When I first started home educating, I thought I would be running a school at home, lessons in interesting things in the morning, and activities in the afternoon. I had talked to the local education authority, but they were frankly no help at all, except for the condescending comment that they had been "quite surprised" at how well children had done who had been home educated.
I read everything I could get my hands on, and soon realised that central to the plan of home educating my children was a target - what was I hoping to achieve by home educating?
My sons had been very unhappy at school: my elder son was bored and bullied, my younger son was frustrated physically and overstretched academically. Although my older son had been doing maths with older years, he thought he was bad at it, because he invariably failed to complete the number of sums he was supposed to complete. He did those he did right - he understood the concepts he was being taught, but he didn't do the quantity required. He had begun to think of all learning as boring.
My younger son was lively physically - always running, jumping, climbing, swinging, and the long hours spent sitting on the carpet or at a desk just made him frustrated. He was someone who had to be moving to think, moving to talk, and he needed to be free.
So, I already had a picture of what I wanted, by knowing what I didn't want. I didn't want my sons to be bullied. I didn't want them to be bored. I didn't want them to hate learning. I didn't want them to feel physically restrained all the time.
I thought about what schools use as their targets for children. Basically it comes down to examinations. They may talk grandly about the potential of every child and developing their uniqueness and other such airy-fairy stuff, but in the end a child who has achieved 10 GCSEs or three or four A levels and goes to University has succeeded in their terms. Never mind that I have O levels for things I can't remember a thing about. Never mind that a lot of children study subjects to get the qualification without the slightest interest in what they have been doing. The qualifications were enough. Never mind that a shameful number of bright students commit suicide because of their fear of failure.
I didn't want my children to have empty qualifications. I wanted them to study the things they were interested in and really learn. There's a book-learning sort of knowing, which is what teaches you things to pass exams, a skin-deep sort of learning. Then there's a real knowing, a learning that just becomes part of who you are, that you don't forget because you understand it completely. That's the sort of learning I wanted for them. I wanted them to be able to immerse themselves in the things that were going to be part of their lives forever.
It meant that they had to be free to decide what to learn and how. It meant that what they aimed for, what they wanted, what they did, had to be their own and owned by them.
I worried about this at the time. Isn't there a complete body of knowledge which it is important for a child to learn? Doesn't every educated person have to know certain stuff? I looked at the sorts of things which the national curriculum and schools have decided to teach children, and decided they were mostly crazy. Algebra and fractions may be part of the normal curriculum in most of our schools... but why? When learning how to run a bank account, or how to calculate what you will be paying on a loan or credit card would be so much more useful?
I began to think about other things which children should be able to do. They should be able to shop and cook for themselves, should be able to make phone calls, find information, use the internet. I decided that it was essential for a child to have proper practical skills.
I read avidly about different learning systems, different teaching systems. I talked to people, explored the possibilities. It didn't happen overnight.
If I had been expected to provide a plan for the following year when I first started it would have talked about curricula and timetables - at the beginning I was in a place where I wanted to be fulfilling my duties in the same way that the school had been... I didn't know about the alternatives, and hadn't thought through how much of my attitude to education and schooling - which I thought of as synonymous - were the result of my own schooling.
That journey was a hard one to take, because I realised that much of what I had believed about schools and education was propaganda - that even though I knew from first-hand experience than a lot of what is said about schooling is patently untrue, I had believed the opposite of what I knew, because I had been told to.
People do not learn well in groups. They don't need to "work hard" at school work if they love it. Working hard won't teach you something you don't understand. Working hard is a way of making it seem like the learner's fault if they don't learn something, instead of the teacher's or the teaching method.
Doing well at academic subjects can be an indication that you have applied yourself, or of a natural intelligence and interest in academic subjects - but should that be the ultimate indicator of who you are? What about my younger son, who had loads of intelligence and amazing talents but wasn't interested in academic subjects? Would a school say he was a failure? Probably. Probably if he had stayed in school he would have been labelled with ADHD and got to the point where he was disrupting the class with humorous antics. At home there was no incentive to do that, he was able to indulge his talent for drawing and making things with lego.
Within a couple of months, we changed to project work. The children chose projects and were supposed to work on them, with or without my help. The chose good things, and started working on them, but I soon realised that although they might not have done any work on the project in a week, they had been doing things that were just as educational. I started to relax. After a few more weeks we were unschooling.
I'd realised by then how powerful a group activity is in a home education context. Any sort of joint activity could go in any direction, whether it was making biscuits together or building a papier mache dinosaur. The children could take the discussion in any direction - science, history, language and literature, sociology... if hey were interested in learning more we could take it further in the direction they wanted to go. Sometimes just a casual discussion about something would resurface a few weeks later and we would explore it in more depth.
None of this looks like learning from a traditional schooling point of view. There were no lesson plans, no course work, no timetable. And yet just by talking to each other, finding things out, using their natural curiosity, we were learning a lot. I began to understand things I had never understood at school. I did five years of chemistry without understanding how molecule bonding was supposed to work.
I learned that human children are learning machines - they are curious, constantly testing out their world and learning from it. In an information-rich society, with computers and the internet at their disposal, they could take anything that interested them as far as they wanted. They didn't need to go through hours of maths lessons to understand counting and numbers, and they didn't need lots of English lessons to learn about writing and communication. In fact, it worked better if they didn't have those lessons, because then they learned the appropriate information at an appropriate pace for themselves.
If I had been asked, as the government propose to ask parents, to plan out the activities for the following year, it would have changed the very nature of the free form home education that we achieved. It would have put pressure on me to know what we were supposed to be doing and to do it. For a teacher in school, for parents with children in school, that sounds like nonsense because of course when you have 30 children to teach, there has to be some sort of plan that can be inflicted on the children and a standard up to which you hope to get them. Of course you need records of what the children have done, so that you will understand how far they have travelled along that route.
At home, it is easy for you to see how well or poorly a child has understood something, and to talk about it from where they are. You don't have 30 children to assess, you have one or two or three. It is easy to understand how the child is feeling about what they are doing, because they are talking to you, telling you if you are paying them the attention they need.
Unschooling isn't unparenting - you don't just leave the children to run riot while reading novels and polishing your nails. It is the hardest work, because you never know where the children are going to take you or what challenges you are going to face, but at the same time it is tremendously rewarding.
The problem I see with the inspection regime which the government is proposing to impose on home educators, is that they have never properly understood how it is different from schooling, and therefore they don't know how to assess it properly. They assume that as trained teachers they will know what parents do not know: The Right Way To Do It. It's immensely arrogant, actually, because nine times out of ten, they have never had any direct experience of home education, or assume that because they have children of their own and have done things in he holiday with them, that they will understand what it is.
They don't. There is, as many home educator who has withdrawn their children from school will tell you, a thousand miles between doing the odd fun activity with your children in the holidays, and being a home educator. The attitude of the children, the attitude of the parent, and the context make such a difference that they may look identical, but they are not. You have to experience the difference to understand it, because it is very difficult to explain. I would say it is like the difference between visiting a country for a holiday and living there permanently. The significance and the level of communication are entirely different, and all down to context.
If I had been required to conform to the government's proposed requirements for home educators, I have no doubt that I would have been brought into conflict with the authorities over my inability to say what we would be doing for the following 12 months, and my unwillingness to provide samples of work or lists of books read. The only route that makes any sense to me, if they impose these regulations, is just to say NO. I have only a year left of home educating a child of compulsory educational age, but for all those families desperate to break out of school and home educate, I have to Just Say No.