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The loneliness of the long-distance learner.

And how on-line schools may provide a solution.

By Emma White, Founder and Managing Director at Mark My Papers

I think it is an inherent part of growing older that we constantly re-evaluate our past.  What may have pleased us at 18 we see through different eyes at 30 and again, perhaps with a changed perspective at 40 and 50 and so on, and these reflections lead to judgments on our childhood and those who were responsible for the choices we made.  There will not be one amongst us who in turn both blames and thanks our parents for the path they chose for us.

Amongst the choices I made for my own two younger sons was to home-educate them right through from KS2 through to their A Levels. I say ‘choice’ but it was in fact a decision thrust upon the three of us through bizarre circumstances; a case of life throwing us a curved ball and home-education offering a lifeline in a tumultuous world. You may well ask why I didn’t leave them in school, but believe me – that was not a choice in our particular set of circumstances.

Nine years on and I look back on our results with pride. All A*s and As at GCSE, all A* at A level – and both boys now at Cambridge University, one reading History the other Natural Sciences. From 11 plus failure and rejection by several of our leading state and private schools, the youngest accepted a Cambridge offer aged just 16.  Spectacular results indeed and, dare I say it, far beyond anything they may have achieved in a school environment after failing the 11 plus.  From the confines of a single parent-led school room they’ve excelled at other interests too…music, football and chess. They have superb social skills and can converse adeptly with adults, have a multitude of friends, a vast range of interests and roll casually from speaking French to English when needed. The eldest made JCR President of his Cambridge college, is self-teaching Hindi and Farsi and now stands with a training contract in hand from a Magic Circle law firm whilst his younger brother is bent on attaining a PhD in Physics (at least for now).

They’ve developed an all-consuming passion for learning; not just their chosen subjects that they have carried through to degree level but a startling ability to choose a new interest and self-teach.  And they’ve done this from age 14, self-steering through A levels in a range of sciences and humanities. The fundamental basis of my strategy was always to encourage them to teach themselves, and it has paid off.  Job done.  Of all this I am immensely proud, so why do I question the very practice of home-education and the free-wheeling nature of schooling beyond the confines of an organised classroom?

I must remind readers at this point that I am not a natural home-educator, not a mother who stridently waltzed before her children resolutely praising the virtues of being cossetted at home ‘with mum’ gently exploring interests and advocating the policy of child-led learning.  No, that wasn’t me.  Far from it, when home education became the best solution to a personal debacle, I found myself rigidly clinging to the vestiges of an education I once knew. An education of text books, reading and making endless notes without internet or tutors. An education that would lead us (hopefully) to public exam success whilst my one and all abiding fear was failing my boys. Leading them up the garden path to put in hours of learning for an empty outcome.  If I could have one wish it would be that this angst had been soothed by the knowledge that all would bode well and we would attain heights we never dreamt were possible…but that’s the benefit of hindsight. But believe me, home-education delivered well and effectively is an arduous task.  It takes time and commitment and it is an overwhelming undertaking for a sole parent.

I say it myself…we got really good at it. Super good in fact. An epic team who simply loved the process of learning; although at times I did feel as though our isolated practices may be turning us into the Bronte sisters as we fought not to finish one another’s sentences!

So would I do it again? Would I recommend anyone standing on the cusp of falling into the tempting embrace of the home education community, or online learning to take the plunge.  No, I’d say think carefully. It may be absolutely the very best thing for a child at that particular moment in time, but as the years roll by, I’d warn all parents to expect that they may, in later years,  personally pay the price for it – at least emotionally.

My story focuses on the impact of the isolation of home-learning. Any critic of home-education will delight in telling you that children miss out socially.  I’d disagree – because they don’t have to.  No doubt some children do but most home-educating parents build a network of friendships or at least work hard to continue with former school made relationships and encourage lots of work experience too.  The truth is, it can be a very busy life with endless clubs, outings and meet ups. 

It’s not the socialising that is the problem; it is the isolation in learning. 

Interestingly, the spectre of isolation didn’t actually become apparent until the whole process of home-education was long behind us.  It manifested itself when my youngest found himself left at home after his brother had departed for Cambridge and he was cruising along whilst he waited to bag his four A Levels.

Home-educating two children together is a juggling act, but in many ways it is far better than home-educating one.  A lone child marooned in an adult world.  For us it meant, in spite of a two and a half year age gap, my youngest had to share lesson time with his older brother wherever I felt confident he would cope, and that led in turn to him doing his first GCSE in Year 8 and being ready for his A Levels in Year 11 when his brother was in Year 13. He hung on and covered the content for two more A Levels but only entered four when he would have been in Year 12.  He was constantly in stalling mode, waiting to get back into all the world could throw his way and trailing round behind two parents, rather reminiscent of Richard Burrell in Michael Palin’s, superb East Of Ipswich.

