Having homeschooled her two children from pre-school to the age of 18, Becky Penberthy-Smith knows all too well the challenges that millions of families are experiencing in homeschooling their children for the first time.
But it's also a joy, she says, and looking back, she would choose to home educate her children all over again.
She speaks to Christian Today about the difficulties and rewards of homeschooling children, and what advice she would give to families plunged into it for the first time because of coronavirus.
CT: You've been a home educator for some time already, long before the coronavirus lockdown.
Becky: Yes, I homeschooled our two daughters and they're both now in their twenties. We home educated all the way from pre-school, right up to the age of 18 using a christian curriculum called the ACE Curriculum (Accelerated Christian Education). After they finished and went off to university, I now have supported families that are thinking about home educating children or who have just started.
CT: Have you found that more people have got in touch you since the lockdown started?
Becky: It's actually escalated in the last year because people are just unhappy with some of the things happening in the schools. Since the lockdown started, the whole nation is home educating and I've talked to a lot of people who were thinking about starting with ACE in maybe September or next year, who have now made the decision sooner because of the lockdown. They are thinking, well, we might as well start now because it's something we were going to do anyway.
Then, there are other people who thought home educating was the last thing in the world they wanted do, who are finding that, actually, they're quite enjoying it, especially having more time with their families. For some, they weren't sure before how they would manage financially if they were to homeschool, but they're now seeing how they could make it work and the benefits of it.
CT: What advice would you give to someone who is struggling a bit with the homeschooling of their kids during lockdown?
Becky: Very often, when you're with your children 24/7, you see all their weak areas, and it can be really disappointing or distressing to see their child struggling with spelling or an area of maths.
Actually, when you spot their gifts and encourage these, it helps them in their weak areas. If the child is very good at carpentry or has an aptitude for gardening or art, for example, then receiving support in that will give them confidence in the areas they are struggling in.
Home educating allows you to put more time into the areas they're struggling in, to really sit down with them and break down what's difficult. I often tell parents who are new to this that it's not step by step but toe by toe, to put the effort into those areas, be it times tables or handwriting, or even developing their concentration.
There are some very simple things you can do to see progress. For example, if you do some physical exercise first thing in the morning, this can really help with your children's concentration and that in turn transforms how they approach the spelling test because they've just used lots of energy up on the trampoline.
When you start to see your children making progress, it's an amazing feeling, and your child will benefit, too, because their confidence will build.
In a busy school classroom, some of the material can just go over their heads. If they don't understand it, before you know it, they can be moving onto something else when they haven't mastered the simpler concepts. At home, you don't need to do that; you don't need to move on to division when your child hasn't mastered their times table. You can build up the foundation and the building blocks of the subject and then they will cope with the harder concepts. When you start to plug in those gaps and see them starting to understand a difficult concept for the first time, it can be really rewarding.
CT: Some parents might feel insecure about their own knowledge - or lack of knowledge in certain subjects! And they may be wondering: how can I teach my kids when I don't know this myself? Do you have to know everything to be able to homeschool your kids?
Becky: A lot of people feel called to home educate but they also feel completely daunted. Maybe they didn't have a good education themselves, or English was their strong subject but they don't know anything about geography or maths.
Everybody feels out of their depth to teach all the subjects at all the levels but think about it being home education and not homeschooling. Education is learning through life, and if you see yourself as an enabler or supervisor rather than a teacher of everything, and you give your child the time and tools to know how to learn, that's far better than you knowing everything first before having to teach it all.
For instance, if they don't know their times tables, you can give them the time and discover together. You can help them learn how to learn and put the tools in place so that they can sit down diligently to work something out for themselves. That is a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. If their car breaks down, for example, they can find a manual and learn how to mend it themselves because they've learnt the tools of how to learn.
Especially with the internet now, there are so many opportunities to learn how to learn! That's the biggest gift you can give your children, rather than you being this expert teacher.
With my own daughter for example, while I am a reasonable cook and like making cakes, I never follow complicated recipes but my daughter loves these amazing, complicated recipes that have a lot of different steps to create something really fancy. She's in her 20s now and during the lockdown, she's had her sourdough on the go. She's always discovering new things. When she was growing up, though, I always gave her the time, the ingredients and the kitchen to experiment.
