Explaining the ‘angst, doubt and heartache’ of homeschooling

Schools faced with parents threatening to home educate need to know all the arguments against it, writes successful home educator Emma White

Since schools returned this autumn, the media has been abuzz with talk of Covid-19 and how schools will create a safe normal for the new academic year. The angst that children and teachers could be exposed to the virus upon their return to the classroom is palpable – and it is here to stay.

There is an increasing sense of panic and an evident temptation to fall into the soothing embrace and apparent “safety-net” of home education. Parents have had a brief taste of home schooling during the lockdown – or at least they think they have. Bringing education permanently into the home could be the port in a possible storm but for schools, it equates to dwindling roll numbers and with it an inevitable drop in revenues from fees.

As a successful veteran of home education, it may come as a surprise to hear that I would personally rain on this rapidly forming parade and wisely suggest these defectors proceed with caution.

Events over the recent months have been tough for schools generally but for home-educated children they have been dire. The promise that “no child would be disadvantaged” by the CAG solution failed to consider private candidates; many could not provide evidence or convince their exam centre that they were eligible for a grade. Centres were cautious because the terms on how to accept entries were muddled and in order to safeguard their own positions, understandably they turned away those children with whom they had no previous relationship.

“Most parents, though not all, turn to home education through adversity.”

Most parents, though not all, turn to home education through adversity. It is a choice made when things go wrong – usually a personal disaster where assuming the role of educator becomes the most pragmatic option. But turning to home education through fear of a disease is not best policy for most and the pros really need to be weighed up with the cons.

Any school business manager faced with parents threatening to remove their children will need a barrage of good, well thought out arguments to advise parents to think long and hard before exiting the comfort of provided, structured learning.

Let me state first that home education can be a wondrous experience. It has been for me. My two sons have achieved 18 GCSES and one AS to date and we’ve done it all on our own – no tutoring. We are now galloping into the home straight of seven A -levels and one further AS and we intend to maintain our “nothing less than a Grade A” tally. But whilst I’m proud I’m immensely realistic. For many people, home education can be like the Wild West and even I, happy to boast of glorious achievements, could regale you with tales of angst, doubt, heartache and tears.

I suppose looking back I was lucky. My boys were just Y5 and Y7 when I opted to home educate so I had time to stand awestruck at the mountain before us. But beyond the enormity of the task ahead lay the burden of guilt. Education is a massive responsibility and once you elect to home educate the buck stops with you. It really does.

“Parents and children are cut adrift and left to fend for themselves.”

Pulling the lever on in-school education is a bold move. There are 60,000 official home educators in the UK but this number is perhaps tenuous because once a child drops off the school roll and on to the annals of the Elective Home Education LEA Register they are technically allowed to disappear.

But such invisibility comes at a price to those who take the leap thinking that school, with all its familiar, irksome but comforting rules and regulations is just around the corner. It isn’t, because the government offers no provision whatsoever. None. Parents and children are quite literally cut adrift and left to fend for themselves. Every cost, every decision, good and bad is theirs.

Right now, and I see it daily, there is a misplaced presumption that parents can proceed at arm’s length from school, benefiting from some form of hand-holding, dipping a toe in the water so to speak, conjuring a sort of flexi arrangement which I believe is simply unheard of at secondary level. But it doesn’t work like that – not in reality. Once a child is off-rolled, de-registered, it is a bit like falling over a cliff, blindfolded in the dark.

Paying parents are customers and once the link between school and student ends it is truly over.

For most loving mothers and fathers, assuming the role of schoolmaster or mistress can be a difficult one to achieve. Not every child takes to being taught by mum or dad and emotionally there is a tight rope to be walked between being authoritative and insistent – and being loved.

“Home education calls for huge buy-in on the part of the child.”

In many ways, home education cramps their freedoms because time has to be self-managed without allocation for games, clubs and social pleasures that schools lay on for free. I have been fortunate to escape many issues because my children had become habitual home educators before they reached their teens.  They still value my input, even though they know my subject limitations, and we have a very effective life/work/school dynamic but they learnt from a young age to take ownership of their studies.

They’ve been removed, in part from the concept of peer pressure so they remain willing and biddable, but it isn’t the same for everyone. Many home educating parents express concerns about motivation and many children miss seeing their friends on a daily basis. Home education calls for huge buy-in on the part of the child, self-motivation, ownership and absolute discipline.

For those who are well on the road to GCSE exams, panic sets in because the realisation that disaster may lie ahead is hard to bear. Of course it is parents who feel the guilt but it is the child who suffers the consequences. Subject choice, exam board, topic options, viable combinations, content knowledge, exam technique, not to mention securing an exam centre, making entries, deadlines, UCAS references etc. You take charge for the lot and if you get it wrong the entire system is totally unforgiving.

“I know many hugely successful families who produce astonishing results with home education.”

I must add here that I am not detracting from the brilliance of home education. I know many hugely successful families who produce astonishing results. Parents who could collectively outperform the hallowed staff rooms of the best educational establishments. Some of their children have never set foot in a school and found themselves leading the show at Oxford and Cambridge, but it would be wrong to think that this wonderful outcome will bless every family who feel it will be easy to emulate these superstars. It doesn’t really happen like that  – not usually anyway.

It is extremely hard to home educate effectively and beyond being committed you need to be able to find the time and be of a particular mind-set; efficient with a bent for planning and well organised. For me it meant 7am lesson starts on cold mornings so that school could be done and dusted mid-morning and I could be free to bury myself in my work. It meant lying awake until 3 am reading voluminous specifications in all their detail. It called for structure, tenacity and discipline.

At the moment I see it by the hour, frightened parents who find themselves in the wonderland of a Facebook home education community, engulfed, swamped by a deluge of advice; overwhelmed.

“Encourage parents to think carefully before they make the leap.”

The truth is, there is no quick fix. As a parent you have to learn on your own and the workload is enormous. As a huge advocate of opportunity I felt obliged to offer up a full curriculum to my boys. We have covered 12 subjects so far and I have painstakingly read every specification and every text book. Every single word.

I had the benefit of joining my boys in their education journey as they started KS3 which crucially gave me a chance to refresh my own learning, but it was certainly a juggling act.

Some parents may be considering online provision in lieu of formal school. I would have welcomed this option all those years ago but for my boys one weekly lesson per child, per subject, would not have been enough. The costs too would have been prohibitive.

But the biggest cost was exam entry fees. They vary, but as a rule GCSEs start from £150 per subject and A- levels from £150 per component so for geography CAIE 9696 A-level that will be £600. Parents need to be cautious. There are also issues around science practicals, which qualifications can be achieved without them, and which universities are happy to accept them.

My advice would be to encourage parents to think carefully before they make the leap. Make them understand that the infrastructure of school and all it brings should not be taken for granted nor can it just be simply replicated at home. Ask them if they are aware of the pitfalls and crucially, explain how they need to be cautious about eroding into opportunity as they convince themselves that they can do it if they just reduce the content. This may work but for those with eyes on hotly contested university places it won’t serve them well.

As I cheer on my boys from the grandstand I will always remember just how much of my heart and soul went into it; endless hours of dedication and the crushing weight of overwhelming responsibility. We have emerged (almost) from the other side and yes, I am glad I did it  – but I wish I had known what was involved from the start. Being forewarned is most definitely being forearmed.

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