The strange appeal of staying at home

28th August 1998 at 01:00
It has to be a summer evening. We've bathed the children and cleaned their teeth. They have read to us and we have read to them. Done is the leisurely wind-down and we are done in, well and truly wound down. They, however, pristine and glowing, are still winding each other up. And thenI Tinkle, tinkle, smash! Screams. Yells. Oh dear yes, it's blood everywhere. Lydia has put her foot through a window. Let's not enquire why or how, let's just pack it with ice and, oh joy and bliss, get down to accident and emergency.

"Name?" enquires the bored receptionist. Human catastrophe no longer holds any thrills for her. "Address? Date of birth? School?" School? She's put her foot through a window. What's school got to do with it? Is this part of the Government's plot to clamp down on truanting?

"She doesn't go to school."

"Oh, too young? No, she'sI" "Actually," I confess, reluctantly, "I educate her at home." It's not that I'm ashamed. But I know what's going to happen next.

Bored receptionist instantly becomes fascinated parent. "You educate her at home? Gosh, I don't blame you. Are you a teacher? What about her social life? School holidays? National curriculum? SATs?" And on. And on. Lydia, meanwhile, is continuing her education with an interactive, hands-on study of the coagulating properties of blood.

"Gosh, I do admire you. You're very brave." The receptionist doesn't mean Lydia.

Three and a half hours later the butterfly stitches are done. Lydia has spent the time dozing, thank goodness. John Holt's Learning All the Time may haunt me but I'm not thrilled by the learning opportunities provided by the casualty queue. Would we start with the jaundiced goldfish in the waiting room (their state of health isn't encouraging) or the man bitten in an awkward place by a dog?

So, I've had plenty of time to think. What is it that makes home education so riveting? I've been immobilised at check-outs, the centre of attention at parties, even accosted in the showers at the swimming pool. All right, we know that standards are supposed to need improvement, that the national curriculum isn't perfect and that finding the best school is more traumatic than childbirth. But does that explain the nationwide fascination with what I'm doing?

I remember the precise moment that I discovered home education. I read an article in The TES. Cue gut-wrenching, heart-stopping panic and the certain knowledge that this was something that I had to do. Most people have excuses - perfectly valid ones. Home education will never be a viable option for everyone despite what some rabid de-schoolers hope. But that moment of gestalt, that sudden Yes! Brilliant idea! - surely it's the same for everyone? It's so obvious. I am no teacher-basher but a class size of four, compared with 34? There has to be more opportunity for a child-centred, well-resourced, flexible learning experience. The chance to cherish autonomy, nurture creativity, watch out for special needs. To run out and play when the sun shines and to toboggan when it snows. And that moment of realisation is as uncomfortable and riveting as picking a nice crusty scab.

"I admire you." The receptionist validates what I've chosen. "You're very brave." There's the rub. Brave? To look after my own children? Is that so scary? Well, perhaps it is, judging by the number of summer play-schemes that litter the local leisure centres. It's not just those in full-time employment who pack their little darlings off for the hols. You can hear parents counting the days before term begins in every supermarket in the land.

So I think those advocates of the revolutionary powers of IT will have an uphill battle to convince the masses of the wisdom of home-based learning with schools as glorified cyber-cafes while David Blunkett wows them with his spot-the-truant campaign. Yeah, go on, get 'em in there, keep them off the streets. Make them invisible and browbeat the teachers if they don't turn out to be literate, creative, fulfilled and responsible citizens at the end of it. Oh, and while they're at it what about throwing in the odd after-school club too? And holiday clubs? Brilliant idea.

No, I don't see schools changing much. While more parents are choosing to home-educate, it'll never be the majority's choice. It's too yucky underneath the scab, too full of - well - kids. Parents will spend hours and pounds on finding the best child-minder, school, ballet class, gym club - but spend those hours with their kids? Excuse me?

So let's hear it for the teachers, those stalwart troopers who nurture squads of 30 into individual fulfilment and responsible citizenship while administering SATs and delivering the National Curriculum. Admirable? Brave? Me? The one staying at home to educate four children? No, that's my husband, head of maths at the local comprehensive. He's the unsung hero. And all the other poor blighters like him.

Meg Harper writes fiction for children

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