As I begin to write this on a beautiful, frosty November morning, I am mulling over an article that I have recently read regarding children’s attendance at school – one that I can’t get out of my head.
An advertising campaign by East Sussex County Council urges parents to ‘Get a grip‘ when it comes to keeping their children off school, particularly for minor ailments such as a cough or cold. Sounds fair enough right? Wrong. Not only is the language used offensive (‘don’t be mugs’ it tells parents) the campaign suggests that there is ‘no excuse for missing school’.
Oh yeah? What, then, about the death of a loved family member or recovery from a major operation or treatment for a life threatening illness or experiencing major anxiety/panic attacks, or major bouts of depression, which research suggests are at a record high amongst secondary school aged young people??? I could go on.
I have 3 daughters who are now aged 17, 13 and 11. When my 13 year old, ‘M’, had completed year 7 at secondary school she received a certificate and recognition in assembly for 100% attendance, alongside a handful of other children. Watching, were children who did not have 100% attendance – amongst them a 12 year old boy whose dad had died completely unexpectedly only a few months earlier and a girl whose mum had taken her own life and the friends of a young man who had been off school for most of the year due to having a Cancer diagnosis and under-going treatment…just a few examples, there are many. I was fuming – we should be pleased about M’s ‘achievement’, we were told – pleased about what exactly?
We threw the certificate away – she was embarrassed by it, as was I. Ironically the following year (2016-17) saw M take a reasonable amount of days off school (although attendance never dropped below 95%) due to struggling with anxiety and this is really where our life changing year began.
It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.
– L R Knost –
Prior to joining the A Life Loved team, I was a teacher for the best part of 15 years (including time off for maternity leave). Throughout this time, I taught Psychology at ‘A’ Level. I became a teacher to make a difference. Sounds so cheesy, but that was truly my intention.
One of my favourite films as a teenager was Dead Poets Society. I dreamed of being the female equivalent of John Keating (Robin Willams’ character) and yearned for students to stand aloft their desks and recite Whitman’s ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ just for me. Totally indulgent, I know, and not quite the reality that I was presented with.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel very privileged to have worked with some young people who have made a huge difference to my life both personally and professionally, as I hope I have to theirs. For the most part the experience was a positive one, but over those 15 years, things changed. My work load became more about developing skills to impart to students about how to pass an exam or get high grades, threatening my love and passion for the subject…
The educational system was and is draining teachers of the love for their subjects due to heavy work loads, league table analysis and an obsession with high grades, as well as often being expected to take on the role of parent, social worker, counsellor, mentor etc.
I spent a number of years battling with my own reasons for being a teacher and feeling very strongly that I needed to stay true to myself; I was no longer able to make the difference I wanted to due to the constraints of the job and unreasonable expectations and simply not being given enough autonomy to make choices about how to teach the students – (there were so many opportunities to take the students out of school to experience something that would have educational value, but unless it was directly related to the specification or would have a significant impact on their exam results, it was a flat NO). So, in April 2017, after an extremely difficult few months, I decided to leave my job and leave teaching in mainstream school for good.
This decision was partly fuelled by some personal issues I was experiencing but also by my utter disillusionment with the ‘system’, which was no longer something I wanted to promote or be a part of. I was no longer proud to be a teacher, I felt sad and powerless and (dare I say it) bullied.
The decision for me to leave my teaching career was not taken lightly and it prompted lots of discussion in my house – one such discussion was that of homeschooling (something we had always talked about but never really saw as a reality due to the work commitments of myself and my husband). Only a month later (after LOTS of research, conversation and reading), the decision was made to write the de-registration letter to school and embark on a homeschooling journey with M. Already, 2017 year was proving to be quite the changer for my family as a whole, what with me embarking on a new job role working from home, which enabled me to consider homeschooling M in the first place.
