When you live on a cruising yacht the world is your oyster – but it’s an oyster which comes without any dressing. Liveaboard yotties, drifting about on the seven seas, have to do without many of the things that Westerners generally take for granted: there is no hot and cold running water out here – not aboard our boat, anyway – and there is no national grid to provide our electricity. We also do without television, the Daily Mail, postal deliveries, and baths. And our children do without school. People who choose this lifestyle seldom have trouble managing without the frills – but school hardly fits into that category. The parents of a liveaboard, itinerant school-aged child have to find some other way of imparting to him the accumulated wisdom of the world – or else, to quote the late Bing Crosby, he may grow up to be a mule.
This is an issue which is of considerable concern to would-be wanderers; parents are justifiably eager to ensure that their offspring do not miss out, and the majority balk at the idea of accepting full responsibility for their children’s education. As a result, many people decide to postpone the big adventure until the kids have grown and flown.
The Med is full of this kind of cruising yotty. When we first arrived here our kids were delighted to see that there were plenty of British registered vessels in the Spanish marinas – “At last there’ll be someone to play with, ” said Xoë; but she was wrong. It transpired that the Brits were all senior citizens who had only recently been released from their parental obligations or from that other familial obligation: caring for elderly mothers and fathers. Now they were ready to roam – but, alas, although their minds and spirits were still rearing to go the flesh was becoming weak. Many of these folk had been obliged, by ill health, to abandon grand schemes of wandering the world. In short, they had left it too late.
Nick’s parents managed to sail round the world when in their early sixties – but they had Nick to help them. If you doubt whether your own youngsters will want to skipper your boat for you, or if you simply don’t want to wait so long, then my advice is to GO NOW! If the only thing holding you back is the concern for your kids’ education the following words may be of comfort. DIY education is a subject which is very dear to us at the moment because the kids have finally had the opportunity to put theirs to the test, and to see whether homeschooling is as effective as the conventional kind.
The word home-schooling sits uncomfortably with us. Schooling implies formal lessons; it implies rows of children sitting quietly at their desks while an adult pours forth words of wisdom. Schooling also implies discipline and control – which is why a lack of discipline on the part of the students and loss of control on the part of the teacher signal a breakdown in the traditional system of education. For me, and I suspect for many other people, schooling conjures up feelings of despair. I loathed and detested school; it was a prison for both my mind and body. So far as I am concerned, the only truly likeable school is a school of porpoises.
Except for a couple of fortnight-long taster sessions, Caesar and Xoë have never been to school. Nor have they often been required to sit down and do lessons. We continue to use the term home-schooling simply because this is a concept that other people can readily understand. Ever since man first thought of providing formal education for his offspring children have been “home-schooled” by tutors and governors of one kind or another, and thus no one has any trouble picturing a child doing lessons at home with Mum standing in for the teacher. What people do have trouble understanding and accepting is the School of Life approach. Indeed, we have yet to meet anybody who hasn’t looked at us askance when I say, “We don’t generally do lessons. The children just teach themselves.”
When I first realised that I was going to have to home-school my son I was daunted – but I was also excited. Even before Caesar had made his formal entrance into this world I was hunting out advice and investigating the business. Like most people, I believed that it was illegal to keep a child away from school; I also thought that a teacher had to have a degree in education. Since we were not going to be living in the UK this was of little consequence – drifting about from one country to another on the ocean waves we were not subject either to British law or to any other set of laws – but, as it happens, I soon discovered that even if you live in England you do not, in fact, have to send your child to school. And if you want to keep him at home you do not have to provide a qualified tutor. Under English law it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that their child receives “efficient full-time education … at school or otherwise”, and the whys, wheres and hows of the “otherwise” are not defined.
My next preconception concerned the National Curriculum. I began my quest determined to stick strictly to the Curriculum, imagining that to deviate from this Chosen Way would cause all sorts of future problems for my infant, denying him opportunities and burning his bridges. This turned out to be utter rot. The National Curriculum is merely a set of guidelines intended to standardise teaching in state schools. It is not the bible of English education – and if it is, there remains the option of choosing a different creed. Deviating from the Curriculum will certainly not prevent your child from taking GCSEs or from attaining good results in these exams.
Bang went the first series of myths. The second set concerned the need for a course. After I’d read around, and discovered that hundreds of other mums and dads were managing to teach their kids without the aid of a formal syllabus, I realised that I could very easily do likewise. After all, did you learn anything at primary school that the average educated adult wouldn’t know, or that cannot be found in a kid’s reference book? Under-tens who are packed off to school learn about wildlife and history; they read moral tales and paint pictures; they go on visits to museums and to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In other words, they learn about the world that is all around them. Do you really need a curriculum to teach a child about the life we live and the world we inhabit? Do you really need to sit him down and give formal lessons about friction, and bio-diversity, and race relations when these things are all around us? I think not.
