athan and I had a very different experience of educa- tion growing up. I went to a state school in the north of England. I had bus journeys, school dinners, different teachers and even the odd detention. Nathan’s classroom was his home, his teacher was his mother and his classmates were his
siblings. We both loved our education.
Nathan was one of only a few children to be home-educated in the UK in the early 1990s. In fact, his family was one of the first homeschooling families to use the Accelerated Christian Educa- tion (ACE) programme, and he now works for the organisation. But home education is growing rapidly in popularity, and not just among Christian groups. Figures for 2016-2017 show that 48,000 children were educated at home during this period, 40 per cent more than just three years previously.
Why are so many choosing to take their children out of main- stream education? And what advice would they give others who are considering the same course of action?
What is it?
As the name suggests, ‘home education’ offers families the choice to educate their children at home. But the form it takes can vary dramatically, depending on individual circumstances.
Helen chose to follow the national curriculum and prepare her children for national exams. Sophia home-educates her children using the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, which is a Christian home education course. However, she began with a period of ‘deschooling’ to ease her children into the new lifestyle. This involved taking time to change a child’s perspective around what education means.
Robert is planning on opening a new Regina Caeli Academy in September with other home education families in his network. This is a Catholic home education model, which gathers families together at its learning centres for family-led tuition. Meanwhile, Caroline only uses a curriculum for maths, as it felt easier for her to teach that way.
Some parents incorporate private tutoring in subjects such as music and languages. Others follow a method called ‘unschool- ing’. Pioneered by American author and educator John Holt, this is a free-form learning model that encourages child-centred learning by focusing on their interests.
For most, home education involves one parent taking on the role of educator full time, though Helen and her husband Olly take it in turns to educate.
Most of the parents I spoke to highlighted issues within the school system as a push factor for removing their children from school or not even starting them there.
For some, the nature of the school system seemed ill-fitting for their family. Robert and his wife home-educate their three small children. They cite the large classroom sizes and discipline problems at school as two of the main reasons for doing so. Helen home-educates her eight children. She started home educating their eldest son 20 years ago because they felt 4 was too young to start school. They intended to send him once he turned 7. But once they had all settled into home education they never looked back.
Molly chose to home-educate her two adopted daughters because of their background. She decided a school environment simply wouldn’t work for them. “The thing about adopted kids is they don’t have very good stress regulation,” she explained. “The high intensity of noise – which is not the school’s fault at all, it’s just how it is with 35 kids all doing the same thing at the same time – would have been a really stressful situation for my two girls.” The quieter learning environment at home, and the chance for individual focus, has helped Molly’s daughters become more emotionally stable.
Tim says home education has meant his children “can pursue their God-given strengths and interests at a pace and learning style that is appropriate to them”.
For others, it is the lack of Christian faith in schools that puts them off mainstream education. Caroline’s husband was a youth worker, helping out at the local school when their eldest son was in Year 6. He felt the teaching was undermining their family values. They considered Christian schools and even looked into setting one up, but decided it simply wasn’t viable.
For some parents, it is not school that is the push factor, but wider issues to do with lifestyle. Sophia is a single parent who home-educates her three teenage children. She was a teacher but found balancing full-time teaching with wrap-around care for her children stressful.
“I constantly felt guilty that I was pouring more into my students than I was my own children,” said Sophia. Sharing every other weekend with the children’s father in a co-parenting role added more stress. “My eldest boy was still traumatised from the separation,” she continued. “The school started considering outside agencies to help him, when I knew he didn’t need this. He just needed me.”
One family started home-educating their children because they were considering overseas mission: “It was a way of making sure that we could give our kids a good quality of education even if God called us to have a terrible salary or live somewhere with no decent affordable schooling.”
Apart from the cheaper holidays during term time, what are the main benefits of homeschooling? Many appreciate having the choice to educate their children according to their particular needs. Molly explains that the learning style has helped her adopted daughters develop after their difficult first few years. The less structured nature and opportunity for individual focus has provided a lot of time to play: “I used to be a children’s nurse, and I so believe in the value of therapeutic play. I felt for both of them that they needed to learn to play, and through it they could play out stuff they had experienced.”
Another benefit cited by many home educators was the chance to spend more time together as a family. Helen mentioned that her family’s weekends are often busy with ministry. Home educa- tion means they get lots of family time during the week.
One thing that surprised me was the efficiency of teaching in home education. With smaller ‘class’ sizes, children can cover a larger number of subjects in depth during the mornings. This can free up far more time for extracurricular activities, time outdoors or anything else during the afternoons and evenings.
Some highlighted the fact that their children learned lessons through everyday family life that they might not have learned if they had been at school. Caroline and her family moved house while home-educating. Their children saw the process of house-hunting, settling a mortgage and moving in a way they wouldn’t have had they been at school.
