Today, Caroline, founder of Nut Free Chocolate People, shares how her son’s nut allergy diagnosis led to her family opting for home schooling. While acknowledging it’s not for everyone, here she talks about how home educating has been successful for her two boys…
Unaware of the option to do anything other than send our children to school, we really struggled with the lack of flexibility our primary school had with our medical conditions. The response to my son’s medical confirmation of a nut allergy was disbelief. We already had a note on his file of a suspected nut allergy, but a further allergic reaction had led to us seeking medical confirmation. I duly informed the head teacher that his nut allergy had been confirmed and his response was “We won’t believe it until we have a note from your GP”.
Why? Why would any parent make up a severe allergy? Why wouldn’t a head teacher believe them? This set the tone for all of our ‘discussions’ with the school. Sadly I use inverted commas due to the fact that there were no discussions. They just didn’t want to know. We had other medical issues which resulted in the involvement of the school attendance officer, who to her credit tried her best, but in her own words she had no jurisdiction with the school, so any suggestions she made could be ignored. And it was. I look back and wonder why we banged our heads against this brick wall for so long.
Discovering home schooling
It was my son who suggested we tried Home Schooling (which tends to be the American term, we certainly did not replicate school at home). I had no idea it was a legal option & spent a weekend reading books & researching the possibility of doing this. As a parent with a full time job it would mean big changes in our household, but I asked myself the question ‘what is more important than my children’s happiness, health & education?’
The answer became more obvious with each chapter I read. We would have total freedom from the constraints of the rigidity of the school system.
If the boys were unable to work from 9 to 3 then so what? We could work from 2 to 8 if we wanted! Monday to Friday term time only? No! All year round if we wanted to. Without a national curriculum to adhere to our educational journey could go wherever it took us (and some fabulous journeys we had too, together, me sometimes not knowing anything about the subject matter so learning all about it with the boys).
Taking the leap
The following week both boys were de-registered from school and our new life together began. I read that home educating is like jumping off a cliff and finding you have wings. Well we took that jump and gosh did we fly! I won’t say it was without its problems as I’d be lying. We had to get used to spending time together again, something we had never really done except during holidays. I’d worked full time since my youngest son was six weeks old, so it was a learning curve. There were days we’d all have lunch in separate rooms just to have a break from each other, but gradually we found that we all actually liked each other & enjoyed spending time together.
There was a huge range of activities open to us, and sometimes we had to watch that we didn’t go out every single day as that soon got very tiring; we went to socialising activities, study groups, activities of all types, educational visits and also set up a few of our own groups. The activities are too numerous to mention but included French sessions, writing workshops, science sessions, rock climbing, ice skating, gymnastics, animation classes, teen group, drama & music groups. We had meetings with other home educators in five different local towns and cities and developed a network of parents who supported each other along with children who learned and played together. We had Not Back to School picnics, Christmas parties, Easter and summer get togethers.
The education of each child was personal to them and we quickly found the best way for them to learn. Like most home educators who have been schooled we started following a timetable & kept a close eye on the national curriculum but as we grew in confidence these were cast aside, and something very interesting happened. The boys wanted to learn all year round, they didn’t want to stop at 3 o’clock, for three weeks at Christmas or six weeks in the summer. And they started finding pleasure in reading again. Where once they hated reading the school novel that had been chosen for them, they devoured the books that interested them, skipping way beyond their ‘reading year’ because it didn’t matter anymore. And the greatest thing was the worry of someone else not taking our allergy concerns seriously no longer applied. We had far greater control over this. If we were out at a group meeting and someone had nuts, or peanut butter sandwiches I could talk direct to mum (usually but not always) and we would deal with it together. The same goes for bullying; there’s very little of it in home ed groups as 99% of the time parents are present. Bullying doesn’t happen so much when mums and dads are on hand.
Involving the whole family
An added bonus for us was that my elderly parents came to live near us in the last few years of their lives. Their worry that they would be one more chore for me to do along with teaching the boys soon evaporated when we took them along to groups with us! The joy on my 88 year old dad’s face when he came with us to a planetarium visit stays with me to this day. He had a wonderful time, and told everyone that he could tell that you are never too old to learn, and that he had learned new things that day. The boys also had the chance to share a very special day out with their grandparents when we went to the 65th anniversary of the World War II Dambusters mission; where their granddad was interviewed by local TV about his time in the RAF. My mum and dad loved being involved in the boys’ education and could talk to them about their joint experiences. I am so very grateful we all had that pleasure. My husband also got involved with the boys’ education and ran workshops teaching skills to groups of students. He came to meetings, educational activities & shared stories with other home educating families.
Exams and qualifications
People always ask me about exams, so I’ll just include a little about this aspect. There are lots of options available if you decide to home educate. Some people put their children back into school for exams, some go to college, some do distance learning & some have managed well without any formal exams or qualifications. We elected not to do any as the exam system didn’t suit our circumstances. We decided not to ‘hot house’ the boys, and decided together when we felt they were ready for an academic challenge. They both chose to study with the Open University from about 14 and took several courses (in different subjects) which resulted in them having a level four qualification at 16/17. (equal to a completed first years study at university). We researched courses & universities & found one they were interested in (different subjects). We went to open days and talked to the appropriate faculty staff at the university who were delighted to extend unconditional offers. The attitude was that the boys were used to self motivated study & were used to working at degree level. I believe one of the Oxbridge unis also accepted a home educated child without formal qualifications fairly recently, so instead of being a stumbling block it can actually set your child apart, make them memorable & pull them out of the need to have goodness knows how many GCSEs and A levels to be even considered these days.
Of course I realise this path isn’t for everyone, but neither is school. Sometimes we try to make something fit when it just won’t. And sometimes having options is the best situation to be in.
The home educating family
For my part I met people I would never have come into contact with. There is no typical Home Educating family, nor is there a typical reason for deciding to home educate. Reasons include medical, religious, lifestyle, problems with bullying, parents disagreeing with the rigidity of the national curriculum, and just that school doesn’t suit their child’s needs. We encountered professional couples, single stay-at-home parents and families from both ends of the financial spectrum. Sometimes all they had in common was wanting the best for their child.
Some educated partially in the school system and partially home educated, some had been in the school system and some wouldn’t touch the system with a barge pole. It certainly provided a broad view of society to all of us, and one, I think, benefited the children too. They are polite, considerate, sociable and self motivated young men I am proud of, and it was an honour and a privilege to be able to share such a special time with them.
Someone once said to me that you don’t stop being a home educator when the children ‘finish’ their education, and I think it’s true. You realise that education really is for life, for sharing & for the whole journey.
Thanks very much for sharing your family’s story, Caroline!