Being, by nature, inquisitive and eager to learn children garner information from all manner of sources. They harvest the pictures and words that they find in books; they scrutinise everything from the tiniest insect to the tallest thunder cloud, soaking up what they see. Above all, they learn about life by interrogating any adults within earshot. A set course or curriculum merely restricts the child, by seeking to keep his mind following a trail laid out by someone else. He will learn far more, far more happily if instead of a course he has access to a wide variety of stimuli, a plentiful supply of books of all kinds, and an adult companion who is able to answer his every question… or able and willing to hunt out the answers to questions which leave her stumped. Clearly, it helps if the adult is of an equally inquisitive nature and enjoys discovering the answer to questions like “How do snails make babies?”
Observation of other kids who were being home-schooled aboard other yachts merely reinforced my resolve to do without a course of set lessons. Curiously enough, for a bunch of liberal-minded drop-outs cruising yotties are surprisingly conservative when it comes to their children’s education. Nearly all of the families we have encountered whilst cruising use off-the-peg courses. Almost without exception the French follow their country’s baccalaureat syllabus – which just happens to be both compulsory and freely available… to them. English and American families tend to use an American course run by a company called Calvert.
A quick glance at the Calvert School materials was all that was needed to put me off. Take, for example, their description of the wonders awaiting nine to ten year old students: “The fourth grade Calvert experience is a unique and thrilling one as your child will use the writing process to compose original compositions.” Oh, wow! If they haven’t been writing their own stories and essays since the age when they could first shape letters, what have the junior-aged Calvert kids been doing, one wonders? Copying texts? Nothing could be better guaranteed to put a child off writing than copying down someone else’s words. The fact that the course reading materials bear names such as “Mighty Men” and “A child’s study of famous Americans” is only to be expected, but one is startled to find a “Phonics Guide” amongst the literature. If your child cannot fluently read by this age then it is likely that the natural process has been disrupted – and an emphasis on phonics is, in my opinion, the most likely cause of his difficulties.
Regardless of what one thinks of the materials on offer, feeding your kids a set course has one inevitable result: whether they are anchored off Cape Town or Cadiz they will be learning about somewhere and something else; they will be filling their heads with facts about the American civil war or the science of light refraction, and missing out on the chance to study the local scene. My kids know very little about American history – and that’s because they have never been to America. While we were in South Africa they learnt about apartheid, the Xhosa, and South African flora and fauna; while we have been based in Spain they have learnt about such things as the reconquista, the process of desertification, wind-power, and the Spanish civil war. Surely, education should consist in more than just cramming the child with facts which will get him through exams? To be worthwhile schooling must be relevant to a person’s life.
As I said at the outset, my children have seldom been given formal, sit-down lessons. It is true that they do receive maths lessons – albeit not so often as they should – and I have also been known to feed them chunks of history, biology, and geography. Every now and then I am smitten by the fear of failing to do my duty, and on these occasions the kids have to endure “projects”. “Right now”, I say, determinedly, as I snatch Coleridge from Xoë, haul Caesar off the computer, and grab Roxanne while she makes a dive for the door. “Today we’re going to do a project about Charles Darwin. Here are the books. Get going on it! I want an essay from each of you by supper time.” When they were smaller I used to do a lot of preparatory work before setting the kids such a task; I made sure that I already knew all of the answers. Nowadays I don’t bother; I let my students educate me.In the old days the children endured quite a few of these projects and produced attractive, well-illustrated, hand-bound booklets on such things as The Classification of Animal Life, The Discovery of the New World, Our Holiday in Etosha National Park, and Keeping Rabbits. Some of these projects went down fairly well but others did not, and eventually I realised that, to be effective, education should be relevant and requested. People simply don’t learn what they aren’t interested in learning, and if you try to make them write about things which bore them, they are apt to become even less enthusiastic.
