Interview - 'Children should go to work as soon as they want'

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Leslie Barson set up The Otherwise Club, a home-education centre in north London, 17 years ago. Her 'only qualification was a love for my children'

What shaped your views on education?

I wasted about 13 years feeling unnoticed and unmotivated at school, but life suddenly became relevant when my first child was born. For me, raising people, nurturing the next generation - that is the essence of life.

You are not a teacher, so what gave you the confidence to home-educate?

My only qualification was a love for my children. Being interested in a subject helps, but ultimately it's the child who learns. I tried "teaching" my son to read at four and after five minutes he said: "Reading is boring." For the next six months, I panicked and backed off completely. Then one day I heard him reading a new book aloud by himself.

Tell us about your home-education club in north London.

It began as a small group in my home doing projects, 20 years ago. I felt there were a lot of opportunities for home educators to socialise, but it was also important to meet regularly and work at something together. You learn a lot from shared experience. In 1993, we moved to a local community centre, where the new club was formed. We now have between 40 and 60 family members and run lots of different activities.

My main aims were always to support self-learning and self-responsibility. The club does projects that motivate us all. Nothing is compulsory. You sign up for things you are interested in.

How do you approach GCSE teaching?

The club runs five GCSEs, including maths. Last year we spent three hours a week working on the first four subjects and did two hours of maths a week over one year. Some children did all the subjects, some just one. It doesn't take a genius to understand the syllabus and liaise with the examining boards if there are any problems, and I'm pretty good at working out marks because of my earlier work as a croupier.

Are qualifications important, and do you agree with the focus on league tables and testing?

Learning is about developing self-confidence and self-knowledge, and testing doesn't come into this. League tables test the school, not the child. Everything has to be "academic" these days, so the exams are watered right down. For example, everyone must have the "opportunity" to analyse a poem, but because many quite understandably just aren't interested, they are given some sentences to use and memorise so they look as if they are analysing a poem and can jump through the right hoops. But this isn't the same as actually analysing a poem.

I believe children should be able to work in paid employment as soon as they would like to, and would feel more valued if allowed to do this. Age shouldn't be a basis for whether anyone can contribute to society. Of course, they shouldn't be exploited, but neither should they be kept out of the workforce for 25 years, hanging around, filling in forms and contributing to league tables.

What advice do you give to parents taking their child out of school?

Don't buy any school books. Home education doesn't have to look like school, which is a peculiar, stylised form of education that doesn't relate to the real world. School books are usually full of exercises designed to keep people busy. The best thing you can do is give your children space to start to think and develop their own interests.

How do home-educated children turn out?

Home-educated children are a very diverse bunch. Some pursue skills or interests at an early age, others enjoy the challenge of exams and get high grades. But above all, the home-educated children I know are confident, creative and know their own minds.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

I would remove the law that says education is compulsory - as if people wouldn't learn without a law. Learning is a basic human attribute. Without a law, they might not learn what the state wants, but they would still be moving forward and developing.

What is the worst excuse you have ever heard?

Do you mean a reason for not doing something? Wouldn't it be better to come clean and explain why you chose not to do it?


- Founder and trustee of The Otherwise Club, a community centre for home-educating families

- Trustee of Education Otherwise, home-education support charity

- Editor and publisher of home-educators' newsletter Choice in Education

- Conference organiser at HesFes, home-educators' annual festival

- Mother of a son (1983) and daughter (1989), neither of whom attended school.

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