Mary Rose climbs a rung on the rural one-upmanship ladder as she shares aspects of her family’s free range and organic home-based education in rural Gloucestershire.
“Home-grown and organic”
The phrase strikes a familiar and welcome chord when browsing Farmers Markets or supermarket shelves, but when it comes to people, or more specifically children, can and should the term be applied? I like to think I’m an aware gardener and grower, and an even more caring parent, but organic…?
The prospect of washing, dressing, feeding and loading a family of four under-fives into our elderly Land Rover and bumping off down the track on a frosty morning did not deter me from registering my eldest child at the local school when he reached four years old. Neither did the five-mile round trip to the school and back, the nightmare of parking, unloading everyone at the other end and trekking across the playing field in rain, shine or blizzard to meet No.1 son at the classroom door. It was not the expense of the uniform, lunchbox, PE kit, school fund contributions or head lice lotion which put me off school. It was, quite simply, that the child was unhappy. So deeply unhappy that a noticeable and alarmingly rapid change in character soon became the norm, and was accompanied by physical symptoms which prompted me to consult the GP.
“Stress”, smiled the doctor. “Classic symptoms. I can’t find anything physical wrong. What could be causing stress in a four year old?”
I knew. It was causing stress in the whole family by this time! We went back to the school with the news. The school went on the defensive.
“The trouble is,” said the class teacher with the brisk authority of One Who Knows, “he reads too much. And you make home too interesting,” she added quickly, as I gaped in astonishment. “That’s why he doesn’t want to be at school!” End of interview.
‘Home’ was the smallest of smallholdings, a couple of acres and a house clinging to a hillside. A couple of goats provided milk for an asthmatic child with bovine intolerance, chickens and ducks did the job of an egg-laying lawnmower, and we grew whatever food we could, being rich in time at home but short on disposable income. It was fun. Hard work, but fun; the children joined in from an early age, and learned by working as part of the family team.
Before having the children I had taught in schools, and felt some empathy with the teacher. The system as much as the teacher was at fault here, I reasoned. One fact was clear; my little boy had learned efficiently at home to the age of four and was outstripping his peers in academic and social skills (if being a nice person is a social skill, that is). If he could learn at home, why not?
I recalled a teacher colleague who had taken his children out of school to be home-educated some years previously, and left the profession himself shortly afterwards, taking the first banana boat out of the country to travel ad hoc round the world with his family!
I investigated the home-education movement further. Several well established support groups assured me that a DIY approach was legal and increasingly popular, and that far from being isolated and regarded as freaks, my family would be embraced into a community of elective home-educators supporting each other at local, national and even international level. We took the plunge.
Days passed blissfully with activities like cooking, caring for animals, gardening and general home-making interspersed with playing, reading, painting…all the things parents with young children do. Shopping trips became a chance to learn to read, count, to use money and interact with people, and we were opportunists, calling at a castle on the way home from town, or combining a trip to the city with a swim at the pool, or an adventure in a wildlife park. If it was free, we took it. Museums, adventure playgrounds, parks, churches – everything was explored, questions were asked and answered. Home-based education saved waste; from the waste of time and energy taking a child to a place where survival took priority over positive learning, to the appalling waste of food in uneaten school dinners or untouched lunch boxes. At home, everything became an education, and nothing was wasted.
Having de-registered our son, I vowed to take this education thing very seriously, planning, recording, evaluating, planning some more, but within days it became obvious that my energy was misplaced. Children are natural learners. Learning is what they do from the moment they are born, some would argue before that – so my role was not to control that curiosity but to facilitate doing what comes naturally to children, to guide, channel and instruct as required! To reassure myself, I kept a record of what had happened each day and I was amazed.
