In March 2020, when we went into the first national lockdown, my three children were aged five, three and six months. Like most people, I felt panicked and anxious. But as time went by, I noticed a bond growing stronger between my older two kids, as they spent hours making up games and digging up the garden.
When they eventually returned to school and nursery, there were new measures in place that made the school feel sterile and unwelcoming. Also, there seemed to be a shift from wellbeing and creativity to discipline and behavioural systems. The kids weren’t happy and nor were we.
As we dropped them off at the main gate, with hundreds of others, I watched these kids turn to their parents, desperate to be taken home rather than pushed into the crowd, and thought: why do the majority of us send our children into school to learn from other adults when they just want to be with us?
By this point, we’d decided to leave London and move to Somerset, on the edge of countryside. At first I was excited but then panic set in. I was moving away from friends and family with fresh air and green space the only incentive.
Then I came up with the idea of homeschooling. We wouldn’t have to find a school for them right away, and if we decided to return to London, we could without changing schools again.
I pitched it to them as an adventure; an opportunity to try a different way of life and learning that was more nurturing and tailored to their individual needs. I’ve also always loved the idea of travelling with the kids, and felt this would be the perfect opportunity to give it a go.
Friends were quick to share their thoughts. “Why on earth would you choose to homeschool?” one asked. “You don’t want to do that,” said another. ‘No, you wouldn’t,’ I replied, ‘but I do’.
And it seems I’m not alone.
More than 40,000 pupils were formally taken out of school in the UK between September 2020 and April 2021, compared with an average of 23,000 over the previous two years. For some, this was down to health reasons (shielding from covid), while for others it was about feeling their children may thrive more at home than school.
So, one night after another round of tears-before-bed, we made a fairly snap decision to take both children out of school. The next day, they didn’t go in. I sent an email, explaining they would now be homeschooled, and that was all that was required (in my London borough – others might ask that you notify the council).
We went for a long walk around the woods and I felt smug about being out in nature bonding, instead of them being stuck in a classroom. Until my son mentioned the school’s upcoming Christmas concert and I realised there were things we would miss on too. But then he skipped ahead, playing with his sister, and hasn’t mentioned it since.
Back at home, my 7-year-old created themes for our learning – topics like space, insects, superheroes and cats - and folded them up in a bowl. They now take it in turns to pull out a theme, and we base our day around that. There is often baking, always a lot of art - painting, junk-modelling, drawing, clay - and sometimes an educational video.
I ordered maths, English and science text books that align with the national curriculum as well as a bumper teaching book to help me better understand the learning outcomes expected for their ages. This feels important, in case they return to mainstream school, so we do about one hour of more formal learning each day.
Eloise Rickman – a home educator and writer - has a great book, Extraordinary Parenting: the essential guide to parenting and educating at home, and you can also follow her on Instagram @mightymother_.
And I follow Issy Butson, an ‘unschooling’ dad-of-four. His writing debunks may of the homeschooling myths and is inspiring and reassuring for new-to-homeschooling parents. You can follow him on Instagram @stark.raving.dad, read his blog and listen to his podcast.
We all feel calmer since making this change. No more worrying or tears. No more rushing to do the school run, get home, cook tea. As a writer, I’ve always squeezed work around the edges of motherhood, and this isn’t any different. I’ll have one day a week to write, plus an extra hour each day. Sometimes, when the older kids are engaged in an activity, I sneak in a few emails.
What’s been most surprising is the shift from them being reluctant learners to eager ones. One Sunday morning, I turned around to see all three kids sat at the kitchen table doing maths. The eldest was writing out her times tables, the middle one was practicing his numbers and the youngest drew a clock (well, a wonky circle).
But what everyone wants to know is: what about their socialisation?
Dr Emma Maynard, senior lecturer at Portsmouth University’s School of Education and a chartered psychologist, says: ‘Children and young people need time within peer groups for socialisation. However, many homeschooled children and families access this independently of schools, through community groups and homeschooling organisations who promote collaborative learning.’
With a growing community of home-educated children across the UK, there are plenty of opportunities for meet-ups. But do children need specific time around others their age?
‘I would say quality is more important than quantity,’ says Maynard. ‘And you have to look at the reasons for children coming out of formal school - if they were unhappy in peer situations, all day exposure wasn't a benefit to them anyway, so homeschooling may well benefit that child.’
Hannah Abrahams, educational and child psychologist, agrees there is no miracle number of hours to make a child more sociable but says it is how we model play and encourage it, in all its forms, that remains the most important.
‘A child’s socialisation begins at home,’ she says, ‘through interaction and engagements with family members and siblings. With nurture, creativity and enthusiasm we can support children’s play and development. Children play in a multitude of ways and they will gain skills, encouragement and confidence to try out new things from playing with children whom have a variety of interests.
‘There are so many social dynamics and social play rules for older children to navigate. As long as we are nurturing and encouraging play and togetherness that’s the most important thing and sometimes it’s more than fine for children to play alone too, in order to make sense of their world.’
I arrange regular playdates and they’ll join a forest school at least one day a week when we move. And the bond that developed in lockdown is strengthening once again. Only this time, it’s our choice to be at home.