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Burgess Hill Girls Junior School Headteacher Heather Cavanagh with some of her pupils.

Independent schools can provide what homeschoolers seek

Tailored learning away from Ofsted's dead hands is in our DNA says Heather Cavanagh, Burgess Hill Girls Junior School Headteacher

Posted by Charley Rogers | August 06, 2017 | Teaching

News that the number of registered home educated children in England has increased from 8,361 to 38,573 is striking but not at all surprising. Yes, home-schooling is enormously demanding and places a huge responsibility on parents, often needing at least one of them to give up their career. 

But who can blame them for wanting to create a unique educational setting that fits the needs of their own child? Well, this is precisely where the independent sector excels.

With smaller classes and higher teacher to pupil ratios - and without the dead hand of Ofsted and a target-driven culture - independent schools are free to innovate and provide an education that suits each child. 

But although they provide a breadth and variety of education, independent schools are not always an option considered by parents contemplating the home-schooling route. 

It is important to remember that these parents are driven, as we all are, simply by the desire to do the best they can for their child. And they are not a single, homogenous group. 

There are those who have what could be called a ‘bohemian’ approach to education. Those who would simply never consider any type of schooling in a formal setting for their child. 

Yet, far more typical are the parents of children who have experienced ‘formal’ education in the maintained sector and have now taken their children out to be home schooled. Some of the children face particular challenges which can be far better addressed in a small, friendly environment with plenty of one-to-one attention. 

Here at Burgess Hill Girls Junior School, a home-schooled girl came to us who we felt had some form of Dyscalculia - which made the traditional maths curriculum she had experienced at primary school an impossibility for her. However, when we provided her with a much more visual and interactive curriculum that was tailored to her needs, the situation was completely transformed.  

In a class of 30 – which is typical in the maintained sector – lack of manpower dictates broad groupings of children without diagnosis of the particular challenges an individual may face. They may even be placed with children exhibiting ‘behavioural problems’. Even further, for children who lack confidence in socialisation, a class of 30 would be sheer torture.

We are able to nurture children with talents or interests that may have been pushed to one side by the demands of the curriculum in the maintained sector. Budding painters, clarinettists and future chess grandmasters are among those that benefit from the flexibility of the school day in a small institution.

Crucially, schools in the independent sector aren’t in thrall to the concept of whether a child has reached the appropriate ‘floor standard’ for their age. We all know that any preconceived ideas about education being a linear projection and being able to measure progression in a summative test is deeply misleading. 

We are able to nurture children with talents or interests that may have been pushed to one side by the demands of the curriculum in the maintained sector

We ask parents who worry that their child hasn’t yet met the suggested required ‘standard’ - would they panic because their daughter isn’t the tallest in the class? Or because they don’t have the largest shoe size? So why adopt that mind-set in relation to their educational progress? 

Many parents attracted by home-schooling are also looking for an outside experience for their child: connecting with nature, counting acorns, going for muddy walks. It is my passionate belief that education is far more than what goes on inside the classroom. At Burgess Hill Girls, we aim to tailor learning to make it meaningful. 

In my experience, what unites all those considering home-schooling is the desire for their youngster to be treated as an individual. It is about sitting down with a child and finding out what makes them tick and providing a tailored approach that suits them as an individual.

And no, I don’t believe independent schools have anything to fear from the growing interest in home schooling. My advice to parents considering home-schooling is this - visit several independent schools so that you can connect with their ethos. You will find that no two are the same and the choice is enormous. 

In the maintained sector, the options are restricted to two or three – probably broadly similar - local primary schools all following the same curriculum. Whereas independent schools come in all shapes and sizes. 

I think we should all work harder to demonstrate to parents that the independent sector can offer the type of education they seek. And I think parents should explore what is on offer beyond their own neighbourhood. Even more so, why not consider prep boarding for their child? It could be the ideal choice.

We know that every child in our care is, first and foremost, an individual. And that’s good news for all our pupils.

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