a football team. M bounces in and out of school, happy and busy. There is much to be grateful for.

The downers: there’s a lot of sitting about and lining up: this does not appeal to the rebel in me. On days when the sun is shining, or the sky is wintery and pink I want to creep into M’s classroom and smuggle her to the beach, where I race across the sand with my home-educated daughters. I miss my girl at times like this, and those are the days I struggle most to agree that school is the best option for her. I want her to twirl seaweed around her head and collect shells in her blue bucket. There seem few opportunities for children at school to work on their own initiative. Literacy has become a blur of phonics, spellings and hideous grammar. designed to confuse the most imaginative writer. Modal verbs and relative clauses at primary school – really? Life gets hard enough as we grow up, why ruin the innocence of youth?! I want M to have time to breathe, to write poems or stories or read about pirates, not know what a subordinate clause is. The timetable is too filled with academic requirements so there is very little music, art or PE. This is a real shame, especially for those kids who express themselves best outside of an exercise book.

M is very tired now. The rehearsals for the school play and jam-packed days take their toll on our children. Every parent, without exception, tells me their child is ready for a holiday and a rest. Am I alone in wondering whether we should wait until our kids are so knackered they have to be woken at the last minute to get into their uniform to have a holiday? When we first started home educating, I used to feel guilty when we had downtime at home. I had this frenetic urge to ensure the girls were always occupied. How little I knew. Over the years I have learned that learning takes place not in the form of a rigid timetable, but in peaks and troughs. Many days are hugely productive, but sometimes  B will just need to lie on her bed and read quietly, or tinker on the piano, or run on the beach. Rest is valuable, and in the age of always being ON, it is a valuable to teach our children that doing nothing or being quiet is ok. We are not robots.

B is still adjusting to learning more on her own now that M is at school. Her relationship with the two little ones is lovely to watch, and she enjoys playing with them. Over the last few weeks, B has been immersed in a local youth theatre production. Watching her confidently run about the stage, A and I were bursting with pride. The little girl who sobbed behind her xylophone during school plays a few years ago has grown into an enthusiastic performer. Next week she takes another singing exam and performs in a dance show. Her watercolour paintings are many and varied, and she has done an in-depth history project with her dad. A has the kids every Tuesday, and it has been positive for everyone; I escape to work, he steps away from his business and the girls hang out with their dad. Walks with Grandad feature heavily, as does sewing with Grannie. B’s maths is well up to speed, and any spare moments are spent with her head in a book. The other day a friend phoned her, and she squirrelled herself away for a a giggly chat in the bedroom. Confident, friendly, sociable and interested. The words could be applied to both of the older girls, so different but both making their own ways in the world.

Little M, currently not attending reception year at school, continues to embrace her little forest nursery. She has done a project on cats and is starting to read cvc words and write her own sentences. We don’t know what will happen next year, but I am happy to keep my little 4-year old away from school for now. Time to play and time to just be is working for now. She and baby F spell trouble and they can’t wait for the day when they share bunk beds. I’m not keen to release baby F from the cot yet, but that day is not very far away.

So a bit of an update on where we all are. In my heart I am happy that M enjoys school, but I wish mainstream education was different. As B grows older and her educational needs become harder to meet, will school work for her or will we find a way on our own? I love this journey, it challenges and engages me and forces me to ask questions. Just what education should do…

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Am I missing the point?

Life is busy, and whilst B continues to benefit from home education, M is asserting her independence and heading off to school every morning. I’ll confess to not having missed the school run at all during my three-year absence from formal education, and the 8am dash has gained no appeal! As the frost settles over the final few leaves on the ground, the additional need for hats and gloves threatens to throw my best laid plans into disarray. M is still bouncing into school, and though I have noticed little comments about enjoying lying in at the weekend creep into conversation, I think she is still in a honeymoon phase, delighted to have something to call her own.

I had hoped that seeing my child skip into school would be enough, and many of you will argue that it should be. But after years of researching alternative education models and learning with the girls, not to mention my experience as a class teacher, I am feeling frustrated by the one-size-fits-all approach I see on offer for M. Arguably, she has had an advantageous start academically, with one to one support and plenty of time to explore her interests. That aside, it is clear to us and to her class teacher that M is capable of working well beyond the year 2 curriculum. At a recent parent/teacher meeting we discussed this, having been shown her targets for the next term, which were unambitious and already achieved in some cases. The teacher agreed that the work was not presenting much challenge and said she would speak to the head. This morning the message came back that M must be assessed within the year 2 curriculum. This seems inflexible, especially given the fact that M is in a mixed year 2/3 class. My response to the class teacher was that this system seemed to benefit the teachers, but not necessarily the students. The progress being shown on the grids will satisfy Ofsted, but it is not real progress.She explained that consolidation within her own year group was the answer. Now I know there is truth in this, but perhaps that is also an easier option for the school. It is important for M to be presented with a certain level of challenge in order to be inspired to learn and move forward. When she is in school for over thirty hours each week, I want that time to be stimulating.

