Photo overload!

The problem with not blogging for ages is that I end up with loads of photos to share! July has been a busy month with lots of family gatherings and outings.

We had a great morning with the home-ed group at RHS Rosemoor, doing a workshop on photosynthesis and food chains. Aaron and Tabitha already understood these concepts pretty well thanks to the Magic School Bus!

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We had a big family gathering with two of Colin’s siblings and their families and his uncle, aunt and one of his cousins. It was a miserable rainy day (like most of this month) but after a lovely meal we went for a stroll down to the beach. Colin and Aaron seem to be genetically programmed to enter any nearby water and got completely soaked. Tabitha was more cautious but got her legs wet. Good thing I was expecting it and packed spare sets of clothes!

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We met up with one of my mum’s cousins who was on holiday from Ireland. Afterwards we were browsing through the book section and Aaron found a great activity book. He read it to us on the car journey home and wanted to do some of the activities straight away, so we looked at our fingerprints and played with a non-Newtonian fluid.

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Colin was forced to take some time off work before his redundancy so that they didn’t have to pay him extra for his holidays, but it was nice to have him around more. He spent a few days working really hard at making an amazing wooden sword and scabbard for the children.

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Last week the home-ed group met at Tapeley Park for a permaculture workshop. We tasted unusual plants, made insect hotels, picked flowers to arrange into bouquets and the children ate lots of berries!

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There have been three birthdays in the extended family recently so there have been several family gatherings. Tabitha, as the most willing and responsible cousin, often gets the job of holding her baby cousin on rides. The children also had a lovely time at another cousin’s party at Atlantis Adventure Park. Afterwards we stayed on with Nanny to explore the maze and play crazy golf.

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My parents are having their house renovated so we’ve had a few days out with my mum to help her escape the chaos! One day we took a picnic lunch out to RHS Rosemoor. The children took their walkie talkies so we split up and had fun trying to find each other. Then mum sat with her knitting and I sat with my crochet while the children played. (My mum made Tabitha’s dress, isn’t it lovely?)

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We’ve also enjoyed a walk to Velator pond, planted some flower seeds at the allotment, been on a bike ride to the park and visited the beach.

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Colin is now redundant so the next few weeks are rather uncertain. He’s had a couple of job interviews already but hasn’t heard back yet, and I have an interview for a part-time job next week. We are trusting that the Lord will provide for all our needs. On the positive side, the children have really enjoyed taking it in turns to go out and spend some one-on-one time with him, and hopefully we’ll be able to fit in a few family outings too.

Aaron’s journey to reading

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As a child I was an avid reader. I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by books; we lived in a big three storey townhouse with bookshelves in almost every room and more boxes of books in the attic. By the time I left primary school, I had finished almost all of the books in the children’s section of our local library and had moved on to the adult section. My secondary school English teacher gave me an exemption from having to keep a reading log because I would often read several long books per day!

Reading was really important to me and therefore I just assumed that my children would be early readers. When I first started considering home education, I was very much focused on the academic side of things. I even dabbled with the Doman method for a while, wanting my children to be smart and advanced. Over the years my perspective has changed and I’ve come to realise that early academics are not necessary or important. I still believe that Doman was right when he said that babies and toddlers can learn to read, because the human brain is an incredible thing, but academic skills are just a tiny part of holistic child development.

Of course, learning to read at a certain age is important in the school system because otherwise children get left behind. I remember chatting to a worried parent of a just-turned-4 year old whose reception teacher said he was behind with his reading! But there is no critical age for learning to read. In other countries children don’t even start school until they are 7 and have caught up or overtaken their British counterparts in just a couple of years. Amongst unschoolers, you will often hear of children who learnt to read much later than the norm but became proficient very quickly. There’s an interesting article here about how children can teach themselves to read.

