When our eldest, Thomas, was only two or three, I heard a radio interview with someone who was home educating here in Ireland. I was fascinated, and thought it sounded like the most wonderful way of life. This was before the internet was freely available, and didn’t know where to look for more information at the time, but it sat in the back of my mind.
We moved to east Galway the year Thomas was to start school, and he went into junior infants in a really lovely country school. But he experienced school as being stressful and boring, even though he found the academic aspect of it very easy. In the meantime, we had met some home educating families in the area, and were going to home ed workshops and outings. In the end, we just took the plunge when he was about eight, just before our second son Michael started Junior Infants.
Initially we just took him out for 6 months. I contacted the principal and he was very encouraging and supportive. It was about a year later, we realised that we were still here, home ed-ing, life had de-stressed almost completely and the children were content, healthy and engaged in lots of projects. More importantly, our lives were so much happier; we were engaging with our environment, the seasons, our varying interests and with each other in a very natural, organic way.
A while after we took Thomas out of school, we registered with (the agency that existed before) TUSLA. The process was fine, it’s just a bit strange for all of us: this is simply our way of life, there isn’t a disparity between “school” and “home”, it’s just life and their learning is simply part of that.
Our two older boys are in college now (neither sat the leaving cert; my eldest son (19) did a FETAC level 5 course, and got his chosen degree course from that; my second son (16) decided he wanted to go this year, and is following the same route) and the to-ing and fro-ing can be enormously disruptive at times, even though they are now pretty self-sufficient. So I do relish and am very thankful for the years where we didn’t have any imposed timetable to knock us off our rhythm and those days we are just at home “living”!
We don’t have a set timetable or structure, the learning is very much child-centred and child-directed (technically we would be “unschooling” – educating without a curriculum). I find they tend to get interested in something and can spend days or weeks exploring every facet of it rather than short half hour segments of lots of things within a day. Having said that, within the normal rhythm of our day, there would lots and lots of reading, drawing, writing (notes, books/titles on paintings etc), maths (in so many ways: baking, number squares, lego, building blocks, maths books), history, geography, plenty of outdoors/trampoline and we have a forest at the end of our garden. We do workshops in specific things, science etc.
We facilitate what the child needs at the time, they do most of the “work” themselves. Throughout the day, we spend time with them writing (making books/letters/letter shapes etc), numbers, maths, reading and more reading, drawing. Our “learning” doesn’t happen between two set times, it happens all day, and sometimes until quite late (one of our sons was teaching himself Spanish and did it at night every night, he felt he could think best at that time; and just last week our 6 year old was making a book on medieval history, and needed me to write some long passages to explain the drawings and history, and we were up making this for hours, until long after his bedtime. But he was so full of ideas and was in full flow, so we just went with it. And we could because he didn’t have to be up in the morning for anything).
The older ones are, and were, completely self-directed. They do maths with Khan Academy, use Duolingo mostly for languages, they are voracious readers; history and geography are just things that enormously interest them. They do a lot of coding and programming, art and photography. The internet is such an amazing resource too. You just have to do a bit of searching around but there are fantastic Youtube tutorials, documentaries, apps and programmes that gives you the freedom to be able to learn anything you have an interest in. We have a comprehensive library in our house and use our local library too.
Home education has benefitted my children in so many ways. They are generally very relaxed and stress-free, they have as much time as they need to create and to think. They are under no pressure to “learn”, they do it without thinking, because children are naturally curious and left alone, they DO a lot of the work themselves, especially as they become teens.
The disadvantages I have found are more for the parents: you are very much 100% responsible, you have to be very tuned into your kids to see and know what they need and want. It’s being very involved when needed and then standing back, and knowing when to stand back and giving space.
Another disadvantage is that it can be hard to carve out time for yourself to switch off. But, while there are days where you just want to be “left alone”!!, most of the time, the kids are all involved in their own stuff and aren’t really interested in having me playing with them or being around, so our days tend to be slower and pretty peaceful. I’m there for providing food and drinks, many hugs and cuddles and to talk about (amongst other things) weird dreams, whether chickens could be house trained, how cities formed and the importance of waterways for their development and all the possible life forms on Mars…
People are always asking about socialisation, and whether it is a problem, but that hasn’t been our experience at all. We make sure they meet up with lots of friends several times a week, we go to organised meet-ups once or twice a week, and meet with friends and cousins too. Very often at the start of the week, we have to sit down and prioritise what needs to be done, so everyone meets up with friends, and everyone gets to do what they need to do.
