Shena Deuchars, Chair, Education Otherwise, UK International HE conference, Sept 2011
My younger child (James) is over 17, so I am almost at the end of my home-educating journey. I’d like to tell you a bit about it. Every family’s journey is different but I found it encouraging to look at the people ahead of me and I hope you’ll find something in our story from which you can take heart.
My parents were a skilled manual worker and a clerical worker in a small Scottish town. I grew up on a council estate in a not too good part of and attended our local secondary school, a comprehensive. I was one of very few pupils to go to university. In 1981, as I was leaving secondary school, I read a newspaper article about Education Otherwise and I filed it away for future reference. At that point, I decided I would home educate any children I had. I had not had a particularly bad experience in school but I was aware that it had been a huge waste of my time.
Fast forward to 1992 and then 1994, when my children were born in southwest London. Although I had not consciously thought about it in ten years, I still knew that I was going to home educate. I was working in the UK training department of an American IT company and I arranged to work from home 2.5 days per week. I also trained as a childminder and a friend and I minded other children in my home so that I could continue to earn but could be with my children most of the time. I joined a number of home educators’ email lists – which is where I “met” Mike and Neil, became a member of Education Otherwise (EO) and met up with people in the local support group. In the early 90s, much more than now, home education in the UK was an “alternative” activity that went hand in hand with extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, raising children consensually, refusing vaccination and being ecologically aware. Articles in the EO newsletter were almost exclusively about autonomous education and I understood that that was “the way to do it”. Which was just as well because my daughter (Katherine) needed all that stuff and I had no experience with babies and small children so I needed to find a community.
So what did we do? For the first 14 years of Katherine’s life, we were very unstructured. We painted and drew; we made music and joined the local Saturday music school; we baked and cooked; we made presents and cards for family and friends; we attended church; we joined children’s clubs and sport classes; we did science experiments and computer games. Along the way, both children learned to do arithmetic and to read. It turned out that Katherine had social difficulties (she has had no formal diagnosis but shows signs of being on the autistic spectrum) and so my main aim for home education was to get her to being an adult who could pass for normal and with whom I could be a friend.
I also read a huge amount to both children. Not having trained as a primary school teacher, I didn’t know that reading needs to build on phonic blocks – and those of you who have learned English as a second language will already know that English is not regular enough for that to be the most important concept! So we mostly did not read books intended for beginning readers. We went to the library a lot and the children chose books that they enjoyed, without reference to whether they would be able to manage to read them. I was lucky – I never had to worry about how the children would learn to read. The EO newsletter gave reassurances that it would “just happen” and Katherine started to spot letters when she was about 2 years old, so I saw no reason to do anything other than just let it happen. In fact, even now, she has great difficulty hearing the phonic blocks. Katherine was given the complete Chronicles of Narnia for her fifth birthday and I read it to both of them – three-year-old James had no problems comprehending it and discussing the story, so I didn’t see any reason to push him to start to take an interest in decoding words. In fact, he did not admit he could read until he was rising 9, when he sat down and read the whole of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in a week. I had not worried about it because he was able to spell words out for Katherine before his fourth birthday – it is very odd having a child who apparently cannot read but can spell perfectly! Also, when he was 8 and his father was anxious about him not reading, I had overheard Katherine saying to James “I don’t know how you can be bothered with Asterix books – all those long names.” James’s reply was “But the jokes are in the names.” So he was obviously reading – I didn’t need to know how!
Katherine is now at a good UK university, studying law with German law. She was admitted to the programme without any of the usual exams that young people take in school. When she was 12, Katherine decided to participate in the En Famille foreign-exchange programme. She spent six weeks in Zürich and the following year she spent six months in Germany, each time living with a German family (and attending Gymnasium). When she came back, we looked at a sample GCSE exam paper (which is usually taken at 16, the end of compulsory school age). We decided that it was below her abilities in German and so we signed her up for a course with the Open University (OU). The OU is a university that was set up in the 1970s to provide degrees by distance learning, mostly to mature people with other commitments, such as work and caring responsibilities. It was also intended to be accessible by people without the formal qualifications to enter a normal university, which makes it very useful to home-educated young people. After Katherine finished the German course, we decided that we may as well stick with the OU. She thought she might want to complete a degree in German, so she took a course in linguistics. Then she decided she’d like to do law at a normal university but to use her German as well. She studied maths and humanities with the OU so that she could demonstrate her ability to study. She applied to five universities for entry in autumn 2010. Exeter’s course is the best that she could do – one module of the four she studies each year is German law, taught in German. She will spend a fourth year in Saarbrücken and will graduate with both an English LLB degree and a German Legum Magistra degree. That will then allow her to go on to the professional courses to practice law in either country.
For us, home education has very definitely been a success. No-one can deny the academic success. And, after a year away from home, Katherine is able to say that she is grateful for the time I spent on ensuring that she could operate in social situations.