It is surprisingly easy to take your child out of school – I had visions of the police knocking on my door and taking me away or being dragged out of the supermarket in handcuffs for ‘irresponsible parenting’. But no, I simply had to write a letter that comprised of about 3 sentences explaining that I would like my child to be taken off the school register with effect from a particular date, and that was it! I know many others who have been contacted by their local authority and have been asked to show evidence of teaching and learning, but not us. We have been left in perfect solitude to navigate this new and exciting venture ourselves and although this wouldn’t suit everyone, we are more than happy with this arrangement.
The title of this piece is ‘Why I decided to homeschool my 13 year old’ – there are two parts to our story really. One is what I have alluded to above, (as a teacher) my disillusionment with a mainstream teaching system that is robbing young people of experiencing education as a positive and creative journey that offers opportunities that are appropriate to each and every individual. And the other is my daughter showing signs of stress and anxiety that had started to become overwhelming for her.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that there are (and I have worked alongside) many teachers who are excellent facilitators of education – sadly though, in my experience, these people are few and far between and many of these individuals experience some kind of ‘burn out’ eventually.
I was once told that I ‘care too much’ when it comes to teaching – this is one of the reasons I trained as a teacher in the first place, because I care and wanted to make a difference. I am not alone in this – before I decided to take the plunge and walk away from a career that had dominated my life since leaving university, I did some research online to see if there were others in the same predicament as me – there were many! Research published in The Guardian in July 2017 suggested that…
Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already left the profession, according to official figures that have prompted further concerns about the pressures on the profession. Of those who qualified in 2011 alone, 31% had quit within five years of becoming teachers, the figures show.
– The Guardian Newspaper –
In my mind teaching is in crisis, and the education system in this country is in crisis. According to Labour over 600,000 pupils in the UK are taught by unqualified teachers and Laura McInerney claims that children could soon be taught by undergraduates being paid £3.50 an hour, such is the extent of the teacher shortage. Grrrrr – but more about that later. Let me tell you a little bit about M first…
M was born in the month of March. My pregnancy was straight forward and I gave birth to her naturally at 6.16am on a Monday after a short labour in a midwife run unit. It was quiet and the sun was just coming up and I can remember feeling a sense of calm, elation and togetherness that was quite overwhelming. I had a mental conversation with her as she was entering this world, telling her that we are on this journey together and that I was holding her hand all the way – she arrived peacefully. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty painful but I felt such a sense of protection over her and that we were in it together – those feelings kept me feeling in control and feeling strong.
M is the middle child of three girls. She has a very positive relationship with both of her sisters and always has – phew! However she was noticeably different to her siblings as a toddler. My eldest and youngest daughters were easy going as they were growing up, but M was not, she was quite difficult between the ages of about 18 months and 4 years. She was the child who would have a hissy fit at the slightest thing, throw a tantrum in the shop or refuse to eat her tea – I put it down to typical toddler behaviour but had always wondered why she behaved differently to her sisters.
It is all the more fascinating to me as once she had left the toddler stage, she became almost like a different child. Today, at 13, she is articulate, compassionate, thoughtful, philosophical and could easily hold her own in a conversation with adults about most topics – a far cry from the tantrumming toddler that now seems like it was someone else. Cue the discussion regarding the nature/nurture debate…I guess that’s for another time though.
Homeschooling was first mentioned in our home when M was at the beginning of Year 7 (if you’re not yet a parent – this is the first year in secondary/high school). She had found the transition from a small primary school to a large comprehensive rather overwhelming and her anxiety seemed to be getting worse with every day. At first we joked about it – ‘let’s just run away and live on a commune and grow our own vegetables!’. Fast forward one year and things had got significantly worse. M was frustrated that she wasn’t making much progress as much of the teachers time was spent dealing with disruptive students (I can vouch for this, having worked in the same school).
She also struggled with the idea that everyone was encouraged and expected to be an extrovert (standing up reading in front of a class may seem like an easy task to some but for those with anxiety it can become like a prison, from which escape is impossible.) M is naturally an introvert and in a world and educational system where being social and outgoing and confident is prized over many other things, being quiet and contemplative are seen as inferior qualities, no matter how hard-working you are. I feel strongly about not trying to change my child’s personality and outlook as this is what makes her the wonderful, compassionate, capable person that she is.