Our older boys are both in college now. They are involved in their youth club and college societies, with enviable social lives!
My experience as a home educating parent, is that it is a really lovely way of life; it is an honour to spend time with your kids and watch them grow into interesting, funny, happy and successful humans. I would say that to do this you need to trust your gut and trust your kids that they inherently want to learn, and sometimes their learning isn’t quantifiable, but that’s okay. They are doing things at their own speed and often processing things in the way they need to, to understand it. We regularly say that this has been, by far, the best thing we have ever done for our family as a whole.
When I had my first child, I didn’t think about home education as an option. I knew a family who were home educating their children, but I didn’t think it would be for me. I even asked them “what about socialisation?”. Having a child wasn’t going to really change my life, or so I thought.
However, once my child was born, my whole outlook changed, and as she approached the age of 3, people started saying “she’ll be starting playschool soon won’t she?”.
I got as far as visiting the local playschool to see about enrolling my child, but there wasn’t anyone there as it was closed on Monday afternoons, and that was as far as my foray into formal education went. It just didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t want to hand my child over to strangers, not yet anyway.
Then, the home educating family I knew, gave me a leaflet about the Home Education Network Conference. I wasn’t able to go that year, but it did get me thinking. Their children were happy and well adjusted, so the next year, I ventured into a home education meetup in Carlow, and was very impressed, particularly with the teenagers – how social they were, and how well they interacted with the younger children. I made the decision then to attend the next Home Education Network Conference and after that, I decided to give Home Education a try. My eldest was 5 and my second child 3 at this stage.
I didn’t really attend any meetups at first, but I got so sick of people asking me when my daughter was going to start school, and constantly having to defend my decision to home educate, that I started going to meetups regularly to get some much needed moral support.
I registered my daughter with TUSLA once she reached 6 years old. It was quite nerve wracking. There were 2 assessors as one was being trained, and the trainee queried the fact that my daughter wasn’t yet able to read small words. Fortunately, I was ready with my statistics and able to inform her that Swedish children who begin reading at 7 years outperform their UK peers who begin at 4 years. We were approved for registration.
However, when I did begin to teach my child to read in earnest, I soon discovered that phonics weren’t for her, and swapped to the whole word approach. She is now a keen reader with a huge love of books. I’m not sure this would have been the case if she had gone to school, where phonics is the accepted method by which children are taught to read.
She also struggled terribly with maths, and would have been left behind very quickly in a classroom environment.
I registered my son with TUSLA when he turned 6 years old, and at this point we also had an “Ongoing Assessment” for my daughter. Having the 2 assessments done at the same time was an intense experience, but we were well prepared with many examples of learning, from books and games to lego models and art work. My eldest child was more than willing to talk to the assessor and participate in answering the questions he was asking of me.
My son learnt to read using a completely different method to my daughter, where he randomly selected scrabble tiles and used them to make words. He is a born mathematician, but hates maths workbooks, and I realised early on that I would turn him off from maths if I continued to push him to use them. He is now a keen Arduino coder and loves using Computer Aided Design Software, so I know that his maths will develop naturally from using these applications.
My daughter was diagnosed with dyspraxia (developmental coordination disorder) a couple of years ago. This affects her ability to plan, sequence and deal with abstract concepts, as well as her physical coordination, and probably explains why I never felt she was ready to be handed over to strangers. She is incredibly creative and being home educated has meant she is confident and outgoing. Any of the difficulties she had with reading and maths have been dealt with in our own way, and prevented her from having her confidence knocked. She is currently writing a children’s book, which she plans to turn into a musical animation – not bad for someone who might never have learnt to read!
Both my children have opportunities to socialise – my daughter attends singing, drama and dance classes and my son goes to a chess club. In addition, I go to around 3 or 4 meetups a month. Here my children get an opportunity to socialise with other home educated children, and I find them very helpful in reaffirming why I home educate.
However, the highlight of our home education year is Annual Home Education Network Conference (or gathering as it is now called) and I’ve attended this each year since 2009. My children really love being able to spend 3 days with their friends, some of whom they see at local meetups, and others that live further afield.
I always thought my children would go to secondary school, and my daughter turned 13 this year. She decided that she didn’t want to go and is happy at home. She can always go at 16 if she really wants to take her leaving certificate, or she can study for FETAC qualifications if she prefers a different route.
Home education isn’t easy, but it is immensely rewarding. There are ways around any of the problems, and I get a huge amount of pleasure from participating in, and witnessing, the ongoing development of my two wonderful children.