A Very English Education

Homeschooling in England

They have been carrying on, in the time-honored English manner. Amanda Lewin (left) runs the monthly Catholic Home Schooling group at the Oxford Oratory. Her blog is designed to support Catholic families battling with the UK secular system. Kathryn Hennessey lives in Reading, where she has been homeschooling since 1999. Here, they take time out of their busy days to discuss their experience doing what’s simply ‘not done’ in England – homeschooling their children.

REGINA: When did you begin homeschooling, and why?

Amanda: I discovered home schooling via a good friend who was about to begin home schooling too and I read a lot of John Holt. I researched it thoroughly and found to my joy that there were many resources and I especially loved the Montessori philosophy. I then implemented a Montessori way of teaching, making many of my own Montessori materials. We didn’t have access to the web then and I used the library all the time. 

Kathryn: A friend was home-educating her five year old and she produced a newsletter to support Catholic home-educators. She gave me a copy, but my eldest was only a baby then and I remember thinking, ‘No way am I doing that, it sounds far too difficult!” I felt sure that the schools couldn’t be so bad. And I kept telling myself that, right up until the day came to enrol him. I really did not want to home-educate: I suspect now that I was simply afraid: of what people would say, of giving up my ‘me time’, of not being able to cope  –  the usual fears. However, faced with the realities of sex-education for five year olds and a heterodox religious education programme, I started reading. A few quotes from papal encyclicals on the duties of parents led me to pick up Mary Kay Clark’s ‘Catholic Homeschooling.’

REGINA: It’s pretty amazing how a book can really galvanize one’s thinking, right?

Kathryn: That book helped me to clarify my thoughts. It also forced me to ask some serious questions about my faith and how important it was going to be in the education of our children. Mary Kay Clark’s advice, ‘Before you do anything else, make a novena’, made me realise that I hadn’t really been looking at the question of education from a truly faith-filled perspective. I’d been very pragmatic; I had not been thinking of the issue from a supernatural perspective. I hadn’t asked the simple yet fundamental question: what does God want me to do? As soon as I did that, all the fears and the arguments against home-education evaporated and I felt a lot of peace about the decision. I was under pressure from my family to start ‘schooling’ our eldest child was four. With hindsight I can see that it was counterproductive as he just wasn’t ready for’ proper lessons’. After a few frustrating weeks I gave up the attempt and instead we just played a lot, talked a lot, visited people and places. He was still learning but in a much more informal (and, for his age, a much more effective) way.

REGINA: Have you used/do you use on (online or on paper) homeschooling program?

Kathryn No, we’ve always done our own thing, mainly because in the UK there are no Catholic home-education programmes. We simply don’t have anything similar to your Mother of Divine Grace, Seton Homeschool etc. Many of us use American books (especially for teaching the faith) and some families actually sign up to a whole programme so that their children gain an HSD at the end of it.

However, I would say that most just dip in, or use the programmes for primary school then move over to the UK system for secondary level. Our two systems are very different and it isn’t really possible to mix and match them, since our system is based almost entirely on public exams taken at ages 16 and 18, for which there are very strict specifications. If we want our children to take these, we are obliged to use the required (secular) textbooks.

Amanda: We once tried an online course called CLLA (Catholic Liberal Arts Academy) which I thought at the time was an answer to prayer as it followed the classical curriculum which I am greatly fond of, but it wasn’t successful with our then 10 year old son Samuel. I have always preferred to create my own lessons for the children when they were young. One can be spontaneous and use interesting materials and also concentrate on what the child enjoys and is interested in. I loosely followed a classical curriculum and bought some books from America (Catholic ones which were unavailable here) and then added my own materials and books. Once the child reaches IGCSE standard, and that can be anywhere between 11-16 yrs old here) there are many courses and tutors available to study these subjects from home but they are more rigorous than the GCSEs a schooled child would sit so usually home schooled children space them out over a few years or do less subjects.

REGINA: How did your friends, neighbors and family react to your decision?

Kathryn: The problem with home-education in England is that, historically speaking, it stems from groups of families who were essentially ‘unschoolers’ – John Holt style. Of course there are a lot of secular parents who do take teaching very seriously, but the image of the wild, barefoot, untutored, undisciplined child still dominates in the public mind. Unfortunately, for people who have no direct experience of it, home-education is simply not regarded as a serious option. So, we were not at all surprised that our own families and friends were strongly opposed to it. We faced comments like, ‘You will ruin their chances of doing well,’ or, worse, ‘You’ll ruin their lives – and your own. It’s just not normal.’ Our parents were understandably concerned about the stress levels on us (and their grandchildren not ‘achieving their potential’), whilst our friends were more concerned about the children growing up odd. In short, just about everyone thought it was a VERY bad idea and they were sure we would regret it.