My experience with Aaron has been somewhere between the two extremes. When Aaron was three, he learned the entire alphabet (names, sounds, upper and lower case) in less than a week from a video on his Leappad. By the time he was four and a half he could read some simple CVC words, mostly thanks to playing Reading Eggs on the computer. When he was six I bought him the Biff, Chip and Kipper reading scheme. He liked the stories and gradually worked his way through the six levels over about a year (that’s the equivalent of less than one book per week). It wasn’t until he was seven that he seemed to grasp the purpose of reading and actually want to read. This realisation came about because of road signs, shop signs and a computer game called Scribblenauts, which requires reading in order to solve problems. The leaps in Aaron’s learning have always happened when he is motivated by something that is interesting and meaningful to him.

Over the years I have read him picture books and chapter books, used Montessori materials, played I spy, sounded out words together and done many more educational activities. But in terms of regular, systematic instruction in reading, we’ve really done very little. There have been times when I’ve tried a slightly more structured approach and encouraged Aaron to do some reading every day, but whenever he became resistant I let it go. I never pushed him because I figured that being put off reading would be far worse than learning to read a bit later!

I have no idea how Aaron’s reading level would compare to that of his school peers; I suspect he would be behind some but ahead of others. There are still lots of longer words that he can’t read (but also lots that he can) and he hasn’t yet started reading chapter books by himself (although he probably could), but he does now read fluently and well. A while ago he was very much into jokes, so I bought him a joke book and he spent the entire day wandering around the house, joke book in hand, reading to us. A few weeks ago he offered to read me an entire chapter from the Bible while I was washing up. When we sing one of his favourite choruses at Sunday School, he eagerly puts his hand up to read out the first few lines.

I can honestly say that I’m not in the slightest bit worried about Aaron’s reading, or about Tabitha learning to read. They will both get there eventually in their own time. I’m really looking forward to Aaron enjoying some of the wonderful books that I loved as a child, but there’s no rush. He has plenty of years of reading ahead of him and in the meantime I will carry on reading to him!

30 Days Wild

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Today is the last day of my foundation degree (yippee!) and the first day of the 30 Days Wild challenge from the Wildlife Trusts. Now that all my assignments are finished and will be handed in this afternoon, I want to spend the next few weeks taking the children out and spending time together outdoors. When I heard about the 30 Days Wild challenge I knew it would fit in perfectly. Funnily enough, I chose to write my last essay about the importance of connecting with nature! I’ll be posting weekly updates of our wild adventures and probably lots of Instagram photos, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other people are doing. If you haven’t already, you can sign up for the challenge here to download a booklet full of Random Acts of Wildness ideas and a wallchart to track your progress. Do something wild!

Happy Easter!

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Christ, the Lord, is risen today,
Hallelujah!
Sons of men and angels say:
Raise your joys and triumphs high;
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply.

Love’s redeeming work is done;
Fought the fight, the battle won.
Lo! our Sun’s eclipse is o’er;
Lo! He sets in blood no more.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal;
Christ hath burst the gates of hell;
Death in vain forbids Him rise;
Christ hath opened paradise.

Lives again our glorious King!
‘Where, O death, is now thy sting?’
Once He died our souls to save;
‘Where’s thy victory, boasting grave?’

Soar we now where Christ hath led,
Following our exalted Head;
Made like Him, like Him we rise;
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

King of glory! Soul of bliss!
Everlasting life is this,
Thee to know, Thy power to prove,
Thus to sing, and thus to love.

Charles Wesley, 1707-88

Meet Pixel the budgie!

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We picked her up yesterday and she is already doing really well with taming and training. To avoid filling this blog with lots of budgie exploits and photos, I’ve set up a dedicated budgie page at www.pyjamaschool.co.uk/budgie. I’ve added Aaron as a contributor so hopefully he may write about the budgie too!

Just an ordinary day

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Today was a good day. Not a very productive one, but a good day nevertheless.

