Oliver Holmes-Gunning’s homeschooling experience began when he was 12. For the first couple of years Ollie was taught at home by his mother, Sharon Gunning, and later at a distance with an American school. Ollie is now about to begin a degree in Art History at Cambridge University.
Whose idea was it ?
Ollie: I don’t remember where I first heard about homeschooling but in primary school I was always asking about it and badgering my parents to try it.
How old were you when you started?
Sharon: About 12. Ollie was just about to start secondary school. But a problem with the classroom meant we had to wait before he could start school. It was the perfect moment, because he’d already been asking about homeschooling, and now we had no choice but to homeschool while he was unable to go to school. O: When we saw the progress I was making compared to at school we thought we’d carry on for a bit longer and see how it goes.
Was it hard taking him out of school?
S: When Ollie started, homeschooling in Catalonia was “alegal”, neither legal nor illegal. We were lucky that Ollie was in a Waldorf school, so he wasn’t in a normal school, and if he had been it might have been more problematic taking him out of school. He was also between primary and secondary, which made it easier. But there are families that have had legal problems, with things like grandparents taking them to court. In the US and UK it’s legal, but it’s illegal in Germany; it depends on where you are. Here it’s not one thing or the other, probably because fewer people do it and so there’s been no need to address the situation.
Did you get any external support?
S: Yes, there are homeschooling associations, like ALE [Asociación para la Libre Educación], for example. O: We would get together with other families for meetings, public speaking exercises or to present projects or what we’d been working on that month. S: We didn’t find out about that until over a year into homeschooling. And it was one of our main things because I was worried about the socialisation aspect, I thought: “Hang on. You’re an only child. How’s this going to work?” So we kept saying no, until this problem with the school came up and we had to do it and we found that it worked really well. O: I don’t think it would have worked anywhere near as well if you hadn’t already been a teacher. In fact, if you think about it, a lot of homeschooling parents are already teachers. It does tend to help a lot if you already have classroom experience.
What about the classes, choosing subjects, materials, and so on?
S: I was already a teacher and had an interest in education, in particular the Waldorf methodology. Then there are plenty of homeschooling books to buy and there’s the internet. I don’t know what people who homeschooled in the seventies did without the internet! We didn’t use it in the classes but we used it to get materials and buy books. We bought Waldorf preparation books and for the first two years it was just me doing it with Ollie. But when he was 14 we felt it would be better if had something more official and so we found an American school. O: We had tried some others but you have to be careful because some places want to set up as homeschooling gurus and they can be a bit dodgy. Luckily after trial and error we found the Oak Meadow school. S: It’s a lovely place. If anyone wants to homeschool but they don’t want to take charge or they’re not teachers, and if they can afford to pay the fees, Oak Meadow is fabulous, and all the teachers were great.
How do these schools work?
S: You send in your work, but you are also in regular email contact with them. So Ollie was doing the American high school diploma with them, but when he was 16 he decided he wanted to change to the British system. But as he wanted to continue with the American system he spent a year working for both the high school diploma and A levels.
Name one of the main pros of homeschooling.
O: Schools and institutions can often kill creativity and don’t let you think for yourself. By necessity homeschooling makes you very autonomous and it’s all up to you. Especially as you get older and take more control, there is a definite sense of autonomy, which is a good thing because it gives you life skills that many people don’t learn until later on. Also, it helps you to think outside the box. Everyone I know who was homeschooled, whether conventionally successful or not, are all doing amazing things that wouldn’t occur to a lot of people of their age.
And the cons?
S: I know one boy who was being homeschooled but there was a problem: he didn’t want to be homeschooled but his mother wanted to homeschool him, which makes you wonder how to go about resolving that? It was easier for us because it was Ollie who wanted to be homeschooled. People also bring up the socialisation issue but the criticism is not true. Obviously you have to work a bit harder at it but often Ollie would have more free time than his friends at school, and he would want to meet up with them but they couldn’t because they had homework. O: You don’t learn the same sort of socialisation that would be handy for an office, because you’re not working with other people, you’re working mostly on your own. However, in terms of free time socialisation, being with friends and so on, I find that almost all my friends now I made through homeschooling. Those relationships people tend to leave behind when they finish school tend to last more, as you’ve been through the same experience and tend to be like-minded.
Would you recommend it to others?
O: It’s not for everyone. If you are one type of person it can really help you to develop certain life skills you otherwise wouldn’t develop until much later on in life, in particular autonomy. All I can say is that I probably wouldn’t be close to where I am today without having been through this experience. S: I would say educationally-wise in our experience there is no way that if Ollie had gone to a normal school he would be in the situation he’s in now of being about to go to university in the UK thanks to the grades he got at A level. Educationally, homeschooling can give you an advantage, but you have to be sure because there are also disadvantages and so you have to work out what’s good for you and good for your child, especially if like Ollie the child is the one questioning the school system. We just fell into it, we had no particular conviction for it, and in fact Ollie’s dad was sceptical about the whole thing for six months until Ollie showed that it was working for him.
Any advice for people considering homeschooling their children?
S: I’m definitely happy that Ollie went to school until aged 12. There are enough homeschoolers that never go to school, and for me personally that’s a shame. Because there are those vital social skills you pick up at a younger age and it’s a good experience to be in a classroom where you’re not number one and you’re not the only one.