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The Big Picture: Looking For The Perfect School

by Beverley Paine, adapted from the Keynote Address, Living Learning Conference, Perth 1999

In one way or another we have all been touched by the school experience. It is inescapable. Though some of us educate our children with confidence and conviction from the time of their births, many of us are refugees from the school system, and often spend our time as home educators looking for the 'perfect' school.

Those few that instinctively saw home education as a natural progression from their child's birth, through the toddler years and into the present day, gave the education of their children careful consideration; what education is, what it means for the family, parents and individual and their community, what it entails, and how it will happen for their children. They tend to be more sure of themselves as the learning journey unfolds and content and happy with their home education practice.

Twelve months before April, our eldest child, sixth birthday we hadn't heard of homeschooling. Our desire to continue our close involvement with our children's education and development led us to seek alternatives once we discovered that as parents we weren't welcome in the classroom. Voluntary work once a week in the canteen or school gardens wasn't enough to reassure us that our daughter's education would unfold the way we desired. We didn't want to be parted from this little treasure who had blessed our life with much happiness. Home education seemed the perfect answer.

However, like most homeschooling parents, I went through phases of disillusionment when I'd openly search for a suitable school for one or all of my children. There were also times when, tired and worn out with the responsibility of being 'on duty' twenty-four hours a day, I secretly longed to send my children to school. During these phases we examined, in depth, small community schools, alternative life-style schools, state schools, Montessori and Steiner schools. As a result of my wavering confidence in home education, all three of my children have spent time, either part-time or full-time, at school.

All parents want their children to attend the 'perfect' school. But for too many of us, schools are far from perfect. There are some of us that, with hindsight, persisted in the school system longer we should have, hoping that our voluntary efforts in our children's classrooms would make a difference. And there are those who pleaded with teachers for years to obtain individual attention and learning programs to suit our children's special needs. But most of us come to home education through some kind of crisis or another. And we continue in our daily homeschooling adventure, always casting one eye on mainstream education, still looking for that perfect school.

We're not alone. Millions of parents, teachers, and educational reformers around the world are searching for the perfect school. Many years ago, even as an ardent home educator, I believed that the perfect school could exist.

Before 1986 we were a regular family with normal educational ambitions for our children. We participated in Nursing Mothers, Playgroup, Kindergarten and Family Day Care. We were interested and actively involved in community education. We thought we'd enjoy the next phases of our children's education, but school didn't share our idea of educational 'involvement'. We began to look at alternative schools, but on a 'test' trip for a planned, much longer, trek around-Australia trek we met some homeschoolers. Our eyes were suddenly opened, our imagination liberated. We began homeschooling.

And I mean, home-schooling - 'school at home'. This is where most of us begin, with what we know, what we have personally experienced, what we feel most comfortable with. Even today, with increasing support for a variety of different approaches, school-at-home is the most widely recognised and accepted form of home education.

By the end of the first year we'd settled into a more natural learning style. It took another six years before I fully abandoned most of the classroom methods of teaching or coaxing my children to learn things I felt were important, or were included in the curriculum documents and books I'd collected. Time had proven the superiority of the home environment and I'd finally rejected the methodology of the contrived and artificial institutionalised approach to education. Home schooling didn't suit our children, our family, or our lifestyle.

However, before our foray into natural learning - long before that - I searched for, and found, what we thought was the perfect school.

Home educators everywhere battle with the constant issue of socialisation. Most of us reject school socialisation - for good reasons. It is only natural for children to play with other children, in their neighbourhoods and in each others' homes. But as societies became industrialised and schooling became compulsory the opportunity for children to play freely with one another all but disappeared. It's mostly found in limited bursts in school playgrounds. When our eldest child was six and a half she asked if she could have some more friends to play with. It's a sad fact that schools offer the only easily available access to children. This is a temptation most home educators face at some time or other - a return to school to satisfy their children's need for regular access to a range of friends.

Without access to friends through Church, regular sporting or other 'extra-curricula' activities, we knew that without going to school April and her brothers would find it difficult to make friends in the small country town where we lived. However, the local school Principal had somehow managed to alienate half of the townsfolk who withdraw their children from the tiny school in droves. At one stage the viability of the school was threatened. We weren't interested in becoming involved in that battle!

We researched alternatives, seeking a classroom environment that would offer stability and the kind of education we wanted for our children, as well as providing access for our involvement in that process. In 1988 we moved to Yankalilla and enrolled April and Roger in the Annexe, an alternative class attached to the district Area School , where parent participation was valued by all. After a week 'try out', we knew this ungraded class, with children aged between five and thirteen years, offered our family the opportunities we wanted and needed to learn, to play, to have fun.

