What becomes of home schoolers?

Waiting to catch the bus from Malaga Airport to Almería, I struck up a conversation with the man standing beside me at the bus stop. Half British-half German, he had just arrived on a flight from the UK where he was visiting his daughter, a stem cell biology PhD student at Oxford University. We talked about our reasons for travelling to Almería and this led to the man telling me about his family’s move first to Spain in the early 1990s and later to the Dominican Republic. For about four years his children attended school in Spain, but when the family moved to the Dominican Republic, the children still pre-teens, he and his wife took the decision to home educate. As a result, his children had no formal secondary school education, nor had they ever taken exams. And here was one of them about to complete a PhD in stem cell biology at Oxford! He told me about her path through university, from her acceptance for her primary degree at Sussex University based on a written application and a CV that demonstrated a depth of practical biology experience way beyond her tender years, to the particular difficulties she faced as a home schooler entering the formal education system for (practically) the first time, and how she ultimately excelled in her chosen field.

It was a timely encounter, coming only days after a great many people had expressed interest in Lily’s and Katie’s education. The TV and radio interviewers had asked me questions about home education, leading to interest amongst blog readers, and discussions with family and friends in Ireland. On a few occasions in the past couple of weeks I have been asked what will happen if the girls want to go to university or want careers that require university degrees. I’ve been asked if our plan is to never send them to school. And I’ve been asked how I know they are learning the ‘right’ things at home.

I suppose I’ve attempted to answer these questions in different ways in blog posts before, but it’s an ongoing conversation and, as the girls grow older, my consideration of these questions changes.

Talking to the man at Malaga Airport made me think of all the different ways that people are home educated and, just like more formal types of education, there are as many different career and life outcomes as there are people who have been home educated. His daughter’s experience reminded me of people – famous and not so famous – who have been home educated or unschooled for some or part of their childhoods, of the different forms their education took and of the careers they have forged since.

Feminist columnist, novelist, screenwriter, memoirist (need I go on?) Caitlin Moran was taken out of school aged 11 and home educated with her seven siblings; novelist Margaret Atwood didn’t start school until (by some accounts) age 11; US President Theodore Roosevelt was educated at home by his mother until a tutor was brought in to help prepare him for Harvard entrance exams; inventor Thomas Edison was home educated; so was US President Woodrow Wilson; so was model Sophie Dahl. When my knowledge of famous home schoolers dried up, Wikipedia provided an enlightening list.

I only know one adult home schooler personally (if there are more of you out there, set me straight). She is a friend who was home educated for five years in her pre-teens while she sailed around the world with her parents and brother. Her five years away from formal education probably influenced her decision to take a degree in marine biology. I met her when we were both studying for Anthropology PhDs. In the past few years we have met quite a few sailing families with children who are home educated as they explore the world with their parents aboard their floating homes.

Each encounter with home education is different, as the practice fits around each unique family situation. Some families take a formal approach, using state curricula or curricula of their own devising, working to a timetable each day. Others are at the opposite end of the spectrum, giving children complete freedom to follow their own interests. There are children who never go to school or university; there are those who attend school in their mid to late teens; there are those who dip in and out, attending school only to take specialist classes – chemistry, say, or music, where schools provide resources unavailable at home. (In Devon, where we lived prior to moving aboard Carina, children have the option of attending school part-time. We considered its usefulness for older children with regard to language classes, science laboratories, and so on. I wonder do many home schooling families avail of this option?)

My children are six and four years old. I don’t know if they will ever go to school. We don’t have a master plan. I don’t think most parents who send their children to school (apart from those horrid pushy ones) have a master plan. I certainly don’t think my parents knew when I was six years old that I would one day go to university. As home educators, all we can do is encourage a love of learning in our daughters, facilitate their interests, and provide them with the basic skills needed to go out and explore the world on their own.

Friends, family and blog readers have lots of questions about our decision to home educate. I like and encourage those questions because (a) they help Julian and me to think through and give voice to our decisions and (b) they lead to conversations with people who have not encountered this form of education before. But we don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know all the questions!

What we do know is that home educated children generally fare as well in life as formally educated children. Their social and educational experiences are different, but, as Eileen Kane, my first ever Anthropology teacher told us in my first ever Anthropology lecture back in 1990, difference is not deviance.

It’s always encouraging to hear how other home educated children have fared, how their home education has stood to them as they have moved into adulthood. And we encourage people to keep asking questions and keep the conversation going. But don’t be surprised if you question is answered with another question!

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7 thoughts on “What becomes of home schoolers?

