Homeschooling: a surprisingly joyful choice

When our only daughter was born a little over five years ago, we gave a lot of thought to where she would study. We live in Edinburgh, where nearly 25% of children attend fee-paying private schools. Often these were set up as charitable homes or hospitals, for the orphans of Edinburgh. These days, they still offer a few places to ‘fatherless bairns’ free of charge but most of their students are from Edinburgh’s substantial middle & upper classes. They pay extortionate amounts of money each year – in fees, uniforms, music lessons, kit for sports, trips etc – and in return their children are drilled in a wide variety of academic subjects (no shortage of languages there) as well as hopefully given the sense of confidence – and sometimes entitlement – that their parents believe will pave a smooth path to university and joining the ruling classes. To be fair, that’s often how it works.

Papa Bear, who regularly mentors visiting high school students on work placements before they apply to university, says that the biggest difference between state & private school students is not intelligence or academic ability: it’s confidence.

We were reluctant to go down that path and not just because we couldn’t afford it: we both have first class honours degrees (& I have a PhD) after being in some pretty grim schools where a tiny percentage of students went on to university. I am the first member of my family to attend university, never mind have two degrees! While we don’t like the cookie-cutter approach of state classes, we felt the same was true of expensive private schools. That’s not prejudice, it’s just a fact when you have 30 children in a class. In our local primary school, the first year students (aged 4-5) are split into a class of 25 and one of… 40. Yes, forty. Two teachers and a teaching assistant but still.

In the end, we visited half a dozen nurseries, read online about different approaches to learning and found we agreed most with the Montessori one. It respected a child’s individuality, encouraged independence and cooperation with peers as well as focussing on real life skills. The fact that Montessori graduates tend to have a great record of creative thinking and confidence didn’t hurt either.

The school we chose didn’t take children until the age of 3, although we attended a parent and child group a few times a week once she was 18 months. It was a nice space and Wee Bear was happy to explore. When the time came for her to attend Children’s House, we moved across the city so that we could walk there each day – in ten minutes! – and enjoy freedom from the tyranny of the car. In fact we sold our car, but that’s because we couldn’t afford it.

Two years later – and two teachers later – we are taking her out before she completes her final year of Children’s House. Montessori operates on a three year cycle, so she should be there until she is 6 and transitions to Elementary. Why are we doing this crazy thing, having signed up so much to the Montessori philosophy that we moved house, and have invested a large amount in her education so far?

At the most basic level, she’s not happy. 90% of her peers left age 4 to move into mainstream schools. That’s up to their parents and we are not judging. Four children stayed on, including her. The other girl doesn’t speak to her at all (or anyone else, being the most reserved child I’ve ever met in my whole life) and one of the two boys hit her on the first day back. She’s worked hard to become his friend but its a daily struggle. All the other children are younger than her. I see a regression in her behaviour, as she tries to cope with classmates who don’t know how the room operates or respect her space. I see a daily reluctance to go to school. I see two hours of aggressive behaviour when she comes home, ever day. I see someone who is, frankly, bored. The school have tried to help but I don’t think they have the qualified staff to make much more than positive sounds.

So we are trying homeschool. I know, I always thought homeschoolers were a bit mad or religiously extreme or… Just odd. Now I’m one of them and yes, I am odd and I am religious.

We signed up to St Raphael’s Homeschool and bought a few books – the traditional kind of rhymes, stories and curriculum that have been used for years. We bought reading and writing materials from Simply Charlotte Mason whose “no twaddle” approach to reading material, emphasis on respect, good habits, practical life and short lessons to build a child’s concentration share a lot of common ground with Montessori and found a ton of free materials for extending reading, writing and lots of religious materials from Paidea Classics – as well as some books that can be bought.

How is it going? Well, we are working out our notice at Montessori but she goes less and less. When she does go, she comes home with an attitude or a virus. At home, we can squeak in a ten or fifteen minute reading session before dinner or whenever she shows signs of being ready. We talk about history, maths, the universe, writing a lot. We do baking, sewing, gardening, housework and yes, watch Dad’s Army on DVD. It’s her favourite show.

Best of all, when I freaked out that she was too frustrated with the online classes, her absolutely wonderful teacher spent nearly an hour on the phone with me. We came up with a plan combining both the early Elementary and Elementary classes as Wee Bear is too far on for the younger class in some areas, using the school as both a curriculum and support network, so that I have back up and we can listen in until she gets to the point of wanting to participate again. In the meantime, she has one-to-one attention from me and I am following their curriculum at our pace. I’m not sure how it will go after Christmas, when we are home full-time, but I genuinely can’t wait to be watching her learn & helping her move on at her own speed.

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She’s reading and writing – this is her Christmas list – so we are, I think, already half way there.

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