Week one, went like a dream. We had shelves full of resources, neatly labelled work drawers, and a detailed timetable. The lessons had gone well too: English, Maths, French and even a little Greek. To cap it all, we organised an end-of-week assembly for our only pupil. Having taken the decision to home educate, we recreated school in our home.
It didn’t last. By the end of that first month, the situation was quite different. We hadn’t stuck to the timetable, we hadn’t looked at half the resources, and the weekly assembly had quietly faded away. But my daughter was happily learning and my wife and I, two schoolteachers embarking on a new educational adventure, were beginning to find our feet.
And now all parents are facing that same challenge — but with little less time to get ready. So let me offer some advice.
1 Be realistic
You may be planning a boot camp, but your children are probably expecting a beach party. You want to set up school in your home but they may think the summer holidays have begun early. So a good idea is to take away all distractions, electronic and otherwise; you should fix a timetable that is clear but not so crammed full of activities that you have no wriggle room; and be realistic. Children thrive on structure even though they often kick against it, so create a timetable with them rather than for them and build in breaks for both them and you.
2 Listen to school — a bit
Your child’s school will doubtless send work home that needs to be done, which will help you make the adjustment to home tutoring, but there are potential pitfalls here, the most obvious of which is that much of this will be online — so your child may develop an umbilical bond with the computer. Spending time online is inevitable these days; but it is not a fundamental human right. Even though it might come as a surprise for your child to learn this, take the opportunity to branch out beyond the computer.
3 Get outside
Many children are now, quite rightly, concerned about saving the planet but how many of them can identify the trees, birds and animals in their own back garden? The highlight of our week was my daughter seeing a frog laying its eggs in our tiny pond and the reason she noticed is because we have been keeping a nature journal. Looking in a pond and seeing – really seeing – nature at work can be the first step on a greater ecological journey. And, before I get too carried away, I should also acknowledge that getting outside has the added advantage of keeping both you and your children sane.
The simplest and most effective way of improving academic performance is to read more, so now could be a good time to try new authors, new books (non-fiction as well as fiction), and new ways of enjoying the best that has been thought and written. Read books to your children. Read books yourself and discuss them with your children. Buy or download audiobooks and take the stress out of reading. So many children are put off literature simply because decoding is difficult, which means that what should be a pleasure becomes a chore. Listening to a good book can restore children’s faith in fiction.
5 Structure, structure, structure…
Of course they can also lose themselves in computer games, social media and mindless surfing for hours on end, which is why structuring your days is so important. Allowing your child to sleep in until midday — especially if you have to be working yourself — may give you some much needed head space but it’s not conducive to long term academic success or short-term family relationships.
6 Find the joy
The greatest wisdom I discovered when starting home education was the reminder that everything we do with our children is education. We are educating them when we cook, clean and chat, not just when we look over their homework. They learn from how we are as well as from what we do and say.
Getting children to settle down to work can be stressful but there are ways of finding joy in education at home. A turning point in our home education journey came when we realised that we didn’t need to spend all our time formally teaching our children; we could learn with them and often learn from them. I have a History degree from Oxford but my young children now routinely teach me historical facts that they have picked up somewhere along the line.
When you are at home with your children, opportunities to learn with them occur throughout the day. While walking the dog, we try to identify local trees. Listening to the news often sends us scurrying to an Atlas. And sometimes we throw ourselves into a project just for the sheer fun of it. I am trying to solve Kit Williams’ Masquerade with one of my daughters at the moment, for example. The treasure may have been found decades ago but the puzzle is still fascinating (as long as we resist the temptation to Google the answer). You don’t need to be an expert in A Level Physics or Key Stage 3 History to tutor your children at home. You can figure things out together, making use of whatever materials school has provided, and then you can go beyond those materials, rediscovering the joy of learning for its own sake.
7 Don’t forget life-skills
Educating our children at home forces us to reappraise many aspects of our lives. It also broadens our view of education. So my last piece of advice is prompted by a confession from one of my Sixth Form students who told me the other day that he doesn’t know how to iron a shirt. Maybe the time has come when we can teach our children to iron, cook and hoover. Maybe the time has come for us to help them develop crucial life skills. And that includes helping them revive the ancient art of conversation, if only so they can cheer up isolated relatives on the phone.
Home tutoring may currently feel like yet another burden we have to cope with but, as home educators around the world can testify, it is, in fact, a wonderful joy and privilege. We live in difficult times but, with difficulties, come new opportunities. When it comes to education, there’s no place like home.