Shortly after Easter, two years ago, we deregistered our eldest daughter from school. It was a nice school, as they go; a catholic school with universally good OFSTEAD reports, a reputation for a friendly, family atmosphere, and with which we have strong connections. James started school there, his sister is a School Governor there, his niece was in the year above Charlotte, and I personally know some of the teachers there and have done for thirty years.
However, as Charlotte approached compulsory education age we naturally began to think hard about what we wanted for her; since I myself was home educated, partly using a method based on the teachings of Charlotte Mason, and had also worked in a Montessori nursery and with my mother who teaches the Suzuki method I felt that state schooling might not be the best route.
We looked into other options, but they tend to be expensive and with two small children and a baby we didn't like expensive, so we registered her at St. Rose's. We decided against home education because we weren't sure it was feasible - I was mostly educated abroad, and when we were in England, even if it was only for a few weeks, my mother was put under intense pressure to register us at a local school. I wasn't sure I'd be able to cope with testing and monitoring visits, not with three children - and correspondence curriculums are expensive too.
So Charlotte went to school.
At first, it seemed everything was fine. She was way ahead of most of her year, in most subjects, but it didn't really matter. She was frustrated by the simple reading books she was given - the first three didn't even have any words! - but she was still able to read at home, and after talking to her teacher about it Charlotte was gradually moved up through the levels and by the end of her first term had reached 'Gold Level', which was almost interesting. We were assured that next term, when the second intake started school, the rest of the work would become more interesting, too.
Charlotte had some trouble with attention, apparently, preferring to look at the other children rather than at the teacher, but since she could do everything she was supposed to be able to do this didn't seem a problem either.
The problems really started next term. The work did become more involved - instead of counting to ten, they began to work at counting to twenty, for instance - but to a child who had been able to count up to a hundred before she started school, this really wasn't challenging. They began to learn phonics, but since Charlotte could read, and knew all the letter sounds, phonics weren't very interesting either. She began to be a 'nuisance' in classes, telling her teacher that 'A' didn't just make a short 'a' sound (as in Ant) but it could also say 'A' (as in Apricot) or Ah (as in Art). She was mortified when her teacher was short with her and came home in tears. Then she got into trouble for moving around instead of sitting quietly when being told how to hop in P.E. She tried to explain that she knew how to hop already, and got told off for answering back.
All these things are things which are normal for schools: children must learn to sit quietly, accept what they are told, and not ever answer back. It would be impossible for a teacher to control a class of thirty-five five-year-olds if they all rocked back and forth and questioned the teacher every time they thought she'd left a bit out.
But we were beginning to wonder if it was RIGHT. It may be the best way of teaching a class, but it didn't seem to us to be the best way of teaching children; they need to involve all their senses, to be allowed to race ahead when something is going well, and take extra time when they haven't yet grasped something, to be able to move around to focus their minds properly.
Then James read an article on Action Network about home educating, which led us to the Education Otherwise website and on from there. We decided right then to deregister Charlotte and teach her ourselves.
We spent the next couple of weeks researching, discussing every possible aspect and worrying about the family's reaction. We bought a bunch of books about HE and how children learn and read them cover to cover, we joined EO and several forums devoted to home education and read School is Not Compulsory, which came with our EO membership. At first we were going to deregister Charlotte at the end of term, but as time went on and she became more unhappy and frustrated we realised there was no point keeping on just for the sake of arbitrary dates set by an organisation we were leaving, so we made an appointment to see the Headmistress, to give her a warning about what we were about to do (and assure her it wasn't her school we disliked, just school in general and the National Curriculum in particular) and then, on the Friday of that week, we collected Charlotte from school for the last time.
We went home singing.
From that point Charlotte has gone from strength to strength; her enthusiasm for learning has come back tenfold, her nightmares have disappeared, she's no longer too tired most afternoons to play nicely with her younger siblings and her constant whinging, which was driving me up the wall, has completely stopped. She's a real pleasure to be with.
Like most people who begin taking personal responsibility for their children's education we expected it to be hard work. We began by buying workbooks in english, maths and science and trying to do a page of each every day, but I found it hard to enforce that after the first week since the workbooks were boring and didn't explain anything in any depth. Charlotte was constantly asking 'Why?' and it seemed to me that if the workbooks couldn't give her the knowlege she craved there wasn't much point in them. We found her the BBC schools website and let her explore that, and recorded interesting programmes which she watched over and over again.
As time has gone on our home education has become less and less formal and she can be fairly called an autodidact now, yet despite having no lessons or workbooks she is flourishing. She spends all her time playing, drawing, watching television, reading - rarely asking for help from me - and through these things is developing an understanding of the world and how things work that I would never have thought possible without seeing it happen. We live life as a family, doing those things which need doing, shopping, cooking, cleaning and enjoying ourselves, and in the process, with no further effort on my part, the children are educating themselves.
We read about autonomous education before deregistering, and the idea immediately felt right to me; it fitted everything I had observed about my children and the way they learned things, and explained so much about why they reacted the way they did when we tried to teach them things. We both knew from the beginning that we wanted to try it, to act as facilitators for our children's self-directed learning, to avoid those times when our well-meant interference, far from helping, simply killed their interest in an activity.
It's different actually doing it, though. I think it has taken more courage than anything else I've done for a long time. Although it gets easier and easier as I see the results, I still have times when I worry if I'm doing enough. I watch Charlotte struggling with something and want to help, but I sit on my hands and let her get on with it. I sometimes offer to show her how to solve her problem, but she rarely takes me up on the offer. Sometimes she gets so frustrated she just gives up and walks away, and I feel bad that I didn't help. And then, a while later, she will suddenly show me the finished work. She'll have solved the problem on her own, sometimes in a way I wouldn't have thought of, sometimes better than the way I would have shown her.
Over time we have gone from feeling that Autonomous Education (the americans call it 'unschooling') was an interesting theory worth exploring to being passionate believers in the approach. The children are happy and fulfilled. Other parents have told me how they dread having their children at home during the holidays 'because they get bored' - I'm asked how I cope with that when they're at home all the time. Somehow, I can't imagine my children being bored. On the rare occasions they say they're bored it means one of two things: they're too hungry to concentrate on what they're doing or they want to do something which they think might not be allowed. Frequently, if the hunger is because I'm late getting lunch, Charlotte will prepare lunch for us all herself, or they will help themselves to cereal or fruit. Even Emily (not yet two) has on occasion helped herself to a bowl of cereal, complete with milk, and made very little mess.
It does mean a lot of commitment from me; autonomous children don't learn within nicely timetabled hours - everything they do is a learning experience, and not having the ability to see into their brains I can't tell what or how much they are getting from each activity. Sometimes it becomes obvious later, even months later, but at the time I have to just trust that if they want to do something, they will gain from the experience. This does mean that they are on the go from the moment they get up until the moment they go to bed, but it also means that we get to do a lot of fun and interesting things, and never feel guilty about it. If, on a sunny morning, we decide to go and spend the day in the woods with a picnic, we can - or stay up half the night to watch shooting stars, or watch TV in our pyjamas all day.
The only times we can't suit ourselves are when we have an outside class, but those are things the children chose to do themselves and we can just stop doing them, if they decide they no longer enjoy them.
I love autonomous home education - could you tell?