I have agreed to undertake the education of my grand-daughter at home. This is not something I have entered into lightly; in fact it is something I have strong reservations about. My stance about the group education of children has always been that the child benefits by being part of a social group and as such makes decisions and learns lessons that hopefully will equip them for a future where they can be autonomous and self-reliant. I have fairly strong views about education, not least because I have been a teacher for many years and I know the influence we wield on our pupils.
I was quite surprised how easy it is for anyone to decide to home-school a child. I thought we would have to put forward a strong case for why we wanted to remove this particular small person from her school. I discovered that it is so simple, and often parents are not obliged to inform the authorities what they have decided to do. The Education Act of 1996 states that education is compulsory, attendance at school is not.
“Under Section 576 of the Education Act 1996, a parent is defined in relation to a child or young person as also including any individual: (a) who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him, or (b) who has care of him. As parents are responsible for ensuring that their children are properly educated, it is their decision whether to use schools or provide education at home. It is important to note that the duty to secure education is stated entirely in Section 7 and nowhere else. Provided the child is not a registered pupil at a school, the parent is bound by no other constraints. In particular, there is no obligation:
- to seek permission to educate ‘otherwise’;
- to take the initiative in informing the LEA (Local Education Authority);
- to have regular contact with the LEA;
- to have premises equipped to any particular standard;
- to have any specific qualifications;
- to cover the same syllabus as any school;
- to adopt the National Curriculum;
- to make detailed plans in advance;
- to observe school hours, days or terms;
- to have a fixed timetable;
- to give formal lessons;
- to reproduce school type peer group socialisation;
- to match school, age-specific standards.”
Problems in school
The decision to home educate was made in light of this particular child’s experience at two private schools with very small class sizes – the first had five children and the second had seven children with a teacher and classroom assistant – where despite the information given to each school about her compound diagnosed challenges, which included dyspraxia and an inability to eat quickly or consume enough calories to sustain her energies, my grandchild was regularly isolated from her classmates at break times so that she could eat the high calorie food prescribed by the nutritionist.
As you can imagine, this food would have been a joy to most other children. It consisted of chocolate, high energy/calorie drinks and nuts, all of which were banned by the schools, who refused to compromise despite telephone discussions with the nutritionist. She was also informed that she must eat her food, whether snack or lunch by a certain time otherwise she would go hungry.
This pressure on a child whose eating is slow and laboured at best meant that in order for her to keep up with the other children she ate very little food at lunch time or snack time and as a consequence, by the time she was collected in the afternoon, she was too tired to eat anything at home. In both schools she lost weight dramatically and we were concerned that she would eventually be hospitalised as her weight was well below the norm. She also became very lethargic which compounded her learning ability.
Added to that, her dyspraxia and spatial confusion meant that traditional teaching methods did not work on her. She was given words to learn and despite trying really hard, she could not remember a single one. It was quite a frustrating time for us all. She was expected to do at least an hour’s work each evening. This became impossible. She arrived home at four-thirty, we tried to get her to eat some food but often she was too tired and was not able to even chew. Then she was bathed and in bed for six in order to gain a good night’s sleep to start her day at seven each morning.
She was taken from her first school as her teacher admitted that she had no experience of working with a child who had dyspraxia. She was often left to ‘get on with things’ by herself.
She was then enrolled in a school where they had children who had dyspraxia or similar challenges so we thought she was going to be fine, and she was for a while. We then discovered that lunch times were short – thirty minutes – and it was not possible to have a member of staff available for her during that time to make sure she ate. It took some time to persuade the teachers that she could not have a free choice of food as her favourite foods have too few calories. Apples, pears and cucumber are top of her list. They could not or would not accept that she had so many health-related difficulties as she always masked her fatigue by sheer determination to be part of the group. We noticed that she was beginning to lose weight again, and in fact she now weighed only as much as a two-year-old child.
She started to fall over a lot in school where the outside play consisted of very vigorous play. She fell over on her ankle and the school called home and spoke to her mother to say that she was fine. Her mother asked if she had cried and they said she had. This was a very significant statement. Often children with dyspraxia do not feel pain in the same way as other children as their senses are in chaos. The fact that she had cried meant she was quite badly hurt. Her mother took her to hospital where she was diagnosed with a badly sprained ankle. It was strapped up and she was rested at home for a while. She returned to school and the same thing happened again. Off to hospital for a second time where an x-ray revealed a broken ankle.
The final straw
After spending several weeks in plaster, she eventually healed. I think that experience had unnerved her mother, who now doubted the ability of the school to safeguard this child. One afternoon she arrived as usual at the end of the school day to collect the child, only to be asked where she was. After a rather frantic search she was found with a visiting student who had not been cleared by the standard CRB check, in the classroom. As the teacher had only five children in total to look after, it did seem odd that one had been overlooked so spectacularly.
As soon as was possible without losing too much money on school fees, the decision was made for her to be educated at home, by me.
I have to say that I found the task daunting at first for I knew I would be quite tough on her, because I wanted her to be successful. I set up my office as a classroom and every day we sat doing the basic lessons that she would have for her age in a school. We began to explore the outside as I am a keen environmentalist and she discovered the skills of a spider in making its web, the importance of the insects and other mini-beasts in soil and how weather changes with the seasons. We have made a weather station and plan to visit a zoo soon to check out eating habits and camouflage.
I am enjoying my time with her but we still clash from time to time when her attention strays or if she forgets how to write certain numbers or letters. She lets me know in clear ways if I am asking too much of her or being less than sympathetic. We have shouting matches and lots of hissy fits. Despite all of this, we remain the best of friends and share a child-like sense of humour.
Recently I was inspected by the Home Education Advisor, and we are doing well. I was told that I would not need to be inspected often as everything was as it should be. We were told about other situations where the parents had decided to home educate their children with little or no understanding of what that might involve.
I don’t know how long this arrangement will continue. I would like to see her integrated into a caring and supportive environment with other children eventually. She attends an after-school-club three times a week and also goes with her mother to a huge variety of home education experiences with the other children in the locality so she doesn’t lack friendships. We will have to see how this works.