Monday, 9 December 2013

But you can’t do a GCSE in chemistry at home…

George Bernard Shaw remarked that all professions are conspiracies against the laity. Teaching is no exception to this rule. Teachers are, as a class, determined that other people, parents in particular, should believe that they are doing something fantastically subtle and clever;  undertaking an operation which no ordinary person could hope to understand, let alone emulate. It is, of course, not so, but that is the impression that they wish to make upon the rest of us. Unfortunately, like all really good propagandists, they sometimes come to believe  their own fantasies. I have lost count of the number of teachers who, after  conceding that most parents could look after their children up to the age of seven or eight, perhaps even teach them to read and write,  then go on to say triumphantly, ‘Yes, but what about secondary? You couldn’t do chemistry or physics at home, could you?’ This is widely regarded as a knock-down argument against home education after the age of eleven or twelve. The tragic thing is, I think that those using this as a debating point really think that it is true!

The irony is that, as anybody who has witnessed a science lesson in a maintained secondary school will know, there is very little practical work such as experiments, these days. Nobody would trust the average fourteen year-old in a state school to handle sulphuric acid safely or dissect a frog without chopping off some other pupil’s fingers. Science is mainly done by means of photo-copied handouts and the watching of clips from Youtube. In fact, it is incomparably better to teach things like chemistry, physics and biology at home, than it is to leave it to a school. You can experiment with flames and acids, cut up dead animals, make your own indicators, rather than relying upon strips of litmus paper; all sorts of really enjoyable activities. I defy anybody not to find that their child is interested in science, once they have discovered that rose petals and tea leaves can both be used to distinguish between acids and alkalis. This is just the kind of thing that all children love; boiling things up and sloshing about liquids that change colour!  

The specifications for the International GCSEs are all available on the websites of Cambridge and Edexcel. These tell you precisely what your child will need to know in order to pass the examination. There are also old exam papers there with marking schemes, so that you can tell exactly how the child is likely to do. I know that there is nothing to it, because of course we studied for all three science IGCSEs at home. The child concerned got A* for all of them, which, for home educated children, is about par for the course.


  1. You can even use everyday things to teach scienfitic terms. Take the simple mug of hot chocolate. You can learn solute, solvent and solution in perfect safety. Add whipped cream and marshmallows and you can look at melting points at the same time. And then you can drink it, which is more than you can say for conventional chemistry!

    Kidding aside, there's so much in life that is science. We spent a happy summer looking at recessive and dominant alleles after we got white ducklings and goslings in our local park that weren't albino. Then we discovered that 'Dawin's moon' did many of his observations in the same park and we were off into history of science, where we've now gone all the way back to Aristotle and Archimedes, which will lead us off into Arab history. Nothing is ever learned in isolation, and it makes the drier book work so much more interesting.



  2. Yes, we did all 3 sciences at home too, and I am not in the least scientifically minded. It's amazing to me that so many home educators are rushing to send their 14 year olds off to college to 'get' the free exams. So unwise.

    It reminds me a lot of the situation with 3 years going off to get their free nursery places. Not good for the children and I think the parents may come to regret their decision.