After home-schooling their daughters Kiki (now 13) and later Maddie (now 18), Nadia Sawalha and her husband Mark Adderley have become one of the most public faces of home education – they’ve even written a book about it. Now, with most of the country plunged into unplanned teaching, thanks to school closures, Nadia explains why they turned to home education, the upsides, her tips and why what parents are doing at the moment isn’t any comparison to choosing to homeschool your child.
Why did you decide to homeschool your children?
The biggest mistake we ever made was sending our children to private school thinking, ‘We’ll work really hard so we can send them to private school then everything is guaranteed’. And of course there’s no guarantees like that in life. We were both really busy, building our life when our kids were young – we thought, ‘That’s sorted, our kids will be fine’. I was really quite naïve, and when you go to private school you are being prepared for an academic life and you have to be that way thinking, have an academic brain. And not everybody does.
It’s not that the school was bad, it was just the wrong school for Kiki. She was a summer baby, a whole year younger than everyone else, was struggling with her vision in one of her eyes, and basically she got off on the wrong foot when she first went to school. This is all happening between the ages of four and a half and six and a half. And as a child at an academic school starts to “fall behind” (I don’t believe any child at six can be behind anything) it was all, have an extra tutor, do all of this. She wasn’t happy in school, she was eating properly, she wasn’t sleeping properly and you’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child. It was a real shadow over everybody.
Her tutor said her being a whole year is a big, big deal for some kids, so she asked if we’d ever heard of home educating, maybe we could do that for a bit and then could find a school that’s better for her and she can go back into the system. I said, ‘No, I’ve never heard of this’. Within an hour we’d deregistered from school.
You’ve never looked back?
We always say, we are not anti-school, but home education is another option and what breaks my heart is everyone has the wrong idea about home education at the moment because of what is going on. If you’re a shy child, it’s actually quite difficult to be at school. This idea that everybody who goes to school has this amazing social life is not true – there are plenty of kids at school who don’t make friends, who feel more lonely in a crowd. And some of those children could fare really well in a home education situation. My daughter now knows it’s not a dirty word to be a shy person, which is what school tends to do sometimes with shy children. There are enough loud mouths like me in the world, we need some quiet thinkers – people who are watching and listening.
And now, you’ve literally written the book on home education…
Our book is not about saying, ‘Take your kids out of school’, we hope it can be complimentary to the system. We question why we have kids, how much of what our kids achieve is about ourselves… it was quite a gruelling book to write because we just really had to go into our education, how it had affected us, the many mistakes we made with our girls. We’re just all adult children. I don’t say homeschooling actually because I think people tend to think it’s a school situation in the home, which I really have a visceral response to. People are being asked to be teacher, headteacher, PE teacher, it’s ridiculous. So you have to say to your kids, ‘I’m not a teacher and I don’t know the answer to this either… let’s find out’. And what you’re teaching your child is that learning goes on at any point, day or night, any age, it doesn’t work between 9 and 3.
A lot of people working at home, I feel really sorry for them that kids are having to log on at a certain time, because that doesn’t work for parents working at home. So I always, as a home-educator, say if I’ve got a really busy day today, Kiki’s sit down learning with us will be between 4 and 6pm. Wednesday and Thursday if we’re really busy, we swap her weekend and do school stuff Saturday and Sunday. That was such a massive thing for us, it was like turning a great big juggernaut around.
You only actually have to do about two hours formal learning with them a day because you get so much more done.
What people are experiencing now, during lockdown, isn’t the same as home education, is it?
Some of the younger kids are wanting the help of their parents while they’re logged into these classes and that’s so hard if you’ve got to be on your computer, doing your day’s work – and it’s only in school hours, that’s asking too much. There has to be some leeway.
I remember when we got a tutor for Kiki for maths, and an hour’s lesson with a tutor is the equivalent to all the maths they’ll do in one week [at school]. So that’s the other thing, you don’t have to think, ‘They’ve got to sit for six or seven hours learning’. It’s very different. I was talking to someone at Loose Women who’d sat in on their kids’ online class and she’d said the distraction is constant. That’s what it’s like at school. When you’re home-educating and not doing this halfway house, you only actually have to do about two hours formal learning with them a day because you get so much more done.
Some statistics have shown that – despite the stress – many parents are now considering home-educating even after the schools are open again. Does that surprise you?
We do have a lot of people saying they’re so glad they’ve learned about home education. And once you’re in home education, you’re not obliged to follow the curriculum. So you can go with what your child is passionate about. So a lot of our learning, we go out. We go to museums, we go to galleries, we’re moving, not just sat sitting at a screen. An example of how a home educating parent might approach what’s going on at the moment is to say, we’ve got a global pandemic – there’s so much to learn at the moment. Geography, looking at the whole world, economics, looking at the crumbling world economy as we know it… These kids are living history. It is totally extraordinary what’s going on. So this would be a huge learning opportunity. And it allows you a chance to go really deep into things rather than skipping over to get to the exam, get to the exam.
I really think this is an opportunity to do some blue-sky thinking about the whole GCSE system. Even those that invented it question it now. It’s all about the exam and not the experience. Kids are so attuned to just thinking all that matters is the exam and not the love of learning and I think that’s a shame really.
What about the social side of school and making friends? Do home-educated kids not miss out?
The big misconception is that every kid that goes to school has an amazing group of friends. It’s the thing that home educators find the most frustrating. Actually, they get to choose their friends. I worked incredibly hard when they first came out of school, going to all the home ed groups, I was like a dating agency for friends. And what people don’t realise is what you’re doing now isn’t home education – locked in your house, not going out, not seeing anyone. There are hundreds and thousands of children who were home educated before the pandemic and every day of the week there’s something to do with a group, all over the country. People have this idea homeschool kids are like sallow and grey and unhappy!
When you’re a home educator, how do you separate out time as their teacher and time as their parent?
We don’t. This is where everybody is giving them a terrible stick to beat themselves with. You’re just the same. If you suddenly go, ‘I’m in teacher mode’, they know very well you’re not a teacher, they’re going to undermine you and you’re going to be unhappy. We don’t ever do it like that. I’ll say, ‘Shall we go and have a bit of maths, come on…’ They don’t want you to morph into their teacher. You might say, ‘Oh I don’t remember a single word of this!’ and give them a real sense you’re validating their feelings. It’s about that shared experience. People are feeling the enormous pressure and trying to be something they’re not.
Parents have also got to be really mindful about the stuff on social media like ‘I can’t take this anymore!’ [Children are] hearing this. We’ve got a real problem with that. People aren’t realising that’s getting through to kids. We get a lot of young people messaging us and saying they’re hearing it and it doesn’t feel good. Imagine hearing that about yourself.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to be an advocate for home education?
Yes, I see people struggling… I’ve got no other reason for it rather than the shared motherhood of it, and I’ve been in that place where I couldn’t be happy because my unhappiest child was unhappy and it’s so awful. When I hear people say, ‘My child is eating again, they’re sleeping again, I didn’t know this was an option’, that is incredible.
I still maintain 80% of children should be taught at school. But I just think people can choose to go to boarding or private or local schools, they can also choose to go to home education. What people don’t realise is we are very lucky in this country to be able to do that. Lots of people travel here from other European countries because they are desperate to home educate their children and they’re not allowed to in their country. It’s an incredible freedom and it’s one people don’t know about. So I just want people to know about the option. And I always talk about how much we’ve messed up, I’m still learning. I always say to my kids, ‘We’re just adult kids and it’s really scary’ and actually I think that’s really empowering for children.
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