A Foot In Both Camps

Straddling Home Education and School

By Cynthia McStephen

The look on her face said it all,“OK you lot, just carry on having fun, why don’t you, while I go off and morph into a school mum for a while.”

It was one of those great, local home-ed group get-togethers, where the children were off doing some complicated and creative multi-age activity they’d just invented, and the parents were gathered around a big teapot. We’d been discussing something very funny and were laughing long and loud. But, just as we were starting to become really inspired, our friend, Jane, a mother of four, had to tear herself away for an hour to attend a school concert.

Out there in the wonderful world of home education, there are many parents in the same situation as Jane. These families are facing the challenges and pleasures of straddling the home education/school divide. They are full-time, full-on, no-holds-barred, 100% school families AND they are full-time, full-on, no-holds-barred, 100% home-educating families as well. Many find this situation to be, to put it mildly, quite a ride.

Of course, we all know that the reality of being a parent is that there’s some difficult decisions to be made at times. Throw in the big question of what type of education to choose, and it can all become pretty hard to work out. It’s not surprising that what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another and, suddenly, families can find themselves spread between school and home-education. It can be a full-on way to live, particularly for parents who want to be involved with their children’s lives, whether they’re educated at home or at school.
For this article, I’ve concentrated on some of the major themes which families report as part of the experience of negotiating both types of education at once.

Running between school and home ed means that there are aspects of both that I’m not doing as thoroughly as I’d like…

This one is often huge for families, like my friend Jane’s, above. Some families regret that they can’t take part in many home ed excursions and camps, because they need to be available when their schooled children arrive home, or for concerts and other special events. For some parents, not having that sense of connection with the world of home ed groups and activities can mean that they feel somewhat isolated in their role, and their home-educated children can also miss out on the friendships available in the various groups.

The flip side is that it can also be harder for parents in this situation to take part in school life. Going on excursions, helping in the classroom, hearing kids read, volunteering in the canteen and the other time-honoured ways of being connected to school are much harder when there are home-educated children to be considered as well.

Some of the advantages of home education, such as flexible hours, sleeping in after a late night, and no morning rush hour are lost when you need to get to school on time, ensure homework is completed, and have uniforms washed and ready to go…

School is a major undertaking. If that’s the educational path that is taken by one or more children in a family, then what you get is the whole package, and a big package it is, too. School students have lots of “extras” to take note of: not just homework and uniforms, but lunches, excursion money, sports equipment, project support, costume days, parent-teacher meetings, school fetes and the whole general “keeping an eye on things” that’s part of the scene when you are supporting a child through school. The school experience is a huge one for the entire family, and of course the whole shebang, morning routine and all, happens on a schedule imposed by people outside of the family.

By the time my schooled children come home, I’m ready for some time alone, but of course that’s just when I’m needed for the download, the school notices, the dramas and triumphs, and to help with homework. But then there’s the other times, when all we get at the end of the day is a grunt and a demand to be left alone…

Again, school is huge. For those children at school, it really can dominate their lives. So an interesting time of day for families with a ‘foot in both camps’ is when schooled children come home at the end of the day. It’s not uncommon for school to resemble a big party, and some children are pretty socially weary by the time they get home. In contrast, others crave some family time and attention – often, inconveniently, just as the evening rush is starting. Some families notice a ‘transition time’ where the schooled child needs to come in and move back, somehow, into the family mode – and transitions are often not easy in any situation.

I have a child with additional needs who attends a school which really suits her, but my other children are being educated at home…

This is the path which a number of families are taking and, with the right school (a big ask), this can suit them in many ways. Having a child with diverse learning needs can be challenging, and finding a school or other centre which can cater for their needs on weekdays works well for quite a few children and families. Some home-educating families find that their children with additional needs require specialist help, some appreciate the time it gives them with their other children, and others like the fact that their child has outside interests, friends, and other connections.

I have a child with additional needs and am educating him at home, but his siblings are at school…

This one works for many people too. School is just simply not a good fit for many children in our community, and if there are any “differences” to be taken into consideration, school may just not be a workable situation. Yet other siblings in the same family may thrive in school.

The factors which might make it difficult for a child to thrive in school span a huge spectrum, and include: not having a school nearby which inspires the family’s confidence; having a child who doesn’t thrive in large groups; social challenges; a past history of being bullied or even of being the bully; and a wide range of medical or developmental conditions. As well, there’s a list of medical conditions which mean that even the most school-loving of families could find themselves having a child excluded from school for an indefinite period of time.

In our family, we like to give our children the choice as to whether they are in school or not. One of our children loves school, and is happy and settled there. We’ve got another who loves being at home, and has blossomed since being pulled out of school. I couldn’t tell you how often people ask my schooled child, “Don’t you want to be at home like your sister?” But then my child at home is asked the opposite question all the time, too!

Horses for courses! And thank goodness for the ability to educate our children as individuals. But as for other people’s attitudes – well, there’s no getting away from it, the opinions of others can be tricky things to negotiate.

