Treasure island

29th December 2000 at 00:00
The 36 plucky souls who volunteered to become modern-day Robinson Crusoes for the BBC's 'Castaway 2000' series had to become self-sufficient - and that included schooling. As Monica Cooney reports, the year-long experiment provided a golden opportunity to discover the riches of home education.

A year on a remote and windswept island in the Outer Hebrides may not sound like everybody's cup of tea - especially those with children used to the hectic pace of the city. But the five families among the 36 people who took part in Castaway 2000, the BBC's experiment in communal living, saw it as a unique opportunity to investigate the reality of home education.

When we arrived in January, renovation of the old schoolhouse, which had not been used as a school since 1935, was still incomplete. So we spent the first month putting up shelves, laying floors and fixing leaky windows and doors while the children were taught in a rundown house belonging to the island's owner. It was March before we finally moved into our dream school overlooking the beach.

We had two qualified teachers - Julie Lowe, an ex-primary teacher, and myself, a further education lecturer in English language and learning support, here with my partner and our four-year-old daughter, Ciara. I had taken a sabbatical from my post at Hackney Community College in east London. As well as escaping the stress of city life. I was looking forward to taking an active part in my daughter's education.

Another of the parents, Rosemary Stephenson, had already been thinking about home education for her two children, Oliver, seven, and Felix, five. She says: "Coming to Taransay gave us a chance to create our own kind of school and, above all, to devote as much time to our children as they needed."

With the pound;4,000 we were given to equip and run the school for a year, we bought furniture, a computer, musical instruments, a cassette player and art materials, as well as books and stationery. The most expensive item was a piano, so Rosemary's husband, Roger, could teach the children music, which, he maintains, "is as basic as maths to children". Fortunately, we soon made contact with the local library, which regularly sent us reading books for all ages.

With eight children of varied ages, we split them into two groups. The four- and five-year-olds, Felix, Ciara and Yoneh, went into one, and the four older children, Oliver Stephenson and Natasha Corrigan, aged seven, and Michael and Jodene Prater, aged nine and 11 respectively, into the other. The youngest, two-year-old Aaron (Yoneh's brother), would come along to school for half a day with his mother so he could benefit from the stimulating learning environment.

Julie Lowe taught the younger children, and the older ones were taught by myself, as well as Rosemary and Roger and Julia Corrigan. I concentrated on teaching grammar and spelling, Rosemary taught French, Roger Stephenson maths and Julia creative writing,with other members pitching in to teach the full range of national curriculum subjects.

It soon became clear that grouping the four older children together was a problem. While Oliver and Natasha worked well together, Michael had difficulty concentrating, and distracted the others, and Jodene was not being stretched - it was difficult to pitch the level to suit all four children.

We decided Michael and Jodene would benefit from individual tuition. Luckily, we had so many enthusiastic people who wanted to get involved that this was no problem. So while I taught Jodene and Michael reading, grammar, spelling and French, Julia continued to teach creative writing to Jodene.

The school day began relatively late - 10.30am for Jodene and Michael, and 11am for the younger children. It suited the children, who liked to play the piano, do their homework or read in the morning. And we reckoned the intensive teaching we provided gave the children more than they would get in a longer day at a mainstream school.

Mornings were given over to literacy, numeracy, science, French and history, while the afternoon sessions concentrated on the more creative subjects, including art, drama, music, sports and even circus skills.

Our school day had to be flexible as events often disrupted it, such as the delivery boat arriving with supplies and the mail. Then, it was all hands on deck as the children ran down to the beach to help unload.

But schooling was not confined to the classroom. We were living in an enormously stimulating environment where the children were learning constantly. The world around us - especially the weather and wildlife, the seals, deer, mink, otters and eagles on the island and the farm animals - provided many spontaneous teaching opportunities, such as the birth of a foal or a calf, which could be linked to the lessons of the day.

And being surrounded by alternative technology, such as wind and hydro-power generators, gave the children valuable insights into the production and use of renewable energy.

Even their leisure time was educational, feeding the animals, collecting shells, driftwood, stones and buoys, growing vegetables, making rafts and helping in the kitchen.

So as we start to pack the schoolbooks into boxes in preparation for leaving the island onJanuary 1, how have the children fared?

Julie Lowe says the younger ones have made rapid progress. "At the start of the year Felix and Ciara were beginning to decipher the reading code, and, thanks to the Oxford Reading Tree, are now enthusiastic readers and racing through the scheme. Yoneh was just starting to recognise letters and numbers and was making good progress when the family left last summer."

