No longer home alone

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Sally Ballard writes a letter to her son, aged 11, as he starts school for the first time

Dear Thomas, This term more than 400,000 children are stepping through the gates of their new secondary schools. You are one of them. You wear your new blazer, black lace-up shoes and, for the first time, a button-up shirt and tie. You look much older than you used to wearing jeans, a T-shirt and trainers.

Down the long corridors you find your Year 7 class and no doubt soon find new friends. But your conversation is different. They will talk about their playtime games, their primary school teachers and favourite football teams. You will talk about being home alone and your lessons round the dining room table. But there again, you might just choose to keep quiet and see how you fit in.

You have been taught at home, one of the estimated 20,000 home-schooled children in this country. I see that as a privilege you will carry through life. But you are wise enough to see that this already sets you apart, makes some people cagey about you and gives others a handle with which to beat you. Not necessarily a privilege at this stage of your life.

You will have to be strong like your brother and sister before you, both of whom had different experiences fitting into school after their years at home.

You are the youngest of my three children. A sunny boy, happy and contented whose life until now has been wonderfully simple. So enviable that the various education inspectors, who over the years have leafed through your work, have said they wished they had had the courage to teach their children this way. We were not out to impress, just to enjoy absorbing knowledge from the world around us. Naive maybe, but it worked while it lasted.

Do you remember playing spelling games on the sitting room floor, the explosive chemistry experiments in the kitchen, your delight in discovering how quick you were at mathematics, the successes of your vegetable garden and the endless books you read whenever you wanted to? They have been good times; you tell me so yourself. Your friends have envied your freedom and lack of pressures. Their parents envied the academic success that seemed to come so easily to all of you, though I believe our teacher-pupil ratio played a big part.

We have not prepared you for or exposed you to school life. We didn't have a television until recently. You are not streetwise. Your arsenal of bad language is limited as is your knowledge of what's cool and what's not. Bullying, challenging authority, truancy and facing different moral values will be the dark sides of your new life.

Your elder brother has coped by building a hard shell around his soft interior. He was confused in his early school days by what he saw, lost his confidence and took a back seat. The shame was he never really did fit in. His academic success nose-dived, he joined the smoking lads, the mucking- about-in-class lads. Some would say it was because he had been sheltered in his early life. Would he have been any different had he been given the chance to toe the conventional educational line from age five ? I think not. But had he continued to stay at home I believe he would had skipped that defiant stage we tentatively accept as part of adolescence. He is wiser now and can use rather than abuse his IQ of 145.

Your sister's problems were physical rather than emotional. She found the classroom noise rather difficult to bear, the timetable an uncomfortable routine and the organisational skills hard to cultivate. However, she coped and is well respected and liked for her motivation, maturity and perceptiveness.

So school is where you are going. Haven't you been lonely, people ask? You say not, that you are part of the village cricket team and play your cello in a Saturday orchestra, you swim and belong to a choir. You are also happy in your own company.

So why aren't we continuing your education at home? I ask myself that every day. To be honest I am worried that in keeping you at home you will be denied the teenage companionship and jostling that society tells me is more important for self-development than pages of academic certificates. You deserve a conventional upbringing for at least part of your childhood, but I think we agree that in trying to be what is termed normal we will both be giving up a lot. I wish you well.

Love, Mum.

Sally Ballard has taught her three children to secondary level at home. They now attend single-sex grammar schools in Warwickshire

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