Thursday, 17 September 2009

Everybody goes to school

There is one thing that practically every grown person in this country has in common. Young or old, rich or poor, black or white, male or female; everybody has attended school. Well, almost everybody. Everybody except the tiny handful of misfits and cranks who have been home educated. It is sometimes difficult for those intimately involved with some hobby, pastime or lifestyle, to appreciate just how strange it looks to outsiders. You have only to listen to a Scientologist or Moonie explaining his belief system and watch the expressions on the faces of the uninitiated as they listen. That's exactly the same look that you will see on people's faces when you talk to them about home education. I mean why wouldn't anybody send their kid to school? That is seriously weird!

Because so many of us spend a lot of our time talking, writing, reading and thinking about home education, we tend sometimes to forget how it looks to others. We take it for granted that everyone knows about the Badman Report or that people are aware that while education is compulsory, school is not. In fact, of course, the vast majority of people are still completely in the dark about all this. The Internet may have made information more freely available, but you still have to look for it.

The truth is, school is a given, probably the only given about which you can be certain when you meet a stranger. You may not know where she was born, who she votes for or how much she earns, but you definitely know that she went to school! In this respect, the adult who has never attended school is bound to be something of an oddity. It cannot help but mark one out in a thousand different ways, not all of them immediately apparent.

When my daughter started college last week, she came home a little bemused on the first day. Some of the children who had started were enchanted by a fantastically novel experience, something that they found really peculiar about college; they could visit the lavatory whenever they wished without first seeking permission! My daughter was utterly baffled by this. She also could not understand why a lot of the students persisted in calling the lecturers "Sir" and "Miss" , rather than using their Christian names. She has never called anybody "Sir" in the whole course of her life. These are two small examples of the shared cultural background that all adults in this country share, but from which home educated children are excluded. This lack of a common background cannot help but mark the home educated person out as being different from others, even a bit of an oddball. This might not necessarily be a good thing.

I still have a lot of doubts about home education, even as to whether it is the best way of raising children. Educationally, it is of course an amazingly efficient way of working. Unlimited one to one tuition, unrivalled opportunity for field trips and lectures in any subject you like, no distractions by a lot of idiots who don't want to learn. From that point of view, it is unbeatable. I am not at all sure though whether it is the best way for a child to grow and develop socially. I am also a little concerned at how home educated children may, as they get older, diverge more and more from the common social values which link all members of society together.

On a wider level, I cannot quite make up my mind whether home education is a marvellous, fast growing movement which represents in some sense the future of individualised learning, or if it is just another of those crackpot ideas like water births and macrobiotic diets over which the middle classes periodically go mad. Only time will tell.


  1. A friend commented that her (very able, schooled) son had a difficult first day at college last week because he hadn't realised there would be no school bell to tell him what to do when.....

  2. Julie- bell? do there still have them

  3. Yes, my daughter also remarked upon this. She compared the state of some of the students to robots in a science fiction film, when their controls have been sabotaged. She said that at various times they seemed to wander about aimlessly as though awaiting orders. This is terrifying! At least in the old days these kids would have been able to go off to a factory where their lives would continue to be directed by the ringing of bells and the blowing of whistles. As far as I can make out, a lot of them are there because it entitles them to the EMA of £30 a week. They don't actually want to learn anything......

  4. £30 pound a week for learning nothing sounds good how you get it?

  5. Simon, how can you say "I am not at all sure though whether it is the best way for a child to grow and develop socially.", when the students which your daughter and Julie describe are unable to almost lift a pencil without the say so of a bell or a raised hand?

    How did school serve these children? Where in 'the real world' do you need or find such subservient behaviour? Prison perhaps?

    Your experience, and the experience of your daughter seem to contradict what appears to be quite a rigid idea that you maintain in your mind about the social benefits/disadvantages of home education.

    Look at the proof. Even the most autonomously raised children are able to go to the loo without permission and don't go around calling people Sir or Miss in that undulating drawn out way that only a school child does. Your daughter's new college aquaintances are delerious with glee that they don't have to ask permission to go to the loo. They insist on using terms of deference to their lecturers. Julie's son has aquaintances that don't know what to do or where to go without a bell.

    They've become trained oxen! Give me a home educated child any day!

