Saturday, August 23, 2008

Changing times

It seems to me that August is always a bit of a strange time in home ed land. The rest of the world (involving children) is gearing up to the start of the new term: be it returning to school or college or starting new ones. Exam results are out. Some home educators have results; others don't. Some home educated offspring are off to college; others aren't. Many of the usual meetings and activities are postponed for the summer; many home educators go off to camps. Many don't.

And the parks, swimming baths, roads, museums and shops are busy with families! We're used to everywhere being nice and quiet for us ;-) There is a tendency, certainly at our house, to batten down the hatches and to stay even more home-based than usual in the summer holiday weeks.

Anyone who volunteers as a local contact or who is 'known' locally as a home educator will probably notice a sharp increase in enquiries from people thinking about home educating and wanting more information or advice. And from people who are already home educating - often have been for years - and suddenly want to know what's on offer by way of meetings and activities locally. And (sometimes) to complain when it doesn't seem like enough. Sometimes they respond with gratitude to your careful and time-consuming efforts to supply the information they want; more often they don't respond at all.

(One caller this week bad-temperedly hung up on me after she'd asked how did I home educate my children? So I briefly explained how I do it and was going on to say, but of course that's just one way of doing it and there are many others... when she snapped: "Oh no, that's not what I'm looking for at all," and ended the call!)

It's a time of change: for every family at the start of their home ed experience, there's another coming to the end of theirs, one way or another. Some have fallen out with the idea altogether and wish they'd never embarked on it. I've seen posts on some lists and blogs to that effect, blaming problems with or lack of local networks of home educators and/or being disenchanted with whatever learning method they chose because it didn't provide the results for which they were hoping.

My family does tend to be somewhat cocooned from these ups and downs, but they still affect us. They show up on our radar and make us think.

Someone once referred to us as a 'poster home ed family', which made me laugh, because we're far from being that. Yes, we blog and yes, we unschool and yes, there are quite a lot of us and yes, we've done it for a long time and I suppose I have waxed lyrical from time to time about the benefits of living this way. But only because it's seemed to be under attack from the mainstream so much and so the instinct is to speak out in its defence, though I hope I haven't sold this option too well, giving the impression there are no drawbacks involved. Everything in life has its drawbacks, home ed included.

But my three teenagers (16, 18 and 19, all still officially home educating) haven't taken any exams and have no plans to. They work in their own time on their own projects, eat when they're hungry and sleep when they're tired. It is now highly unlikely (but not impossible should the mood take them, I suppose) that any of them will emerge from Oxbridge with an honours degree or even secure a paying job that requires qualifications.

Do I worry about this? Actually, no. I still don't. Everyone I know who has that kind of job for which they needed those kinds of qualifications, hates it. Most of them are stuck in grotesque attendance cultures, in which they're forced to travel through rush hour to sit at a desk in an office. Spinning work out for a whole day that they freely admit they'd be able to do in an hour or two at home, if they were promised the rest of the day off as a reward. I've never laid down any specific ambitions for them, but I do not want that for my children any more than I wanted them to be tied to a desk in a school classroom every day of the week for the duration of their childhoods.

Yes, sometimes it's been difficult. There wasn't a perfect set of home educating local friends always available to them and some of the meetings weren't exactly to their liking. (We ended up starting our own meetings, to be sure of being able to attend the kind that we wanted.) And sometimes it has seemed like they weren't doing much at home. But they kept looking at college and university courses and not finding anything suitable because, to be honest, nothing compares to the complete freedom of being able to follow your passions in education. Especially not some of the lifeless, unenthusiastic tutors and lecturers we've spoken to along the way. They weren't exactly inspiring.

And I hear now that the unemployment rate is rising and every advertised post is being chased after by at least 50 applicants which means that even after jumping through all those academic hoops, the average young person is still doomed to rejection upon rejection and feeling like a failure. And when a job is eventually secured, there is ongoing assessment and evaluation. The feeling of not being trusted to get on with things. A lifetime of continued stress and pressure. I mean, if they want to go down that route then fine, but I do not want that for my children. (And it looks like they didn't want it for themselves either, or one assumes they would have started working towards it by now.)

But we are talking about the future here this week, in common with many other families. Especially in relation to Tom, whose home education officially comes to an end on his 20th birthday, which falls in six months' time. He has to be bringing in some money by then, because we didn't get the eco house built in time, unsurprisingly. So there's still a mortgage and bills to be paid here and we'll be missing his share.

