A class of their own choosing

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Here are no bells to punctuate the day for these children and there is no last-minute panic in the morning to get to school. Their class meets around the kitchen table at home, their playground is the back garden and their mums, and sometimes dads, are their teachers.

This morning, three home-educating mothers who meet regularly are gathering in one of their homes in Bridge of Don, north Aberdeen, with their children. Although there are nine of them here, aged between 7 and 13, all is surprisingly calm and peaceful for such a big, lively group. They are busy writing stories.

This is Nancy Birse's home. It is a light and airy family house with lots of colourful children's artwork displayed on the walls. Nancy, a mother of four, and her guests, Anne Aspden and Karen Rankin, both mothers of five, are part of a group of about 12 home-educating families who meet up for joint children's activities and excursions and share their knowledge and experiences.

Many in the group share Christian values and have church connections. "People don't necessarily have to be Christian to join this group," says Karen, from Newmachar, "but they know we might do some Christian activities. It's not a hard and fast thing at all, it's more loosely what generally connected us."

None of Karen's children, who are aged between 5 and 13, has ever been to school, which prompts a variety of reactions. "Some people say nothing, other people are fascinated, and a lot of people say 'What a wonderful thing, I wish I could have done that'," says Karen.

Others are more judgmental. "Some people can be quite harsh: 'Who are you that schools are not good enough for you?' sort of thing," she says.

Anne's three oldest children have now left home for university. They went through mainstream education, but Anne and her husband opted for home educating after much thought when their older daughter was very unhappy in Primary 1. She now home educates their two primary school age daughters and is foster carer of two children under 5.

Anne took some convincing about home education. Like Nancy and Karen, she is a qualified teacher. "I was horrified by the idea, didn't want to do it. I had friends who home schooled and I thought 'Never. What a horrible thing to do.'" She had also enjoyed being involved with her sons' school life.

"I liked my life at the village. I liked the school gate, liked to be part of what was going on. Home schooling means you're not at the school gate, you're not part of what's going on.

"I was PTA chairman, I did all that stuff. I liked it. So, no, I was a very, very slow convert," she says.

But her oldest daughter, Charis, 11, has been educated at home for six years now. "It's much more fun and I have met new friends. We do tennis and go to old castles," says Charis.

"I like reading and I like writing, and we do maths as well. We do history, and lots of stuff. I never want to go back to school."

Her sister Miriam, 10, has always been home educated. "It's fun," she says. "You can do extra activities because you can do school in the car. We do Spanish and times tables in the car with CDs. My favourite thing is maths and art.

"I have never been (to school) but I would like to go for a wee while and see what it's like."

Nancy worked as a music teacher in primary and secondary schools for five years and now teaches piano lessons from home. She is married to a school music teacher and their two daughters and two sons, aged 7 to 14, have a busy schedule of musical, artistic and sporting activities. Home schooling their three youngest has allowed the family to accommodate these wide-ranging interests.

"We've been doing it now for two years. Even within three months it felt very normal," she says.

"It didn't fit into the week to go to school, then do all these things after school and then have time to do things as a family. This just frees our family life to do the things we felt were important," she says.

Her younger son Andrew, 11, is passionate about skating and, since the closure of the ice rink in Aberdeen, travels by train three times a week to Elgin.

"I was in school until P5 and I came out for P6 and P7," says Andrew, who also plays piano and violin. "You are more free and because I do a lot of skating, I can just go."

His sisters are enthusiastic about their mum's teaching skills. "It's ace," says Rachel, 7. "My favourite subject is probably stories. I like to write them and read them."

Amy, 10, plays violin and piano and dances. "At school everyone has to do the same thing, but at home schooling Rachel could be doing science and I could be doing maths or English and Andrew could be skating, so you don't need to follow what the rest of them are doing. You go at your own pace and your own standard," she says.

The family had their first visit from the local authority education officer last December. "They came in and were very supportive, very friendly. They looked at all the work and said that looked just great, and had a nice chat with everybody and seemed very happy with it," says Nancy.

"Each family is a very different school," Karen explains. "Some press towards the academic, some are far more creative and learn far more through creativity.

"I do use some curriculum from the United States because they are so set up. We all do it differently and I think that is a key thing."