The Annexe was, and still is, a small community of learners, nestled within a public Area school. The 'main school', as we came to call it, supplied many of the expensive resources, such as buildings, teachers, library, and access to specialised facilities and materials. The children's parents in the Annexe supplied a wide variety of teaching skills, social events, and resources. The children supplied the much desired social interaction for April and her brothers.

The Annexe, still operating, boasts a living room, a kitchen, a laboratory, a garden, an orchard, an art and craft room, a hall, a classroom, a playground with over one and a half acres for an average of twenty five students. It definitely sounded ideal!

Play was highly valued for the educational role it has in children's lives. The curriculum was child-centred, and determined, for the most part, by the parents. Anything up to six parents in the classroom every day was a common and welcome occurance. I was able to attend and stay all day with my children, even Thomas, then only eighteen months old, everyday. Robin and I 'taught' art and craft, maths, English, Indonesian, drama, science and technology. We organised excursions, camps and after-school social activities, and represented the class on the Area School Council.

In hindsight it's easy to see we were really homeschooling our children at school. It was easy. The place was like a big home, an extended family - the perfect school.

When I talk about the Annexe homeschoolers ask, with eager faces, 'where is it?' The urge to find the perfect school is strong in almost every homeschooling parent.

In reality attending school was forever a compromise. After nearly two years we re-applied for registration as home educators, choosing to remain within the Annexe on a part time basis. In 1994 we severed ties completely. After six year of life in mainstream schooling we ultimately chose home education.

Home education is the only education that offeres parents uncompromised excellence and total accountability: accountability based on an understanding of the responsibilities involved in the education process, not just of children, but all learners.

Accountability in education has always been a major reason driving school reform. It's most often voiced as the concern that children are not learning to read and write, to spell, or do maths. One country compares its standardised test results to another country, and wonders how to improve the educational outcomes of its students. School reform is never far from the political agenda.

Many of us believe, and from time to time I've been known to quote this as an excuse to the media and departmental officers, that the trouble with schools is the ever increasing cutbacks in funding, and the decreasing access to resources due to a lack of money. However, John Taylor Gatto, the winner of the New York Teacher of the Year Award in 1991 and author of Dumbing Us Down , pointed out that over 100 academic studies have failed to show any compelling connection between money and learning. Since the opening of the first public school, advocates of school based education have told us that more money buys better results. They continue to tell us, and we foolishly continue to believe it. Every year hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in educational reform in Australia and overseas, and there is no convincing evidence that any of it realises better educational outcomes for all students.

From my own personal observation it seems that children are no better educated now than when I was a student. Standards appear to be declining, and more students are being failed by schools than ever before. Our children aren't the ones failing in school - it is the schools that are failing to provide our children with the opportunities they individually need to progress in their development.

What hope is there then for the idea of a perfect school? If money can't secure us with the schools we need and want for our children, what will?

I believe society needs effective and efficient schools. Regardless of how home educators feel, the majority of children will be educated in schools, and for many years to come. Thinking about the future can be a chilling exercise. By the year 2020 the majority of public school students will be living under conditions that place them at risk of educational failure. The trend toward ever higher percentages of poorly housed, malnourished, abused, and neglected children is inarguable. The number of families living in poverty increases at an alarming rate.

School reform offers only one ray of hope for these children of tomorrow. Research recently conducted into the lives of children living in impoverished conditions show that positive educational change happens only when the schools these children attend develop a 'strong sense of community'. Successful schools are considered those that function as communities of support for the students, the staff and the wider community.

A sense of community occurs when people value individuals in an holistic way; their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well being. It occurs when people support each other in their endeavours; when learning is not isolated from immediately meaningful activity and where the workload of everyday life is shared and valued. John Peacock, author of The Why and How of Australian Home Education has a handy phrase for this: 'communities of practice'.

Educational research consistently tells us that parental nurture, and active involvement in children's educational development, leads to higher academic and social achievement. I believe this is one reason why home education is so effective and successful. John Peacock, among others, show us that home education has as many educational and empowering outcomes for parents as it does for children. This is because these home educating families, or small 'communities of practice', value learning as a major focus for all family members, not just for the children.

It is the nurturing of the development of all individuals in a learning environment, the uilding of mutual 'communities of support', and the natural reciprocal nature of the educational process found in all homeschooling families, that offer the amazing success we share. This is what the educational reformers seem to be missing in their efforts to create the perfect school.

If we look at the development of education in society as a whole, we can see that education originally occurred through face-to-face interaction. People passed on knowledge to one another at a personal level. This is still the most important way we transmit knowledge and culture in society. We talk to each other, demonstrate skills, exchange ideas and knowledge, teach by example, and then talk some more. Most of our daily communication with others is non-verbal. Non-verbal communication is still vastly unrecognised and utilised in school based education.