Academically he was thriving to the point where he became intoxicated by the power of learning.  A nice problem to have you may say, and indeed it is, but for a young person to be secluded from his peer group in this manner is not healthy and his endless personal challenges to fill his time with further reading and more to do knew no bounds. He went to great lengths to support his home learning, even showing the initiative to contact text book authors so he could ask questions directly.  And in spite of being a scientist he still felt compelled to read all 38 Shakespeare plays and an enormous pile of classics as well as the Bible, in its entirety.  As the Bible underpins much of art and literature it was actually a wise move but the issue was finding others who would share his journey from science through to philosophy and there wasn’t anyone, just me.  Me who never claimed to have much interest in anything religious but who could now name every descendant member of the 12 tribes of Israel and no doubt, at a push, build my own tabernacle! I must pause here to explain, I loved and encouraged his enthusiasm to learn but in all honesty, I should have been aware, this obsessional approach to study was in part due to a lack of normality going on in his world. A cry for help.

Be it delivered online or by a parent, education needs to be a shared journey.  It needs debate and challenge, which is invariably limited in a small family…although much enjoyed.  It needs a range of adults who can draw out and develop passion and fellow students who can share the load.  But the sad truth is most home-educating families cannot afford the commitment of a broad knowledge base of tutors and most are teaching hand to mouth on a piecemeal basis. The solution here would be if funding were available to give these children a broader experience from home, rather than just hide them away.

I suppose for many, the reclusive aspect of home-education is a welcomed shelter from the emotional bruising and mental health battering that many children encounter in schools and this is where the practice has its place. I work with schools and I totally understand than many schools cannot harbour nor foster this thirst for learning. But not all home-educators are in retreat and try as we might, replicating school from home, online or otherwise cannot be achieved with that sense of educational camaraderie many of us enjoy throughout our schooling.

The truth is, GCSE and A level students don’t make good captive pets.  They need a busy and enticing world around them and home education is for many a case of hibernating and shutting out the world.

When my youngest finally left for Cambridge he felt he had been released back into the wild. He loved it. And he began to question the home-learning experience that had been inflicted upon him.  The very process that had actually got him there. Why the isolation? Why hadn’t he done ‘normal’? University is a time when all of us are piqued most by our insecurities and his personal battle was to ascertain where he fitted amongst this huge mix of students. The whole process of ‘finding your feet’ led him to question his identity and his relationship with me.  He was neither state or privately educated. He was the home educated chap. 18 months on he still questions my choice. Of course, that’s not to say he always will but at a very important time in his life he has felt much of his life experience set him apart.

We had debated whether or not he should join university a year ahead of his cohort because in normal circumstances, another year at home would have been of great value to him, but he needed to break free and move on. Emotionally I don’t think he could have faced another year of confined singular learning, and being totally honest, neither could I. We had considered Sixth Form College too but no state funded place was available to a student so young for his year group.

Oddly enough, he told me recently that he still learns best when he self-teaches. However, the value of a peer group sharing the same journey is immense and this is virtually impossible to replicate from home.

He’s not alone.  A good friend whose son followed a similar trajectory as an only child, led by a hugely capable mother, has had a similar experience.  He secured a place at a leading Russell Group University and plunged in, welcoming his new found freedom.  He’s achieved great things too both academically and politically. He has great oratory skills, self-confidence, academic ability and charm, but his parents have been subjected to the same introspection as to whether their choices have been made for all the best reasons.

The irony is, these young men are exactly everything a school would be proud of. They’ve swerved many of the negative aspects of education en-masse, but they don’t quite yet appreciate it.  They have a human need to fit and home learning has made them an anomaly; at least in their heads.

So there needs to be change. There needs to a recognition that more and more parents are turning to home-education for their children.  The reasons for this are well documented and not to be covered here, but whilst it is a perfectly legitimate choice, there needs to be suitable provision for those who want to succeed in a conventional education, but from home. I believe there is a solution to the issues that face those lost souls who crave academic excellence but lack the infrastructure and support to stretch their curiosity.  There is a growth in online schools, all providing exactly what these young people require but unfortunately, financially out of the reach of ordinary pockets.  Where a government is committed to spending £7,690.00 per student per year in state education, surely access to this funding would help both home-educated students, their parents and these online enterprises?

The fact is, at this moment, the costs of home-education have to be borne totally by the family household and this includes all learning materials, any tutoring if affordable and exam entry fees.  For anyone who abandons school education in pursuit of home learning Utopia, it is a rude awakening when they realise the costs involved. For me personally that came to over £8,000.00 for entry fees alone (including science practicals). A far cry from the price of independent education perhaps, but for those in state schools, a huge price to pay when you consider the journey is usually provided at zero cost. Not surprisingly, many parents back pedal so that their children do the bare minimum and in many cases, knowingly jeopardise life opportunities in the process.

Anyone who has rubbed along with the world of home education will acknowledge that the ‘voice’ of its fundamentalists is a fierce beast.  They protect their rights to repel probing from government sources and resent accountability, but as the number of children finding themselves learning unconventionally grows, there needs to be more provision so that online learning can sit a little closer to ‘conventional ‘ teaching and recognise the needs of stranded teenagers.  This can only come through leaning more towards a regulated offering where more souls are funded by the state to join other children in their segregated journey of learning.  With the growth in on-line schools this must surely now be a possibility.

The issue is how do we make this happen?

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