As if to underline this, piano practice begins next door. No faltering of Beethoven's "Fur Elise" in this house. The music drifts from something that sounds like Bach into a jazz arrangement of "Fly Me to the Moon".

During lunch preparations, Anne talks about teaching at home. She taught maths in a large comprehensive for a year before she married. "It wasn't my favourite experience," she laughs. Teaching her two youngest children at home has proved much more enjoyable.

"You get to know them well, you get to know what they're doing and you can enjoy their company. It's like an extension of when they're little; they're at home with you and you can be creative together."

Karen, too, struggled initially with the thought of home education. "The idea horrified me," she says. "I had never even heard of it to be honest. I thought only strange people and missionaries did home schooling."

But Karen, who has a primary teaching qualification, though has never taught in schools, has also found the experience deeply rewarding. "All my children have sat on my knee and learnt to read, and I have held their hand when they have wanted to write.

"There have been precious things like that, step by step; the first little letter they write, and all these things that are treasures now, that I think I would have missed out on.

"Their ABCs and that side of education is important, but I think it's as important to train a child in character and morality and those things. I think if you can help them achieve that, then often the ABCs will come naturally," she says.

For Karen and her husband, home educating is rooted in their faith. "Our primary reason was because we wanted the children to have a Christian education and in this part of the country there are no Christian schools at all. It's such an important part of our lives that we wanted that to be included in their education," she says.

"We have bible lessons every day, but obviously things like maths are not directly related to the bible. But when we teach science it would be in the light of a creator, God. So we would learn the same things, but we just have in mind that God is the creator."

Karen's husband works as a dentist three-and-a-half days a week and teaches the children science and Latin.

"The children have said a few times that they would like to go to school for a week to see what it's like. They have never said 'I want to go to school.' We would face that issue when it came," Karen says.

Her daughter Faith, 12, is on the sofa in the sitting room, absorbed in writing. "I have always been home schooled. I've never been to school," she says. "I really like it at home, but I would like to try school for a day or two and see what it's like."

So what is it really like having your mum as a teacher?

"I quite like it, because she knows about you and she can personalise what you like. So if you are good at one thing, she can help you work on that."

Her wee sister, Abigail, 9, says mum is "good fun".

Their older brother, Mark, 13, has a passion for cars. "I find out about that on the internet and in books," he smiles.

It is late afternoon and Nancy begins clearing away the kitchen table. It is striking how calm the children have been all day: no raised voices, no arguments and the work is done.

So what are the down sides of home education? Nancy laughs. "A down side is a very messy house, because there are books everywhere, there are projects everywhere, there's art everywhere, and it can get into complete chaos. So, if you want a pristine house, then home schooling is not for you."

Exploring options

Anyone can teach a child at home. You don't need qualifications, you don't need to follow a specific curriculum and there is no legal requirement for children to sit examinations.

The Scottish Government issued revised guidance on home education in January to clarify the rights and responsibilities of parents and local authorities.

It recognises that some parents may want to follow a traditional curriculum, while others may wish to adopt a more informal style of learning. It also acknowledges that parents will have different approaches to assessing their child's progress.

"The approach home-educating parents take to assessing their child's progress is likely to be dictated by their own philosophy or views, and in many cases the absence of formal assessment may be a feature of the education provision," says Guidance to Parents and Local Authorities on Home Education.

Parents who wish their children to study for recognised qualifications outwith school can do this through further education colleges, self-study or correspondence courses.

Internal assessment for Standard grades and Highers makes it difficult for home-educated children to follow this route as external candidates.

The home-education organisation for Scotland, the Schoolhouse Home Education Association, offers parents the following advice on its website: "Although it is difficult to take Standard grades or Highers as an external candidate, GCSEs and A-levels are an option, as are vocational qualifications or the International Baccalaureate."

Aberdeenshire home educator Anne Aspden says she will consider her two primary school age daughters' options once they get nearer that stage in their education.

"If it's possible, they may do exams externally, or they may not do exams and follow a completely different route. What I am determined to do is not fall into the trap that you have to do your qualifications at 16 and be at university at 18.

"There are many more options in life and a lot of experience can be had. Universities are much more flexible than they used to be and workplaces are much more flexible."

www.schoolhouse.org.uk; www.scotland.gov.ukpublications.

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