Is home education time consuming for the parents? Yes, in one sense. Education happens all day long, after all. 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 day-to-day home education time consuming or not? When families decide to use a curriculum, or follow books roughly equivalent to those used in schools, how long does it take? Is it possible to cover approximately the same material as children learn in school? Some officials (unaware of the law) have been known to suggest that children should spend five hours every day on ‘schoolwork’. Yet for children, learning at their own pace, this is an excessive amount. It leaves little time for self-directed learning.
No requirements or restrictions for British home education
In the USA, some States require parents to cover certain subjects with their children. Some even have a set number of days when children must be officially ‘learning’. But in the UK there are no requirements and no restrictions.
Before we started home educating, I was still thinking of ‘school at home’. 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. Yes, they spent six and a half hours at school each day. But two hours of that were for lunchtime and recesses. That includes lining up, hanging up coats and so on before and after each break. Then 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. While important, we knew they would happen in afternoons with outside instructors rather than as part of our structured home education.
‘Learning’ time in schools
Then we realised that even in the three hours remaining each school day, not all of it is ‘learning’ time. A lesson tends to have 5-10 minutes where the class move to the right desks, and find their pencils. They have to put away books from the previous lesson, and someone has to give out exercise books or paper. Then perhaps the class has five minutes of discussion about the topic on hand. The teacher reminds the pupils of what they did the previous week, and asks a few questions. Perhaps they brainstorm the topic or segue into the current lesson.
The teacher then usually does maybe 5-10 minutes of direct instructing. She probably gives examples, and asks more questions to encourage the class to think for themselves. Then she spends another five minutes explaining the ‘work’ which the children must do. This might be from a book, or a worksheet, or perhaps it involves some creative writing. Then for the next few minutes the class draw margins, write the date, and ensure they have spelled the title correctly. Finally there is maybe 10-15 minutes while the class try to do the ‘work’. During this time, 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 children it is frustratingly slow and boring. For yet others, it’s confusing and complicated. Even at its best, there is no more than about 20 minutes real ‘learning’ in any hour at school. So, my sons pointed out, there is no more than an hour per day actual learning. That assumes ideal conditions, a receptive child, and a good inspiring teacher.
At secondary level (11-16) the education time is somewhat longer. Older children work better on their own and are grouped so there is 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.