Who needs school?

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
More teachers are looking to work in educating children at home or outside the traditional environment. Susannah Kirkman talks to three of them

Increasingly disenchanted with work in schools, Karen Turner is one of a growing number of teachers who are now involved with home education and other alternative education settings.

"I became very disillusioned with the rigidity of the curriculum," she explains. "When the Jamie Bulger case was being held, I had a Year 6 class, the same age as the two boys who were being tried for Jamie's murder. All my pupils wanted to do was talk about it, so I put the books away for a day and we discussed what had happened, but we had such a lot of catching up to do afterwards."

Enforced paperwork, a surfeit of meetings and over-testing were other factors which drove Ms Turner away from formal education. Finally, she did not think her own young son would thrive in the system which she had rejected, so she decided to educate him herself.

A year ago, Karen set up a centre to support home education in Chard, Somerset, which is now used by 15 families. It is open one day a week for those activities which parents may find difficult to provide at home, such as drama, dance, music, team-building . science and history.

The county council and North Somerset District Council have both been supportive, and Karen is being paid to devise a long-term plan for the centre. She is working with a community development officer on a scheme to keep it open for three or four days a week.

The main benefits for Karen are highly motivated pupils and the opportunity to follow their interests.

"I have done supply work in tough, inner city schools and it is incredibly difficult dealing with kids who don't want to be there," she said. "Instead of blank faces, I see children who want to learn. I also have the time to answer their questions; I see myself as a facilitator for their learning."

Gillian Trott is another former schoolteacher exploring different ways of learning. She is working as a consultant in person-centred learning to secondary schools in East Sussex and Brighton. With colleagues, she has just written a business plan for a new learning centre which could be used by disaffected and excluded pupils, as well as gifted students and home-educated children. They are applying for lottery funding to provide a fully-resourced building.

The main principle behind the person - centred approach is that people learn when they are interested and when something has meaning for them,.

"It's not rocket science, but it doesn't happen in schools," says Gillian.

In groups of six, she encourages pupils to pinpoint learning that has helped them in the past, how they are learning now and their future goals.

They analyse their strengths and weaknesses and break their goals down into manageable steps. Other key features are the development of active listening skills and the use of peer pressure to achieve students' aims.

"Instead of peer pressure working in a negative way, fighting against the system, we try to mobilise it so that students support each other's aspirations," Gillian says . Schools' emphasis on competition rather than team-building does not prepare pupils for the world of work, she says.

"Careers are no longer for life and professional bastions are being eroded, The most important qualities now are active learning and creative thinking; people who find it difficult to adapt to change are going to be at risk."

Meanwhile, personalised learning has already produced some remarkable success stories, including a reluctant student who is now taking an NVQ mechanics course at college.

"When I first saw him, his hood was up, his shoulders were hunched and he barely spoke," says Gillian. "The focus on formal learning at school didn't play to his strengths. When he discovered that his strong points lay in practical, kinaesthetic learning, his attitude was transformed."

Gillian's educational views changed when she had a family of her own and became aware of how young children learn. She believes they are natural learners; they learn to walk and talk without professionals interfering.

Their parents act as facilitators. This chimed with her personal experiences as a teacher.

"My passion for teaching was based on a two-way relationship with my pupils," she says. "I never felt comfortable with the role of an all-knowing being who dispenses knowledge."

She had always intended to return to the classroom, but when her first son started school, she decided that the system was too formal and he was being expected to do too much too young.Both her sons are now being educated at home.

Lindsay Brown, a former junior school teacher, is someone else who has been drawn to use her skills in the home education movement. Originally, she left her job to focus on her three adopted sons.

"Teaching is very demanding - it's 60 to 70 hours a week during term-time and I couldn't devote enough time to my boys," says Lindsay. Two of her sons are now taught at home; one of them has learning difficulties while the youngest was unhappy at school.

But Lindsay has also started a small business with a colleague, selling curriculum packs to families who are educating their children at home.There are primary and secondary versions, and they aim to show parents what parts of the national curriculum they need to cover.

"We are aiming to give parents peace of mind, so that they're not thinking, 'Have I done enough on punctuation?' or 'What shall I do on Monday?' "

So far, they have sold three or four packs per month, including one to a family living in France.

Lindsay says that they are not expecting to make lots of money; she believes it is more important that people have the confidence to educate their children in a rounded way.

Not surprisingly, involvement with altermative education may be very satisfying but it is no way to get rich quick. The Home Education Advisory Service says that it gets hundreds of enquiries from teachers who would like to teach home-educated children, but that parents, who have given up their jobs to teach their children often can't afford to pay tutors.

Sally Meineck, who lives in the New Forest in Hampshire, balances home educating her 14 year-old son and her 11-year-old daughter with part-time work as a journalist and photographer.

She stresses that, while most families would find individual tuition too expensive, they are happy to club together for shared workshops.

"One of the most popular ideas I've come across is for weekly group workshops, in the areas of science,arts and crafts and languages," she says. "We recently joined a morning science workshop, which cost pound;3.50 per child."

The Home Education Advisory Service also gets many enquiries from parents looking for after-school tuition, so anyone seeking to make a living might be able to combine private tutoring with home education work.

For further information, www.home-education-centre.co.ukwww.witsendcs.comwww.selfmanagedlearning.org

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