I woke up this morning feeling very dizzy and lightheaded, so we didn’t get any of our usual housework or schoolwork done. The children played aeroplanes, hide and seek, marbles and Mario Kart on the Wii. Aaron asked me to listen to him play a new piece of music he learned at his piano lesson last week. We also practised counting in Japanese ready for his karate lesson tomorrow.

At midday we walked down to Lidl to get some lunch, hoping that fresh air and food would make me feel better (it did). We listened to a robin singing, admired some cheerful daffodils and talked about catkins being a type of flower. I told the children that Grandpa had found lots of ladybirds in the allotment shed, which led to a discussion about hibernation and whether ladybirds lay eggs.

On our way back we passed their cousins’ house and Uncle Tom popped his head out to chat. He gave the children a pound each, so we stopped at the greengrocer. Tabitha spent about ten minutes choosing between a punnet of grapes, a pack of mini eggs and a polyanthus plant. The mini eggs won in the end, although she wants to go back and get some polyanthus plants for our balcony planters.

By the afternoon it had turned out beautifully sunny. I decided that getting outside was more important than catching up on other things, so I asked the children where they would like to go. We eventually settled on a park in another town. Aaron chose to take his wooden sword and shield and Tabitha brought her doll and pushchair.

In the car, I put on our French CD for the first time in a while. We practised numbers, greetings and asking each other what foods we like. Tabitha spotted some rooks by the roadside and one was perched on a sign just above our heads when we parked, so we got a great close-up view of it squawking.

I sat on a bench in the sunshine for a couple of hours reading Siblings Without Rivalry while the children played. The park we went to has two fenced playgrounds as well as a wooden fort area in between. The second playground wasn’t really visible from where I was sitting and Aaron was initially nervous about going there without me being close by, but I encouraged him to go with Tabitha. I’ve been doing a module about outdoor play at uni and I’m conscious that they have very few opportunities for unsupervised outdoor play. Later they made friends with a little one year old and I saw them chatting away to her dad/grandad.

While we were there, we walked up into the town to visit one of my favourite shops and buy some Little Wigwam placemats that I’ve been wanting for ages. We really need something to protect our old wooden dining table and PVC tablecloths don’t seem to last for long in our house.

By the time we got home it was time to cook dinner. Aaron sat and looked through his illustrated dictionary that I had left out for him. We had a conversation about “knife” and “knight” starting with a k instead of an n. After dinner, we all had fun finding continents, countries and flags on our new placemats.

Before bedtime Tabitha bounced on the mini trampoline whilst listening to her violin accompaniment CD. She noticed that some tunes sounded sad and so we discussed major and minor key signatures.

We recently moved the children back into separate rooms, so we have a lovely new bedtime routine where I snuggle up with each of them in turn and read them a chapter from a book. Tabitha is currently listening to the Rescue Princesses series while Aaron is enjoying the Dinosaur Cove series.

Universal Credit for home educators

Back in January 2012, I wrote about the effects of the Welfare Reform Bill and Universal Credit on home educating families. I also shared the letter of response I received from the Department of Work and Pensions. At the time, very few home educators were interested in the implications of Universal Credit, probably because it seemed so far away, but the roll out has now been accelerated. Over the last few days it seems that home educators are finally paying attention and worrying about how it will affect them.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a single monthly payment which will replace Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit.

Why will this affect home educators?

There are two main reasons why Universal Credit will affect many home educators. Firstly, self-employed people will be expected to earn over a certain amount. Secondly, both parents of a couple will be expected to work once their youngest child reaches the age of 5.

Self-employed parents

Under Universal Credit, self-employed people will be expected to earn the equivalent of minimum wage for the required number of hours. If they earn less, this minimum income floor will be used to calculate their payments rather than their actual earnings, potentially leaving families worse off by hundreds of pounds each month.

Self-employed people will have to supply monthly accounts or have their payments suspended. New businesses will get a 12 month start up period during which the minimum income floor will not apply, and individuals are limited to one start up period in every five years. Those who are already self-employed when transferred onto Universal Credit will get a 6 month period during which the minimum income floor will not apply.

