Thursday, March 16, 2006

Long and rambling post about Home Education

As home education draws to a close in our household, it's hard to remember what a major decision it was when we first moved here, and decided to go for it. Not that we ever really made a long-term decision: we thought we'd find suitable schools for the boys after our first nine months here. Then, when they asked for another year of home education, Tim was sure he'd want to go to secondary school when he was old enough. But he didn't, and we did another year, and another... and now, suddenly, it's almost over. It's been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable phases of my life; I only wish I'd known just how exciting an adventure it was going to be when we started. I also wish that we'd educated Daniel at home when we spent two years in Colorado (in the USA) back in the early 1990s. But that's past history now.

It's still a bit strange having only one son at home, since Dan joined the Doulos. Still, home education and living abroad seem to have stood him in good stead, as he now works hard to help keep the ship in good repair, does music and drama and general outreach, and mixes with 350 other young (and not-so-young!) people from dozens of different countries.

Tim, though only 17, is hoping to finish his home education coursework by the summer. Five or six years ago we decided that we didn't want to go for the standard UK GCSE and A-level exams - studying them at home and finding exam centres isn't straightforward, although they can probably be done at the British Embassy. But academic exams are so artificial, and by the time we started thinking about them, Dan was already wanting to specialise in arts and music, and Tim in computer technical work as well as music.

However we did want to keep open the option of going to university one day in the UK, should either of them wish to do so. I was also concerned to ensure that they did follow at least some standard educational courses (even though I believe strongly that education is something quite individual) because home education in Cyprus isn't actually legal. The authorities don't seem to mind what ex-pats do - and we could have put up a good case for home education, if they had ever challenged us - but it seemed like a good idea to follow some recognised course, at least once the boys were teenagers, rather than the unstructured autonomous style education we did at first.

So after much discussion, we registered them both with the National Christian Schools' Certificate course. It was based, unfortunately, on a rather rigid and strongly right-wing American 'homeschooling' curriculum by ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) but is the only such course which has been validated in Europe, and is thus acceptable as a qualification in European universities. We were encouraged by friends already using it to see it as a tool for getting qualifications. ACE schools have an unusual approach to education - no group work, not even tables set up together, but individual 'offices', and little flags raised to ask questions. We mostly used it informally around the dining room table, and chatted about the contents of the workbooks, often digressing into other topics, or looking at why we disagreed with some of what was taught..

The tests at the end of each workbook have to be taken under careful supervision, marked, and sent back at the end of the year, so we followed the regulations there as it's these that are counted for the certificates. But we were very flexible about the workbooks themselves. Sometimes the boys just read through and took the 'self-test' at the end, if they were too easy. One of the good things about the ACE system is that children are supposed to work at their own level, and at their own speed, but to gain the necessary European certificates they need to complete all the workbooks from the US 'eighth grade' level onwards - and Dan at 13 was way beyond that level in most subjects. He found the workbooks often babyish and boring in the extreme, but was determined to keep going, so he whizzed through the first ones.

Tim, who started at 11, went a bit more slowly although he too was rather put off by the 'young' styles of some of the workbooks, and the dull repetitive nature of some of the maths and English grammar - very unlike what is taught in UK schools. I gather many of the workbooks have now been revised to become more like British school text books, for UK usage, but we were stuck with the old-fashioned style American ones.

Anyway.. over the years, other activities claimed the boys' attention more and more. One of the ACE mottos is that 'life is education', and we certainly followed that principle. They got involved in church music, Dan took part in local secular drama group plays, they did computer artwork, graphics, programming, and educational games; they read widely; Dan taught himself to juggle, to roller-blade, to speak simple American Sign language; he took Greek lessons, and Karate. Eighteen months ago he started work about half-time at the drama school. And last Summer he went to the Doulos for two months on their short-term programme. He had hoped to get to the end of his ACE work before then, having rather neglected it in the previous year as he was so busy with the drama school and his various music activities, so he didn't manage it. In the event, he completed his last few workbooks in a couple of weeks before he went away for two years in January...!

Tim still has about thirty left, and wants to get them out of the way before the summer, so he can study a degree-level correspondence course in theology. I don't know if he'll succeed, but at present he's spending a couple of hours each morning working hard, and taking about three tests per week. He's also going to take some music exams - singing, theory and piano - in May. His music theory teacher says she likes him as a student, because he's more creative than the other teenagers she teaches. Most of them just repeat back what she's told them, and do their work in the dullest style possible. Tim asks questions, wants to know WHY things are the way they are, and experiments with far more interesting answers. He pointed out that the reason he can think for himself is that he didn't go to secondary school, and the teacher agreed... Cypriot schools allow very little digression, questioning or challenging of assumptions. They don't encourage students to think for themselves or to do their own research. They definitely don't encourage enthusiasm and creativity.

Someone asked me recently if we'd choose home education again if we could go back in time, knowing what we do now. I had no doubts on that one. We would have opted for it in the USA as well, although the boys did enjoy their small, friendly primary school in the UK. I would have worried less, too, and been more flexible from the start. I'm not even sure if we'd have bothered with the NCSC since neither of the boys is currently planning to go to college. If Dan does, it would be for music or drama (or both) and his qualifications in those subjects would then be more relevant than his academic certificates. His experience on the Doulos will probably count for more. Once Tim's studied degree-level theology, that will be more relevant for him to any further academic education. He did consider taking a computer qualification, but those that interested him in subject were too easy. He's learned more on his own at home than he would in most formal computer courses.

All in all, I can highly recommend home education. It enables children and teenagers to avoid the negative forced 'socialisation' that can so often happen in schools - peer pressure, bullying, heirarchies, competitiveness, high fashion-consciousness, despising their parents - and enables them to think for themselves, to work fully at their own speed in subjects that interest them most, and to learn what they need in a tiny fraction of the time it would take in school. They read widely, they're fully computer literate, and they learn good research techniques. Besides all that, they grow up able to communicate with people of all ages (not just those born in the same year) and with time for a wide range of non-academic interests. And of course they can play a full part in the life of the local church, for those who are Christians. Dan and Tim were able to be in the church music group (which practised in a week-day lunchtime) for many years, to go to activities with students or adults in evenings, to help at children's clubs, and to be available to produce artwork (Dan) or help set up computers (Tim).

All in all, I am very thankful that we moved to Cyprus when we did, and found ourselves home educating.


FRANCIS said...


Anonymous said...

Lovely to read your 'end of (many) year report' :-) I remember first 'meeting' via UK-HE when you were in the early stages, as everyone is at some point, tentatively making your way and as time passed feeling a gradual blossoming as you all took on the broad way of learning and life which can be HE. I'm soooo glad it's worked well for you all: but be warned, it 'taint over! I'm now of the opinion that HE isn't 5 - 16 or even birth - 18 but a life-long way of going about things ....

You, Sue, are to be thanked and congratulated for not only being an A* HE Mum (no grades of course!) but for having given so much support and encouragement to others along the way, particularly by e-mail.

I'm glad I looked at your site today not long after you wrote the summary. I do look from time to time, also at Richard's and Dan's entries, and enjoy them all.

Very Best Wishes, Rosemary