When you give your children the tools, they will become experts in the areas you don't know anything about.
CT: Is there an area of struggle common to homeschooling parents?
Becky: Character training is always a massive thing because if your child is kicking and screaming and doesn't want to do their work, or there's sibling rivalry to deal with, then it's going to be really hard. So character is something you always have to work on.
Once you've mastered that and your child is obedient, diligent, and honest etc, they will be able to sit down and concentrate on their maths and complete their page. When it comes to getting a job, they're going to be a good, honest worker. Good character will carry them a long way whatever their ability.
Everybody thinks of homeschooling and thinks about the academics: for instance, I'm not sure how I'm going to teach the maths or the English, or which literature books should we be reading?
They soon find that the academics are quite a small proportion of the day, and that it's the 24/7 character training that's the biggest challenge. It's far more difficult to teach character than algebra!
A lot of people found the first week of the lockdown challenging, but quite a few parents said to me that by the second week they had got into a rhythm and could now see changes in their children's character for the better. They were getting a bit of discipline going and some order in the home; they were helping out with the chores or parents were enjoying finding out what their children were interested in, or their gifts, and having more time to play games together.
It's the character training that takes the most time and it's the most challenging part. Home educators have far more time to concentrate on that and when you put the time in with to work on their character, you see massive benefits to your overall family life.
A common question I get from other parents is: "What about socialisation?" Now, in this lockdown time, no one is socialising! In general, though, socialisation is really not a problem for home educators. Chatting with neighbours, seeing friends, attending clubs, active church life, and spending time with cousins is far more natural socialisation - socialising with the people you walk by in your everyday life - than with 30 peers in a small room all doing the same activity.
It's far more natural to be chatting to granny on the phone, playing with your brother in the garden, having a story with your mum or chatting around the dinner table. One-to-one socialisation, where your voice can be heard and you can get answers to your questions, can happen naturally. In a classroom, nobody's listening to you; you can have lots of questions and not necessarily any answers.
CT: Are you able to tailor the curriculum for homeschooling?
Becky: Absolutely. The ACE curriculum, which I'm involved with, gets students to work at the level of their ability, not according to the child's age or their school year. The children undergo a diagnostic test to ascertain the level they should be working at. Their Maths, English and Science tests could all score at different levels.
It's no different from how we treat adults. We're all very different with our gifts and abilities and talents. We wouldn't all be on the same level so why would we expect all 10-year-olds to be at the same level in the school? You wouldn't ask a child to read a book if they didn't know any of the words; you would take them back to the level where they can read and then build up from there.
We ask: what do you know already and what do you not know? We then work out a prescription based on their result. Using the ACE Curriculum is effectively one-to-one education. Even if you've got a few children in the family, each child would be working separately and at their own level and pace.
CT: When it comes to applying for university, do they get a fair hearing?
Becky: It depends on the institution but generally, as a rule, universities are very open to home educators. The curriculum we use ends with a certificate equivalent to Cambridge 'O' Levels, so the General Level is similar to 9 GCSES, and the Intermediate and Advanced are like AS and A levels. Many of our students have gone on to all sorts of universities, including Cambridge, with the Advanced certificate and have had great success. Once a university has had one of our students, they open their arms to them because of their ability to study and their character.
CT: There's been a lot in the news about the impact of coronavirus on state school children with all the school closures. Has there been any impact on kids who were already homeschooling or is it just business as usual?
Becky: The mornings are very much the same because they're at home doing the schoolwork. There are probably a lot more dads around so it might be a bit more busy than normal!
It's certainly different in the afternoons because normally, homeschooling children will meet up with others at their home education groups, swimming lessons, art classes, and church youth groups etc. Certainly the social side of things has massively changed.
It's quite amusing to think that the whole nation understands what home education is now! The amount of resources out there now is just incredible. Suddenly everything's gone digital, and it just shows that you can do school at home.
CT: Do you think more families will start home educating full-time after this lockdown?
Becky: That's right. I've spoken to quite a few families who have said they're going to restructure their family life. They've been racing around living such busy lives, and have now realised that, actually, they can manage on one wage and so they're going to start home educating. I think this time will make some people think differently.