Their time at home, while their peers were beavering away at exams, was not wasted. Far from it. The boys have both developed saleable skills, doing things they enjoy and find easy. Tom, for example, has been installing and maintaining the computer networks of friends and relations for years now, as well as providing instructions for people where needed. His patience for this work is endless, and his knowledge and experience is now extensive. He already has workshop space, testing beds and equipment. All he needs to go into business is a website and/or some advertising. He's going to spend the next six months looking into start-up grants to see if there's anything useful for him but if not, he'll just start up anyway. He's also got to decide whether to register as a sole trader or to set up a limited company to trade under. Or whether to deliberately keep his earnings sufficiently low so that he doesn't need to register with the tax man.

It seems ideal. He enjoys the work. It's not tieing or limiting, and he can put in as few or as many hours as he likes, depending on how much money or spare time he wants that week. We don't think there will be a shortage of work for him, especially if he's offering competitive rates. We've been surprised by the number of people who can't build or repair their own systems. Apparently it is a rare skill.

Ironically, Tom's abilities in this field came about because we were home educating and the children wanted computers but we couldn't afford them, so they built their own out of scrap parts. Then, for a specific game they were playing, they wanted to network the systems here so they had to learn how to set one up and they've always had to source and use the cheapest parts. Tom can process information and make decisions about the compatability of dozens of computer parts faster than I can think about what to cook for breakfast.

He might change his mind again before the six months is up, but working for yourself seems like the best kind of employment to me. There's no boss breathing down your neck, no attendance culture and no job interview. From what he's said so far, I think Ali will make the same kind of decision when he's 20, and Zara probably will in her time too. But I've always said that I don't mind what they do, as long as they're happy. And they've all indicated that they see their economic future in those terms: finding gaps in markets and plugging them on their own terms. My parents, by virtue of me being 'the intelligent one' wanted me to get a degree and some kind of an executive position, but it wasn't for me and I've never regretted the life decisions I've made - only the pressure they put me under to make the ones they thought I should.

I sometimes wonder if my brood will ever resent me for not putting them under pressure. But there are no signs of that yet: all three say they're still very grateful that I didn't. Freedom is perhaps a way of thinking that needs to be learned through experience from an early age, in much the same way as its opposite does also.


Blogger Lisa G said...

Thanks for that Gill, it's always interesting reading about your older kids. Socety's expectation that every kid needs a string of qualifications really irks me, doesn't make them employable by any means and not everyone wants to get on the career merry-go-round. It's nice to hear of young people like Tom who have the confidence to do their own thing.
We've battened down the hatchs as well this summer, too much rain, too many people, too many people moaning about the rain!

8:12 pm, August 23, 2008  
Blogger Allie said...

Hi Gill,

This bit made me smile,
"We ended up starting our own meetings, to be sure of being able to attend the kind that we wanted." As I, too, have had fruitless conversations with home edders sometimes, who are quite unhappy with what is 'on offer' in the community. I think, in the end, people have to work out that part of the decision to home ed is realising that there is no more 'them' to provide you with services for your children. Whatever way you do it it is really a DIY choice, I think.

Good Luck to Tom in his endeavours. I hope you know how inspiring it always is to read about your fabby kids.

10:18 pm, August 23, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Lisa, I'm glad you enjoyed the post :-) Yes, qualifications aren't the be all and end all, are they? And as the saying goes, mine have never done me any good! Though if any of the teenagers had said: I want to work for an exam now, I'd have supported them all the way of course.

The rain is my friend - it's saving me from needing to water my new grass seed! But I realise I'm unusual in that respect ;-)

Allie - very well put! And I know lots of families who chose not to home educate because 'the community wasn't there'. Well, it's never going to be if enough people don't do it, is it? (Actually it is there in most places, if you're prepared to travel a bit and make compromises. And make effort to communicate with people more than once a year!)

Thanks for your kind words :-) I've made another category in the drop-down sidebar menus for career plans in case anyone wants to read the old stuff about it.

8:08 am, August 24, 2008  
Blogger Riaz said...

A few months ago I set up a discussion forum for home educating children with Asperger syndrome. It can be found at here.

I agree with you about qualifications being overrated and leading to stressful jobs in corporations with cultures you don't believe in. University was 4 years of disappointment for me. Apart from degrees in medicine and law, university really is a waste of money. You're better off getting your education from the internet.

6:11 pm, August 24, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Ah, your comment reminds me of this article.

7:49 am, August 26, 2008  
Blogger Ruth said...

As you know I am stressing over G starting college. At least she is doing something she is passionate about but I could see easier and more hands on ways to gain the same experience.It is hard for her to go back into the system, after being out of it for so long, even as a near adult who knows what she wants. August has ended up being our "best" learning month this year mainly cos I butted If I ever mention curriculum again slap me:)

10:32 am, August 26, 2008  
Blogger Riaz said...

