Rather than rushing out to buy text-books or worrying about following a curriculum when beginning home educating, many families find that it's best to begin with a period of 'de-schooling'. If your child has had problems in school such as bullying, or exam stress, it's particularly important to take time to relax together as a family, to read, to discuss issues, to talk about goals and ambitions, and to think about what education means to you.
Gradually easing into home education - de-schooling
It has been informally established that, the longer a child has been in school, the more time he or she needs to unwind and 'de-school' before beginning any formal study. A month per year of formal schooling is sometimes given - so a child of ten who has been in school for five years may need up to five months of relaxing at home without any guided study. Of course this varies from child to child, but it's vital not to rush straight into a programme of education, particularly if your child has left school after a lot of stress. Building family relationships and self-esteem is far more important.
You will also find that parents need to 'de-school' - to get past the idea that learning only happens in a classroom, in 40-minute periods, or with workbooks and pens. Education doesn't have to start at nine o'clock in the morning, nor does it have to continue until the middle of the afternoon.
In one sense everything your children do is educational, from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep. In another sense, formal learning happens in different ways, depending on the child and the circumstances. Look out for 'teaching moments' - when your child is interested in a topic, and asking questions, and help him to develop the skills to research his own answers. Encourage him to explore in any direction he likes, and remember that learning can take place fully without any need to write the experience down.
What are the educational 'basics' in the 21st century?
Reading still ranks as an important skill, but rather than handwriting I would suggest that computer literacy, research skills and creativity are more important for the modern child. Complex arithmetic is no longer as essential as it was 100 years ago, with inexpensive calculators widely available.
Far more important is to give your children an understanding of mathematical concepts which will enable them to use their calculators intelligently. Ability to reason is more important than arithmetic 'facts'. I would suggest that the modern '3 Rs' could be defined as 'reading, research and reasoning'.
Learning through reading
If your children read widely they'll learn a huge amount anyway. Encourage them to read non-fiction as well as fiction. There are excellent books around like the Horrible History and Horrible Science series that really appeal to young children; my boys still re-read them every so often, even as teenagers! They didn't remember everything the day afterwards but it's amazing how many things they do still recall from books like that at other occasions.
There are also plenty of fiction books based in particular historic settings which (in my experience) give a better understanding of history than some text-books. Even if your children don't like reading, you can still read to them. This is a wonderful way of drawing families closer and introducing your own childhood favourites - even some teenagers still enjoy family reading time!
Don't try to make the reading time 'educational', but choose a variety of classics, historical novels and contemporary fiction as it appeals to you all. My article 'Raising Bookworms' goes into this topic further.
Computer skills come naturally in home education
Computer skills are likely to be learned intuitively if your children have access to a computer. There is no need for special child-oriented software unless you and your children particularly like it. Even very young children can use regular word processors to type letters and stories, and will quickly develop keyboard familiarity if you encourage them. Children who struggle with the manual dexterity of writing with a pencil can become quickly confident in typing. Perhaps your child could type a weekly letter to a grandparent or friend, or write articles or stories to enter in competitions in magazines.
For older children, I would recommend computer games, particularly the civilization-building type? It's amazing how much history, geography and politics can be learned effortlessly from 'Caesar II', 'Sim City', 'Civilization II' and the like. There are, of course, many specifically educational games for maths and other skills, and some excellent reference CD-Roms, particularly those published by Dorling-Kindersley. But begin with games that the family can enjoy together, and don't worry at first about educational value.
If you want more overtly educational resources for your children to use on the computer, I have a selection of links to useful web sites on the pages art and craft resources, English resources, history resources, geography resources, maths resources, religious education resources and science resources.
Do your children like lego, meccano or k'nex? Those are all excellent maths/technology tools. How about building a scale model of your house (involves measuring, accurate drawing, scaling down etc)? Cooking/baking? A useful thing to learn anyway, and when you double or halve recipes it involves multiplication or division in practical ways.
Home education doesn't have to be anything remotely like classroom teaching because it doesn't have to deal with the inherent problems of 30 children with one adult all trying to learn the same thing at the same time.
If you wake up some mornings and wonder what to do, feeling as if you should be doing something 'formal' - try widening your scope a bit, rather than thinking directly in terms of academic subjects. For instance my children have enjoyed: web-page design; writing stories/novels without my interference/help except when they ask for it; stamp collecting; programming; graphic design; art of various sorts; music - self-taught and from outside teachers. If you want to think in terms of school subjects, there are a few starting ideas on the pages about informal study of maths, English, history, geography and science.
Following interests in home education
A lot depends on your own interests, what is available locally, and how many children you have. But the first few months of home education can be a wonderful opportunity for getting to know your neighbourhood, spending lots of time at the library and any museums or other local places of interest. Perhaps your children would like to get involved in helping at a local nursery, or old folks' home. Perhaps they'd like to join a group such as a Scouting organisation or similar. If they like some sort of structure, try to plan one specific activity for each day to give a focus, or begin each morning with reading aloud, or playing a family board game.
If this isn't sufficient, you could try brainstorming together with your children to come up with a rough timetable that covers the mornings. If they want to continue academic studies immediately after leaving school, try choosing some interesting work books or text books from a local bookshop rather than buying a full curriculum immediately. Then make sure that your timetable is flexible, something to fall back on when nothing else happens rather than a rigid unchangeable plan for the day.
An excellent, and fairly lengthy article that outlines principles of informal learning - and admits that we don't always understand why they work so well - is 'Informal learning, home education and homeschooling' by Alan Thomas.