Suffolk: Home education - could it be the right answer for your family? Juliet Fisher believes so
10:09 06 April 2014
As a working mother running a business and raising five children Juliet Fisher is used to making big decisions. But last summer she and her husband, Adam, made a decision that many parents would consider particularly big - reports Sheena Grant.
They removed their two eldest sons from school in order to educate them at home.
The couple converted a playroom into a classroom, organised maths and English tutors, studied the National Curriculum and took the plunge.
Two terms into the academic year they have no regrets.
Theo, eight, and Patrick, nine, are thriving on the flexibility and individual attention that home schooling brings, says Juliet. They have learned about moon cycles, studied sea life and even worked on a project to design a swimming pool, working out how much water would be needed to fill it and the chemicals needed to keep it clean.
“I have huge respect for schools and teachers but do feel we are in a target-driven and statistics-driven world. Mainstream school is not compatible for every child,” says Juliet, who together with Adam runs Highwaymans, a bed and breakfast, holiday home and gallery, at Risby, near Bury St Edmunds. “You’ve got to make family life work for you so that you can earn a living, pay your taxes and try to be good parents. I’m not saying we are going to do it forever. It’s just right for our family at this particular time.”
She and Adam made their momentous decision as Patrick was about to leave primary school for middle school - a move for which they didn’t feel he was ready. In Theo’s case, dyslexia made mainstream schooling problematic and he had already left primary school for a Steiner school in Cambridge. The couple’s other three children - Noah, six, Caspar, four, and Meralina, three - are still in mainstream education and at the moment, Juliet has no plans to change that.
“I knew Theo was struggling and wasn’t happy (at primary school),” she says. “The main thing you want for a six or seven-year-old is that they are happy. You’re not worried if they are meeting government targets. Steiner school seemed to be the answer as they don’t start formal education until age eight.”
But as time went on, getting the five children to the various places they needed to be in mornings was becoming increasingly difficult.
“We did a lot of thinking,” says Juliet. “I was going to have to do a school run of four hours a day - that’s a lot of time and petrol. I had always considered home schooling and I knew I could make the room we had into something special.
“You only get one chance at being a parent and I would like to make it right. If you know your children are not happy within the school environment then you’ve got to do something and change it. I would like them to enjoy being children.”
Today, Patrick and Theo are working with a tutor and we pop into the classroom to see them. A huge blackboard dominates one wall of the room, there is a computer, well-stocked bookshelves and artwork on the walls. The boys are full of questions about what I am doing and why I am going to be writing about them. Patrick wants to know if I will put something in the paper about his interest in inventing a device to give needle-free injections.
“He hates injections,” explains Juliet. “Both the boys really question things. They love to do things and make things. That’s one of the beauties about home education - they can ask as many questions as they want and they will be answered. At school, in a class of up to 30 pupils, that would be impossible.”
The boys’ day follows a similar time-frame to the school day. As well as having help from maths and English tutors (who are trained teachers), they join sports and science lessons at nearby Cherry Trees school, where Meralina is in pre-school. On the other days, Juliet may take them to the library, on a visit somewhere else, or work with them on a home-based project.
She talks about the influence a book by Mike Grenier, an Eton housemaster and ‘slow education’ champion has had on her. Slow education refers to the idea that education should aim to bring out the best in every individual rather than promote a one-size-fits-all mentality. Grenier and other exponents believe that the current government emphasis on testing, prescribed goals, a rigorous regime of inspections, league tables and top-down edicts, is doing children no favours.
“I went to one of his lectures and it just made perfect sense to me,” she says. “Just as you get fast food and slow food you can get fast education and slow education. Food grown more slowly has time to develop and is usually better than fast food.
“The thing that I have noticed most about the boys since we have been home educating is that their relationship to books has completely changed. They are so much more interested. We go to the library in Bury every couple of weeks. They really get into books now and there is no pressure for them to have to finish a subject and move on. We can spend as long as we like on it.
“Patrick has started writing books and Theo illustrates them. Theo is very interested in food. He will find food ideas from books, then we will write a shopping list and go off to the market to buy the ingredients. They can make lasagne and meatballs and cake because we have got the time to do it and because they want to do it.
“Since we started home educating, Theo is not as angry or frustrated. I just wanted to do what was right by them and our family at that particular time. I felt this was the best thing I could do for them.”
In the early days especially, Juliet got support from local homeschool networks, meeting up with other families for education projects, trips and events.
“There’s also a website called Education Otherwise that answers a lot of questions about home schooling,” she says. “I found that very useful.
“For me, I wasn’t concerned about the loss of social interaction that might result through taking them out of school. They are in a family of five children and they have been in school and have formed a network of friends. They also do football club and rugby club and some homeschool network. They are not isolated. The main thing I was worried about was being ‘legal’ and educating them properly. I wanted to do it right. That’s why, over last summer, I just ate the curriculum to acquaint myself with what they should be doing, advertised for tutors and organised the sessions at Cherry Trees.
“The rest of the time we are flexible. We can even go off to London for the day which we have done. Planning the trip became an education in itself. The boys worked out costs and the things they wanted to find out when we got there.
“We’ve been to a tank museum with the homeschool network and Adam has done some work with them in the garden, building a structure that they had to find the measurements and go and get the supplies for.”
While Juliet acknowledges that not everyone has the facilities she enjoys at her home, she is adamant others can - and do - home educate their children just as effectively.
“All kinds of people home educate and for all different types of reasons,” she says. “I know schools and teachers work really hard but I think a lot of education has been taken away from the community and is too much government led. Whereas in school, children may only be doing something for a few lessons, we can be doing it for two or three weeks if it’s something the children are particularly interested in. When we were doing fractions the boys were struggling a bit so I just stuck a pizza in the oven and used that to illustrate the subject, which worked beautifully.
“This is the best option for us now.”