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Home truths

The Padden family decided to educate their children themselves.

Harvey McGavin asks them why and discovers it's a growing trend

Ten-year-old Liam Padden doesn't go to school. Apart from a few weeks at a nursery class, he never has done. When grown-ups on buses ask "Shouldn't you be at school?" Liam replies, proudly: "I'm home educated."

Like a small but growing band of parents, John and Jenny Padden have opted out. The national curriculum doesn't figure in the education of Liam and his brothers Alex (8) and Lawrence (6). For classroom, read front room, for timetable read Liam's colour-coded, self-penned schedule, and for inspiration read Teach Your Own by John Holt. "It's like The Bible of home education, and it made me realise we could do it," says Jenny.

The Paddens believe in do-it-yourself education. And as any DIY enthusiast will tell you, it can be cheaper and a lot more fulfilling than leaving it to the experts. To the casual observer, their way of learning may seem unstructured, but that's the idea.

"I don't believe in tests," says John. "We try not to say 'do this, do that'. They organise their own timetables and decide what they do - we are here as advisers."

John had an unconventional schooling himself. Born in Bahrain, where his father worked in the oil business, he moved to southern Spain as a child where he attended a Jesuit college.

When his father's garage business failed, John spent time travelling with family friends, a doctor and his wife, and completed his education via a combination of evening classes and correspondence courses, emerging with 5 O-levels and an Ordinary National Certificate (ONC) in nautical science.

Ten years as a navigating officer in the merchant navy followed ("I saw the world through the bottom of a bottle") before he settled in Bolton. He stays at home, looking after the children and supervising their learning, while Jenny works as a registrar of births, deaths and marriages.

"I didn't have a rigid structure to my education - I was learning where I could. I didn't affect me and I don't see it as a problem. I think it will make the boys more independent.

"Instead of forcing them into a system of learning we make them think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I'm not the Brain of Britain but I try to teach them to question us and to express themselves."

One big advantage of home education is that the children get individual attention, says John.

"Teachers are well trained to work with groups of children. I would never pretend to be better than them. But teaching them ourselves means whenever they have a question it is answered."

While the resources at the boys' disposal aren't everything a primary school could offer, John, who works as an occasional IT consultant, is teaching them how to use a computer. And rather than depriving them of friends, not going to school means the boys avoid social conditioning, argues Jenny.

"The first thing people think is that they are going to end up as outcasts but it doesn't occur. At school there is a lot of peer pressure and segregation. Home educated children don't make such a distinction in terms of age as school educated children. They will talk to adults on a one to one basis.

"I went to a village school and state comprehensive in Staffordshire. I enjoyed school but my two sisters had problems. One sister was what would be described today as school phobic and refused to go. My younger sister was bullied and my parents had to move her to a different school."

Consequently, home schooling has the support of the boys' grandparents. But while many families take their children out of school because of difficulties such as these, the Paddens have done it out of conviction.

"I can see the necessity for a school system but there is a lot of controversy about the best way to do it - education is a political football," says John.

"I would rather do this than give them to a stranger and blame the system or the school if they fail. It's our responsibility as parents. We are giving them a foundation in ethics, morals, behaviour and attitudes to set them off in life."

But wouldn't qualifications and an organised weekday working habit help them get a job? John doesn't think he is disadvantaging his children. Indeed, Liam has ambitions to be a diver or palaeontologist (Jurassic Park was the first book he read), and may take his maths GCSE next year.

Home education is a learning experience for parents too, and can be a daunting prospect, Jenny admits. "When you first start home education, you do feel isolated and think that you are the only person going through this type of experience."

Support from other parents and the home schooling organisation, Education Otherwise, has helped, and now the weekday rituals of most parents seem a world apart to Jenny.

"The other day the neighbour's car wouldn't start and they asked if we could go and fetch their boy - it felt so unnatural and I thought 'Thank God I don't have to do this every day!' " She says Liam has expressed an interest in school only once, when he thought he was missing out on making friends by not going. "He thought school was all about going out and playing because all he saw was children running around the playground."

Since then the family have made "a conscious effort to socialise more" and their bright, friendly children are keen, unprompted advocates of the benefits of home education. "It's great," says Liam. "At school other people are teaching you but you learn for yourself. I think you should learn the things you want to."

Teach Your Own by John Holt, published by Lighthouse Books

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