‘Will you send your children to school for winter?’
‘You can follow the National Curriculum online’
‘There are books you can get to teach your children’
‘Don’t you worry they’ll fall behind?’
‘How do you know you’re teaching them properly?’
‘Are they getting a full education?’
It seems everywhere we go, we encounter people who have opinions about how we should educate our daughters. They are all well-meaning (I think); none of them have spent any time with Lily and Katie, and have only seen them in our company, or on the boat; and, invariably, they are more interested in the girls’ education than in the girls themselves.
People who currently home educate their children, or who home educated their now-adult children, never make these comments or ask these questions. With the current home-educators, we talk about our experiences and share ideas; and the ex-home educators tell us what wonderful experiences their children had when they were young. The people who make these comments either do not have children, or have children who were educated in the conventional school system.
We don’t follow a curriculum, state produced or of our own making; we don’t use any ‘how-to’ books; and we don’t worry that they’ll fall behind. We don’t measure our daughters’ progress by some arbitrary criteria of what a four or five year old ‘should’ know. And we don’t question whether we are teaching them ‘properly’.
And here’s why. In the UK children start school from the age of four. Most have already been in government-funded nursery programmes since the age of three. In Scandinavia, children start school at six or seven. Scandinavian children at seven learn what British children learn at four and five. Swiss children start school aged five, but have two years of ‘socialising and play’ before they are taught reading, writing, maths, etc. British children learn these almost from the start. The point I am making is that there is no one ‘proper’ model of state education. Scandinavian and Swiss adults are not somehow less educated or capable than I am because they were introduced to reading and writing at school two years later than I was.
When I think about my own education, I excelled at some subjects and ‘fell behind’ at others. On reflection, I suspect that some of that ‘falling behind’ was due to my own obstinacy and belief that I ‘couldn’t’ master Maths or Irish or Physics. School reports confirmed that I ‘couldn’t’ do Maths, and I built a barrier between myself and those subjects, closing my mind and refusing to learn them. So I ‘fell behind’. And while I regret my inability in certain subjects (and am eternally grateful to Julian for opening up the wonders of maths to me), I still, somehow, managed to (a) get a PhD, (b) make a living in multiple jobs, (c) pay my bills, budget, measure and weigh stuff, and (d) while travelling in Japan with my sister, converse about the people around us in Irish. I haven’t done too badly for myself, despite the ‘falling behind’ I did.
So, what does a full education look like? Despite national and school curricula, all children within institutional education do not learn the same things. I managed to get all the way through primary school without once being taught a musical instrument. Somehow, each year I ended up in a class with a teacher who didn’t teach the tin whistle or the recorder. Most of my friends, on the other hand, as we got shuffled around year after year, separated for one year and back together the next, managed to get at least one year of learning a musical instrument.
During my five years in secondary school I was lucky enough to have two wonderful Geography teachers, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Osborne, who fuelled my enthusiasm for the social sciences. Maybe I would have become a social scientist without those two inspirational teachers. My sister had a different Geography teacher, and she quickly soured to Geography. I recently talked to a friend whose 17-year old daughter had the same Geography teacher as my sister and her experience with that teacher has been the same. She went from enjoying Geography for the three years she was taught by Mr. Osborne, to hating it with this other teacher, and achieving a very poor grade in her Leaving Cert exam. The point I’m making is that despite curricula, schools are made up of individual teachers. There are good teachers and poor teachers; and teachers who bring their own interests (such as teaching music) into their teaching. All teachers teach differently.
We are not interested in comparing Lily and Katie to other five and four year olds. Why would we? Why would anyone compare their children to anyone else’s children? Whether five or ninety-five, we are all individuals, with our own interests and aptitudes. Children are not empty vessels into which a certain amount of knowledge should be poured by the age of five or ten or fifteen. Exams are designed to test how much poured in knowledge can be poured out again. So I don’t worry that Lily and Katie have received their quota of maths or reading or science appropriate to their age. Because what is age-appropriate in the UK or Ireland, is not the same as what is age-appropriate in Scandinavia or Japan or Canada.
What I have discovered is that Lily and Katie have very different learning styles. What works with Lily does not work with Katie. Their pace of learning is different, and their learning interests are different. There are things that Lily could do when she had just turned four, that Katie cannot do; and there are things that Katie can do that Lily, aged five and a half, still cannot do. So why worry about age-appropriateness. With very little ‘formal’ teaching (usually less than half an hour a day) they are learning the basics of reading, writing and maths at a tremendous pace.
So when I’m asked about curricula and falling behind and doing things properly, I nod and smile. It’s simpler than trying to explain what we do to people we will most likely never meet again.