I have long been a believer in separating education from examination. If I knew how to take GCSEs outside of the school system back in my childhood then I would have dropped out of school. Only a tiny elite number of people knew back then unlike today where children even as young as 7 or 8 are taking GCSEs as private candidates.

I'm also in favour of more apprenticeships and vocational training instead of theoretical degrees. I think a degree is completely unnecessary to become a software developer but its damn hard to become one without a degree because of the attitude of employers.

6:14 pm, August 26, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

LOL Ruth, I'm not going to slap you ;-) But you remind me that autonomous home ed is actually one of the most difficult ways of doing it, isn't it? Because of the level of trust involved, and the need to force ourselves to stop trying to take charge of their learning process. Because they get those times when they don't seem to be doing much, and the temptation is to start panicking and to think we're letting them down, so out come the workbooks and the lesson plans..! Whe really, they're probably just quietly processing something they just learned. Or learning something we can't see, and don't know about.

I'd have got the workbooks out much more often if my lot weren't so feisty. They have a way of making sure I know that it's not what's wanted!

I bet G will be fine in college though, as my teens would if they'd wanted to go. Zara is still thinking she'll go actually, but she keeps putting it off until 'next year'.

Riaz, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have bothered with my O levels or other exams. But I suppose it depends what you want out of life. In some cases, you might need them. I agree that school certainly isn't the best place to prepare for them. I skipped most of my school lessons in the run up to exams and read the text books at home instead. Then I sat the exams and out-performed most of my friends who had attended the lessons.

The old fashioned apprenticeships would have been ideal for my sons because as well as providing invaluable tuition, experience and qualifications they would have created a 1-1 stable mentoring situation, which is ideal for young people. They need that kind of long-term concentrated input, IMO, which is no longer available to them.

I know one or two people who have gone through that kind of 7-year apprentice process though, usually in their dad's business or that of a family friend, and they are extremely grounded, skilled and professional as a result.

I don't think that's the same thing as what's being called an apprenticeship now though, is it?

7:30 am, August 27, 2008  
Blogger Dream Seeker said...

I just wanted to say how much I love your blog and column in the Green Parent - always inspiring, funny and exciting. Thank you

12:08 pm, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Ruth said...

But you remind me that autonomous home ed is actually one of the most difficult ways of doing it, isn't it? Because of the level of trust involved, and the need to force ourselves to stop trying to take charge of their learning process.

It is hard. Harder then structure cos then I more or less get to decide;0 However I feel bad in the process and D just won't have it anymore. Take today. I offered him some animal science and he waved at the T.V ( zoo U.K was on)and said " I prefer learning it this way thank you." He watches animal programmes all the time. Basically my workbooks on the subject are defunct. He will look at a book if it is about what he has seen - sometimes. With G she knows if she hates it she can rethink. No pressure from me at all to carry on regardless.

3:46 pm, August 28, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Oh thanks, Future Mum! What a lovely confidence-booster. Just what I needed :-)

My children have gone through phases of wanting to do workbooks Ruth, and I'm usually pleased when they do but I think I'm more interested in the other ways they find to learn. That reminds me: I've got some pics to blog about that.

6:35 am, August 29, 2008  
Blogger Riaz said...

September has arrived and it's back to school for most kids. Up and down the country a small number of schools are not re-opening their doors since they closed in July - because they have closed down. This is usually due to an insufficient number of children to keep them viable due to changing demographics, but an increase in home education often hastens their demise. In one Local Authority two primary schools have closed down this year and it is estimated that there are enough home educated children in the area to keep one of the schools alive.

Does it upset most home educating parents to see a school close down?

11:48 am, September 01, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

I can't speak for any others Riaz, but I don't give much thought myself to the practical business of schools, since it doesn't affect us here one way or the other. If I did bother to think about it, I'd be sorry (in a detached sort of way) for the people who were inconvenienced or upset by the closure whilst vainly hoping it might be another nail in the school system's coffin, maybe.

It's a pity that those buildings and resources are there in every town, but are used to hinder communities instead of helping them, I suppose, also. It would be good for such a building to be made available for what I would see as a better use.

I'd prefer the children to be available as well though, to play with mine. Sad that they're not and that they still wouldn't be if their school closed.

7:50 pm, September 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gill, just thought I'd note that Tom will have to register with Revenue and Customs regardless of how much he's earning, but obviously that doesn't mean he has to earn enough to actually pay tax.

Anyhoo, you know where we are if you/he want to chat tax issues...

1:25 am, September 05, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hiya Trog!

Oh, will he? :-( Why am I not surprised? Sigh.

Wow, thanks for the offer though. I will definitely take you up on that - we're about due for a coffee, aren't we? ;-) I'll get in touch when we've got some specific questions. Thanks so much xx

6:26 am, September 05, 2008  

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