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Friday, 11 October, 2002, 23:41 GMT 00:41 UK
'Poo picking' beats school
Helen, Heather and Andrew McCombie
Homework has a new meaning in the McCombie home

As home education seems to be back in vogue, BBC News Online talks to one family who believe schooling at home works best.

Not many teenagers start the school week picking up horse dung from fields, but for Rachel and Cathy McCombie, this is routine.

Every Monday morning the pair go down to the local stables to help muck out, fill the hay nets and the water troughs, groom the horses and do a spot of "poo picking", as they call it, to keep the horses' fields clean.

I began to resent handing them over for such a huge chunk of their lives to people I didn't really respect

Heather McCombie, mother

"Working at the stables on a Monday is one of the best things about being able to organise our own time - and we get free riding lessons in return," said Rachel.

The girls are not facing double maths or a biology test on a Monday morning because Rachel, 16 and Cathy, 14, left school aged eight and six respectively and have been educated at home ever since.

Contrary to a popular belief not discouraged by the authorities, children do not have to go to school.

Under the Education Act 1996 their parents have to ensure they get "an efficient full-time education" suitable to their age, ability, aptitude and any special needs.

Cathy came out of mainstream school when she was nearly seven

Rachel said she really enjoyed school at first.

"It was a very small school - about 30 children in all, not just in one class - and I was friends with everyone there."

But a change of management at the school brought changes the McCombie family were not happy with.

"I remember once someone pushed me over and I cut my hand and I got loads of dirt and stones in it and they wouldn't put any cream on it," Cathy recalled.

The girls' mother Heather had long been questioning the school system and decided home education could provide the family with a solution.

"I had been asking myself how the children were benefiting and I just think school is an unnecessary experience - often detrimental, certainly these days," she said.

Heather and dog Dylan
Heather McCombie had lost confidence in the school system
"I began to resent handing them over for such a huge chunk of their lives to people I didn't really respect."

She recalls how Rachel and Cathy had been at school at the time when every girl "had" to have a pair of ankle boots.

"All this competition about who's wearing what and who's got what - childhood shouldn't be like that."

Test mania

Heather is also alarmed at the way youngsters are being subjected to national tests at a young age.

"It's horrific how even children who are probably too young for school are being tested and judged - they must feel like they're being classified.

"All children have got ability, it's just a case of when they're ready to learn, but the school system can't really accommodate that level of flexibility."

Helen has never been to school
She is also concerned to see how teenagers at competitive schools spend many hours a day swotting and cramming for exams.

Heather and her husband Paul were so pleased with the way home education was working out for Rachel and Cathy that their younger two children, Helen, 11, and Andrew, 9, have never been sent to school.

A full-time mother, Heather can devote much of her time to helping Helen and Andrew with their basic skills - maths, reading, writing and spelling - and "anything else that's of interest to them".

Helen is also moving on to other subjects, such as Latin, geography and geology.

Time management

Rachel and Cathy though are left to organise their own time and learning, with their mother acting as "manager" - providing them with the materials they need, finding centres where they can sit exams, ordering past papers and so on.

The girls work through their GCSE syllabuses with tutors from the National Extension College - a distance learning provider - sending off their assignments for marking.

Rachel has got five top grade GCSEs so far and Cathy sat two this summer and plans to take another three next year.

"I get up about eight o'clock, drift downstairs, get my breakfast and read the Times," said Rachel.

"Then I get on with some work. At about 10am we have something to eat and work until lunch which is at 12.30pm and then walk the dog for 20 minutes or so.

"Usually I do my music practice in the afternoon and some work. If I've got it done, it's really cool because I can watch the Simpsons in the evening."

Social interaction

One of the concerns many parents raise about home education is that children could become isolated, without the chances for social interaction a school provides.

Educational psychologists advise parents to do all they can to make sure their children have adequate opportunities for socialising with all sorts of children of all different ages.

Rachel plays the flute in a local band and orchestra
For Heather, home education is no barrier to developing good social skills.

She said that following interviews for jobs at the local Boots store, the manager offered the positions to Rachel and another girl who had also been home educated.

"She said that the home-educated candidates had stood out way above all the other applicants - in particular they had been far more outgoing and confident."

Heather believes home education gives children confidence and security, as well as an ability to think for themselves.

"A normal week for us involves a lot of mixing - they go to the stables, to music lessons, go shopping, get talking to the neighbours, go to concerts.

"You couldn't ever call us isolated or without any social life."

And the three girls all correspond with other children who are home-educated.

For many parents it would be impractical to teach their children at home, particularly when both parents work.

Andrew with a giant African land snail
Andrew has a particular interest in wildlife
But Heather believes parents do not realise how easy it can be, even for those without a particularly high level of education.

"A lot of people think it's more difficult than it is. It's something anyone could do, I should think.

"But then some people just don't want to spend that much time with their children."

It is not known how many children are educated at home - neither the Home Education Advisory Service nor the Department for Education have figures, but Heather believes there are about 140,000 children nationwide taught at home.

See also:

07 Feb 02 | Scotland
06 Feb 02 | Education
11 Jul 00 | Scotland
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