Home education diary, January 2000

January 10th:

After a very enjoyable Christmas with the extended family in the UK, we were able to move into our own home for January, before the new people arrive at the end of the month.

Tim had three days at St Francis School last week, which he thoroughly enjoyed. I have to admit to feeling encouraged to find they don't actually seem to do very much. Certainly no more than we have been doing at home. Tim reckons he's done maybe an hour of maths so far. He was worried about 'mental maths' as we've done very little, but they did a timed pre-SATS test and he got 21 out of 25. Apparently the teacher said that any mark over 20 was fine, but most of the class got about 12-15. I was relieved to know that he was up to standard, and slightly surprised since maths is NOT his strong point!

They've also played some number games and been studying Nicholas Nickleby, and have been discussing what life might be like in 20 years. Apparently Tim was one of only about three children in the class who had any ideas at all. 

All in all he's pleased to find he hasn't missed anything much, academically, and is well up with the top group despite having very laid-back home education in the past few months. What he's loving is (a) having 30 other children around him all day long, and (b) a structured timetable where they all do things together and know what's coming. He also likes having chats with lots of teachers and dinner ladies, and co-operative work with groups... he really is the kind of child who enjoys a school environment. 

I wish I knew what's best for him. He was beginning to think that he might continue with home education rather than look at secondary schools for next September, but when he's actually at school, he's so happy. 

January 11th:

This morning Daniel and I helped in Year 3, doing some LOGO with individual children - all quite fun. But again I was unimpressed with what the class in general actually did, although I like the teacher and think he does a good job. It's the literacy and numeracy hours that seem so pointless. The class spent nearly an hour working on 'greater than' and 'less than' signs and words. A few children knew about them already and did all the work in about ten minutes; some obviously hadn't a clue even by the end, and others talked, copied answers, and got a few right.

More than ever I can see the value of individual paced learning. I could have covered the entire morning's work in about ten minutes at home. Still, most of the children enjoy being there; there's a great atmosphere, and it's a nice school socially. I'd expected people to be a bit negative about our home education but instead I'm finding general fed-upness with the curriculum and government guidelines. On the whole I think people are still happy with the school, and all the extras - there's excellent music and drama (Year Six did a pantomime for Christmas apparently), chess club, sports and so on, and the facilities (computers etc) are better than most. The social atmosphere is pleasant with everyone knowing everyone else, and the teachers are friendly. But in terms of actual learning, it seems to be less than ever.

At the other extreme, kids at secondary schools seem to have constant input of learning, masses of homework, increasing as they go up the school with enormous pressure by GCSE stage as they all seem to have to take 10 or 11 subjects these days. Even our most pro-school friends think it's a bit of a farce - one friend said her daughter got an A* in her GCSE French, but six months later had forgotten almost every word of the language! 

I suppose I'm seeing the whole education thing with new eyes now. I must say I don't see any Prussian-style conformity or insistence on being 'good citizens', although obviously the school emphasises good manners and politeness and so on. But there's plenty of opportunity to ask questions, and they're supposed to do lots of individual research, and frequently told not to trust all they read, and to check up on what they're told etc. And they do masses of private reading, so I don't believe the theory that schools discourage literacy! 

Anyway, it's encouraging to see that things we do anyway like readig aloud to the boys, and them reading to themselves, are integral and important parts of the current literacy programmes. I haven't really thought of those as part of our 'education' time but I guess if I had to justify what we do, I could count at least an hour every day (usually more) on that. 

I still have no idea if I can manage to help the boys through things like GCSE history or geography but I'm a lot more encouraged now. I think we'll get going on maths with Daniel by correspondence. Apparently his art teacher wants him to take art GCSE so perhaps he (the teacher) will figure out how we can do that without having him registered in a school. Could be tricky in Cyprus since school is compulsory!

What seems odd here, is that even amongst the most disgruntled parents, nobody will consider home education! One or two people have said something to the effect of, 'I can see it works really well in your family and suits Daniel's learning style in particular, but I'd never be able to....' And I'm sure if we'd stayed in the UK I'd have felt the same. Much as I didn't want to go to Cyprus and leave our wonderful circle of friends and the primary school, I'm very glad now that I was forced into trying out home education, as I'm definitely a convert! 

I do find myself wishing we had more 'other' activities in Cyprus though. I realise what we're missing by seeing the boys' friends involved in various boys' brigade, schools training orchestras, choirs, sports training etc, and having a busy life doing all kinds of things in addition to school clubs and societies. We really miss having things like that.

