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Starting home education in the UK? Three books to read to get you going

So, you’re thinking about starting to homeschool, or home educate, in the UK. Maybe you’ve handed in the deregistration letter already and you’re wondering what’s next, or maybe you have a little one and you’re considering just not sending them to school in the first place. How does that actually work?

Now, you don’t need to read anything to start home educating. It’s really just parenting, and you’ve already been doing that. Turns out there’s nothing magic about it. You live your life, you see what interests your child, you decide what’s important to you, and you make sure those things are part of your lives. Honestly, that’s the heart of it.

But starting home education can feel daunting, especially if it’s a recent decision and you’ve been using school so far or thought that you would. And even if you’re confident, some of us just like reading to pick up new ideas and figure out what might be going on. I never thought a book could help me raise my children – people have done it for millennia, how hard can it be? – but over the last decade and a half it turns out I’ve gone through dozens of books more or less directly related to home educating. Here’s the ones I’d recommend if you’re just starting out.

The Call of the Wild and Free, by Ainsley Arment

This is a recent one, and at least at the moment it’s my top pick for the first book to read when you decide to home educate. It’s a nice mix of enthusiasm and realism, covering the advantages of home educating and a few of the issues and concerns you might have. It’s not tied to any particular philosophy, and covers the basics of various of the more common approaches. It also offers a description of the ‘Wild + Free Way’, which is a lifestyle rich in nature, story, and play, which can simply be your focus, or can work alongside many other educational philosophies.

The book is gorgeously produced, as you’d expect from a community that started and is mainly based on Instagram. There are lots of full colour spreads of children frolicking in the wilds of the US, which may or may not be your thing. It does feel slightly ‘glossy’, particularly in the early chapters, as though simply deciding to home educate will automagically turn your life into a garden of beauty and delight 1. There are peeks past this later on, but it’s not intended to be the book’s focus – just bear that in mind.

Also, as with many of the popular home education books out there, it is written from and for an American perspective. For the most part this doesn’t matter, particularly for younger children, but the teenage exam systems do vary, and this has knock on effects. You will still get something out of it if you’re starting home education with a teenager – especially if more freedom, nature and imagination are what has driven you to make this choice – but it won’t help you with things like the nitty gritty of how and whether you take GCSEs.

Read It for a dose of inspiration and enthusiasm; read it if your ideal is building dens in the woods all day and then coming home to share a story round a cosy fire; read it if you want to get an idea of what home education can look like. Skip it if you feel like one more picture of artfully muddy children will make you explode, or if your key concern is that your 15-year-old gets some GCSEs.

Free to Learn, by Peter Gray

This one is much more on the unschooling side of things – the author is a developmental psychologist who ended up sending his son to a democratic school (Sudbury Valley – think Summerhill in the UK), which is run on collaborative, unschooling principles. The school has no compulsory lessons and a free choice of activities, in a mixed age environment, with adults there more as guides and facilitators than as traditional teachers. Gray is well positioned to look at the benefits of this system, looking at the value of free play for children’s development in the context of evidence from anthropology, psychology and history.

The book isn’t really about home educating as such, as the school provides an environment outside the family that few of us have access to on a daily basis. However, it is a thought provoking challenge to the assumptions most of us have about the way learning and child raising works, and if it resonates with you, home ed is the best approximation you’re likely to be able to get. Whether you ultimately take anything from the book or not, if you read it with an open mind you’ll question some assumptions and see some more possibilities. Be prepared to end up feeling gutted that you don’t have a tribe of similar unschooling families on your doorstep though 2

Read it if you started off with attachment parenting and are wondering what’s next; read it if school really wasn’t working for your child and you’re not sure what else there could be; read it if you’re already unschooling and want to back that up with some research for the family. Skip it if you’re sure that unschooling is not for you, or you just don’t have access to other families and already feel bad about it.

Home Education, Charlotte Mason

I’ve got to confess that I haven’t actually completely read this myself. I’ve started, and flicked through it, and read a fair chunk of quotes and other people’s commentary, and it’s on my bedside table right now, but I’m only a few chapters into the proper reading. All the same, I’m going to go out and say that it’s one to read when you’re starting out, especially if you have younger children (Mason’s focus here is on the under-8s, though many apply her ideas to older students too).

Charlotte Mason is not quite as far from the norm as the key unschooling writers, but what she advocates is not like mainstream school either. The basic tenets are lots of time in nature and lots of reading of ‘living books’, followed by narrations in the child’s own words (either spoken or written) of what they’ve just read. She emphasises the individuality and personhood of the child (a fairly radical idea in the late Victorian era) while also strongly believing in the authority of the parent and their duty to train a child properly. For all she was at the forefront of educational thinking of her time, she’s still pretty clearly of her time. This may be part of the appeal, or you may have to look past it to gather what you find useful.

Whilst Charlotte Mason’s ideas have had their followers since she first published them in 1886, the approach has had a resurgence amongst home educators in recent years. There are lots of resources available online, and you’ll probably find some local families who follow a similar approach. If you’re looking for some direction for a relatively middle ground philosophy, it’s a good place to start.

Read it if you love books and long walks; read it if you want a direction to follow that you can still adapt for yourself; read it if you want to know what everyone’s going on about when they talk about ‘CM’. Skip it if a basis in a Christian worldview is a dealbreaker for you, or if you’d rather find a website that follows the National Curriculum. Probably go for a different interpretation if you’re just starting out with a teenager.

So there we have it – the top three books I’d recommend if you’re starting out home educating in the UK (or anywhere, really). This is far from exhaustive – there are plenty more out there that are worth your time, either for general coverage of ideas or a specific situation. I’ll post a roundup of my favourites soon.

However, you may have noticed that all of these came with the caveat that they’re not ideal if you’re just starting out with a teenager thinking about UK exams. Honestly, I haven’t found the book that deals with that well – if you’ve come across one, I’d love to hear about it! In the meantime, the best resource I can offer is the home ed exams Wiki page at https://www.home-ed-exams/wiki 3. In particular, the associated Facebook group ‘Home Education UK Exams & Alternatives’ is an absolute treasure trove of kind people ready to share their extensive knowledge and experience. I have mixed feelings about Facebook, but this group is one of the reasons I stay on there – it would be worth creating an account just to search through it.

I hope this list gives you a place to start or continue your home ed journey, and I’d love to hear your own recommendations. Which books did you find the most helpful when you were just starting out home educating?

  1. The truth is, even after you decide to home educate, you will still be you, and you’ll get tired and cranky and fed up of your kids sometimes. Your kids will still be your kids, and they will descend into full scale war because one of them is breathing too closely to the other. You will still live in your home, which will get even more messy and will have the same access to outdoor opportunities that it did before. You will have to feed them All the Time. You will worry whether you’re doing the right thing. All of this is normal too.
  2. This often isn’t actually as much fun as it seems like it’s going to be, judging by many of the people I know who’ve tried it.
  3. For some reason the site doesn’t work in the Safari browser – it’s fine in Chrome.

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