Is home education time consuming?

Many people assume that home education is extremely time consuming for the parents. In a way this is true, because education happens all day long: our children might ask questions as they wake up, or as we are saying goodnight. We may spend time researching in libraries, or visiting historic sites miles away to encourage our children’s interest in various topics. But then these things happen (or should do) during weekends and holidays even when children go to school.

But is general home education time consuming or not? When families decide to use some kind of curriculum, or follow books roughly equivalent to those used in schools, how long does it take to cover approximately the same material as is learned in school? Some officials (unaware of the law) have been known to suggest that five hours every day should be spent on ‘schoolwork’. Yet for children, learning at their own pace, this is an excessive amount and leaves little time for self-directed learning.

No requirements or restrictions for British home education

In the USA, some States do require certain subjects to be covered, and even a set number of days to be used in ‘education’. But in the UK there are no requirements and no restrictions.

Even when I was still thinking of ‘school at home’, before we started home educating, my sons worked out that at primary school (age 5-11) there is a maximum of three hours academic ‘work’ done in any school day. They spent six and a half hours at school each day, of which two hours were for lunchtime and recesses, including lining up, hanging up coats and so on before and after each. Half an hour was spent in Assembly each morning; also, on average, an hour per day was spent on either PE or art or music, all of which they do in afternoons with outside instructors since starting home education.

‘Learning’ time in schools

Then we realised that in the three hours remaining each school day, a ‘lesson’ tends to have 5-10 minutes where the class move to the right desks, find their pencils, put away their other books, and give out exercise books or paper. Then perhaps five minutes of discussion about the topic on hand, where the teacher reminds the pupils of what they did the previous week, and asks a few questions, perhaps brainstorming into the current lesson (but only a few children tend to participate in such sessions).

There is maybe 5-10 minutes of direct ‘teaching’, with examples, and more questions to encourage the class to think for themselves. Then five minutes explaining the ‘work’ to be done – from a book, or a worksheet, or perhaps some creative writing – and five minutes while the class draw margins, write the date, and ensure they’ve spelled the title correctly. Finally there is maybe 10-15 minutes while the class try to do the ‘work’ and the teacher moves around correcting and discussing and helping.

For a child at the right level at the right time, this can be a good learning experience, but for some it’s frustratingly slow and boring. For yet others, it’s confusing and complicated. Anyway, there’s no more than about 20 minutes real ‘learning’ in any hour… which gets the entire thing down to about an hour per day actual learning, assuming ideal conditions, a receptive child, and a good inspiring teacher.

At secondary level (11-16) it’s somewhat more, as children work better on their own and are grouped so there’s less disparity of ability within a class, but there still is rarely more than three hours per day of academics even at that level, probably less.

Maximum of three hours ‘bookwork’

When my sons were 13 and 15, our absolute maximum with text-books etc in any one day is three hours; more normal was less than two hours, including lots of discussion and veering off at tangents. We rarely worried about written work at all. They did examples from their maths text books on paper, but only those which they needed to do to ensure they had understood the current topic. Their written work (usually typed) was letters, web pages, and stories for competitions in magazines.

This was shortly before we started using a curriculum for part of their education, so that they could gain diplomas (see ‘Unschoolers using curriculum?‘) but even then, we found that two to three hours per day was more than sufficient for the coursework. We often spent another hour reading and discussing other topics together. Everything ‘structured’ was done in mornings; we continued taking breaks, or days off, as seemed appropriate.

All of life is educational

More and more, British home educators don’t think in terms of bookwork anyway, seeing the whole of life as education instead. If you try writing down what you and your children do in any one day, including all questions they ask, any time you read to them, cooking, laundry, going for walks etc, you’ll probably find many educational opportunities that are not related to text-books or school ‘subjects’, but are all the more valuable for that.

According to UK law, parents’ responsibility is to provide an education appropriate to the children’s ‘age, ability and aptitude’. This can mean almost anything you and they want it to mean. Boredom is not conducive to learning.

Education is about opening doors and encouraging children to know how to learn and research, not about performing set assignments or learning by heart. And preparation? I used to spend a little time making worksheets or reading through material in evenings, but soon found this to be unnecessary. When we got a new book, I did have a look to see what topics are covered, but found it much better to approach home education fresh each day, and decide with my sons what they’d like to do.

School teachers have to spend hours preparing work because they have to teach an entire class, at different ability levels, and keep them all interested for fixed times. This doesn’t apply with home education.