But having seen how even a good school isn't an ideal learning environment for many kids, I am more convinced than ever that I wouldn't choose a not-so-good school unless the children really liked it and were determined to stay, and could see some redeeming features. 

14th January:

Yesteray Tim came home from school with a headache. After a drink, snack and cuddle he said he was feelng very upset because his class are going on their 'leavers' trip' to Snowdonia for a week - a new venture - in June, and are all excited about it and he won't be there. To make it worse, he only ever went on two cub camps (Daniel did about six) and he missed the Year 4 weekend away because we moved to Cyprus just before. He said it wasn't fair that he didn't get to go on any trips and he really wanted to. 

I sympathised a bit, then told him about 'the grass is always greener ' syndrome, but - I hope - without preaching. I said that probably most of his class would swop life in Cyprus for a week in Snowdonia, but that of course it was still upsetting. Then I asked him what they were going to do on this trip. It seems that the main attractions are rock climbing and abseiling, swimming, canoeing and moutain bike riding. 

I reminded Tim that he didn't like swimming, and explained how with canoeing you have to start wth the capsizing just to check you're safe. He said he had't thought of that; he hates going underwater, so agreed he wouldn't much like it. Then he said that perhaps abseiling wouldn't be much fun, either, as he has no head for heights, and I agreed. Then I pointed out that he only learned to ride a bike 2 years ago and is still rather wobbly and that mountain biking is a lot more difficult.

By the time we'd got this far in the discussion, he was feeling quite relieved that he wouldn't be going! Then he told me about some of the children who had been upsetting him. There are some who never stop talking, which means the teacher has to keep stopping the class and getting annoyed; and a few who are ultra bossy and expect everyone else to do whatever they ask. And he said - to my surprise - that although he loves being there in some senses, and is happy to be with his friends, he's found that he doen't actually like controlled structure at all because he's finding it terribly frustrating having to stop for bells, and being distracted by other people.

Then he said he thinks he'd go mad if he had to spend more than a month back at school because his brain isn't being stretched at all, and he's finding it so difficult to concentrate. I think he's feeling reassured that he's not missing out on anything academic by being home educated anyway. He's still - amazingly - getting top marks in all the school maths tests, and apparently finished one entire section of his maths book before anyone else had got even half way through. 

Daniel, meanwhile, is doing a bit of music (when reminded) and reading dozens of books up in his bedroom. I did persuade him to do a little maths yesterday but it seemed a bit silly. Richard has been going into the school to help sort out some network problems; Daniel went with him yesterday and learned a huge amount as well as being helpful. So I guess that's somewhat educational! 

January 17th 

It IS a great school and we're all glad to be still considered part of it. The Head is a good friend of ours and the teachers are all interested in what we're doing. Tim has lots of friends there, not just in his class (the idea that school only encourages same-age friendships is nonsense in this school) and he's enjoying lots of things about it. 

I really don't know what we'd do if we were living here, and had another child coming up for school age, and I knew what I do now about home education. I think I'd probably go ahead and send them to this school so long as they were happy (which both mine always were) even if I were home educating Daniel and Tim. It seems to be secondary schools which are more difficult. 

Somehow both boys developed a love of learning and enthusiasm for all kinds of subjects at this school, as well as getting involved in music, which wouldn't have occurred to me to do much at home. They've been in plays and concerts, and done Assemblies, and organised fairs and all sorts of stuff we wouldn't have done... so I think overall it's been a positive experience.

At the same time it's a bit shocking to see how little is covered during the average day. Tim is getting frustrated with the way that even in Year Six about three quarters of his class just chat and waste time, so the teacher keeps complaining at them. Apparently he keeps finishing his work first - way ahead of others - and can't understand why they don't all just get on with it. They don't seem to have matured much since we last saw them a couple of years ago.  

I'm amazed that we seem to have covered so much. From what Tim tells me (and what I observe) in a 6.5 hour school day there's about half an hour of actual learning possible... and a lot of that is review. I was just re-reading 'Yes Prime Minister' and there's a quote in that from the civil service, something to the effect that school was never intended to help children to learn, it was to keep them off the streets so their parents could go out to work, and that a higher school leaving age was to reduce unemployment figures! 

Of course that has to be taken with a large pinch of salt, but I suspect there's a lot of truth in it. It does seem that the school day is as long as it is so that people don't have to pay for childminding. At the other extreme, a good friend was saying that her daughter, in Year 9 at secondary school, seems to do a huge amount of learning, to the extent that she's overstretched and exhausted and can't take everything in. 