  1. Hi Martina, This is my first time writing on your (or I believe any) blog! i just want to say ‘thank you’ for your posts especially on home schooling. I joined after hearing your recent interview on Irish radio (a friend had heard it so i managed to get it on the ‘player’) I live in the west of Ireland (Kinvara, Co Galway) with two children aged 5 and 7. I am in full time employment so at the moment they both attend school (educate together). We are doing some mods to our boat but plan to set sail summer ‘2017’. So I will home school from then. I seem to be doing battle with friends and family on the ‘home school’ issue and was finding myself losing confidence. I have gained strength again :), so thanks, and I look forward to more posts! Bye for now, Vera

    • Hi Vera, Thanks for taking the time to contact me. Sounds like exciting times as you prepare to set sail in two years time. What type of boat do you have? Where are you planning to go? Best of luck with the preparations. I know our families worry too – about education, about the perceived dangers of sailing with young children, etc. I’ve tended to go against the grain – home births, long-term breastfeeding, home education, etc. Julian and I tend to do our research, so we have positive facts and figures with which to bombard the naysayers when they question our choices. I also read a lot about different forms of home education, to learn from others and to gain inspiration from other families. I like John Holt’s work, and I read Life Learning Magazine (I’ve got a free online subscription because I wrote an article for them last year). I think it has certainly helped us to demonstrate to family and friends that we are not crazy loners doing this. Rather, there are a lot of people out there choosing alternative ways to raise and educate their kids and the outcomes are just as good as the outcomes from formal education. Since we started sailing we’ve met so many sailing families, all approaching the question of education in different ways. It soon starts to feel very normal when you meet so many other people doing the same thing as you!! All the best, Martina

      • Hi Martina, Thanks so much for your reply – I am going to try and fit in an hour of reading today on your pointers – John Holt’s / Life Learning Magazine. We bought a Bruce Roberts Steel Mauritius 43′ Ketch 3 years ago (a home build). She was lying on the Rio Guadiana for a long time and need a LOT of TLC, we sailed her back to Galway, pulled her out and spent a long cold winter in a yard attending to her steelwork and pulling her engine out (which we ended up replacing). She’s back on the water now, and we slowly getting her ready for cruising, revamped sails about to arrive! We plan to spend a month on her this summer (Ireland SW), get the kids used to the delights of living onboard (if only for a month). The plan is most likely an Atlantic circuit, as I’m not sure how we can afford much longer … however if we worked along the way maybe we could? We should have enough money to live as a family without an income for about 12-15 months. So its a start! I would love to go further … conundrum 🙂
        Myself and husband Peter crossed the Atlantic to Cuba in 2004 – we didn’t have children then but I was keen to make an Atlantic crossing to show him what this sailing lark was all about, when we met in 1999, he had never sailed, so by the time we returned, he could! We met a good few sailing families on that trip and I still remember those children, how self confident, assured and knowledgeable they all were, very able to hold their own in any ‘adult’ conversation. It has stuck with me.

        I am sending you a link to our education program here at the Marine Institute – http://www.marine.ie/Home/site-area/areas-activity/education-outreach/explorer-lesson-plans?language=en
        You might get some inspiration from the ‘lesson plans’. If you like any specific areas hardcopy or indeed the whole program I can arrange to get it to you.
        Bye for now,
        Vera

      • Hi Vera, thanks for the link! The quick glance I’ve given it looks great, and I’m looking forward to sitting down and properly going through it to get some ideas. I’m always on the lookout for teaching ideas.
        I’m familiar with the Marine Institute. I remember coming across it a few years ago when I was trying to figure out a job to get us through the transition from land to sea. I’m an environmental anthropologist, specialising in indigenous marine knowledge (Inuit knowledge of the sea mostly), and I was research employment possibilities. I ended up working as for three years as a Human Geographer at Exeter University.
        We spent the summer of 2012 sailing in west Cork and south Kerry. It was wonderful, despite it being the wettest summer on record!!
        It would be good to keep in touch!
        Martina

  2. I have two sort-of-step brothers who were both home educated all the way through til sixth form college, and then chose independently to go to college for specialist courses in music and art. They’ve now got degrees and good jobs, despite no one making sure they were “learning the right things”. How does a parent know that their child in school is learning the right things? They just have to trust that the teacher is good, that the classmates aren’t disruptive, that someone would notice if their child wasn’t engaged or learning.

    • Hi May. I like that you have ‘sort-of-step brothers’. The anthropologist in me wants to work out that kinship chart!! It amazes me how often people assume that formal education is only one thing. But everyone’s experience at school is different, we are taught in different ways by kind, cruel, good, bad, interesting, boring teachers. We have teachers who are passionate and enthusiastic. Or we have teachers who are just waiting for the pay cheque at the end of the week. We go to schools that are resource rich or resource poor. We have friends or we don’t have friends. We are in classes with engaged or disruptive classmates. I don’t remember most of the stuff that didn’t interest me at school. I’ll never forget Geography and English Lit. I found History as a subject pointless, not because History was boring, but because I didn’t need someone to teach it to me – I just needed to pick up a book and read it for myself – which I did anyway, and dropped History as a subject as soon as I could. Schools are wonderful places to learn. But they are not the only places to learn. And as your sort-of-step brothers show, a lack of formal education in no way impedes what one does in life. All the best, Martina

      • Haha ok well my sort-of-step brothers in this case are my dad’s partner’s sons – I consider her to be my stepmum but they’re not actually married. I also have an actual step-brother, my mum’s husband’s son, who I’ve only met once, a half brother who I’ve also only met once, a full brother who I grew up with, and two sort-of foster sisters (I was sort-of fostered, I was 16 so it was unofficial). Complicated family!
        I learnt almost nothing in school geography lessons. All the geographical knowledge I have now comes from travelling with my family, reading magazines and internet articles, and picking stuff up from the boys I nanny.

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