This pandemic has come too late — praise be! — for me to need to become involved in any way with the education of my children during the lockdown. They have been disappearing to their bedrooms for webinars and my input ends with providing printer paper and ink cartridges.
But some of my friends, whose children are younger, have panicked over the past year. A missed school year feels like the end of the world. Their children will miss tests and modules and parts of the syllabus they’ll never see again. They feel inadequate to the task of replacing teachers, and fitting in homeschooling alongside working from home feels impossible.
I understand the panic. I really do. The system is set up to feel very urgent and important. It moves forward, never pausing or moving backward. Key stage 1. Key stage 2. GCSEs. A-levels. UCAS. Click-click-click-click-click. It’s easy to think that if the gears slip even one notch, your child will never get their cog aligned with the machine again and it’ll move on without them.
I don’t think that’s the case, though. Let me be clear: I’m not here to say this pandemic is the gift of family time we’ve all needed, or that we need to smell the roses, or that this might be the reset the world was crying out for. None of that. Just that if, for a few weeks, your children are in pajamas until noon and don’t so much as open a textbook for a fortnight— that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed or that the experiences they are acquiring outside of formal education count for nothing. Some of the unstructured fun they’re having now could be the making of their future. And I know something about this.
I didn’t go to school until I was twelve years old. Not once. Not even nursery school or kindergarten. I had no formal education at all for all of that time.
My mother was very religious, and she didn’t think a small village school in the middle of the English countryside was the sort of place that would support her beliefs and make sure we didn’t hear any other ones. Plus, we lived in the middle of nowhere and she couldn’t drive. It would be a nightmare, logistically — bikes and buses and danger and the like. So she kept me and my sisters home.
This is how a typical day would go, during the formative years in which my peers were spending 7 hours of each weekday in a classroom:
- 7 am. Breakfast. A movable feast. We drift to the table when we feel like it; we eat slowly, maybe drift off to wander around the garden, feed the pets and horses, water some plants, wander back. Some people are dressed and some aren’t.
- 8.30 am. Prayers. Also, hymns. Lusty singing. Maybe the people who aren’t yet dressed will put on some day clothes. On the other hand, maybe not. I might do some piano practice. No one asks me to, though.
- 9 am (ish. Things are slipping by now). Clean-up time, ready for “school”. All hands are reluctantly on deck to shift plates and cutlery from the table to the dishwasher. There is no urgency anywhere.
- 10 am, on a good day. “School” begins. Every so often, my mother orders a batch of relatively age-appropriate textbooks. There’s usually a maths book for me to flick through. I’m keen on the idea of being studious, so I give it a go, even though I know no one will be marking my work and I’ll never quite know if I got it right. My middle sister hates school work, so she ambles off at this point to the pond, to put newts into jars and give them names, or follow the chickens around with tempting worm-based snacks for them. My youngest sister, the baby, is probably eating crayons and scribbling on scrap paper whilst being benignly neglected. (She is definitely still wearing pajamas). My mother is likely to be making bread whilst talking on the phone to church people, receiver jammed under her ear, attention elsewhere, and the coiled phone cable draped across my maths book. Flour abounds. Small bits of sticky dough encrust the edges of all of my textbooks.
- 1 pm. Ish. Lunch! All the food comes out of the kitchen and onto the table. School books are pushed onto a chair, where they’ll probably stay until tomorrow. My father appears from his workshop, my sisters drift in from the pond, the swings, the horses, the toybox. If no one’s looking, I can read a book while everyone is occupied with eating. Reading is my main and favorite activity.
- 2 pm. Gardening or housework, weather dependent. The worst part of the day, bar none. I undertake my chores slowly and with very poor grace. Emptying the compost bin is my favorite because it’s right at the end of the garden so if the rest of the family is distracted, I can hide behind a tree with my book until someone notices my absence. I rarely get the compost bin job, though, because it’s too easy. Usually, I’ll be pruning, or changing everyone’s bed.
- 3 pm. Radio 4 for the news, followed by the “children’s programs”. Favorite part of the day. We are not allowed any pop music or fiction books, but sometimes these little programs contain tantalizing excerpts of both, which is totally thrilling. My whole life, I will never forget the voices of the presenters or the jaunty songs they sing.
- 4 pm. Any pretense of education is abandoned. We can do what we like for the rest of the day. Ironically, this is when I think I learn the most. I have a sewing machine and lots of my grandma’s sewing books. I’ve got a typewriter and a hardback flip-cover charity shop book all about touch-typing. It’s the late 1980s, early 90s, but I’m doing a sterling job of teaching myself to be a skilled 1950s housewife. I am also a total whizz with knitting needles. My Fair Isle dolls’ jumpers have to be seen to be believed.
Nothing written above is an exaggeration. For the first decade of my remembered existence, that is how I was raised and “educated”. All 3 of us were. It was homeschooling in the very, very loosest sense of the word.
Somehow, very quickly in my case but more slowly in my sisters’, we learned to read and write fluently. We enjoyed reading. We learned musical instruments. We were articulate and well-spoken. We could make reasoned arguments and talk quite easily to adults. (Forget talking to other kids, though. Socialized, we were not). When I started at school at the age of 12, I was rushed quickly into the top streams for every subject. Home education had not done me a disservice, and I got top grades all the way through to my degree and postgrad qualifications.
I learned some things at home that I would never have learned at school. As an example, albeit an extremely geeky one, I still swear that the best thing I ever did was teach myself touch typing when I was eight. I’ve had countless summer temporary admin jobs that I won over other candidates based on the speed of my copy typing, and in my life as a lawyer, being able to draft my own documents as fast as I’d dictate them means that my turnaround times are whip-fast. It gives me an edge. But I’d have never done that course if I’d been at school when I was 8.
(On the other hand, if I’d been at school when I was 8, I might have a better grounding in maths and not need to ask a colleague to check complicated tax accounts every. single. time. There are swings and there are roundabouts. And it can’t be denied that I’d have loved some friends and some fun. But those aren’t things that the pandemic is taking away).