The unique challenges and rewards of home educating teenagers with special needs
Many of us choose to carry on teaching our children when they reach the age of compulsory education. This approach offers a way for children to have a truly individual education that fully meets their needs. Schools, in the main, do a pretty good job but all too often I hear a familiar story from distressed parents: “My child isn’t doing well; the school just can’t meet his/her needs”.
Home education is becoming more and more popular as parents and carers realise that they themselves can provide a suitable education. The law simply requires a few really basic things: education must be suitable for age, needs, aptitudes and ability, taking into account any special needs the child may have. Parents/carers have a duty to ensure that their child receives an education which meets these criteria.
If a child is registered at a mainstream school in England or Wales, the child may be de-registered by simply writing to the head and stating that the parent/carer is taking responsibility for the child’s education instead of the school. Having a statement makes no difference to this and neither does attendance at a special unit in a mainstream school. If a child is in a special school, permission to de-register must be sought from your local authority, but it may not be withheld unreasonably.
You do not need to have a curriculum, follow a timetable or fill in any forms for the local authority and you do not have to be a teacher. Education must be full time, although definitions of this can be rather loose.
Learning and qualifications
Primary-level education is usually not too worrying for most home educators. However, once children reach secondary school age, there can be a few panicky moments. Colleges and employers are expected to rely upon the GCSE in order to prove that a young person is able to perform at the right standard and teaching GCSEs can be a daunting prospect for those teaching at home.
I can honestly say, though, that home educating teenagers is not particularly difficult. I have done it and my two eldest sons are both now doing very well at college. However, my first steps into senior education were a disaster. I tried to behave as if we were in a school setting. We did not need to work on English grammar for an hour each day or practice drawing graphs, as the boys learned quickly and easily, being in a one-to-two setting. To reinforce core learning, on a daily basis we used basic skills found in English and maths. For example, the boys kept records of bird watching sessions, recorded the weather for our local radio station and created a mini nature reserve in our garden. Such activities gave them the necessary practice and stimulation to become proficient in writing, reading, maths and a multitude of other subject areas.
My sons were keen to do GCSEs, even though my eldest boy’s severe dyslexia meant that he was not likely to be able to write sufficiently well to gain standard qualifications. When I looked into it, I soon found that all GCSEs are not the same. There are different exams boards, each with its own syllabus for every subject. Each board also has a list of exam centres that take private candidates. Of course, if a student has SEN, they may need additional help to sit the exams and this has to be in place months before the exam. By this stage, I was almost ready to have a full panic attack – who was to teach my boys the subjects? Further research was urgently needed and thankfully the internet provided a wealth of information.
Finding the right approach for you
To get things moving, I contacted all of the exams boards, and through them the centres that take private candidates. Many did not take school age candidates at all and others did not have the physical space for extra candidates. Once I had identified an exams centre, I knew which syllabus we would be using, so I then had to find suitable tuition and someone to mark the coursework. It is rather more complicated now as most coursework has been replaced by controlled assessments, and few schools are willing to take on the extra duties and responsibilities this involves. In addition, there are far fewer subjects now available to private candidates.
I then went back to the schools to apply for the special dispensations, such as extra time and scribes. I was asked to provide educational psychologist’s reports, no more than a year old, and to be prepared to attend interviews at the exam board’s offices to prove the additional needs. There was so much to-ing and fro-ing that my eldest son, with the more profound special needs, decided that he couldn’t cope and gave up on GCSEs.
In the end, my younger son took seven GCSEs over three years and gained good grades in all of them. However, his SEN – a mild form of dyspraxia – are far less pronounced than those of his brother. We decided after the first year to deal with our own tuition; the coursework was verified by a neighbour and marked by the exam board. Identity had to be proved at each exam with a photo ID and birth certificate.
For my eldest son, it was important to find an alternative path to college and we decided to show that he could learn by looking into other types of qualifications. A major dramatic arts organisation offers exams in spoken English and devising performance, both of which showed that my son could speak, comprehend and write. He passed both at Grade 5 with distinction, which is equivalent to a GCSE at A to C grades. He also undertook a portfolio based art award which included lots of witness statements and again is equivalent to an A to C grade GCSE. He added a Duke of Edinburgh Award too. All these accolades showed that he was capable of working, had the skills required to cope at the level he wanted to study at and could stick to a project. In addition, he volunteered at a local club to gain work experience. He went for interviews and was offered places on the spot by two colleges.
Having a child with SEN often means that they are seen as being different. So why do we try to make them fit into a standard education? I am now working towards qualifications with my third son, who has moderate to severe learning difficulties. He has progressed well so far and has picked up some notable qualifications. By working together on projects that suit his needs, interests and abilities, I’m sure that we can ensure that he too will be able to make the most of the unique opportunities that home education can provide.
Kris Stevens has supported many children with SEN in special and mainstream schools and has been home educating for fifteen years. She is a member of The Home Education Network UK: