Home education: Welcome to my life

I’ve spent the last week in a very temperamental part of Wales for the annual Home Educators seaside festival that takes place around July-August every year in the UK. The festival is called Hesfes, and I’m going to write a proper blog/review thing in the next few days about it.
It was a bit of a surprise to realize that I haven’t mentioned anything about home education before on this blog, and haven’t even mentioned that I was home schooled as a child. I guess being 22 and a post-uni office worker it didn’t seem important anymore, especially as I’d been in ‘formal’ education for around six years. It used to be such a big part of life, but now I rarely think about it. However, after having been to this festival its reminded me that I have a whole other area to talk about, something that most people may know quite little about and have misconceptions and wrong ideas about.
So here goes: I have never been educated in a school. I have very rarely even set foot in a school. I did not go to primary school, I did not go to secondary school, and I did not sit my GCSE’s in a school. This is not because I was a truant, or that I was expelled or had issues. My parents chose to educate me at home, which is legally allowed as long as the child receives some form of education. I had to pay quite a lot to sit my GCSE’s  as I was really adamant at the time I wanted to do them at the ‘right age’ (sixteen), and I wanted to go to college and uni at the same age as other people (as I went to a further education college and many of my classmates and friends ended up being over sixteen it wasn’t that important, but at the time I just didn’t want to be behind my age group and thinking about it now it was probably the right decision). Yes, I did have friends. Yes, I did have boyfriends, and some were home educated and some were not. My life wasn’t the same as yours, but it was not incomplete.
I did go to college to do A Levels, I did go to university and whilst at university for the first time ever I went to a school during school hours to invigilate GCSE’s and A Levels, which was a bit of a culture shock but was very interesting for me. Some people do originally go to school and then are taken out for various reasons, but I wasn’t like that. I simply never went, and although I was curious about it and there are times when I wonder what it would have been like, I don’t regret it.

Furthermore, as well as being home educated my education was mostly autonomous, which means that apart from basic reading, writing and math I was largely left to my own devices to learn ‘through living’ rather than having set lessons, in fact I didn’t have set lessons at all. I went to museums and art galleries, I went for walks in the forest, I went to Australia (twice), I went to the theatre and saw ballets, plays and musicals (I really, really like anything to do with the stage), there was a time when I went to the Zoo every week (I now volunteer there) and in between I read a lot of books. I only decided to study history during my first year of college when it turned out I was actually pretty good at it (and only decided to try and be a journalist recently when I realized it is quite similar to history) but throughout my childhood I read all the horrible history books, I went to historical museums and buildings and I read a lot of Charles Dickens. I was able to be interested in it for myself, rather than being forced to learn it for the eventuality of passing an exam in ten years time. I learned about money, spelling and grammar online (Neopets was great for that) and I managed to learn how to type very, very fast just because I spent more time on a computer. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I’d gone to school, it would’ve given me more of an opportunity to study science (which can be hard, although not impossible, if you’re home schooled) and maybe I would have gone to Oxford, maybe my life would be very different. But realistically, I live in south east London and I know people who went to my local schools, and I’m quite happy I didn’t go there. I would have been different, but realistically everything considered home education worked out pretty well for me.

I have a mixture of home schooled and schooled friends. Home education does not make you a better person, and it doesn’t necessarily make you smarter, more accepting or a more rounded human being. It can however work out pretty well, I know a lot of very impressive young adults who were home educated. For example, one is studying computing at Oxford, another was recently invited to an exclusive scientific conference on artificial intelligence in California without ever having gone to university, another is going to Kings college in September to do a teaching course and become a secondary school teacher (even though she never went to school herself) and one runs her own Canine behaviour and training business. Hesfes (the festival I went to last week) is great because it shows how far many of the people I grew up with have come, and how diverse their interests are. Many are skilled musicians, many are academic, many are accomplished artists who have been paid for their artwork and all appear socially able enough to manage relationships and friends just like anyone educated in a school. They may not be representative,I may not be representative, and I don’t deny that especially in isolated areas being home schooled can be quite a lonely experience, especially if you have a lot of schooled friends who have this whole other life you can’t even imagine. However, for me and for most of the people I’ve known it doesn’t appear to have hindered our lives in any way, if anything it has allowed people to excel in what they are interested in, without making them feel bad that they didn’t excel in something else.