From a personal point of view, it has been exciting watching Ciara progress. Her reading and writing have come on well and she loves writing stories and reading them aloud.

Oliver and Natasha have flourished, working together as a pair and being well matched in ability. Julia Corrigan says: "As they are both articulate and imaginative children, they leapt at the opportunity to allow their imaginations to run riot. The results have been impressive and their writing skills have improved immensely."

Michael and Jodene responded well to individual tuition. "It's been fantastic," says their mother, Trish Pater. "The difference is amazing. Michael's reading is so much better, and Jodene is relaxed and confident, and even goes up to the schoolhouse on her own to do her homework. I feel I'm cheating the kids by taking them back to mainstream school."

And the piano proved a sound investment, with all six children queuing to practise before the start of school each morning, justifying Roger's belief that "there are four Rs - the fourth one is rhythm".

But the children weren't the only ones to benefit. Philiy Page, who taught Jodene science, had previously spent time helping in after-school classes. But, she says: "I had never had the chance to teach academic subjects within a relaxed school environment. I have learned a lot myself and I feel lucky to have had the chance to teach here."

Julie Lowe found the teaching different from her past experience. "Having the opportunity to provide quality education to just a few highly motivated children has been immensely satisfying and their progress has been swift and measurable," she says.

Above all, the children knew that during the day the schoolhouse was their space. They were often there out of school hours, reading, making things or using the computer.

The inspectors seemed impressed when they visited us halfway through the year. Their only concern was how the children would adapt back into the mainstream, after having had such a vast amount of individual attention.

Julia Corrigan says any concerns she had before coming soon disappeared. "Natasha was already doing well in school, so my concern was that she might slip behind. But this has not happened. Her reading, maths, science - well, everything - has come on in leaps and bounds."

Rosemary and Roger Stephenson are happy with the way their children have developed, and plan to carry on educating their children at home when they leave Taransay. Rosemary says: "Oliver and Felix have progressed well academically, but, more importantly, they have developed into happy, confident, enthusiastic learners. We want them to continue to have the freedom they have enjoyed here. Children have an innate desire to learn and do not need to spend six hours a day in school."

Our plans for Ciara's future schooling remain open. We feel confident that we could educate her at home. I am due to return to my teaching post in September 2001, so until then we plan to give it a go.

Teaching here has been a wonderful experience. And whether or not we are sending our children back to mainstream education, we have all become more aware of our children's learning.

The greatest thing this year has given us - and something every teacher would wish for - is the flexibility to be able to adapt to meet the individual needs of each child. And it has been an idyllic location to teach in. Where else could we look out of the window and see waves crashing on the beach, and the mountains beyond?


On Mondays I have my mum and we do stories and poems. It's my favourite lesson because I like doing poems. On Tuesdays I have maths, which is quite fun, and on Wednesday we do spelling and grammar.

On Thursday we do French and on Friday it's reading and writing.

In the afternoons we do fun things like art, drama, music, sports and projects. In art we have been making a Christmas tree and decorations because we haven't got any shops to buy them from.

Sometimes we don't do school because the boat comes and there is a lot of work to be done unloading the food. I like school on Taransay because of the beautiful view.

Natasha Corrigan (pictured), 7 We start at 11am. Every day we have a different lesson. In the morning we have things like maths, English and French. In the afternoons we have things like art and drama. For morning school my favourite lessons are maths and French, taught by my mum. My best afternoon school is drama. It used to be taught by Ron, but he left. We used to throw water at the roof and say "there's a leaking roof". Now it's taught by Gwyneth and Ben Murphy.

I like school here better than at home because we have more time to play, and we do more fun things, like making rafts and dens.

Oliver Stephenson, 7 I get up at 8:30am and go to the steading (communal building) for breakfast. Afterwards I play the piano or do homework.

I don't start lessons until 10.30am, but I get mostly one-to-one teaching, so I concentrate harder. It's made a big difference to the way I learn. My favourite lesson is about evolution, with Padraig Nallen. He is a very good teacher because he knows so much. School here is much easier than at home because the teachers have more time for me.

I read every night now, that's made a lot of difference to my writing and grammar. I've written some really good stories and poems. Maths has also improved. Everything has improved for me this year.

Jodene Prater, 11

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