Home education diary, March 2000

March 6th

I suppose in England it's easy enough to take GCSEs at local colleges, or at least do the exam externally at a school, and people don't feel the need for doing a lot of them. If we were in the UK I probably wouldn't worry about it either. If necessary we'd wait till Daniel was 16 and could take them free (or reduced) at somewhere like Bournville college.

But in Cyprus, now I've started asking about it, it's a lot more complicated. He might be able to take GCSEs at the British Embassy in Nicosia, or - possibly - at one of the local secondary schools. Or he could fly back to the UK and take them there, if we could find a centre that would take an external, international student. 

None of those possibilities sound very hopeful. Exams are stressful enough without going to a strange place, with people he doesn't know. And it is all sounding increasingly and depressingly expensive.  So I started asking on the home education lists, whether there is any alternative. I don't know if either of the boys will want to go to university, but assumed that for any career they would need at least the five core GCSEs. 

It turns out that there is one American correspondence course that is validated for British universities. It's by School of Tomorrow, and the course is ACE - Accelerated Christian Education, I think it stands for. I've heard of it before, but not in very positive terms. I gather it's rigid, right-wing fundamentalist in outlook, and involves a lot of rote learning. The only positive feature seems to be that rather than exams, the students sit tests at home, which are marked by the parent and then sent to the UK for checking and validation. 

At the end of the first couple of years, the student gets a certificate which is equivalent to about eight GCSEs, and if he continues for another two years he can get a certificate that's the equivalent of A-levels. Apparently a good number of British or international students with this final level of the certificate have been offered places at UK universities. 

An email friend has been using ACE with her children for some years, so she sent me a few of the work-booklets (called PACEs) that they have finished with, so we could get an idea of what is involved. They do seem very rigid, with fill-in-the-blanks comprehension, although I suppose one doesn't have to do all the questions if it seems too easy. The tests at the end of each PACE are what matters.  

I'm also glad we started investigating this now, because it seems that children doing this National Christian Schools Certificate programme have to do a couple of years on ACE before they do the certificate part, starting at the Year 8 level.  Daniel would be in Year 8 now if he were in school, so if we decide it's a better option than GCSEs, we need to get started as soon as possible.

17th March:

This issue seems to be consuming all our energy, as we consider eductional options. I'm still totally undecided. Having looked at some ACE booklets, the boys are quite keen on the idea of something definite to do each day even if it's a bit boring! And obviously if they could get some form of qualification at the end, it would be useful for them. But I don't know that it would be any cheaper than doing GCSEs by correspondence and finding exam centres - and we don't have any spare money anyway.

21st March 

I had an email back from one of the ACE contacts, who says he's in contact with families doing the certification programme from as far apart as Zimbabwe and Greenland, and that it can all be done by correspondence. So, no need to exam centres, which is encouraging. The boys are still pretty keen on the idea and I'm beginning to feel 'right' about it. 

We all still have the feeling that it's important for the boys to be following basic academics - even though I do agree in theory with autonomous education/unschooling. Yet the only things we do well and feel good about are the French and Greek, both of which are structured courses (Linguaphone French and online Greek). 

Maths is all right, too, because it's progressive, and they're working through school text-books doing examples, so I know they're doing well.  Moreoever, because I understand maths, I can explain any problems they have. But although we read history and geography text books, and some English literature, and have some quite good discussions, they're not doing any essay work or much research or thinking. Moreover, I've no idea if they'd be able to write essays, nor how to tell if their ideas are sound.

As for science, I do like the books we're using, but they raise more questions than they solve. They also tend to leave Daniel muttering, 'Science is so stupid!' - until next time anyway. I'm going to encourage him to read Asimov's 'New Guide to Science' because I think it's very well-written and even I can understand a fair bit of it. I think it would help him to see how scientific thought developed, and how physicists and chemists view the world. 

But it would also be good to have some structured course that they could follow. I'm not good at setting up experiments and doing investigative science. I never enjoyed it at school and it all seems a bit pointless. But the boys would like to do some. If we were in the UK, I think they might well choose to go to the best of the local schools for the science labs, as well as things like orchestra and the art/craft rooms, and of course team sports. Daniel says he never wants to go back to school but I can see that if it was convenient, friendly (and free!) he might change his mind in a year or so. 

March 24th 

I'm feeling very confused about the whole teenage education thing now. Having pretty much ruled out GCSEs by correspondence as too expensive, impractical, and too hard to organise from Cyprus, I'm now not certain that ACE would suit us at all. I asked about it on several home education lists I'm on, and joined two that are specifically set up to talk about ACE, and the reactions aren't altogether encouraging. 

The guy who does email support at ACE itself is very friendly and helpful. I've asked him several difficult questions, which he has answered cheerfully.  But I'm getting cold feet at the thought of FOUR YEARS of rigid workbooks, and the boys potentially losing their love of learning. They seem to do so many wonderful things these days, much less National Curriculum related stuff than we used to, but enough to stay ahead of average, and so much else as well. 

If it weren't for the thought of qualifications, I wouldn't even consider something like ACE or any other formal curriculum. But some kind of certification seems to be a necessary evil these days. I had a look at the Northstar-UK site this evening, as one or two people have mentioned that. It looks quite interesting, with Key Stage Three and GCSE courses online, with real 'teaching' and assignments assessed via email tutors. But it's extremely expensive; besides, although they give lots of help, families still need to go back to the UK to take exams. 

I love the idea of GCSE-type certification without any exams. But ACE, as far as I can gather, doesn't appear to contain any of the valuable part of GCSE work - no projects, no experiments, no creative writing...! I'm sure we'd still do those anyway to some extent, but I can't understand why universities would accept pure workbook related qualifications.

So I'm back where I started, but more uncertain. I had a look at some of the American  curriculum sites, too. Some of them seem to offer 'high school diplomas' or equivalent, for much less structured courses than ACE, but none of them are really appropriate for the UK, and I can't imagine UK universities accepting them. Besides which, they all require initial large outlays of money so it's all or nothing again.

I also don't actually know if the boys will need GCSEs. I have no idea if either of them will want to go to university, or whether they might want to go to school here when they're older, or even to boarding school in the UK... 

March 30th:

My doubts about ACE have been because I know it's workbook-based, not very creative, and rather formal, and up to now I've avoided anything resembling a curriculum. The emails I received about it were quite a mix - some people saying it's a great course and their children loved it, others saying it was very dull and they'd given up before secondary age. Some said it was thorough and very academic, others said it was nowhere near the standard of GCSEs! So all very confusing.

Anyway... after much discussion with the boys, we've more-or-less decided to try it out and register for a year. If it's a disaster, we'll follow up the Northstar route and see how that goes. But I do actually hope it will work out as I love the idea of qualifications without exams. And while it means a couple of hours of - possibly dull - workbooks each day, as someone pointed out that's what they'd be doing in homework each day if they were in school.

I have been very concerned about financing this, as, though less than the cost of GCSEs, we'd still need to shell out 350 pounds immediately for the registration, diagnostic testing, and first set of workbooks. I told God he would have to find it for us, if he wanted us to do it. The very next day, I had a letter from the DHSS in the UK saying that - after a 2-year correspondence during which I'd given up hope - we're eligible for Child Benefit while we're here, and they're going to backdate it to December 1997. Some might call it coincidence, but for me that was divine guidance and provision that was miraculous in its timing. 

This month, in between our discussions about the future, the boys have been doing some autonomous learning - reading, using various computer packages for artwork, creative writing, etc - and a bit of maths from text books, as well as Linguaphone French. We also read some chapters from history and geography books and chatted about issues that arose such as rain forests, life in the 16th century, and so on.

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