I welcome the community events, the concerts, the trips, the visitors. I am pleased she has developed some nice friendships. It’s great that she looks forward to scampi on a Friday. But is this really what education has come down to? Friends tells me that school is just a starting point, that much more learning can take place at home. I agree. M comes home from school and devours number challenges,  plays the piano, taps out French phrases on Duolingo, reads books. It’s home ed all over again. She is busy and full of questions all the time and we want to support her learning.

I worry that I am overthinking the issue. M will probably thrive anyway in the long run. She’s clever, sparky, and confident. I can see friends wondering why I don’t give myself a break and be grateful for the childcare. On much reflection, I can only think  it is the unfairness of it all that frustrates me so much. When I was training to be a teacher ten years ago, Every Child Mattered. That was the buzz phrase. Now, Every Result Matters, and that is not the same at all.

We have two brilliant friends with three daughters. M and their youngest share a birthday. Their approach to parenting is similar to ours, they are busy and buzzy, sociable and curious. I texted her last week expressing my frustration that M was not being stretched enough, knowing that she had had similar issues with her second daughter. Their response had been to move her to the local private school, where she thrives. Their youngest is also bright, and is doing brilliantly at the local state primary, working mainly a couple of years ahead in a mixed class of KS1 kids. So two points here: state education can meet the needs of more able kids with a little thought and flexibility. But, also, there is a clear disparity between the education on offer for our brighter children, and this is down to the importance placed by the government on testing a narrow curriculum, and a lack of funding to provide extra staff and resources in state schools.

M’s teacher suggested that she might have a project to work on alongside the year 2 curriculum. I welcome project-based learning because I think it ignites individual passions and encourages independent research and creativity. Surely a return to this would offer a more rounded education for our children, whilst nurturing those key skills required for success – the strict learning objectives attached to the curriculum leave little room for imagination and independent, explorative learning.

So tell me, am I missing something? If your kid is bright do you just top up the learning at home? Do you accept that large class sizes, endless targets and depleted funds make meeting individual’s needs impossible? I remember sitting in the park one day when B was still at school, mulling over the prospect of home education. I commented that the school was not meeting her special needs. What special needs?, asked a suspicious mother. I had just meant B’s particular needs, not Special Needs, but it seems it is not fashionable now to recognise individuality. Schools produce children who can be defined by a number, and those who don’t match the boxes on the grid are squeezed in until they fit. Isn’t it time to consider a more fluid approach to education? If social mobility is not to fall completely by the wayside, it is vital that every child, wherever they are educated, is offered a chance to shine.

 

Back into the box

M has leapt into school with her characteristic optimism and energy, declaring that every day is ‘ten out of ten’, especially when scampi is on the lunch menu. A and I, meanwhile, are gritting our teeth and wondering whether the honeymoon period will end.

On the plus side, M is enjoying being with other children and has done activities we couldn’t easily offer at home, like rugby,samba dancing, and a fantastic session with an author and illustrator. She has also joined the school choir – the main reason she asked to go to school in the first place. But enrichment activities such are outnumbered by the sheer volume of formal learning that takes place for much of the day. Gone are the days of lying on cushions in the lounge devouring library books, now we have ‘Grammar Hammer’, spellings and reading schemes. Instead of running down the street with a tape measure trying to work out how long a diplodocus is, M is writing lists of number sentences in a book. After school one day this week, she reminded me of our dinosaur learning and asked for some more to do; it was brilliant watching her running around the house with a tape measure, inquisitive and hungry to learn.

I’ve taken a long look at myself and questioned if the issue might not be school, but the fact that I have lost a little control of the situation. Certainly there’s an element of the control freak in me somewhere. But I think I can say honestly that this is not the problem. If M was at school, learning in a less formal manner and with more space to breathe, I can only hope I would be extremely grateful that someone was taking care of my child and giving me the opportunity to focus on something else for a few hours each day.

