Why school's out for the home educators

More and more parents are choosing not to send their children to school. Jane Cartledge met two mums who, for different reasons, educate their children themselves.

ALISON Blaine had never thought about home educating her children until she picked up a copy of Good Housekeeping.

In the turn of a page all her problems had an answer.

Former accountant Alison and husband Colin had spent months looking for the right school for their four-year-old son who had Down's Syndrome and leukaemia.

They were concerned that special schools wouldn't offer the right setting and so Alison made the momentous decision to home educate John and later his younger sisters Elizabeth and Lucy.

"We were going to send the girls to school," recalls Alison, who lives at Owlthorpe, Sheffield.

"But by the time they were each school-age we were so happy doing family things."

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Sadly John lost his battle for life in 2000, aged 10, but Alison feels her decision to keep her children at home helped the family enormously.

"The girls had those years together with John that they would have missed if they'd been at school. Elizabeth would have come back from school not knowing what had happened in the day. John could go downhill quite fast.

"After he died we just carried on doing family things and sending the girls to school was never an option."

Four years ago the couple had a third daughter Felicity, aged four, and now teach all their children themselves.

But you won't find a desk, a blackboard or even any exercise-books in the Blaine household.

The girls don't have a set curriculum, lessons or homework. They simply learn through play and set their own agenda guided by their interests.

Alison and Colin follow their lead and through in-depth conversation, the girls' understanding and knowledge has flourished.

"I'm an avid reader and I'm desolate when I haven't got anything to read," explains Alison, at the weekly meeting of home educated children and their parents at Highfield adventure playground in Sheffield.

"I think that rubs off although I did start to panic when Elizabeth was 10 and she couldn't read properly. She learned in the end, just like she learned to write but it wasn't through any formal lessons."

Elizabeth is now 16 and is just finishing a foundation course at Sheffield College covering a range of subjects. She loves singing and drama and next year hopes to take a BTEC first diploma in performing arts.

Her education doesn't appear to have suffered, although, unlike many teenagers her age, she isn't awaiting GCSE results and therefore won't have formal school qualifications unless she chooses to sit them at college.

Like many home educated children Elizabeth is bright and a confident communicator. She's at ease in adult company and has fitted into the more mature college scene with ease.

"I've never had any problems with being home educated," says Elizabeth, who has spent the past hour chatting to friends on the swings while her younger sisters play merrily on a zip wire.

"A lot of people think home educated kids don't have any friends but that's nonsense.

More on next page. The problem I've got is fitting everyone in."

Members of the group tend to socialise together and because there isn't any structured learning they visit the seaside, skate, swim and visit each other's homes.

"Socialising is so important," adds Alison. "It's important for parents as well as the kids. Lucy goes to school part time now. She started full time last September and it was her decision but it was too much for her. So now she goes three-and-a-half days and still comes to Highfield. She feels she's got the best of both worlds."

Alison also feels the lack of routine has benefited her children.

"We don't have to get up if it's raining, we can stay up late if there's something good on television and we can visit the swimming pools and ice rink when they're quiet. We can also go on holiday out of school term when it's cheaper."

But home educating does have its drawbacks.

"We don't go away much. They did miss out with things like PlayStations too because there was only my husband's income. Home educating our children has given us the time and space to see things differently. We have a very special bond with our children and it's affected our entire lives."

FACTFILEContrary to popular belief it is both legal and reasonable to educate your child at home.

It's a growing phenomenon - last year 50,000 kids were home educated, that's a 17 per cent increase on 2006.

Bullying, poor educational standards, religion, special needs and school choice are all common reasons for home educating. It can be a natural choice for parents who want to continue their child's early learning and see no reason to stop when the child reaches the age of five.

The method of learning is entirely personal and parents can use any approach considered suitable.

A UK support website for those practising home education (www.education-otherwise.org.) advises: "You do not need to 'know everything' - a more important skill these days, with the ever increasing volume of facts which changes and soon becomes out of date, is learning how to learn, how to think, how to find information and where to look."

The majority of home educators have no formal education.

There is no financial assistance for home educators, so inevitably some expense will be incurred. However, home educators do not have to buy school uniforms, pay bus fares to and from school, or the other

incidental expenses connected with school. Home education can cost as much - or as little - as you are prepared to spend.

For an informal chat about home educating contact Janet Ford, a Sheffield mum-of-two, who home educated her son to university. Email mehetabel@blueyonder.co.uk

For information, see

www.education-otherwise.org, www.heas.org.uk,

www.home-education.org.uk

More on next pageBenefit switch could change school system

SINGLE mum Carole Virgo home educates both her daughters but changes to the benefits system could force her to into work.

Carole, who lives on the western outskirts of Sheffield, decided to teach Ruth, 14, and Abigail, eight, at home because her husband's career meant they travelled all over the country.

When her marriage broke down and Carole settled in Sheffield she continued teaching the girls and they've never attended school.

Both are learning well and enjoy the freedom home schooling brings. Things could be about to change if the government pushes new benefits reforms through.

Initially the reforms will see lone parents transferred from Income Support to Job Seeker's Allowance when their youngest child turns 12. Then, under the terms of the benefit, if they don't take up work for 16 hours a week their benefits could be cut. The prospect of losing benefit or being forced into work is terrifying for Carole and deeply unsettling for her daughters.

"It's wrong to force lone parents into work and even more wrong when you're preventing families home educating their kids," explained Carole, who has written to ministers and lobbied Lib Dem leader and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg.

"Every parent has the right to home educate their children but by changing the benefits system for lone parents they're putting a financial barrier in our way.

"They've not spoken to children about it - Ruth has said she would rather have less and have our lifestyle."

If Carole was forced to take work and continued to home educate she would have to reply on grandparents and paid childcare while she worked evenings or weekends.

"I don't have any grandparents to call on and the cost of childcare would mean I was working for nothing. This whole exercise is about number crunching and they've not paid the slightest attention to families' needs. The cost of these changes will be astronomical."

The government is mulling over the plans and Job Centre staff will begin to receive guidance in August. Lone parents, whose youngest child turns 12, will be first affected.

From October 2009 the ceiling will be lowered to parents of children turning 10 and from 2010 the Income Support to JSA switch will be implemented when the youngest child reaches the age of seven. The first raft of measures will be introduced in November and it's argued they could put many lone parent families below the poverty line.

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