    What I do agree with you on though, is the lack of common culture - the lack of shared experience.

    This was the only issue that worried my brother when I told him I'd be home educating. He is a rare person who has a very close knit circle of friends that all met at school, and their shared experiences really bind them as a group.

    But this can be made up with an effort on the part of parents to get their children involved with home ed groups or camps.

    From the five or so home educated adults I know, none of them have deviated sideways of the social norm. They are all married. All but one have children, three home educate their own, and two send their children to school. They all have friends, husbands, houses, in short - 'normal' lives.

    Besides, if school made everybody conform, then how come there are so many schooled people with alternative beliefs and religions?


  6. I don't think, nor did I say, that school made everybody conform. Obviously not, just look at weirdos like me! what it does do though is give everybody a common frame of reference, a way of identifying at once with another citizen. Was your school strict or lax? Did you go to a mixed or single sex school? Did you like PE? That is the sort of thing that I have in mind.

    There are not enough adults about yet to make any sort of judgement at all about how children who never attend school will end up. What concerns me is that more of them might turn out to be oddballs and loners than is the case with those who went to school. This is because school acts like sandpaper, rounding off rough edges and making individuals fit in with others more. I do not say that this is a completely good thing. I am always going against the tide and have done so since I was small. Clearly, school did not help me to conform. But I believe that it might do for many others, might help them to rub along with their fellow men and women.

    On the downside, of course, it is pretty useless from an educational point of view! All I am saying is that if I had the time over again, I am not wholly convinced that it was in my daughter's best interests to spend the first sixteen years of her life in the company of a cynical and socially inept adult. She might have been better off with other children of her own age.

  7. I have met some pretty wierd characters in home education...but it is of course impossible to say whether they would have been easier to cope with had they gone through school - it may have been that their odd behaviour is what they didn't go to or left school in the first place. Trouble is you don't get a second chance - can't sent them to school and repeat the experiment. (I should add that I do know a lot about "odd" behaviour - after all, I have an autistic daughter....)

    On the whole I think that children are most influenced by their parents if they are home educated - which is logical because they spend so much time with them. If they go to school, it seems equally likely that they will be influenced more either by their parents or by their school doesn't automatically cause children to be removed from parental influence. So those you describe as "odd balls" may still come out of the school experience unchanged ... I don't think that schools always have the influence that some depends on the child.

    The most important thing I do want to say is that on the whole the home educated children I know (and without wishing to overstate my role here...I do spend a lot of time with home educating families...) are mostly a delightful bunch. Yes, ther are a few oddbods...but that is because many of them share a diagnosis of an autistic specturm disorder... and there are a few difficult children behaviour wise, but in most cases they are the children either excluded from school or home educated to avoid truancy. However some of the parents can be interesting.....

  8. "I am not wholly convinced that it was in my daughter's best interests to spend the first sixteen years of her life in the company of a cynical and socially inept adult. She might have been better off with other children of her own age."

    Hmm - are you saying that your daughter didn't mix with children around her own age? Mine do, on a regular basis. In fact, my daughter says that she has far more friends now than she ever had at school, so I'm surprised by your statement.


  9. Simon says,
    "All I am saying is that if I had the time over again, I am not wholly convinced that it was in my daughter's best interests to spend the first sixteen years of her life in the company of a cynical and socially inept adult. She might have been better off with other children of her own age."

    It is quite possible to home educate your children and for them to spend lots of time with children their own age. My 12 year old daughter goes to four age specific groups a week - a self-managed learning group, creative writing group, Woodcraft Folk and a 10-13s home ed group, which is currently running a first aid course . But she also goes to mixed age groups and gets time with family.

    I know what you mean, Simon. But I guess in my family we've always felt that being a bit weird was a good thing...

  10. Of course my daughter spent time with other children. She too belonged at various times to Woodcraft Folk, church, ballet, chess, bell ringing, fencing and a dozen other activities. There are two points about this though. Firstly, she wasn't in the company of these young people for six hours a day, week after week, year after year. So she was not moulded into conformity in the way that kids at school are. Secondly, I have to say that with the best will in the world, some of the kids that she met at these activities were a little odd. If you think that home educating parents are an eccentric bunch, try hanging out with chess parents!