I would much prefer that all of our children were educated at home. It’s really tough to be supporting my child’s (or my partner’s) decision that school is the way to go, and it’s incredibly tempting to say, That wouldn’t be a problem if you were home educated, like your sibling…

This is a painful one, and it’s amazing how often the subject comes up for parents straddling the school and home-ed worlds. It’s easy to talk about being supportive of your children’s decisions, but very hard, at times, to live with the reality of providing that support. Quite possibly this is great parental training for dealing with other challenging life decisions our children may make, but it’s never going to be easy.

Actually, I feel like I’m the only one who can’t stand this home education lark, and I don’t feel like joining the “home-ed is the bees’ knees” camp, which basically sums up what I read on the internet and in magazines. I’m fervently hoping that this stage of my life is over soon. Every day I want to point out the fun things that other children are doing in school…

It’s vital that those of us who live comfortably in home-ed land keep in mind that there is no such thing as a typical home-educating family. Not all home-educating families, even those who read magazines like this one, want to educate their kids at home at all, ever. Some are doing so as a last resort, and often see it as a temporary move, to be abandoned when the situation changes. And many situations do change, particularly when the catalyst for moving out of school was something like moving house, illness, or teacher or peer problems towards the end of a school year.

I started educating one child at home as a completely last resort, and only as a temporary situation. But something strange has happened. Now I want my other children to become school-free as well. I’m just trying to convince them and my partner, that’s the problem…

Again, that’s a theme repeated again and again. And there’s nothing easy about it, particularly because another theme is:

My children, who are at school, are feeling more confident about it these days, as they know they’re not trapped there and could be educated at home if they so chose. Whereas I’m more irritated by the whole school way of doing things because I know there’s an alternative…

Here’s another refrain which is heard often from families straddling the home and school divide. Parents can see, and are amazed by, the school way of doing things, which at times seems to defy description or reason. Children, in contrast, are generally not so worried about the way things are done, and can be quite happy to go along with whatever is organised at school, secure in the knowledge that they have choices.

It’s interesting to look at the whole notion of choice and how it fits into human wellbeing. People who feel that they have the ability to influence their lives are much happier, and have a higher level of contentment, than those who feel that they are powerless to change their situation. For some children, this means that they are happy to stay in school because they’re not feeling trapped there.

My child who is at home could do with the company of her sibling. I think it would help with motivation when we do some academic stuff, work on projects or build interesting things. And I’d probably feel much more comfortable to go off and do something by myself, if I knew that they had each other for company. In addition, being out and about with me might be a tad more tempting if they were both with me, and home-ed groups might be less daunting for her because she’d always have her sister to hang out with if she was feeling shy when she met other children…

A common theme in our wider community is about how much conflict there is in families, and how family members can’t wait to get away from each other. (How often do you hear the term “sibling rivalry” bandied about, but why isn’t there an equally glib term for sibling enjoyment?) Many children really enjoy being with their siblings, and feel that their relationship is vitally important to them. Loneliness for children at home, and simply missing a sibling who is at school, is a reality for many families with a foot in both educational camps. And it’s not just a matter of enjoyment, it’s also the change in dynamics and energy when siblings are together that can make home-education challenging when one or more children are in school.

It’s the attitude! That school-type interaction! I worry about our school child, who feels the need to adopt the defensive tone, the niggly attacking mode of speech, or the competitive swagger, and my partner and I can’t stand it! If we didn’t educate our other kids at home, we wouldn’t know any different, but as we do, it’s driving us bananas!

Again, school is a whole package- and not always an easy one for children to negotiate. Some families do notice a difference in interaction when school is part of the family’s educational choices – not unreasonably, given that it is a huge part of one or more family member’s lives.

Our child moved in a very natural way from home-education to a course of study that really suits him. There was no way I’d be trying to educate him in the area he wanted to follow, and I feel incredibly happy that he’s found something that he’s enjoying so much. In due course, his siblings may also move on to other forms of education, depending on what they want to do. It’s been a smooth transition and hasn’t felt like any strain at all…

This is another common theme. Children who are educated at home frequently move into formal education at some stage, whether that be primary, secondary, upper secondary, TAFE, specialist courses, technical studies, or uni. Like many of the changes in life which are negotiated in the journey from babyhood to adulthood, this can be seen as just another part of growing up. And what parents report over and over again is that, for an older child or teenager or young adult, when the time is right, the move is a good one, and one that for many families doesn’t seem like that much of a remove from their home-educating lives.

And, finally:

WHY does there have to be such a difference, such a huge divide, between school and home education?

Good question. It’s all to do with the way the education system was developed. Like many institutions, the practices within it have been built up over many years, with the original reasons for doing things having been long forgotten. In an ideal system, families could pick and choose those elements of their children’s education they wish to outsource. Some would say that there are promising signs in that direction, with the growth of home- education in this country and overseas, an increase in the variety of tertiary studies and the paths by which these can be accessed, and the provision in some states in Australia for children to attend school on a part-time basis. Watch this space.

Cynthia McStephen is a home-educating mother who lives in East Gippsland. She loves writing about things she has no experience about. She also thoroughly enjoys appropriating other people’s ideas. And she’d very much like to thank Joanne Quinn, but not for anything in particular, of course.

From Otherways 125


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