Amanda Home schooling is still rare in England but we were met with fascination rather than disdain. The friends I have who have children in school though it was intriguing and many people didn’t even realise it ​was legal. My family were extremely supportive and although it wasn’t something they would have considered they gave me much moral support and encouragement. 

Kathryn: Have they changed their minds? I think on the whole, yes. Our children have followed a fairly standard approach to education in terms of public exams etc. and they seem perfectly able to socialise. The apocalyptic scenarios of ruined lives have thankfully never come to fruition! More specifically, our practising Catholic friends and family have certainly been struck by the fact that unlike many teenagers, our sons do take their faith seriously (even if as teenagers they struggle with it at times). It was a great joy to me, when a year or so ago my mother in law, who had been strongly opposed to our original decision, wrote to me about a new (dreadful) RE scheme for Catholic schools and said, ‘Thank God you are home-schooling’.

REGINA: How has the schooling your children have received compared with the state schools in your area?

Kathryn: The main difference I would say is at Primary Level. In the UK we have pretty strict rules about what children are supposed to be learning and achieving from the age of four and all schools have to abide by the rules. Many years ago I became convinced that early formal schooling did more harm than good, especially for boys, and this led me to take a much more relaxed approach to early years learning. Thankfully in England we have very liberal laws on home-education: so long as you have never registered your child with a school, you will not automatically be registered with the authorities and, in effect, you can teach what you like when you like. The law states that ‘all children from the age of five must receive an education suitable to their age, ability and aptitudes, at school or otherwise’ but it does not require that the education provided be in line with what schools teach and, moreover, education itself is nowhere defined in law. So, we have a lot freedom and we take advantage of that.

Amanda: I think homeschooling ​is incomparable to any school. Children enjoy a different style of learning, even if the structure of their day is similar to what they would experience in school. Firstly there is virtual one-to-one teaching so the child receives complete attention from the mother and therefore it is more likely a subject will be better understood and the mother will be very clear on the standard and capability of the child. There is no legal requirement to follow the national curriculum although some people do. 

Kathryn: In our own family, we don’t seriously get into gear with ‘proper’ school-style curricula and syllabi until the exams approach, about age thirteen onwards. I have found, however, that by the age of 16 my children are just about in the same place as their peers – though I hope they have a had a less pressured and more pleasant time getting there! The focus on exams in the UK system is somewhat unfortunate inasmuch as it can cause teachers to teach to the test and lose sight of the equally important job of encouraging the child to use his own brain and engage critically with the material in front of him. For us, home-education allows us a broader approach.

Amanda: Things like team games and group participation are less easy (although many families have many children like a mini class!) but the presumption that children who are home educated do not take part in sports is wrong. My children have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy lots of sports including rugby, ​football​, etc.

REGINA: England is full of sites that are key to understanding the history of the West. Has visiting these places been part of your homeschooling?

Kathryn: Absolutely! My husband read History at Oxford and has managed to pass on his enthusiasm to several of our children. Each year he takes a posse of children to the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings in Sussex, which attracts people from all over Europe (most either fight or sell their wares: we once bought a replica Saxon mead horn which is passed around on dark winter’s nights whilst Daddy recites Beowulf….).

Amanda: We are blessed to live in an area which is steeped in history and has many​ ancient buildings from Roman times to the present day. These help to bring history alive for children more than any number of dusty old textbooks would. I am certain that we visit many more places of interest than schoolchildren ever have the chance to.


REGINA: What sites have you visited?

Kathryn: We are lucky to live near a Roman amphitheatre, in the old town of Calleva Atrebatum: just the other day my youngest were having gladiatorial battles there. It was great fun. You could almost hear the cheers as the emperor (Daddy) was giving the thumbs up – or thumbs down.

Amanda: In recent years we have visited a Roman villa, several manor houses that were used to hide priests during the Reformation, and many other fascinating sites.

REGINA: Do you live near historical places? Have you attended re-enactments?

Kathryn: In our own town of Reading we have the remains of a medieval abbey: Blessed Hugh Farringdon was martyred there during the reign of Henry VIII and Henry I is buried there (under what is now the car park). The town museum contains the world’s only full size replica of the Bayeux tapestry, woven by local women in the 1800’s (it is huge).



At the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings

Amanda: We attended many ‘living history’ days which were wonderful and the children would partake in these and learn so much. We’ve been to historical re-enactments which are greatly loved by the children, and my husband and I, too! 

