This week I have set myself a new task, writing an article to be published in a Kindle edition by Educational Heretics Press, with the title ‘I Home Educate Because’. The article can be from the point of view of the home educator or the home educated, and so I have written a short synopsis from the latter point of view, which I am allowed to include here too:
Why did they educate us at home?
Bringing up five children outside the system and running a freelance business was not an easy task, I’m sure. I’ve often wondered whether my parents’ decision to take on the monumental task of educating five children themselves was partly fuelled by their own experiences with State schooling. Not that they did badly, either of them; Father was a Cambridge scholar who gained a 1st class honours degree, and mother studied art and design and had a brief spell (before we children came along) as a successful graphic designer.
An ‘educated’ guess tells me that they didn’t enjoy their own experiences of State schooling, and they didn’t like the way that it was done. Both sometimes spoke of being bullied, stifled, having their precious time wasted. Shortly after their marriage in 1969, mother and father bought a half-derelict farmhouse in the middle of a firing range in the Staffordshire Moorlands (where it was highly unlikely that they would be interfered with or even discovered by the outside world) and started the serious business of creating their large family; Cassandra, Nerissa and Jasper, all with two years between us and followed after a thoughtful gap of six years by Mordecai and Rex, with two years between them.
We had a truly amazing childhood. Tirness Farm, perched high on the bleak hillside above the market town of Leek, was always presenting us with new challenges for survival. The roof gaped in large holes, through which the starlings flew in and out and made their nests in the rafters. There was no bathroom, an outside toilet, and no plaster on most of the walls. We were heated by solid fuel fires but in the middle of winter the snow came in and formed decorative drifts around the inside of the window frames, lay on the stairs and blew in a fine spray through the hole in the wall above the door on the landing. We bathed in front of our parents’ bedroom fire in a tin bath – filled with buckets of hot water, it was drained by a rubber garden hose snaking away through the ceilings and ending in the kitchen sink downstairs.
Living on a live firing range was quite exciting. We would often all rise with a scraping of chairs in the middle of a Latin lesson to rush outside and gaze at a group of Chinook helicopters thundering overhead, or sit writing diligently at the kitchen table while the windows rattled and spoons on the worktop danced to the tune of heavy artillery up the hill. There were exercises, evacuations, ambushes and escapes all around us on an almost daily basis and we would sometimes have to wait to leave the house until the red flags had been lowered and a messenger had been sent to tell us that the track (across which most of the firing took place) was now safe to use.
We had an excellent education. Father was an authority on many subjects and could teach most. His approach was semi-structured, but he was a busy man and we had easily as much free time as lessons. We had no television and soon learnt how to entertain ourselves – I, Cassandra, wrote a 60-page ‘novel’ about the police force and knitted a jumper for myself at age 9, my sister Nerissa took and passed multiple music grades with distinction, and our brothers followed suit, all taking an interest in something practical or useful from a young age; taking apart and repairing the scrap cars in the front yard, making wooden garden animals and building mini stone cottages out of the many collapsed drystone walls that lay about. We dug up the old farm tip and made our own real archaeological finds – glass bottles with glass stoppers, old farm tools and Victorian shoes.
Not all our education was done at home. We had outside tutors too, as we grew older; for classical guitar, Japanese and German. They all became firm family friends. We went to London and Manchester many times, and on local excursions every Monday – to see Arbor Low, ride on a steam train at Matlock, visit Buxton museum, and so forth. And we had friends who lived locally; some home educated and some not. We took exams in subjects that WE wanted to take. I won a scholarship to Japan when I was 17, to represent the UK as an outstanding student of the Japanese language. And as soon as I, the eldest, was old enough to drive us all about in our parents’ battered black Land Rover, we formed a band and drove all over the country playing gigs, winning competitions, and appearing on radio and the occasional TV show. We were even managed for a short while, by a lovely man called Pat Brogan, from Alsager, who was really a boxing manager. He introduced us to Jonathan Rendell of the Telegraph, who wrote a rather inventive three-page spread on us, with as frightening a picture as his attendant photographer could possibly manage of our front yard right across the centre page; which made Father furious and Mother indignant.
So… why home educate? Well education is a broad term that describes all sorts of things, the specific cramming of knowledge being one of the least important to me. From our base in the hills, we learnt far more than languages, music and curriculum subjects. We learnt how to take time to be still, to listen (really listen), to explore and to learn about things that really interested us, spending as long as we liked on a favourite subject without interruption. There were few rules, no bells to tell us when to drop what we were doing and turn our attention to something else, no bullies, and no harassed teachers with entrenched ideas about how things should be done and targets to meet or little boxes to tick.
Possibly the most valuable gift that we were given was our freedom. Freedom to paint for weeks on end, to take over the kitchen table with a score for 26 brass instruments, or read until long past midnight. Freedom to disappear with a lunchbox for a day, to make campfires in the ravine, dam streams and play at Swallows and Amazons. Freedom to mix with people of all ages and call everyone a friend. As adults, all five of us are still confident, forthright, intuitive, thoughtful and independent. And free. I’d say that the word freedom, and all that you are able to imagine that it might mean in this context, is probably the best reason for home educating, or being home educated, that I can think of.