Years of home-work which led to school;Another Voice;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Nine o'clock on a Monday morning in March 1998. I usher four shivering children into school for the first time.

The headteacher is there to welcome us - enthusiastic, no-nonsense, I like her immediately - she shows the children to their various classrooms. Our years of home-education are over.

That first week was an emotional roller-coaster for all of us: frightening, challenging and exciting in turn.

I knew it was going to be all right when Harry, my 11-year-old, told me "I went to the toilet for the first time at school today." It was his second week. My heart lurched when I realised how afraid he must have been - he hid it well. He explains now that he felt he had to be brave for the younger ones. And perhaps also for me.

Choosing a school had been a stab in the dark, based on rushed visits and gut instinct. In many respects, I was as much of a beginner as the boys.

Most of my friends were home-educators too and the "parents-with-school-age-kids" network was an elusive mystery. Thankfully, I made the right choice. The teachers were patient and supportive. I don't think they realised until the boys arrived how much of a cultural change it would be, but they took it in their stride. School society is unique, with its own unwritten expectations.

I like to think that seeing their world through the eyes of "outsiders" was useful for the boys' teachers too - that we all gained something from the process.

A year on, we are settled into our new way of life. Although I worked in alternative education for more than 10 years, and am still a strong supporter of home schooling, I do not regret our decision.

For it was very much a joint decision. Harry, academic, determined, rigorous, longed to attend school. He argued that co-operative games and workshops were not for him; and he was right - he thrives on the competition and challenge offered by school life.

It was Harry who made me look again at my reasons for home educating: how could I, one person, presume to meet all of his needs or match his enthusiasm?

My middle son is the quietest and I worried about him the most, but there was no need. He also loves school for his own peculiar reasons.

He is easy-going, solid and peaceable. He is happiest when he knows what is expected of him, so the discipline of school suits him perfectly.

The youngest, only four when he started, found it easiest of all in some respects. But I don't regret home-educating the boys either.

Those years at home gave the eldest two a strong sense of themselves, an inner confidence which sees them through difficult moments and gives them a deep respect for others. They question rules if they do not think they are fair; but will follow them when given a good reason so to do. They are also creative, divergent thinkers. My youngest son does not share these qualities, although he has others; he is a conformist in the making.

He has lost something I cannot even name, and that is my greatest regret.

I mentioned that I took four children to school on that March morning. The fourth child was my nephew. David had been in mainstream school up to the age of six, and returned again just after his seventh birthday. He spent time in two inner-city primaries, suffering from bullying in both. He was falling further behind with his school work, but worst of all he had little self esteem left.

For him, the year at home was a breathing space. Time to rediscover his sense of self-worth and learn how to relate to other children confidently. He made up some of the lost ground academically too. He has settled well into his new school (this time in a small country town), and is progressing quickly.

We were lucky. David had not entirely convinced himself that school was a cruel place where he did not want to be, as so many bullied children do. He was discouraged, certainly, but he still had hope on his side. Many children who are taken out of school do not find it so easy to return later.

I firmly believe that the staff in David's new school have made all the difference; for the first time, school is something to look forward to. Don't get me wrong, we have had our share of problems this year too. But on the whole it has worked well.

It has also been a learning journey for me. I have the greatest admiration for my children's teachers. And I have realised that sometimes the best way to change a system is to do it supportively,from within.

Linda Jackson is a writer andtherapeutic counsellor

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