One of the problems, from my point of view, is that the work presents very little challenge. I resent my child spending hours each day ‘learning’ something she already knows. What is the point? This week, we sat together to read the book she had been sent home. It was a reading scheme story – repetitive and leaving little room for the imagination to run wild. These books have a place – they are designed to teach children to read, which is why they are repetitive, to reinforce key words. But M can already read. She learned to read two years ago. Surely her time would be much better spent playing with her sisters or reading a book of her own choice? After over six hours in school, does a six year old really need more ‘work’ to do at home? On a recent visit to her classroom, M showed me the lovely book corner, and I was relieved when a teaching assistant told me they do get time to just read. Not so pleased when she started telling me how packed the school day is and how little time there is these days just for the children to BE. If the staff are saying that, surely it’s time for a rethink.

Chatting to a friend about all this, she sympathised but said that school had been great for her daughter, who had lacked confidence and benefited from the reinforcement of key learning principles. I can see her point, but also have to question whether more confidence might be instilled in our kids if they were not put under pressure to achieve the same targets as every other child their age and pass so many tests.

And so it goes on; I overthink education until I lose sight of what my question was. I’m sure many parents would say ‘Look. M is happy. She’s getting all of her work done. Get over yourself.’ But I’ve seen another side of learning, and I know our schools could offer a better education if we got rid of the standardised testing and revisited the skills our children really need to acquire to succeed in the 21st century.

The best I can take from the situation for now is that M is making some nice friends and keeping busy.  There is nothing to be achieved from bursting her bubble and insisting that I know best, because maybe I don’t. If I dig deep down, I understand her need to be around other people: that is my need too. I only wish she could find that social buzz another way, because now I have seen how children can learn more freely, I’m finding it hard to climb back into the box.

Sharing the load

The arguments against grammar schools are well-known and have been revisited with gusto this week, following the Prime Minister’s proposal to increase their number in England.

Whilst research shows that the attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals and those not eligible is smaller in selective schools at GCSE, the fact remains that this is a very small number of children (about 11 each year in each grammar school, according to BBC Reality Check). Teresa May declares that there will be more grammar school places for children from poorer families, which is to be welcomed, but you have to wonder how she will combat the ‘teaching to the test’ that takes place amongst wealthier families. How can less privileged children compete with those kids that receive private tuition for up to a year preceding the entrance exam? One option is for primary schools to offer free tuition outside of the school timetable (how this would be implemented is another story, with teachers already stretched way beyond what is realistically possible to achieve in a school day). But I am not here to be a cheerleader for selective schooling, because the question will always remain – what about those children who don’t get in?

I enjoyed reading Jonathan Freedland‘s take on selective schooling today. I felt that he opened up an honest debate about what schools mean to parents. It is easy to be churlish and take vicious swipes at grammar schools if you believe, as I do, that education should be offered on a more level playing field. But as Freedland rightly points out, ‘most human beings will always seek the very best education for their children, and that’s perfectly natural’. Today, my 10-year old nephew sits his entrance exam for a grammar school, and I wish only wonderful things for him. He has worked tremendously hard to prepare for the exam and deserves to do well. And therein lies the problem: we all want the best for the children we love, which is why every child must have the chance to succeed, not just the privileged few. It is not fair to pass judgement on parents who seek grammar school places for their kids – most of us would do the same given the chance. I can sit cosily in judgment in Northumberland knowing that grammar schools are not an option for my children, but Freedland is right to say that we need a system that ‘works for the collective good’.

To me, this means developing a truly collaborative education system, where academic prowess sits alongside practical skills and holds equal value. We need to be brave enough, too, to admit that all those parent with sharp elbows should be working with less influential and less vocal parents in order to offer the very best to each and every child. The playwright, Alan Bennett, was heavily criticised in 2014 for suggesting that ‘private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.’ This comment was deemed radical and provocative, but Bennett speaks the truth. Rather than segregating children based on their wealth or their academic ability, why not pool resources and offer every child the same opportunities? It is simple and obvious, yet it has never been taken seriously as a solution to social mobility because it will mean such a huge shift in the status quo. The trickle-down effect of changing educational provision so dramatically would be greater social cohesion, and an opportunity for us all to reconsider what success actually means. It would take ambitious vision, a stretch of imagination and generosity of spirit to make it work. Are we up for the challenge?

 

Grammatically incorrect

Oh grammar schools, rearing your ugly head again! This week we are deafened by the sound of teachers girding their loins to battle with the government over its proposal not only to reintroduce grammar schools, but to allow other schools to be selective as well.

