Education Viewpoint: At home with teaching

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The Independent Online
How our children learn is dictated by government and professionals. Parents' ability to educate their own offspring is undermined as experts take over. However, educating your own children is perfectly possible, and you don't need to be a teacher to do it.

About 20 years ago, I stood outside a London primary school, having just left my four- year-old daughter. I asked myself why I was doing it. If only she could continue her life at home, happily playing and developing at her own pace. But young children went to school to be educated - a process in which the parents, having helped their child to walk, speak and manage all kinds of tasks, appeared to have no further part. I accepted this, although I disliked watching Joanna become increasingly submissive to, and anxious about, the school regime. It took the birth of Alice, more than two years later, and a move to Suffolk, to make us decide to educate our children at home.

It is at this point that people ask how I had the patience or the ability. 'I wouldn't be capable,' is a common cry. It is shocking that parents can make so little of their own abilities, but it is hardly surprising. The underlying message of orthodox schooling is that people cannot be trusted to manage their own learning; it has to be fed into them from outside, and the sooner the better.

In the early days I did feel anxious and guilty. Who was I to assume I could educate my own child? How could it be right for her to be enjoying herself? But gradually I became more confident. Two more daughters followed, and with each child we relaxed further about what they 'should' be doing, as opposed to what they were inspired to do.

Yet, rather than asking if they were happy, fulfilled and capable, some people asked whether the girls could ever make friends. How would they manage when they had to cope in 'the real world'? And what were we doing about science? Science is often the focal point for people's worries about home education. It symbolises all that is beyond the grasp of 'ordinary' people, depending apparently on expensive equipment. Yet from Leonardo onwards, there have been scientists who have made their mark without depending on laboratories and developed observation and imagination through less orthodox means: by play and experiment.

Thomas Edison, a daydreamer at school, was written off as uneducable. He set up his own laboratory in the cellar at home after that, while his mother presumably had to cope with the neighbours asking her what she was going to do about science. The raw materials are all around us, and the scientific method is part of the natural curiosity of every child.

Another fear is: how will children at home learn to read? They need to learn to read early, I am told; they must get on and pass exams. In my experience, children can teach themselves to read quickly and efficiently, using the method which suits them, usually by first learning to write those words that have importance and meaning for them. They then progress to deciphering other words, through a combination of repetition and recognition based on reading familiar stories over and over, preferably on someone's knee. They succeed largely because they choose when and how to do it.

This means having the nerve to wait until the child wants to do it (and they will, because print is everywhere, even on cereal packets, and they want to know what it means). Alice resisted until she was nearly eight. I was worried: should I just make her do it? But when she was ready, she taught herself in a couple of weeks.

Learning in the way I have described does not sit easily with the current curriculum philosophy, which is to feed in regardless of need. It does not depend on great intellectual skills or rich resources. It depends on having an adult who understands that child's needs and has a strong emotional commitment to them. Parents usually fit the bill.