    Allie, I have nothing at all against weirdness. Our family is very odd and I am quite comfortable with the fact that others see me as peculiar. However, I sometimes think that I made a decision on my daughter's behalf, long before she could express her own opinion, that she too would be a weird outsider. I just don't know in retrospect if that was a smart move. Even with mixing with other kids at various clubs, I was still probably the main influence upon her development. I just don't know that I was the best person for her to grow up identifying with.

  11. I think all parents (but especially home educating ones) go through the crisis of self doubt you are now expressing. Parenthood is one long guilt trip - the only "odd" thing about what you are expressing is that it is normally mothers who are the worried ones! Pain relief in labour/breastfed for long enough or too long/too early potty training or too late/smacking or not - we all worry that if we make the wrong decision our children will have suffered for it. (I blame my husbands peculiarities on the fact that he was a Truby King baby!!) If we home educate then we can't blame anyone else for gaps in our childrens education - and that is a huge responsibility. Looking back all those high grades show that you passed the education test so now you worry about perceived social inadequacies! Trouble is that we can't have it all - if your daughter attended school she may have turned out exactly as she is now (after all genes are a big part) or she may have been a great socialite with no GCSEs to her name or pregnant at 14. We all make decisions for our children (well I do) by the choices we make early on. In one of the Narnia stories, Aslan tells the children something like "we are never given to know what might have been" - so you will never know what might have happened if you had made different decisions...but you have given your daughter the skills she needs to be successful, and she should be able to make what she wants of her life. Stop worrying!

  12. I think the whole six hours a day week after week thing is highly over-rated. If it was so good, we'd all have this fabulous network of friends that we keep in contact with for years after we leave school. But the majority of us don't.

    We'd all be fantastically socialised. Most people are not.

    We just rub along with people the best we can until we can make our own choices of who to spend time with based on our interests and personalities.

    I don't think school better than being at home with you and seeing other children from time to time instead.

    It's just different.

  13. You may have a point, Gisela. Julie, that is a very good point about not being able to blame anybody else for gaps in our children's education when we home educate. We don't have the usual alibis like blaming the schools and peer pressure and so on.

  14. I had a very interesting conversation about the school/socialisation argument today. The other person insisted that children need to spend time with other children. I noted that mine does, when he wants to (or when other children are present), but that he prefers to not spend all his time with other children, or indeed lots of other people. There are times when he will actively avoid an activity because "there are too many people".

    My experiences of school persuaded me that many other children also preferred to spend time alone than with large groups of other children. Some enjoyed spending time with one or two other friends, but social groups were rarely larger than 5 or 6 children.

    Simon, "weird" is a very subjective description. Perfectly normal people can be accused of being weird, simply because they don't conform to someone else's ideas of 'normal'. Just recently, I was accused of being weird, because I read for pleasure. I tend to just try and take other people as they come, and be tolerant of other people. Sometimes, I receive tolerance in return ;D

  15. Hmm, that should read "time alone *rather* than with large groups of other children". Bah. Must make better use of the preview screen. ;)

  16. Water birth is not a crackpot idea. Clean baby, not crying. No stitches. 'Nuff said. Don't knock it just because you have not tried it.

    School is not the only, or even the best place to 'have your rough edges rubbed off'. Families are good for that, too.

  17. Actually, my own daughter was a water birth! I was in the pool the whole time and it was a great improvement on the traditional method. North Middlesex Hospital in Edmonton. I used the expression crackpot idea to denote something that is widely nad enthusiastically taken up for a season and then fades back into a tiny minority interest.

  18. Mam'Goudig, I was using the expression weird to describe how other people might view the decision not to send our children to school. I am very weird in any case and have never minded being called such. I do not really see the term as pejorative, although I can see that some people who are more wedded to social norms than I am myself, would take offence.

  19. "Water birth is not a crackpot idea. Clean baby, not crying. No stitches. 'Nuff said. Don't knock it just because you have not tried it."

    Not sure about cleanliness. In one study analysis of the water revealed that 12% of samples contained Legionella pneumophila, 11% Pseudomonas aeruginosa, 19% Enterococcus, 21% coliforms, and 10% Escherichia coli.