Think Different, Work Smart
During Britain’s Industrial Revolution it was normal for children from poor families to work long hours in factories, in terrible conditions and with no holidays. The Factory Act of 1833 was the first to set a minimum working age (9 years), and set limits on children’s working hours: A maximum of 48 hours per week for 9-13 year olds (!), and 69 hours per week for 13-18 year olds (!!). It became compulsory for working children under 11 to be educated for free for 2 hours a day, an amount which increased over time with subsequent Acts of Parliament.
But as the number of hours spent in education increased, we simply swapped one type of factory for another, and reinforced the unnatural idea that young children should spend the majority of the day away from their families. Two hundred years ago I guess this was the most efficient and effective way to establish a basic level of literacy and numeracy in the population, at a time when most working class families were reliant on the income generated by working children to survive. But now that we no longer think a child’s rightful place is up a chimney or down a coal mine, moving children along the factory production line in age batches and bombarding them with standardised tests is unlikely to be the best way to equip them for the economies of the future, where complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence will be the skills in high demand.
People often say to me “I wish I could home educate but I just don’t have the patience!”. I’m guessing they say that because they take their idea of what school looks like and transfer it onto their homes and (understandably) don’t like what they see. Most people (myself included) wouldn’t have the patience to manage a class of thirty children, each with different needs and abilities and coughs and colds and bad behaviour and arguments and occasional incontinence. Let’s be real- when you’re dealing with all of that, pedagogy goes out of the window, and classroom management is what you spend most of your time doing. Sit down Julia, don’t call out- put your hand up Emmanuel, stop talking please Grace… you get the picture.
On the other hand, as parents we have a significant emotional and genetic investment in our children, and an interest in ensuring their long term well-being and happiness- not just success in their next set of tests or exams. This means that (abusive parents aside) most parents are already the ideal candidates to facilitate their children’s learning. And for the most part, facilitation of children’s natural curiosity about the world around them is all you need. Think about all the hugely important things babies learn in their first year- crawling/ walking/ talking etc. We don't actually teach them those skills, they pick them up through observation and imitation, and lots (and lots) of falling over. Our job is to create an environment where children can safely make mistakes and find the answers to their own questions, rather than spoon-feeding them to pass tests and instilling a paralysing fear of getting things “wrong”, which has followed many of us into adulthood.
Today, just as in Victorian times, our whole economy still depends on both parents being away from their children for the vast majority of the day. Explicitly and implicitly we are told daily to conform to a prescribed lifestyle in order to be happy (think “luxury” box-like apartments in newly gentrified corners of the city, baby buggies that cost a month’s rent, and frequent instagram-worthy trips abroad). This consumer lifestyle requires parents to devote the vast majority of their waking lives to work, so that invisible currency can be moved temporarily into their bank accounts, and then quickly out again to buy more things. Children become an obstacle to maximal productivity in this system, so the system dictates that they must be put into childcare as soon as possible, to free up parents to take their place again as cogs in the machine.
Please don't misunderstand me: I’m not saying that both parents don't deserve to do fulfilling and challenging work that they enjoy- of course they do! Happy parents raise happy children. But our society needs to embrace greater flexibility in working hours, types and locations of work so that families can spend more time together. I have many friends who are parents and would love to work flexibly, but their employers - regardless of employment legislation - make it clear that there are plenty of other full timers waiting to jump into their shoes if they’re not up to the task. With the increasing prevalence of “wrap-around childcare”, many parents are getting their children out of bed in the morning, tucking them in at night and missing everything in between for 5 days a week. On top of that they feel pressured to run them around to various activities all weekend, just to feel like they are participating actively in their lives. This is stressful for everyone involved, and is not helpful for building and maintaining strong ties between parents and children.
A decision to home educate requires a long hard look at your goals for your family, and challenges you to create your own unique picture of happiness then pursue it on your own terms. This may involve various combinations of part time work, becoming self-employed, even looking at new ways of earning money online. Remember, nobody ever looked back on their deathbed and wished they spent more time at work in jobs they hated, but as clichéd as it sounds, they usually wish they spent more time with the ones they love. Deathbed regrets are the worst kind- so let’s lose the factory mentality and work smarter now- your children will thank you for it!