Home schooling

At noon, the winter sun is still above Ladhope Hill in the Borders, throwing shadows across the playground of Yarrow Village school below. The door opens and out come three fair-haired children, backpacks and jackets on.
For Simeon, Rachel and Natan Siroky, lessons are already over for the day. After a muddy walk home beneath the rowan trees, still red with a last crop of autumn berries, they will spend the afternoon pursuing their education under the guidance of their minister father, Samuel, and home-maker mother, Ester.

For these three are the only children in Scotland who are officially ”flexi-schooled”, an unusual approach to education, where responsibility is shared more or less equally between home and school. The Siroky children, aged 12, 10 and eight, study English, maths and art at school and cover everything else at home in the manse with their parents and two small brothers, artholemew, five, and Aaron, three.
Flexi-schooling is a little more common south of the border and much more so in the United States where two million children are educated completely or partially outside the formal school system.
Usually they have an individual learning plan, listing when they are going to be in class and what they are going to study. Outside, their education may be delivered in a formal, structured way, or more usually, taking a child-centred approach which develops the individual’s own interests.
When not in class they are put down as absent with leave for education off-site, and the funding for the school is not affected. However, while parents have a right to withdraw children from school to educate them at home, there is no legal entitlement to flexi-schooling. Most schools see it as being a potential source of problems and shy away from it.
UK support group Home Education warns that teachers may be concerned over the issue of test scores as, if children do not sit them or score poorly, it will affect the school’s results. But Kate Oliver, who has made flexi-schooling work for herself and her children for eight years in Leamington Spa, says the system has produced motivated individuals who score well above average.
She says the problems include children being seen as ”eccentric” and not being able to develop such close friendships as conventionally schooled children. For the school, there may be a worry about the child needing one-to-one attention if they miss important lessons.
But for her these are outweighed by the advantages of making school just one of a range of resources she can call on to educate her children, along with libraries, museums, galleries, the internet, the kitchen, the garden, and friends’ homes, among others.
Ann Samuel Till, co-ordinator of a Lothians-based homeschool advocate group, feels the Scottish education system should embrace the possibilities of a 21st-century approach.
”A lot of educators are more relaxed about home education,” she says. ”But it is easier to accept that some children are being educated outside the system than to try to incorporate them partially within the system. That is outside the comfort zone for most teachers.”
In fact, she says schools in Scotland already use flexi-time or part-time schooling, but usually in cases where children are failing, rather than as a family-made positive move.
”It tends to be for children who for whatever reason, maybe because of things that have happened in the past, aren’t attending school. They might be allowed to come in only in the mornings. But that is usually only seen as temporary so the teachers are constantly trying to get the child coming in full-time again. They don’t say, ‘hey, this is working so let’s stick with it and see if we can make it better, maybe by supporting the parents so that they can offer that bit extra’.”
Till says many parents who would not have chosen home education are prepared to try their best to provide it.
”We find quite a lot of parents come to homeschooling not through choice but because things have been going wrong at school. They are prepared to look at other methods and to be flexible because they want the best for their child.”
There needs to be more flexibility on the school side too, Till says. Flexi-schooling means accepting that all children can’t be treated the same.
”It’s like having a race and giving all the children running shoes that are the average size for their age. Most children will be okay with that, some will find they are a fantastic fit, but there are some whom the shoes won’t fit at all and they won’t run their fastest.”
Flexi-schooling was a new concept for the head of Yarrow Village school, Joyce Barbour. Rural schools have their own pressures but she feels it is easier to accommodate the needs of just one family of part-time pupils in a small school.
It requires careful timetabling so that maths and languages are covered only in the mornings and there has to be co-operation on both sides, she says.
But it is worth it. The Siroky children, who would otherwise be homeschooled, are enabled to be part of a wider learning group and ”we value the contribution they bring, even though they cannot be fully involved in the life of the school”.
They are always invited to special events such as school visits and are members of the out-of-school learning club. The Sirokys are full of praise for the support the head has given them.
”She has been wonderful, helpful and supportive,” says Ester, over coffee in the immaculately tidy manse, while the two youngest children play quietly, occasionally giving each other or their parents a hug. All five of the Siroky’s children – calm, well-mannered and affectionate – are testament to the love and attention their Czech-born parents, who are both in their early 30s, lavish on them.
Initially the two eldest children, Simeon and Rachel, started full-time school in Edinburgh. But both parents felt the long day and the formality of the learning regime was too much for young children.
”They were away until after three, they would come back so tired they would often do nothing but lie on the sofa and watch television and before you knew it, it was six o’clock and time to get ready for bed,” says Samuel.
They enquired about flexi-schooling but the Edinburgh primary refused permission. Since moving out to the Borders, they are much happier with the situation.
Before each term, the family and the school work out a timetable for each child.
They also have music lessons in the manse. Their home learning takes place in the style known as autonomous learning, which means that the parent-teachers pursue avenues of inquiry set up by the child’s questions.
For instance, Ester says: ”We were making cous-cous for lunch and one of the children asked where it came from so we went to look it up in the encyclopaedia and found it was from north Africa.”
”You have to go and look it up right away because otherwise the moment will pass. You have to take advantage of the child’s interest immediately.”
Simeon also picks up and reads the newspapers and that will spark off questions about geography, history and politics.
”Sadly there is a lot going on in the world that it is hard for a 12-year-old boy to understand, which needs a lot of discussion.”
The children use the internet, encyclo-paedias, world globes and books to find things out. They also have their own library tickets.
How does Ester manage with five children, a home to run, cooking and cleaning as well as the role of principal teacher?
”The children help. Because they are home more they see what needs to be done so we do it together as it comes up. Simeon is interested in cooking, for instance, so he helps with that.”
”The children know their options,” Ester adds. ”If they said they wanted to go to school full-time they could.”
l The term ‘flexi-schooling’ was coined in the late 1980s by Open University lecturer and home-schooling advocate Roland Meighan.

It is a system of education where the responsibility is shared equally between parents and school.

In the US, many states offer an Independent Study Programme where funding is split between parents and school.

In England, any school, private or state-run, can offer flexi-schooling if the head teacher and the governors agree.

In Scotland, guidance issued earlier this year makes it clear it is the duty of the parents to make sure a school-age child is receiving an appropriate education.

Parents in Scotland can home educate or send their children to school; flexi-schooling is offered only at the discretion of the school.

When not at school a child is ruled absent with leave for education off-site and school inspectors will visit at home to check the child is learning. The school keeps all of the funding.

Taking a child out of school part-time without permission is illegal.

The Scottish Herald
November 30th 2004