"In a state of nature a parent or guardian knows
intuitively the needs of a
child! And how often civilization wipes out this correct impulse and
attitude towards a child! Allowing the child to observe, to explore and to
follow his normal interests is a form of respect towards the child. It is an
inspiration due to parental love."(p70 "What you should know about your
We joined the NCT* in 2001 when expecting our first child and what a support it was in helping us pick our way through the array of choices which come with childbirth. It was also a great protection against what I realised with some surprise and indeed shock, was the apparently inevitable tidal wave of Other People's Expectations as to what you were going to do both with the birth and in those crucial few months afterwards when you are trying to form your own new identity as a mother. How inexorable seemed the pressure to feed our baby, have her sleep/ play when and how the doctor/ health visitor/ older family members suddenly very much wanted her to, and what a relief it was to have some space and permission and information which made it possible to think things through and decide for ourselves what the right thing was to do.
You just get over that pressure over feeding and potty training when suddenly everyone seems to be asking you when your child is going to school. We attended (and I helped run) local mother and toddler groups and we having a great time; yet by the time our older daughter was 2 1/2 people were already asking us about nursery and by 3 1/2 the question of schooling was constantly on the agenda. Around this time, our eldest asked us to teach her to read and write. We were surprised and a little taken aback; wasn't this a bit early? Whilst we both love reading and wanted to share that love with our daughter neither of us wanted to pressure her. As a mainstream teacher, I had seen the damage that is caused by over-pushy parents with Ambitions. At the same time I was browsing in Oxfam and came across a book entitled "Montessori Read and Write" by Lynne Lawrence. I paid little attention to the "Montessori" in the title and just got it to see if it had any tips. Once I opened it, I could not put it down. One thing led to another; we started to help our daughter to read and write, skills she picked up with enthusiasm and ease. I also started to read widely about child development and incidentally about motherhood and the time-honoured crucial role of parents in education.
Montessori wrote; "Expert mothers… if they see the child taking a special interest in something, allow him to look at it closely for as long as he wishes. They lift him up to the level at which his gaze is fixed, and see his face light up with interest and love for whatever it was that drew his attention.. Let us think for a moment, of the many peoples of the world who live.. In the matter of child-rearing, almost all of these seem to be more enlightened than ourselves- with all our Western ultramodern ideals. Nowhere else, in fact do we find children treated in a fashion so opposed to their natural needs. In almost all countries, the baby accompanies his mother wherever she goes. Mother and child are inseparable. All the while they are out together, mother talks and baby listens. If the mother argues about prices with a vendor, it is in the child's presence; he sees and hears all that goes on..Watch how his face lights up when his mother argues at a booth about the price of fruit. You will readily see what a depth of interest the words and gestures arose in him.. And this lasts for the whole period of maternal feeding. [which] sometimes lasts.. for two or even three years... In this way, the child's need for nutrition, and the love that unites these two beings, both combine in solving the problem of the child's adaptation to the world, and this happens in the most natural way possible. Mother and child are one. Except where civilisation has broken down this custom... The child
shares the mother's life and is always listening." (p94.. 97 "The Absorbent Mind" by Maria Montessori)
How different was this from the concept of education which had been an unspoken basis for my P.G.C.E. course, (during which I did nothing at all about child development.) which had assumed that anything worth knowing had to be broken down into segments and drilled into the heads of groups of same-age children in 40 minute bouts. I had become very efficient at scheduling, drilling, time-tabling , attracting a child's attention and holding it for the requisite period. How different (and indeed how much more
productive and simultaneously effortless) was the learning I observed taking place in our daughter as she watched us and others and explored her environment on her own terms and in her own time. As I voraciously read about child development, I realised that this is the way children are made
to learn and have been this way since time immemorial. After a brief spell with our eldest at the Steiner Kindergarten, we decided to home-educate.
Over the last 8 years I have spoken to many parents of young children and one worrying feature has been that so often parents feel that they do not have the skills to help their own children. This is despite the fact
that so many are so obviously talented. Our contemporary Western society seems to want to undermine the confidence of parents and to persuade us that really "experts" know best. Reading such books as the Laura Ingalls Wilder series makes you realise how recent and localised a phenomenon is this lack
of confidence. Laura's Ma and Pa would have laughed in disbelief if someone had told them that they had better hand their 4 year old child over to someone who knew better; they confidently and competently involved her and her sisters in every kind of activity necessary for the maintenance of the home. At a very
young age, Laura and her sisters were not only capable of running homes and their lives themselves, and were highly literate and numerate but crucially had the confidence in their own abilities which made them feel capable of handling any new situation by themselves. This kind of adaptability and confidence are hallmarks of a child who has been given the support and role modelling to develop normally.
We now have two daughters eight and five who are thriving on the stimulation, freedom and highly sociable environment which home-education in Cambridge now provides and I now run a wide variety of regular groups in Cambridge City for families who home-educate and for those who are considering
home-education, most of which are cost-free.
I may have a teaching certificate, but my observation is that parents who do not have mainstream teaching experience make much better natural educators than those of us who have to unlearn habits which are indispensable when processing large batches of children in a time-tabled environment but which are profoundly unhelpful when supporting the learning of a child at home. Our local group is very diverse; many faiths and none, two parents, single parents, many nationalities. In is inspirational to be surrounded by so many fathers and mothers who love being with their children. All you need to home-educate is basic literacy, a love of your child, a willingness to learn alongside him and to support his learning. Just as the NCT helped me to become the mother I aspired to be in the early days, I would very much hope that all parents have the information they need to make a truly informed decision about their child's education. And whatever their decision , that they realise that their knowledge of their child and their role as a parent is crucial and far more important in the education of their child than any other factor, whether or not they decide to send their child to school.