Again it seems that it's beaurocracy gone mad. The government insists on testing and league tables, so schools naturally want to look good, so they make kids do more and more GCSEs and more and more work and end up with burnt-out teens. I don't think Daniel cares much about 'schoowork' but he's always wanted to write programs and do graphic art. He's been able to do plenty of that, and has realised that doing maths is  useful for programming. 

Tim likes regular structure and academic input which is why we've done that, but since being in the UK I've done nothing with Daniel other than about five minutes' of maths yesterday. But he's writing to email friends, reading enormous amounts, browsing computer magazines... I'd have thrown up my hands in horror two years ago, but know now that it's all educational and useful long-term. I hoped he'd do some writing but he's more keen to go into school to help younger children learn some LOGO. The teacher said he was doing really well but she also said he seemed to enjoy being back in a 'classroom environment' again. Which sounded like a faint criticism of the fact that he's not normally in a classroom! I just smiled and didn't disagree - she was in a hurry at the time. 

As for other parents, they seem interested and can quite see that we can achieve a lot more in a much shorter time, but the general attitude is, 'Oh, I couldn't *possibly* do that...' 

I suppose academic and competitive children probably thrive in grammar schools, as Daniel's friend does (and as I did for that matter) but it's damaging to others. And some people still feel that an academic education is of more value than a technical one (like Latin is more use in life than woodwork?) rather than seeing that different people have different skills and interests, and should all have the opportunity to develop their own talents in their own way. 

January 20th 

Daniel and I went ice-skating today with the Birmingham Home Education group, who seem to be very active and do plenty of interesting things. It was ideal for Daniel, who would tend to shy away from straight social or crafty things if he didn't know anyone. He's never been ice skating before but is pretty good at inline skating - he went straight on the ice as if he'd been doing it for years, and did really well! I tottered on and thought I'd forgotten how to skate (I haven't been for probably 20 years) but then realised the skates were almost completely blunt so I got them changed and found I could remember how to skate a bit - rather to Dan's surprise . However the boots weren't at all comfortable so I didn't do much. 

Anyway it was wonderful to meet so many other home educating families! There were lots of boys aged about 10-13 including one who's also into art, reading and writing. They played a lot of tig on ice, and all helped pull round a sledge with some of the real tinies. Dan said it was even better than rollerblading although after a few hours his feet were blistered (his boots weren't very comfortable either) and he wasn't upset about leaving early so we could collect Tim from school. 

On Wednesday next week we'll go to the meeting at the Central Library 'Centre for the child' where the group has the CD-Roms and also does some board games. We did enjoy being with a group of people who weren't trying to impess others, or be competitive in any way. And for the first time I understood what others mean about how delightful a home education group can be... there was no squabbling, no arguing, the game of 'tig' was amazingly good- natured, and anyone who didn't want to be 'on' wasn't. They mixed across all ages and the good skaters helped the ones who weren't so good. 

The mothers were obviously from all kinds of different backgrounds - and it simply didn't matter. I thought the atmosphere at the boys' primary school was good but this was incredible! 

We're looking forward to getting back to Cyprus, and getting back to more of a routine. but I'm going to find it hard now I see just how good it can be doing home education in the UK.  I should remind myself about the grass being greener... 

January 29th 

We spent an evening with someone who teaches at a different school - one that isn't so friendly as the boys' school, although it's not in a particularly poor area.  She told us about some of the awful things that happen at her school - children getting excluded because of bad behaviour, and their parents screaming and hitting and even kicking them, and then saying they didn't want them any more and would take them to social services. Horrible. 

She said that sometimes kids turn up on teachers' doorsteps, because teachers are the only people who've been kind to them in their lives.  She said, too that some children start school at five having never even seen a book before. Without school they don't have a hope of learning anything.  When I hear of things like that, I see just how important it is to have good schools available.  Some parents are not cut out to home educate! 

We also talked about motivated/unmotivated learners. I was saying how all children seem to be motivated when they're toddlers, continually asking questions, but that a lot lose it by the time they're five or six. The home educators' theory is that school damages them, but our friend pointed out that often it's the parents who do this, long before they start school, since most learning occurs in the first five years anyway. 

She said that a teacher might say to a child, 'We don't have time for that question now,' although a good teacher ought to keep note and try to deal with the question at another time. But she's seen parents simply box a child's ears and tell them to shut up and stop asking stupid questions. It made me realise that, while bad teachers can cause a lot of damage, bad parents can cause infinitely more. 

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