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Not failing, but learning

Turning Points. In 1987 Carol Bennett, then a Norfolk primary school teacher, decided to take her children out of school and educate them at home. Six years later she returned to the classroom feeling herself to be a much better teacher as the result of her experience.

She had read and been affected by John Holt's book Teach Your Own, but the decision to educate her son and daughter - then aged nine and 10 - at home was not entirely ideological. "The school where I was teaching and which my children attended closed in the February. We were hoping to go abroad to work later in the year, and it seemed sensible to keep them out until the end of the summer term."

By the time the summer came, however, the job abroad had fallen through, and the Bennetts had become sufficiently convinced by home education to continue. They made links with the organisation Education Otherwise, and found staunch support among like-minded people in their part of the country, where many rural schools have closed in the past few years. "When I went to the first meeting, I realised that although we were obviously concerned for our children, the real common denominator was that we were people who weren't afraid to be different - we weren't 'conform and perform' people."

Supported by regular fortnightly workshops where up to 30 children of all ages would be brought together to work on projects, the Bennetts taught their children to the point where they were able to enrol for adult GCSE classes. Carol Bennett does not underestimate the stress of those six years. "I had my wobbly days when I feared I was not doing something important, but then I'd discipline myself to think that I was providing other things that they needed."

She does not claim to be a single-minded de-schooler. "There's a hidden curriculum at home as well as at school. It's not a panacea and it's very intense and an awesome responsibility." The ideal solution, she feels, would be a flexible approach which would break down the barriers between home-based and school-based education and allow children to move more freely from one to the other.

Now, though, back in school, she is sure that the experience has done her a lot of professional good. "I feel I am a much better teacher because of it. My children and I learned from each other - for example, that it's OK not to know, that you're not failing, you're learning."

An estimated 20,000 school-age children are being educated at home, and it would be a mistake, says Carol Bennett, to think that their parents are committed to a free and easy approach. "Children need structure, and they need to initiate their own activities. These two strands need to weave back and forth, and if they do then what you build becomes secure."

Gerald Haigh Education Otherwise, 5 Elm Gardens, Welwyn Garden City, Herts. AL8 6RX.Turning Points is a regular column focusing on key moments in career development. If you want to share an important influence or decision in your professional life, write to Bob Doe, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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