Sadly, in our experience, mainstream education hasn’t quite grasped this yet. Susan Cain has written passionately about ‘‘The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking‘ and I would urge anyone with an interest in this area to read her work or simply watch her Ted talk…
The decision was finally made in April 2017 – a number of things had changed in our circumstances, mainly that I had recently handed in my notice and was about to embark on a new job that was based at home (hello, team A Life Loved!). All of a sudden there were less obstacles to us going down the homeschool route. Initially our conversations began looking at alternative forms of education such as the Steiner system.
We did some research and found that there are very few Steiner secondary schools in the country – our nearest one was about 150 miles away. I also did some research into the Steiner system and felt that the overall philosophy was not quite what we were after (again, a fascinating discussion for another time) and so the idea that we could homeschool M ourselves became the main discussion point again. I’m generally rather a private person, making decisions without much consultatation of others but this felt different.
I contacted my parents and my in-laws and our siblings and some friends (some teachers, some not) and asked their opinion of whether I should homeschool M – much to my surprise and relief, they were all very supportive and the overwhelming opinion was to go for it. M and I talked at length about the intricacies of how it would work – what would a typical day look like for instance? I had to take into consideration my new work arrangements, but that was ok and we acknowledged that both of us like and seem to thrive on routine, so rather than completely ‘Unschooling‘ (an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning) we would create a daily timetable of ‘lessons’, based on subjects that we agreed would be beneficial to her and her interests. These lessons were not set in stone but gave us some sort of guidance each day.
I also used online communities (such as Homeschooling UK on Facebook and other local homeschool Facebook groups to ask questions.) These were an invaluable resource at the time and now and I spent many hours chatting with people and finding out the experiences of others. One week letter I wrote the deregistration letter to school and that was that.
So began our new journey. We are currently 8 months in and things are going well. I work in the mornings and late afternoon, during which time M does various things from exercise (yoga, running, trampolining) or reads or engages with some pre-arranged self-guided study. During our homeschool hours (approx 3 hours per day) we study English, Psychology, and Art and Design. M also has a private Maths tutor who she sees for 2 hours a week.
She has gone from dreading maths and feeling ill with anxiety to looking forward to her weekly one -to-one sessions where she can learn at her own pace and truly be herself. She also uses an on-line site, Duo-Lingo, to teach herself German. She spends Wednesday afternoons volunteering at her sisters primary school, helping the reception children with their reading. Her motivation and willingness to work independently astounds me every day. I also recognise that I am learning so much from her – I know that not all children would be so self-motivated and this is one of the reasons why we ultimately decided that homeschooling was a good option for M.
I feel it is important to also say that I have 2 other daughters. My eldest is 17 and went through the mainstream school system, she did not particularly have a positive experience for all of the reasons discussed above, but she tolerated it. In her own words ‘secondary school toughens you up and I guess I could deal with that in a way others might not be able to’. My youngest is 11 and is in her final year at primary school. So many people have asked if we will homeschool her and my answer is that it is unlikely. She loves school and she is far more sociable and outgoing than her sister. She is quite the extrovert and loves being involved in dramatic productions or sports – I have asked her is she sees homeschool as a option and she said she would prefer to go to school. This is absolutely fine with us and reinforces the notion that all children are different. We will support her as best we can when her secondary school journey begins…
Just because my 3 girls have come from the same gene pool does not mean they are the same – they are not. They are different and the way that they learn is different and I feel very lucky that a collision of changes in circumstance has led us down a path that enables us to support all of our children emotionally and educationally in a way that suits them all as individuals. I am also so very proud of how my girls have supported each other. I was worried that my eldest would be annoyed that she was never offered the option of homeschool, but no, she says she is thrilled that M is happy again – how nice is that!
The smell of leeks is wafting through from the kitchen as I write this. It is 11.10am on a Friday and M would usually just be finishing PE – a session she found unbearable due to the competitive culture, instead she is making leek and potato soup from scratch and whistling while she works.
My heart could burst.