Kathryn:  We are blessed to have plenty of Saxon, medieval and Roman sites to choose from, but my children’s favourite is probably Hadrian’s Wall. It is so impressive and has everything a boy could want. So long as you’ve brought your wooden sword you can really pretend you were there – or at least that you were an extra in the film ‘The Eagle’!

REGINA: Many people fear that homeschooling will affect their children’s ability to socialise with their peers. Have you found this to be the case?

Amanda: I absolutely do not agree with this statement….I believe school is both an artificial and unusual environment which doesn’t depict normal life.

Kathryn:  I believe that the ability to socialise depends first and foremost on the personality of the child rather than on the form of education which he receives. When a schooled child suffers problems with socialisation we are told that ‘some children are just shy’ and will come out of their shell in their own time…yet if that child is home-educated everyone will immediately blame the fact that he or she has never been to school.

Amanda: Being in a class with 30 other children their own age is not a natural way to live whereas home schooled children interact all the time with all different age groups and people. They learn to converse with adults and are usually more inquisitive as they have the freedom to ask questions and inquire whereas in school one is being more spoon fed. 

Kathryn: Personally I would argue that much of the socialisation in schools is negative and damaging, and it is ironic that in the face of endless reports of the dreadful things going on in schools, people still maintain that keeping a child out of school will damage him. Quite often, it is the opposite which is true.

REGINA: How are homeschooled children socialized differently?

Amanda: Homeschooled children learn to converse freely with adults and older children and feel free to ask questions and direct the course of the conversation. More so than in school where teachers are too busy to spend more than a minute or two with a single child each day and there is very little opportunity to discuss matters with children in different years.

Kathryn: When you have a fairly large number of children you begin to see quite quickly that you have been blessed with all manner of different personalities and that it is not essentially what you do which makes them who they are: God has made them that way! Some are bold and confident, some are shy. I don’t think home-education is necessarily a major factor in this.

Amanda: We attended two homeschooling groups for many years and I now run the monthly Catholic one. They do usually have less friends than schooled children yet these friendships are usually stronger as they choose their friends rather than being thrown together in a classroom. I find all my six children to be extremely sociable and outgoing, unafraid to ask questions and are inquisitive and have a hunger for learning and life which is beautiful to see.

Kathryn: So long as your children meet with a variety of people and have the chance to develop a few close friendships they will not be at any disadvantage.  In fact, they are likely to socialise easily across a wider age range than their schooled counterparts – from younger children to adults to elderly people – and I think that is actually a great advantage. Ultimately, we want our children to socialise well for another important reason: so that, at the end of their education, they can go out into the world and carry their Catholic faith to others, especially to their secular peers who so badly need it.

Amanda: All sorts of people home school here- there is certainly not one type of person…people from all religions, although it is particularly popular with Christians, and people from all classes. In one home school group there will be a great range of people from extremely wealthy to people living on benefits…ho​m​e education is very diverse and therefore the children meet all different kinds of people which is also a great learning experience.

Kathryn: It is also growing amongst Catholics, as our schools become less overtly Catholic. Many of our schools are becoming more openly aligned with secular government agendas; numbers of non-Catholic and nominally Catholic children continue to rise, causing the Catholic ethos to become ever more diluted; Catholic teachers who uphold Catholic teaching in controversial moral areas often find themselves isolated and under attack even from those within the Church. All these things sadden and scandalise faithful Catholics who are beginning to see home-education as an attractive option.

Kathryn: The problem here in the UK is that there is so little support. As I mentioned above, there are no Catholic programmes which parents can sign up to. We have to either use an American programme or make up our own as we go along, which can be very daunting. Amanda and I have both tried to provide some online support but it is a drop in the ocean and so much more is needed.

REGINA: Recent statistics show that more than a million US children are being homeschooled – a 62% jump in ten years. Is homeschooling starting to catch on in England?

Kathryn: I think it is growing here, yes, and for a variety of reasons: for example, many parents feel that teaching and testing starts too early; that there is too much pressure to reach performance targets; that there is too much bullying which is not being dealt with.

Amanda More people do home school here in England now. It is unclear just how many as one does not have to register their children with the LEA so the numbers are not exact.I would say it is becoming more popular and there are more resources than ever before with online courses and lessons and other home schooling parents running IGCSE groups etc. I think there is a general dissatisfaction with our schools and many children are, sadly, bullied. Many children come to home schooling because of problems with bullying at school, which teachers have increasingly less time and authority to do anything about. The severe peer pressure and the need to fit into the social groups  have a profound effect on some children so often they will leave school and continue their studies at hom​e.​

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