All views are my own and are not representative of any employers, institutions or the home education community
“Don’t be afraid to be controversial” was the advice I was given last week. Undertaking research in an area that already occupies a large part of life; it was always going to be tricky.
The hats that I wear are sometimes heavy and on occasion I drop one whilst catching another, always attempting to keep them all from toppling from my head. My parenting hat is 17 years old and it is really well worn, not quite threadbare but certainly at that stage where it is the most comfortable hat in my wardrobe. There is never a time when I am able to place the parenting hat into a box and leave it there until the next season. Parenting is life-long and I have learned over the last 5 months that I didn’t just sign up for an 18 year stint; I handed my life and soul over from the minute that test was positive.
My most decorative, creative hat, that stands tall on my head with fancy beads and feathers, is my Home Educating Mother, hat. I give my children the choice between going to school or remaining in Home Education, I spend considerable time encouraging autonomy and critical thinking; skills that will help the children work through a problem without being afraid of failure. I switch from A-Level Psychology questions to simplifying fractions; from conversations about psychopathy to ancient Greece projects. Home Education is exhausting but where else would the children learn the responsibility of owning animals, or how to cook three meals for a family of 6 in one day? Where would children learn how to write their own novel and then be given the time and space to write their own novel?
The 200+ books that take up space on every free wall in my home, nod towards my career in higher education and teacher education. Higher Education Lecturer has been my title for the majority of my adult career, I train teachers and therefore education permeates into every aspect of my world. I have to switch between Researcher and Higher Education Lecturer almost every day. The switch is sometimes difficult and is complicated further by those who do not fully understand either role. I have pondered on this for a long time; can a researcher truly produce accurate, reliable research when they are part of the community in which they are researching? Can I, as researcher, separate from Home Educator long enough and effectively enough to produce valid, honest, unbiased results? Some have certainly shared the opinion that my Researcher hat is far too entangled with my mother/home educator hat; others have supported my work with comments such as “we need someone from the community willing to do the research” and “our story can only be truthfully told by one of us”. I swing from believing I can do this research justice, to what if I just make the landscape even more uncomfortable for members of my home education community. Doubt sometimes creeps in like I have never experienced before.
My Parent hat has never been more healthy and my Lecturer hat are pretty sturdy. Trying to add a hat that feels as though it has been made of crystal sometimes feels like one hat too many.
Then there is my community of like-minded, enthusiastic, creative home education parents/carers/grandparents and adults who have taken decisive action in choosing home over school. Except the diversity within this group is mind-boggling. Some groups debate, ask questions, share ideas and ignore comments they disagree with. Others are suspicious about anyone who asks academic style philosophical questions instead of the typical “what do I have to do in order to remove my child from school” and “I need math games for twin boys”. Some groups are highly, aggressively fearful and cautious over new comers and I just cannot get my head around that. Expecting to actually find like-minded people was possibly my mistake. Im a teacher, a trainer, as lecturer and a researcher – I am yet to find anyone who has a similar background. However, the rest of the education world and most certainly those making policies, need to understand that fear is a reaction to a threat, real or perceived, it makes no difference. Parents around the world are experiencing some shocking behaviours, often from inexperienced and untrained government officials that lead all the way to the halls of power.
Fear = ‘a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger; concern or anxiety; something that causes feelings of apprehension; to consider or anticipate something that would cause alarm’
I think that my interactions with the home education community as a parent has two effects, (1) my experience of education over the past 20 years serves as a source of information, accurate explanations and a secure supply of ideas that I can link to a number of state curricula worldwide; (2) I am a target for uneasy parents who see me as a direct link to government and the media and I am therefore not to be trusted even though I am also a legitimate Home Education Parent who should be able to join the community for support and ideas.
It is all well and good me being able to shuffle the hats that I wear, I have been doing it on and off for many years; what happens when others are unable to distinguish between those hats, in order for me to be a genuine participant in the communities? As a parent I lose access to international laws, international ideas and pedagogy and maybe most importantly, my home educated children lose access to the amazing, creative experiences that exist up and down the country in which they reside. Ice skating, trampolining, snow boarding, swimming, curriculum tutor groups, farm visits, museums, nature reserves, beach days, University campus tours, art projects, media interviews, artist led creative events and community volunteering. The list is endless. Yes they could do all of those things without the home education groups; my question is, why should they have to?