Working with the children, listening, talking and responding to them took us to places which I could never have imagined. And it revealed an interest and a level of understanding about the world which were mature beyond years if received wisdom regarding child development is to be believed. One hour’s worth of car journey with my young family covered topics of conversation from physical geography to astronomy to science to literature to poetry and finally music as we all sang in harmony! Six and seven year olds talked knowledgably of ‘plate tectonics’ and wrote in Egyptian hieroglyphics. By nine years old they were building rabbit hutches, advertising and selling their bunny-offspring and earning their pocket money. Sorting seeds and sowing were jobs for Spring, Summers passed bottle feeding tiddler lambs and chasing weaner piglets through the garden and Autumns brought fruit to gather and preserve, wood to chop and sticks to harvest.
Sounds idyllic? For us it was. It was home, and home was in the countryside where school was not within reasonable walking distance, and choice was limited. Home-based education however, is not a privilege favoured by or exclusive to families in rural areas, travellers or so-called alternatives who have an excuse for not attending a school. The home-educators in my support group had addresses ranging from large country properties to narrow boats. The phenomenon seemed to span class, creed and race, and in many cases it was a conscious well thought out choice. I was intrigued. So successful had our venture into home-education been that I determined to research the subject farther, and signed up to a PhD course.
I found that the home-ed option was being taken up across the UK at an astonishing rate. My survey of Local Education Authorities returned none who reported known numbers falling, and most revealed the number of children being de-registered from school for home-based education were rising, some so rapidly that in the authorities were having difficulty keeping up with the administration. No accurate figures are available to indicate precisely how many children receive compulsory education in this way, but it is estimated it could be as high as one in ten, and probably more children than that are home educated at some point between the ages of 5 and 16.
The incidence of home-education seems to bear no relation to socio-economic groups or regional area either; as might be expected, there are more home-educated children in centres of population although the reasons for choosing an out-of-school education may be different in urban and rural areas.
When we embarked on home educating our family some fifteen years ago, I frequently encountered puzzlement and opposition from strangers and acquaintances who had no idea that such a thing were possible or legal, let alone that it had any chance of success. Now, say, “I don’t go to school, I am home-educated”, and my children are more likely to be met with, “Oh, so is So-and-so round the corner!” A BTEC course in Bristol currently runs with 20% of the 2005 intake from home-educated backgrounds, while other home-educated teenagers enrol on OU courses or opt for GCSE or A levels and achieve results which can take them into further and higher education.
Researcher Julie Webb studied 20 home-educated teenagers in the early 1980s, and returned to them ten years later. She wanted to know if their early education at home had resulted in any adverse effects in terms of employment, social or financial status. She found nearly all of her participants were employed, married or with partners, raising families and living in the way they wanted to live. They reported happy fulfilled lives. Put simply, home educated people could be living next door to any of us and we probably would not know. It is unlikely that the presence of a home-educated family will devalue property in an area, cause a health or social hazard or be served with an ASBO! Whatever reasons, and there are as many as families, for choosing to home educate there is no stereotypical home-educating family with children who resemble either Little Lord Fauntleroy or Huckleberry Finn.
Home-based education is a response to the choice we have and value in Britain – a choice which is not available throughout the EU, yet thrives in the USA where home-education (home-school) is widely accepted, popular and effective, as viewers of ‘The Simpsons’ will know. During my research into home-education, a parent observed that the child-lead, learner-managed approach to learning was “organic”, and a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary bears that out…
“Organic…denoting a harmonious relationship between elements of a whole. Characterised by natural development.”
So in the rural one-upmanship stakes, I’ve climbed a rung. Never mind “Free-range kids”, my family, it seems, are wholly organic, but it’s only our duck eggs which are for sale!
Mary Rose is a home educator and mother of five, three still at home. She teaches part-time in a local special school, and is a freelance writer, author of several books on home-based education and has participated in broadcasts on radio and TV covering elective home education. Mary lives with her husband in the Forest of Dean, where they are keen gardeners and keep backyard poultry, as well as several pets. When she isn’t writing, playing with her children or saving the planet, Mary and her family play music together in an English ceilidh band, travelling the country in their elderly bus to provide live music for dances at events, weddings and festivals.