CT: The sudden proliferation of all these online resources must also benefit people who were already homeschooling because they've now got so many more learning tools at their fingertips?
Becky: It is amazing to see so many useful resources, fitness workout sessions, films and podcasts now available to use at home. Such a blessing.
CT: What advice would you give to families who haven't ever spent this much time altogether under one roof before, just in terms of managing space and relationships?
Becky: Definitely exercise is a good thing, whether it's in the garden on the trampoline or some star jumps. It's good to do some physical activity before you even start the lessons.
Set up a really good timetable with a clear schedule: such as time for school work and regular breaks.
Get your children involved in the chores around the house. A chore chart is a great help. Don't be a slave doing all the jobs while they just wait for you to finish! Get a good rota going so that they're helping to take the rubbish out, helping with the cleaning, emptying the dishwasher, and helping to prepare the meals.
When you have a rota, it helps you to work as part of a team and everything can be part of their education and their character training. While they're doing all of these things, they're learning to be independent.
Around two hours academically a day is enough for most young children. Obviously when they get older, it increases, but generally if you do two or three hours of really concentrated academic work, it's enough.
Then in the afternoon, home educating families will normally do all the practical or creative things, like cooking, gardening, sport, artwork and music.
Rewards and goals help a lot with motivation. Once school work is completed then you can concentrate on the more creative activities. After a few days of goal setting, students soon realise that actually it's much better to knuckle down and get the academic work done because then they have time for their hobbies and other activities.
CT: What would you say to parents who have decided they want to go full-time with home educating? What would the next step be in practical terms to get homeschooling up and running in their family?
Becky: Firstly, be in agreement as a married couple. If one has the vision but the other doesn't, it very difficult. It is a step of faith but being united, prayerful and getting that vision from God through His word, that He's calling you to train and teach your children in His ways, is so important. If you have that common vision, there's less chance of it falling apart.
Once you've decided, it's then deciding which curriculum to use. There are all sorts of things on the internet but the one I'm involved with is a structured curriculum which covers from pre-school and ends up to the A-levels stage. You can sign up to be a member, and there is training for you and a diagnostic test for the children so that they can receive an individualised curriculum to work through. You will be sent a prescription so you know what level to start each subject.
CT: What was it that made you want to homeschool?
Becky: I resisted it in the beginning. We had friends who home educated but whilst I could see the benefits I thought there was no way I was going to follow them! I had loved school myself and wanted our children to go to school. I battled more and more, but got to the point where I felt I couldn't send them to the state school because there were so many things I didn't feel happy with.
I also resisted because I did not feel that I could home educate. It just felt like too big a responsibility. I remember one night I couldn't sleep and came down into the lounge and lay on the carpet and said: "Lord, I give this decision to you because I can't decide either way." After I prayed that prayer, I felt Him saying: "Just look into my word; stop asking other people."
I kept wanting people to give me the answer but I felt Him so clearly saying look into my word. I did a study on parents, teachers and training children and I realised that nowhere does it say in the Bible to send your children to a humanistic environment where atheists are going to teach your children! It's all about you as parents teaching and training your children, and whilst I understand that not everybody is able to home educate, if you get that vision from God, I do believe He equips us for the calling that He gives us and it's our responsibility as parents to teach and train our children in His ways. He supplies our needs for the calling he outs before us.
We took the plunge when our children were two and four, and didn't look back, even though it wasn't easy.
Despite the challenges, it's really rewarding. You form close family relationships and great memories. It helps the children bond together. Grandparents are able to see their children more and of course they can develop their relationship with God. I always think that's the most important thing; to show our children about the love of the Lord and the Word and to teach them in His ways. Character comes next, and academics are further down the list.
CT: For a lot of parents thinking about it, the financial aspect can be daunting.
Becky: Oh completely, especially if both parents are working, but I just know so many testimonies of people saying: we feel God calling us to do it and then He's provided.
In any case, it's not free sending your child to a state school because there are so many things you have to buy and pay for, and home education can be done on a shoestring.
Obviously, the larger the budget you have, the more clubs and activities you can get your children involved in but I know that for some families, amazing opportunities have arisen. Local councils, for example, are doing all kinds of things, such as free museum trips and visits to fire stations etc. If families have got a small budget, there are still lots of things you can do.