I was asked, “How has your PhD research influenced your own home education/parenting”? I have stumbled with this question ( which for me is quite unusual), I think when it comes down to it curriculum, pedagogy and ideology have not been influenced (yet). However, I have certainly realised just how lucky I have been and I have a new found respect for parents whose journeys haven’t been easy. I just couldn’t imagine the anxiety and fear some families experience because they choose to learn outside of a school building and local authorities (and others) disagree with the decision. It appears to me that my journey is by no means the norm. I never worry about the mailman delivering post or who is knocking on my door; I never worry about my children being stopped outside the home to be questioned as to why they are not in school; I dont have sleepless nights because the authorities believe my child should be in school and I disagree.
It never occurred to me that my 20 year career would stand as the evidence of my children receiving “efficient, suitable education”
A lady did come and see me once, she stood on the doorstep under the ruse of checking my son’s permit to work under 16. Lots of smiles and chit chat about nothing, so I invited her in. I knew she would be checking on the fact that my children were not listed as being in school. Looking at me with a beautifully fake smile she said “I saw the globe in the window, its always a good sign when I visit home educators, having a globe in the window”. With just as beautiful smile I replied “Oh really, and what does having a globe in the window say because if that’s all we need to do, I will let everyone know they just need to stand a globe in their window”. I sat down and my 15 year old son engaged the lady in conversation whilst my three girls carried on reading their books without a second glance.
“are you from the department that sends out the letters because according to the last letter there are 6 children living here with names that don’t match any of us? You know there are only four of us, right?” he asked. No comment
“do you know that other children are living in terrible conditions with awful parents, do you think you should spend more time visiting them in school?” he pressed. No comment
You can imagine how the next half an hour went with a poor deflated local authority employee being interrogated by a 15 yr old boy. I teach my children as much as I can about the real world, the jobs I do and why I volunteer as much as possible. They know that they are lucky, privileged even, to have 200+ books in their home, science kits, cooking apparatus, text books, sports equipment etc etc. They know that many hundreds of children, regardless of who is home educated or in school, do not have the access to resources. They also know that some schools do not have access to as many resources. They know about under privilege and social status; they know about politics and social justice; they know about serious case reviews and community volunteering. Interrogating a local authority employee on all of the mistakes my son had seen them make, was not done disrespectfully, he asked out of genuine concern.
“If they get it so wrong with us mum, how many children are they missing who actually attend school every day?” I cannot disagree with him. All the time and energy that goes into harassing home educators, could be put into working with children who desperately need help. He has a valid point.
Part of our philosophy is to empower children in a world where adults still act on ‘ be seen and not heard’ even if they don’t actually speak those words. Teaching children their rights and the laws that protect their choices, enables children to stand up and respectfully engage adults in debate and discussion. They can make their own choices with only guidance from the adults around them. I don’t shelter my children from the horrors of this world, I teach them that there are ways to reduce those horrors and opportunities to make their world a better place.
Isnt that my job as a parent and as a home educator?
I understand that not everyone has a background in education policy; I understand that not all children are confident enough, or empowered to discuss their own education with policy makers, local authorities and teachers. I understand that many parents are agrieved by events that have occurred as they de-register their children. I hear the voices loud and clear – everyone’s journey is different. Mine has been pain free and the same cannot be said of the entire community.
However. I have also learned something else.
If we don’t make a stand, if we don’t use the media, if we don’t challenge policy and make allies among policy makers; if we leave the really difficult tasks to a few administrators and representatives, we will most likely end up having to register, having to report and having to meet expectations set by others, outside of the home education community.
If a few thousand 18yr olds can scream and protest so loudly that the UK Governments u-turn and award A-Level grades without their trusty algorithm; the 80,000+ home educators can design and propose a strategy, that we are all comfortable with, and one that Governments must consider alongside their own oppressive plans. If we sit back and leave the work to just a handful of administrators and researchers, those in power will continue to silence us, harass us and push us further into hiding.
How has my research impacted my own home education/parenting? It has made me even more determined to to bring home education into the realm of legitimate, alternative education. Home educators are doing an amazing job, they just see education differently. In an inclusive, diverse and tolerant society, shouldnt we be celebrating choice and difference? If we are not accepting home education as a legitimate choice for children, what message are we unconsciously sending our next generation?