Despite the Education Secretary’s insistence that this is about offering parents more choice, there is no denying that it can only drive more of a wedge between the haves and the have-nots. Justine Greening informs us that in order to ‘take education into the 21st century’, grammar schools will offer a higher proportion of places to children from lower income families. I can’t help but feel that we creating a huge slope on an already very uneven playing field. What happens to the children who are left behind – those who fail the test, or are not even deemed able enough to try in the first place? What message are we giving these children? This obsession with testing seems to me a perpetuation of the survival of the fittest, where those who don’t fit the traditional model of ‘success’ are dismissed as second rate. Important, too, to question whether our tests are fit for purpose – more from Michael Rosen on this.

I return to how we view success in our schools. It seems to me that we spend so much time measuring progress and checking levels, that children are given very little space to breathe and explore their own interests. We are very stressed about knowing exactly where a child’s learning is in relation to their age, as if we should all be developing in the same way at the same time. From the very small sample I encounter as a home educator (4!), as well as in my experience as a class teacher, I can tell you that this is a fallacy. It took me many months to relax and trust that my children would learn without me forcing workbooks in front of them. More selection means more testing and less actual learning. Seth Godin writes succinctly on this, about free-range learning generating resilience. We are terrified to accept this because we can’t measure it, but I assure you it is true.

 

If, as a society, we accept more selective schools, we are simply saying that we want to nurture clever children who can pass tests, because despite the proposed extra places for poorer children, they will still face an uphill battle against wealthier children who receive private tuition to prepare for the entrance exam. In order to truly modernise our education system, we need to respect the fact that each child is very different. We need to offer an inclusive education for all. It must be about more than testing. The government needs to be braver and allow teachers the space and the freedom within the school day to experiment and be creative. When Justine Greening talks about ‘outstanding’ schools, she means schools that get good test results.’Outstanding’ should mean more than that: it should mean allowing each child to stand out as an individual.

 

Back to school…or not

Today, M went back to school. After a few weeks of ‘trying it out’ before the summer break, she has gone into year 2 – a fully fledged schoolgirl. She has talked about going back to school since term ended, and this morning declared she would burst because she was so excited. So different to her older sister! We arrived at the school to a wall of noise, with parents and school staff bumping into each other and ferrying children down corridors. It is usually a very organised and calm school, but this morning it felt chaotic and extremely busy. A little girl was crying with her mum as she said goodbye and I felt that mother’s pain – been there so many times! M bounded through the doorway and turned the corner out of sight, eager to reach her new classroom. I was relieved things went smoothly for us, but horrified to think how things might have mapped out had B been going back today as well. The chatter reverberating around the hall, the crowds of people and the change in routine would all have made her cower and recoil. So lovely to return home to a daughter with a smile on her face instead.

B will continue to learn at home following last term’s fairly disastrous school experiment. Little M, only 4 a couple of months ago, will also learn at home. Legally she is not required to be in ‘full-time education’ until next September, although her peers have all entered reception class today. Little M will carry on exploring in the woods at her little forest nursery twice a week, and after that we will see. Baby F is almost 2, loud and energetic, and  will join her sister at nursery for a couple of mornings when in a year or so.

Yesterday I returned as a teacher to the SEMH (Social Emotional Mental Health) school in County Durham. It was good to be back amongst the staff, and I’m looking forward to using my home ed resources with the kids when I see them next week. Despite the mountains of grids and plans I trawled through and cross-referenced yesterday, at the end of the day these kids want some structure, some kindness and some fun. The paperwork is not for them. I enjoy working in this challenging sector, but I’m not sure I could return to mainstream education having learned what I have about since working with my own kids at home.

I have mixed feelings about today. I am glad to see M happy and full of excitement. She needs to be busy and is a sociable creature. I want her to be challenged and fulfilled. I want the teacher to see her shiny eyes and inspire her, to take her on journeys that lead to more questions and wonderful creations. I don’t want her to come home, as she did last term, saying she hates maths because of all the copying, or to be too tired to read the books she loves. I think I need to see school for M as somewhere she goes to be with her friends. If I start to think about the one-size-fits-all-ness of it, or the reading schemes, or the hymn-singing, or the attendance certificates, I feel frustrated. Perhaps it is unfair too – M’s teacher might be wonderful and take her on a brilliant learning journey. Let’s hope so. School is her choice, and perhaps I don’t know best.

This summer we built lego towns, leaped through the waves, collected leaves, had long-jump competitions on the beach, played the piano, wrote poems, baked cakes, created a ‘Teddy Olympics’, read books and then more books, visited the library, went on picnics, sang songs, studied maps and dreamed of living in a camper van, visited family all over the country, studied dinosaurs in museums, raced bikes up and down the back lane…the list goes on. Hopefully this new term will be just as productive, but we will miss having M in our little tribe. Here’s to a happy autumn for everyone, wherever they choose to be.

 

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…