I can teach my girl about Madonna, but maths...?

Ellen's daughter with her 'home schooling' books

Ellen's daughter with her 'home schooling' books - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

Our dog is finally better and now it’s my daughter’s turn to be ill.

The eye she had operated on just a few weeks ago to repair a squint has developed some inflammation and she is being treated with a complicated cocktail of drugs and eye drops every two hours.

For the last week she has not been able to go to school and, aware that she already missed a lot post-surgery, I was keen that she did not get even further behind.

That is why this week, I have taken a little foray into the world of home schooling.

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Home schooling; I’ve got to admit it’s something I’ve never considered doing before.

I’ve always thought people who choose to educate their own kids were hippy, anti-establishment, quinoa-eating folk. A bit unconventional.

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But I must be wrong about that because it’s estimated that over 50,000 children in the UK are taught this way and the figure is rising every year. They can’t all be eccentric, can they?

Perhaps brave is a better word anyway. After all, it’s scary to take a step away from the norm.

Certainly I had no idea what – or even how – to go about teaching my own six-year-old.

So how do other home-schooling parents manage?

A quick search online reveals there are in fact, loads of resources available.

There is also a spectrum of home schooling techniques from a part-time method called Flexi-schooling which sticks to the curriculum to the more radical practice of Unschooling.

This involves no “teaching” at all but instead, getting children to learn through their natural life experiences such as play, household responsibilities, personal interests and family interaction.

I don’t know about you but this seems to be rather extreme.

And I can’t help wonder how these children grow up to function in normal society.

I do believe families play a vital role in the education of children but I’ve always taken the opinion that home schooling should just support that which is picked up in the classroom. Not replace it.

When my daughter started in Year 2, she would come home bursting with questions about what she had been studying.

She wanted to know more about the inventor of the steam engine, more about the history of motor cars and everything she could about the speed of light.

Of course we visited museums, looked stuff up online and got books out of the library, but I have to admit this was done during the limited hours after school or at weekends.

And I imagine this is one reason many parents opt to take their kids out of full-time education.

They claim home schooling offers them flexibility. That their children are exposed to a fuller and freer experience beyond the confines of desks, timetables and classrooms.

They also argue that children are more comfortable learning in the home environment, that there is less competition, that they don’t need to deal with things like bullying and peer pressure.

I do understand their concerns but I’m afraid I can’t share them.

I would be more worried if my children were not exposed to these things – and not learning to deal with them.

After all, one day they have to go out into the big wide world and fend for themselves.

I also think school offers them many wonderful experiences which simply can’t be replicated at home.

The main one of these is daily socialisation.

Now one thing that all home schoolers will tell you is that their children aren’t isolated. Far from it. They go to great lengths to make sure they interact with other children.

I’m sure they do. But, crucially, the playmates are, of necessity, chosen by their parents.

There’s no chance for their children - as there is for those who attend the wide pool of a school - to pick or choose friends and to learn, perhaps the hard way, how to evaluate other people.

They also haven’t learnt to tackle issues of competition, sharing, boundaries and camaraderie that their mainstream school counterparts have.

I have other reservations too. Let’s start with the fact that most parents who home school are not trained teachers. In every other profession we leave the job to the professionals so what makes these people think they are qualified to take on this role?

And this brings me to the issue of accountability. Teachers have a chain of command and this works to ensure every student is being taught. Home teachers are not monitored in the same way.

Let’s face it, not all learning is pleasurable; some of it is painful and repetitive. And unless children are in a situation that makes them stay at it, they simply won’t.

Of course every parent should have the right to make up their own mind about how they educate their kids.

Under the Education Act, it is the parent’s duty to make sure their child receives a proper education but they can legally teach them at home and they don’t even need to follow the National Curriculum.

Having said that though, I do think any parent who chooses this pathway needs to be confident they have something to offer their child which is above and beyond that which a school – with its diversity of teachers, it’s budget, rules, structure and support network - can give.

Certainly I don’t think I do. From geography to French to chemistry and biology? All the way to A-level? No thank you.

I simply cannot pretend to have the necessary level of experience in every field.

Now I can teach my daughter everything there is to know about Shakespeare. I can teach her how to write like a journalist, how to master shorthand, how to avoid the pitfalls of media law, the structure of our government.

I know quite a lot about the British justice system, a fair bit about the NHS and a little about international politics.

I am also an expert on Madonna (I was a huge fan in the ‘80s).

But unfortunately none of that is any good to her right now.

All she wants me to do is explain the basic principles of division and sadly, on that score, I’m stumped. Now where’s my calculator?

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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