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The Mother Magazine, Editorial

Issue 25, Nov/Dec 2007

Cuddles are compulsory, by Veronika Sophia Robinson

My girls have decided to leave school and return to home education.

The past eight months have been an interesting and sobering journey, both for me as a mother, but also for us, as a family. The silence in the home has felt like a fabricated, if not superficial, peace. For me, each day they were at school held an undercurrent of angst. I imagined my daughters in a loveless school room, being taught things which, for the most part, were totally irrelevant to healthy, vibrant, conscious living, and at odds with our family's vision of life.

The decision to opt for home education again has come from them, not me or their dad, though clearly the whole family has been involved in various discussions and considerations.

This past term for Eliza has been based on a curriculum of learning about World War 2. The UK government clearly thinks it is important for nine year olds to have their days filled with images and stories of gas marks and concentration camps. As a  family, we don’t focus on war, but look at how humans can live in peace, within their own mind and, also, within the world.

Bethany made a loaf of bread in school earlier in the year. This involved weeks of work; writing and designing the loaf of bread and umpteen other bits of curriculum-related written work all in order to satisfy a government check-list. In real life, you just get on and make a loaf of bread. In our family the main requirement for bread making is for the baker to be in a good mood so she can ‘grow’ the dough with love. That’s not technical or scientific enough to make it on the national curriculum.

In secondary school, Bethany’s class was taught how to ‘cut an apple’ (yes, you read that right!). It begs the question “what’s happening in homes up and down the country that the government believes children of eleven and twelve years of age need a lesson in apple cutting?” The curriculum also includes how to make a sandwich. Bethany’s sandwich of brazil nut and linseed rye bread, filled with hommous, grated carrot, cucumber and rocket, will have been completely out of place in a room of white bread sandwiches filled with chocolate spread.

My children have been doing these very basic skills for many years.

The UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, is seeking to create world class schools in the UK. It’s very admirable, however, he’d do well to actually spend some extended time in a school room, experiencing it through the eyes and heart of a child, and then he might see where the improvements need to be made.

Like the children, I suspect many teachers have had their humanity squashed out of them in order to survive in the system. A loving respect for children seems largely missing, as does an awareness of holistic child development, health and well-being. I’m ever so glad my girls were nine and 11 before they tried out school. This gave them enough awareness and understanding of life and consensus reality to see through a number of issues.

When they started school in March, both girls bounced out of bed in the mornings with excitement; they jumped off the school bus in the afternoons itching to tell me all about their day. They couldn’t tell me quickly enough about everything they’d done. I started to question if I’d been wrong to home educate them for so long.

As the weeks turned into months, the sparkle started disappearing from their eyes. The end of day reports were narrowed down to ‘didn’t do anything in school today’ or ‘science was boring’ or ‘the teacher spent the whole time yelling at the naughty boys’. The bouncing out of bed at 6am became “Eliza, it’s eight o’clock, time to get up, there’s only half an hour left till the bus is here.” It’s not surprising that she’d had enough. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy spending six hours a day listening to someone yelling. What a stressful environment. No wonder she came home with headaches.

For Bethany, entering secondary school has turned out to be far different from the idealised image portrayed in Harry Potter and the Jacqueline Edwards books! She’s quickly come to question why she should only be allowed one art and one music lesson a week, when they are clearly her favourite subjects and in the direction of what she believes to be her life’s purpose. “Why should I learn algebra?” (my sentiments exactly, honey!). “What’s that got to do with being an artist?” When she started school, we helped her along by having some weekly maths tutoring. This option, to help her learn real life maths, will be revisited as and when she desires. At the moment, she needs to detox from “I hate Mondays, we’ve got maths.” The prime minister wants to increase the number of hours a week that children do physical education ~ not a bad thing at all, but at Bethany’s former school that means subjects like art will be sacrificed to make time for it. She was outraged.

One of the drawcards for attending school was to develop friendships. The reality is, there is very little time for playing in school. They both plan to see their school friends after school and at weekends, and rejoin the local Education Otherwise (home ed) group, as well as joining other groups.

It’s a blissfully sunny Autumn afternoon, and the girls are in the back garden playing with three children from the village. This play time can go on for hours and isn’t dictated by a bell, and having to gulp down lunch in order to grab a few minutes of play.

A friend of mine always says, “if it ain’t fun, I ain’t doin’ it!” Lest I forget, this quote is on my vision board and the girls have adopted it as their home education motto. This is clearly seen in their delightful and carefully thought out personal curriculum.

Watching the girls make plans for an individualised map of learning has been fascinating and an absolute joy. A few times, I’ve caught my breath at the sheer delight and empowerment they’re experiencing in choosing their learning path. Eliza and Bethany love to learn. They thoroughly enjoy doing projects and being immersed in activities. They’ve come to realise though, that this time is better spent planning their own lessons than having it, or their time, dictated for them. Bethany’s class was given mass punishment because of two disruptive pupils. “Why should I give up my lunch break if I didn’t do anything wrong?” Is this how our schools teach justice and fairness?

Home-based learning allows a child to trust in his/her ability to find a path of learning which reflects their uniqueness, creativity, interest, curiosity and spontaneity. Our job, as parents, whether we home educate or not, is to offer a rich environment so that the child will easily find what she needs in order to learn. If a child desires to learn, then she will enthusiastically absorb that information. This is the polar opposite of the rote learning and memorisation of subjects which occur in schools. Our culture severely underestimates the impact of imposingeducation upon children.

If Gordon Brown really wants to create world class education, he needs to understand that it’s a far greater skill to ask questions than to know the answers to everything. Implementing this idea, however, would turn formal, state-run education on its head!

Bethany has been spending seven hours a week travelling to and from secondary school. That’s almost a whole working day. As a home educated student, she can now spend those hours in productive, creative pursuits of her choice whether it be playing violin, belly dancing, learning German and French, studying artists, preparing wholefood meals, attending her graphic art for teens sessions at the library, pulling the amplifier out for a singing session, writing stories, chatting with, and learning from, women of all ages at the local knitting café, composing music at the piano, or watching Eliza having horse riding lessons with a teenage friend in the village.

When I pulled out my copy of School is not compulsory, to remind myself of the legal requirements when withdrawing a child from school, my daughters told me that home education means I mustn’t forget that “cuddles are compulsory!” Fancy the little rascals thinking I’d forgotten that? So, I’ve got eight months of cuddles to catch up on ~ that should get me through an English winter!

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