Two centuries ago the development of the printing press ensured that books became the basis of school education. Books have played a significant role in the evolution of our culture and society and will continue to do so for some time to come. However, the over-emphasis on books in educational practice has come at a tremendous cost. The loss of conversational learning, so highly esteemed by a growing number of educationalists, is one victim of a book-oriented education. Add to this the loss of oral story telling, the traditional way of passing information from one generation to another, and we've lost a slice of our social and communal spirituality.

Early last century began a movement toward even more passive ways of receiving information and skills: the advent of the radio, and later the television. Although widely seen as a curse, television is underestimated for the power it wields on the everyday education of the general population. Unlike books, television requires little or no literacy skills and is widely accessible. Although generally used for entertainment, it disseminates information on a wide range of topics in many differing formats. Television has had a major impact on the education of not just children, but also adults, in the community. Add to this the computer and the Internet. All three continue to revolutionise education in ways none could imagine a few decades ago. Television, computers and the Internet challenge of books as the modern transmitters of learning. They have reduced the traditional barriers between education and the general population. Education is no longer something the elite control and dole out in measured doses to suit their own political purposes. Education is slowly evolving to meet the changes in society. We are long past the Industrial Age, and compulsory education of the masses is slowly catching up with that fact. Community and education are becoming inseparable.

There is a growing trend for individuals and communities to take back what was once undeniably theirs - the rights and responsibility to educate at the local level. We are beginning to witness, through educational reform, a decentralisation and deregulation of education. Individuals and communities are taking control, not by force, but by gradual grass roots action. Not because individuals or communities have to, but because it makes sense. Research tells us this; common sense tells us this; our practice as home educators confirm this. In his book, Educating Children At Home , Alan Thomas reveals that, in order to study individualised teaching and learning practices, educators are turning to home education, as this is the only place it can be found. We can, and do, show the way.

Homeschoolers are beginning to have an affect on society. This is becoming more evident, particularly in the United States , where civil action has lead to the changing of laws which allow recognition of parental rights to educate children within the home. Whether we acknowledge it or not, home educators are allies in the constant and continuous effort to reform schooling. We need to maintain this work. We are working with schools for educational reform, but on a different front, in a different way. The work we do is essential.

We exist in a vast experimental 'education' laboratory, forging ahead with radical experiments in learning theory. Not because we think about it, or do it consciously, but because the learning environment of the home dictate novel and innovative educational approaches methods, driven by the individual learning styles and needs of our children, and our solemn responsibility to be accountable. As parents we have no choice - we can't fail our own children!

The results we obtain matter. They matter mostly in our own personal private worlds and lives, but also to society. In many ways home educators are different from schools - we refuse to deal with uncertain futures and concentrate instead on the very certain present. This immediacy of programming works to our advantage, keeping us flexible, keeping the educational process dynamic. Evaluation is ongoing and immediate. Unlike the huge educational monolith of public education, we can be responsive to changes in society, our fingers on the pulse of modern life.

Long ago, long before my children were born, I dreamed of the perfect school. I saw a college of education, a place where people contracted to learn skills or knowledge. Where they pledged a commitment, whether by money, bartering or trust, to work with others in the pursuit of education. All comers were equal, children, adolescents, mums and dads, grandparents, workers. At this college of education anyone could teach - as long as they followed a few simple rules; rules relating to human dignity and respect. The person who cares and loves his or her work will always gather followers, eager to learn something - anything - from the master. True discipline and motivation engenders success. There would be no compulsion for anyone to attend such a college, but educated people would be highly sought in the community, not because of a piece of paper, a certificate or qualification, but because the community recognised the worth of the self-educated person. The responsibility for learning would be returned to where it belongs, with the learner. This, above all else, would be respected. This college represents, to me, a vision of the perfect school.

For now, my home is the closest I have come to finding this perfect school. Our homes, our individual homeschools, are very like my envisaged college. We operate our home education programs like this college would. We allow our children access to masters, experts - people who love their work. We take our children to where the learning is happening in real, not contrived ways: meaningful learning in the context of their everyday lives.

Our homes are already the communities of support John Peacock speaks of, full of the nurturing so essential to educational success. This is the example we offer to school reformers. School is not the same as education, and should never be confused with education. However, education can and does happen in schools, and it is in the interests of all of society to see that the best educational experiences are available for all students, of all ages.

Home education is a model of learning that works, efficiently and effectively. It has worked for millennia and proven its worth beyond doubt. Home educators can help the process of sensible school reform by fostering partnerships with schools and other models of education, in a spirit of sharing so that we may all grow and prosper. For the sake of children, for the sake of learners, everywhere.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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