What did you learn out of school today?

Why do people take or keep their children out of school? Mostly for three reasons: They think that raising their children is their business and not the government’s; they enjoy being with their children and helping them to learn, and don’t want to give that up to others; they want to keep them from being hurt, mentally, physically and spiritually.

john Holt Teach your own

Home schooling is something of a recurrent theme in communes. It was both at People In Common and at Laurieston in the early years with various kids being taught at home.Sometimes primarily by their parents at other times organised more collectively. Quite what it was that made up our minds to not send our son,Finn to school I couldn’t pin down now nearly forty years later. But I guess a bit of all three of John Holt’s reasons above played there part.

Burnley Road Baptist Chapel School rooms Padiham

I had watched and taken part in coaxing, persuading, dragging… David, Barbara & Derek’s son, off to school when he started. It still leaves a bit of a lump in my throat even now to remember it. So small, so young, and so unhappy. In fact so unhappy that great effort was made to try and find an alternative for him (and others). An attempt was made to try and start a Burnley Free School.(Free Schools were a radical alternative back then not the privately sponsored ones that we have now.) Barbara put a lot of the leg work in looking for other parents who might want to join and searching for suitable premises. I think contact was made with the local Quakers to see if there was any chance of using their meeting house as premises and the old school rooms at the Burnley Road Baptist Chapel on the corner of Igtenhill Street and Factory Lane in Padhiam were looked at. In the end it all proved too difficult and, with I think at the time a reluctance all round, David continued to attend state school.

The whole experience with David and trying to set up the Free School must have influenced me at the time. We also read various books about home schooling; John Holt’s Teach Your Own, The Continuum Concept and the amazing story of The Children on the Hill.¹ We decided fairly early on when Finn was 3 or 4 that we at least wanted the option of not sending him to school. So we avoided anything that would get him ‘enrolled in the system’ or his name on some official pre-school list. We didn’t send him to the local nursery school which other PIC kids went to. I don’t remember him particular wanting to go either.

Thinking about it now another quiet influence on our decision was most likely the presence of PIC member Ray Leach for the few years when we were considering whether to homeschool or not. .Ray was the former head of a school somewhere in Shropshire and had been involved somehow in supporting the ‘Children on the Hill’. He had then been involved in the Manchester Free School and run his own ‘self-sufficiency ‘ style small holding before he ran away to join us.

In the end I think it probably was the support from others; other parents, single members and visitors who would help out with looking after the kids that gave me/us the confidence to keep Finn.out of school and teach him ourselves – it also helped that both sets of grandparents were teachers/school secretary/school librarian and while they probably weren’t completely thrilled by our choice, once we’d made it they supported us in different ways whenever they could.

The other place we got support and encouragement from was Education Otherwise. A group that took it’s name from the 1944 Education Act, which states that parents are responsible for their children’s education: ‘either by regular attendance at school or otherwise’. Set up in 1976 by Dick Kitto and Stan Windlass at Lower Shaw Farm in Swindon (A place with its own communal connections See: Communal Family Trees (Part 2) )

“As far as I’m concerned, E.O. does not have a particular kind of education to which it is committed. It is committed to the right of families to do what they want to do. It is a humans (sic) rights organisation. I don’t feel we must do this, or we must do that. It is up to the members. To me it is not a specific thing where children have to run wild in the country, or have to pay visits to Winchester Cathedral, or anything else. There is this huge variation. Some people join EO in order to give their children a good classical education which they cannot get at school. I have a fundamental belief in the freedom of choice. We must all be allowed to make our own mistakes. We don’t want to be dictated to by a curriculum from central government.”

interview with Dick Kitto, EO Newsletter Aug 1988

Starting off as a support group for a small number of families following a couple of appearances on TV , one on Granada and another on BBC2s Open Door the membership swelled to over 2000 and has since gone from strength to strength providing support and information by telephone and through a regular newsletter (And more recently online) to members throughout the UK.. It also put members in touch with each other with local groups forming in many areas. We joined and attended a few local group get togethers. But never really came across any like minds. There were so many different reasons that kids were being homeschooled that finding parents with the same views on education felt a bit hit and miss. And living communally we didn’t feel particularly isolated, or in need of friends for Finn to mix with.

At an EO gathering at Unstone Grange we did come across a former teacher of mine from Wreake Valley, Bruce Cox, who was homeschooling his own kids. He had been my A-level sociology teacher and was an influence on the 17 year old me. He saw I was skeptical of classic sociological thinking and pointed me in the direction of social psychology instead. He also introduced me to the work of Edward de Bono on lateral thinking – which on reflection has probably influenced me more than I have admitted to myself in the past. Bruce (Mr Cox²) had become disillusioned with formal education, despite the fact that Wreake Valley was probably as liberal a school as you would find short of it being a free school, and had given up teaching academic subjects and was working as a woodwork teacher in a school somewhere in East Anglia while teaching his own kids at home.

So what sort of things did we do in our home school? Our approach was I guess what you would call child centred. One of the great advantages of home education is you can follow the child’s interests and obsessions. For weeks on end at one point Finn was fascinated by creating mazes so we let him. The communal set up we had was good for being able to involve him in practical thing we were doing. He was able to contribute to work projects now and then and develop practical skills. We also encouraged basic literacy and numeracy skills – initially through games and just enjoying reading to him.

We drew on various talent and skills of grandparents. Encouraged by my mum we had taught him to swim almost before he could walk. Don, Kate’s dad’ who was an Olympic archery judge provide us with proper bows and targets and enabled us to set up our own pop up target practice sessions. My dad helped by providing early reading and writing materials. And they all took Finn off on trips and holidays. It was a challenge at times and we often wondered if we were doing the ‘right thing’ – we often thought we were as well.

Finn decided to go to school of his own accord aged 9 just after we had moved to the mill. Partly I think because the Mill was more remote from friends his age and partly I think he was getting bored with being home schooled and was ready to cope with more formal learning. We did make sure he understood that he couldn’t really just go for a couple of weeks and then stop if he didn’t like it. He went to Altham Primary School – a small school recovering from being threatened with closure due to falling numbers – there were only 2 classes and only a handfull of pupils in his year. The school considered that he was ‘behind’ in his reading skills – we got the blame – but that he was quickly above average at maths – they took the credit. As far as he was concerned the one crucial thing we had failed to teach him were the rules of football.

Later we did plan to consider not sending Finn to secondary school if he didn’t want to go. We were going to disappear to spend 6 months trekking through Africa, using contacts that our friend Joyce Piliso said she could get us in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa. We took the idea seriously enough to start learning Swahili. As it turned out Finn decided he wanted to go to carry on going to school. Though years later he said we should have made him go to Africa as “It would have been more interesting than school!”

Notes:

  1. The Children on the Hill was published in 1973 and the author also made a Yorkshire TV documentary about the family. It seems that to protect the identities of the children names and places were changed throughout the book – so having reread it recently I can’t really work out what role PIC member Ray had in the story of the truly remarkable children and their experience of homeschooling. There have been attempts to trace the family to find out what happened to them, but it seems they wish to remain anonymous (see: Children off the hill.)
  2. At the liberal/experimental Wreake Valley college it was a school rule that both pupils and teachers were called by their first names – the strange dynamic that resulted from this was that using first names became the ‘formal’ way to address teachers and if you had a more informal relationship with them you used their surname. So in school lessons it was “Bruce”, after school on the playing field, or down the pub it was “Mr Cox, or Coxy”.

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