It does make me wonder at the school system. If children can spend ten years, from ages 5-15, in a system that is based on exams from such an early age and spend years trying to gear up to these all important GCSE’s, and  even though schools dedicate so much time on passing exams, how is it that the last time I checked there was at  60-70% pass rate for GCSE’s per year. This isn’t to suggest there is something wrong with the children, or wrong with the school itself. I understand there can be numerous factors, and if there is one thing home schooling can teach you its that some people just don’t do well in school. Some people don’t do well in exams but can still be very intelligent, and some people have very impressive talents that are not academic that will still take them far in later life (art, music, making things etc) that do not necessarily even require a formal education. However, it does confuse me somewhat when people say that the education system is hard. In my experience, it is really rather easy. Not easy in that that you don’t have to work for it, but easy enough that realistically you don’t have to work that  hard. I think perhaps the importance schools place on these exams can hinder individual students, that rather than being encouraged to find things interesting they learn from a young age that learning means boring lessons and scary exams. This wouldn’t be true for all children, or even most, but it is something that home schooling tries very hard to counteract. That you don’t need formal education, you don’t need to be scared of learning, and all you need to do is develop your interests and learn in your own way, that you can learn for the sake of it rather than memorizing a bunch of facts and forgetting them straight after the exam. It may not work for everyone, but it does work.

I do have to say that I question how children who do go to school for ten years can fail GCSEs. As I was autonomously home educated, when I was fifteen I hadn’t done much maths at all and I basically had to learn about seven years of maths in a year to sit my GCSE. I also didn’t have much writing ability, and my hand writing was barely legible. I had spent the last how ever many years just reading books and had never, ever sat an exam and so before getting my GCSE results I was really scared. I had no prior basis to judge my intelligence or exam aptitude. But I did pass. I got 7 GCSEs graded A-C (three A’s) and I went on to achieve ABB at college, and later a 2.1 at a Russell Group university. During my final year of college I also got an interview at Magdelen College, Oxford. I didn’t get in, partly because I didn’t prepare enough for the interview but also because realistically I wasn’t ‘Oxford material’, but I did get an interview. I passed the HAT test (History Aptitude test) and I got to spend four quite nice days in the beautiful college that Oscar Wilde attended and got free dinners in the beautiful canteen. And later at uni I was talking to my friend, who went to both state and private schools, who applied to Oxford and did the HAT test, and didn’t get an interview.  I, who never received a formal education from a school, who learned grammar and spelling from chat rooms on the internet and who learned the entire GCSE foundation maths syllabus in a year got an interview at Oxford university. I’m not saying this to brag, but just to show that going to school doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage, if anything being home schooled makes you stand out to universities. I got conditional offers all of the five universities I applied to.

For most of my life, people were fine with my having been home schooled. My friends at college thought I was a bit wacky, but that’s kind of a separate issue. I am a bit wacky.  I never had any serious problems with being home schooled before university, sure people ask a lot of questions and tend to assume at first that you must be a social recluse, or a child genius or both, but most of the time people realize quite quickly that you are a normal person who just didn’t go to school. However, that was not always the case at university. Most people were fine, and I went on to meet some great people, but my first year flat mates for a variety of reasons were quite special young ladies. They seemed to assume that because I was home schooled I didn’t ‘understand the world’, that I didn’t know the difference between football and rugby, that I was somehow less capable at life then they were. They criticized many, many things about me. They assumed because I wasn’t exactly like them there was something wrong with me. And it wasn’t pleasant. It’s over now, and I’m far more secure and capable then I was as an eighteen year old fresher, but at the time it was very annoying and being a timid little fresher who didn’t want to cause too much drama I didn’t really retaliate at the time. However, it still makes me angry  and so for the end of this post I’m going to write a little, admittedly belated,  response to how my first year flat mates acted. It was a while back and people change, and they (like anyone else) had good and bad in their personalities, so this is not intended to be vindictive or angry but rather reflective and for the present and future home educated people.

Please try to keep an open mind about other people’s upbringings, and don’t assume based on stereotypes about groups of people you have never even encountered.Please do not assume that your experiences are the only ones that are valid, and please learn the difference between ‘different and ‘inferior’. Please do not assume that your limited, sheltered girls grammar school experience has taught you more about life than my own childhood did, and please do not assume that being a squealing, screaming, make up obsessed, incredibly immature and horrendously stereotypical girl is the only or the best way to be. Before assuming someone with a different background is lesser than yourself, please consider how it is that they ended up in the exact same place you did, that they went on to do the same or better in their chosen field and are now as much or more a productive member of society as you are. Believe me when I say that I have met many people who went to school who have a variety of social problems, that there are many people who went to school all their lives who have many, many problems with other people, who do not know how to act around other people. This can happen either way, and it can also not happen either way, and before assuming such things about other people please take a look at your own life, and your own behaviour and attitude towards other people. And please, for the love of god, do not assume that living the norm is necessary for a good life, and that school is the only way to be socialized.  Because with total honesty, if I had to choose between your life and mine in the past, present, or future, I would choose mine single every time.

Further information on home education: Hesfes: http://www.hesfes.co.uk/
My old home education group: http://www.theotherwiseclub.org.uk/
Other links: http://www.heas.org.uk/