Above all I learnt that sit-down lessons are the very worst way of installing knowledge into an unfertile mind. Learning is more apt to take root if it is handed out subtly, and acquired “on the go”. The children’s knowledge of Spain is a good case in point. Although I was unable to resist giving them a long lecture on the ancient history of the Mediterranean region (beginning with the Mesopotamians… and ending with the Visigoths) most of what the kids know about Spain they learnt in the course of our daily adventures. Spain is littered with castles and, inevitably, the kids wanted to know what they were for. I also wanted to know – indeed, I was very much more interested than any of the children in these romantic ruins. I could have genned up on Spanish history and kept the info to myself, but in this family knowledge is invariably pooled. If Roxanne comes across an exciting species of earwig, she brings it home and shows it to us; if Xoë finds a particularly beautiful piece of poetry she recites it at us; if Caesar learns something new about hypertext mark-up language, he tells us all about it… and so you may be certain that if I discover that a particular castle was built in such and such a year, and besieged and ransacked by so and so, I make jolly sure that everybody else is kept informed. (This urge to pass our learning to others is a strange one; it appears to be a universal instinct and probably accounts, in no small measure, for the success of our species.)
As it happens, neither Xoë nor Caesar is very interested in earwigs, and most of us feel that we could live very happily without being given large and frequent helpings of Shakespeare. Likewise, Caesar is the only one who knows what he is talking about when it comes to computing skills. When I open my mouth and say, “Do you guys realise that this castle was once the scene of an amazing battle?” the kids all groan. Yes, we all groan, each in turn, according to who is providing the sermon and on what subject – but, nevertheless, we all learn.
Sometimes the information falls on stony ground and withers away, but when the soil is appropriate wonderful things happen. While I rattle on about El Cid, Caesar will be busy studying the construction of the castle walls, or examining the installation of the flood lights. He isn’t learning much about the hero of the reconquista – but he is learning something. Meanwhile, Roxanne is chasing a beetle, and Xoë is mocking me – and lapping up every word. Xoë cannot abide being taught, and until recently she claimed to hate history, but the fact is that she adores it. In her the seeds tossed out by the Wise One have taken root and are flourishing. Not only has she pinched my Spanish History book; she is now demanding that we invest in a whole pile of others.
“This is all well and good,” says the nervous would-be home-schooler, “But what happens next? You’ve persuaded yourself that lessons are unnecessary; your kids have grown up unfettered, and you haven’t had to devote hours each day to schooling them – but now what? What happens when these un-schooled kids want to get a job or go to college?”
People have been asking us this question for many years now – for 16 years, in fact – and I have often asked it myself… very quietly, after the kids have gone to bed. Does the School of Life system stand up to scrutiny? Last Christmas we decided that it was time to put the matter to the test.Caesar was approaching his 16th birthday and Xoë had just turned 14, and so we decided that the time was ripe for them to take some GCSEs. Having researched the matter we invested in five courses for each child – or, to be more accurate, their grandparents invested, forking out somewhere in the region of £2,500 for ten GCSE courses. The kids then invested vast amounts of time, Xoë with tremendous enthusiasm and Caesar only with regular goading from Yours Truly. The fact of the matter was that we had set the children quite a challenge. Since the GCSE exams take place between mid-May and June they had less than five months in which to devour and digest material which would normally be fed to the student over a period of two years.
On May 1st we all piled into our camper van and hurried north to the land of the big grey cloud. Lavant House School had very kindly agreed to let the children join in and sit the exams with their girls – an arrangement which suited Caesar admirably. As Xoë remarked , “They never ask me what I thought of the exam, but they’re always keen to chat up the only boy in the building!” On every occasion, in answer to the girls’ enquiries, Caesar would reply that the exam was a walk-over – on every occasion, that is, except one. When asked what he thought of the Biology exam Caesar merely shuffled his feet and muttered something about it not being too bad.
With the exams completed we meandered slowly back to the boat. Then followed two months of agonised waiting – or at any rate, Xoë affected to be in agony; Caesar played things very cool. The day finally dawned when the results were available, and with baited breath we listened as Daddy read them out. Caesar was shown to have been justifiably doubtful about the Biology exam – for Biology he scored a B – but in his other four exams he achieved top marks. Meanwhile, old Worry-Guts scored As in everything – as predicted (by herself). She even scored an A-star for English Language, and she and her brother both scored A-star for Spanish; as, indeed, they jolly well ought to have done after living here for two years!
Now the talk is of A-levels, and Xoë can hardly wait to get her hands on the syllabuses for her chosen five subjects. Where will we be in a year’s time, she demands to know? We haven’t the least idea; perhaps we’ll be back in St Helena or in Buenos Aires. Wherever we happen to be, our only fear is whether there will be somewhere for the children to sit the exams, because certainly we no longer have any worries about the standard of their education. Informal, totally relaxed home-schooling works; the kids have proved it.
If you have any questions that you would like to ask us about home-schooling, please use the comments form, below, or contact us.