Things to consider
Despite the benefits cited by many of the parents I spoke to, each offered their warnings and caveats about stepping into home education without first giving it serious consideration. Nathan, whose home education experience has been positive as both a child and a parent, warns against stepping into home education without having a full awareness of the journey ahead: “There are a lot of people who start and stop because they haven’t done the research or they haven’t communicated with their children. They haven’t counted the cost, so within a year they will stop.”
It’s worth taking the time to work through the following considerations before stepping into home education.
Can you afford it?
Home education involves having someone at home to educate the kids. This means you may well lose one full-time adult wage, and there is almost no financial support to supplement home educa- tion in the UK.
School education is free, but remember to include the budget for trips, dinners, uniform and any other added extras. Weigh that up against the cost of curriculum resources, equipment, trips out and your own wage to decide whether you can afford to home-educate your children. This is something you may need to reconsider if your circumstances change.
Do you all want to home-educate?
It is important that everyone in the family is on board with it. If one parent is taking on the lion’s share of the home education, they need to be really sure that this is the right decision. For many, the reality of home education can be incredibly isolating. Although Frances loves home-educating, she said: “It’s incredi- bly time-consuming, so it makes it hard for whichever parent is home-educating to be genuinely outward-looking beyond the family. We are in a constant battle to find ways to serve that won’t kill us, because as parents we are already very tired.”
It is also vital to involve your children in the process. Caroline’s daughter took a little longer than her sons to adjust to home education, as she initially missed her friends. She has since settled into the new lifestyle. Nathan advised: “I’d say to any parent out there, you have to communicate with your children.”
Bethany was home-educated but really struggled with the experience. Her father was keener to homeschool than her mother, despite her mother being the one who did the tutoring. She writes about her parents’ choice and her experience in a blog post featured on website sheknows: “I could remember thinking that my mom was a teacher who really didn’t want to be there. I felt the reluctance, I felt the burden and I felt the frustration as I was forced to study independently most of the time so that she could tend to my younger brother and sister.”
Although Bethany believes home education made her a very independent learner and that she developed quickly as a result, she is against choosing to do so for religious reasons and would never home educate her ownchildren. “Embracing a faith or a religion is one thing, but attempting to shelter your kids from the world by controlling their schooling is quite another,” she writes. “It’s for this reason alone that I would never do the same thing to my kids.”
Tim recommends taking time to draw up a pros and cons list as a family to decide whether it is right for everyone involved.
How will your children socialise with others?
In the modern world of Facebook groups and WhatsApp threads, there is no shortage of interactions with other children during the day. Helen points out that the number of home educators has increased so much that there should never be a problem finding a group to socialise with. However, she explains that it is important to be proactive in finding groups for kids to be part of.
It’s also worth noting that home education tends to attract those that can afford it, often creating a class divide. One mother said: “I make a conscious effort to get the kids interacting with kids who are from different class, ethnic and educational back- grounds.” She also said that it was important to interact with non-Christian home educators as a means of evangelism.
Isolation can also be an issue for parents. Helen admits that this was the biggest challenge she initially faced. Although she made friends in some home education groups, none shared her Catholic faith and she found this quite lonely. She also felt a lot of pressure to prove that her kids were ‘succeeding’ at first. She said that home-educators often put pressure on their children to do well “because they feel the need to prove to onlookers that they have not made a mistake”. This can all too easily lead to burnout.
One mother admits she was surprised at the fluctuating nature of home education groups as people stepped in and out of it for a season or moved away. “Maintaining regular friendships can be challenging,” she explained.
What happens when home-educated children move on to the next stage?
Reaching exam age raises important questions over home educa- tion. Caroline considered this stage and decided to do fewer GCSEs than in mainstream education and to split them over three years to go into more depth. The children then sat their exams as external candidates.
For Molly, it was a big deal to decide to do GCSEs at home. As college age approached, she prayed for two years in preparation. She and her son spoke openly about it, and because of his subject choices decided it would be best for him to attend mainstream college. “He ended up building a massive fighting robot thing, which I guess he probably couldn’t have done at home,” she shared. “It seemed to just flow.”
At key educational stages, take time to consider which is the best option for your children, involving them in the conversation and covering the process in prayer.
What happens with different age groups?
Molly admits that her younger daughters had a very different experience compared with her older sons, as her focus was drawn to the older boys doing their exams while the younger ones played. She found this worked for them, as they needed time for therapeutic play as adopted children.
However, it is important to be flexible if you intend to meet the needs of different age groups. If your family grows, are you prepared to manage a teenager, a toddler and a nursing baby at the same time? Having had eight children to accommodate, Helen says the key is to learn to work together as a family, with everyone having an important role to play.
Home education is a choice that is growing in popularity, and has benefited many of the parents I spoke to. But it is not a decision to be taken lightly or without carefully considering the unique needs of your children and your personal circumstances.