This change will particularly affect single home educating parents. Currently, many single parents choose to be self-employed and work 16 hours per week in order to claim Working Tax Credit to top up their earnings, regardless of how much they actually earn. This will no longer be possible, meaning that many single parent home educators will need to seek employment or give up home educating if they are unable to make their business profitable enough.

From April 2015, self-employed people will have to prove that their self-employment is genuine and effective if they earn less than the equivalent of national minimum wage for 24 hours per week. Failing to do so could presumably result in the loss or reduction of Working Tax Credits, although there is very little information available yet about how this will be implemented. This change is separate to Universal Credit.

Couples with a stay-at-home parent

Under Universal Credit, couples with children will have to nominate a “lead carer”. The non-lead carer will be expected to work full-time, whilst the lead carer will be expected to look for part-time work once the youngest child is 5 years old and full-time work once the youngest child is 13. Before that, when the youngest child is aged 1-4, there will be various work-related requirements which the lead carer must comply with. People who do not meet the requirements set out in their claimant commitment will have their benefits sanctioned.

Update: it was announced in George Osborne’s summer budget speech 2015 that “we now expect parents with a youngest child aged 3, including lone parents, to look for work if they want to claim Universal Credit.” It is expected that this change will take effect from April 2017.

At the moment, couples with one parent in work are able to claim top-up benefits according to their household income. This means that families can currently choose to have the other parent stay at home and make do on a low income. Under Universal Credit this choice will no longer be available for low-income home educating families. The lead carer will have to work or seek work, dramatically reducing the number of hours they have available each week for home educating their children. Those who are seeking work must make preparing for and getting a job their full time focus. Even once in work, there will be continuous pressure to increase their earnings as much as possible.

Although the guidance states that normal school hours and childcare availability will be taken into account, it is unlikely that this will be much help for home educators. In fact, it could be argued that home educators will have less choice about the jobs they apply for because home education does not need to take place between certain hours. The letter I received from the Department of Work and Pensions made it very clear that home educating parents claiming Universal Credit will be expected to find work regardless.

Will Universal Credit really go ahead?

Yes, it is really happening. It’s true that Universal Credit has been delayed and there have been many problems rolling it out. However, it is estimated that 1 in 3 Jobcentres will be using Universal Credit for new claims by early 2015. Most existing claims will be switched over to Universal Credit during 2016-2017. Some parties have stated that they would review Universal Credit if elected in the upcoming general election, but it is unlikely to be scrapped completely due to the huge costs involved.

Why does it matter?

Home education should be an option for all families, not just those with high incomes or two parents. Couples should be able to choose between living on a single or joint income, based on what is right for their family. It should not be up to a stranger to decide how many hours per week a parent is capable of working. Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage would be a far better solution than devaluing the role of stay-at-home parents and putting pressure on them to work longer hours and earn more.

Some people argue that the taxpayer should not have to pay for parents to stay at home. However, economists have demonstrated that investing in the care and education of children actually offers better economic and social returns than traditional forms of investment. Home educators already save the taxpayer money by not sending their children to school, and single earner families pay significantly more tax than dual earner families on the same household income. Additionally, if both parents have to work then the taxpayer will have to pay for up to 70% of any childcare costs, which for parents with two or more children could actually exceed their hourly wage.

Some families will be able to meet the Universal Credit work requirements and continue home educating their children, but many more will not. Those families will have to choose between sending their children to school or living in poverty. Don’t assume that just because you don’t claim benefits now that it won’t affect your family, unexpected unemployment can happen to anybody.

There have been a lot of social media discussions recently about which parties support home education. I’m not going to talk politics (not in this post anyway!), but I just want to point out that despite claiming to support freedom for home educators, the Conservatives are effectively attacking home education through the backdoor by making it as difficult as possible.

Where can I find more information?

Official Universal Credit Information Site

Gov.uk – Universal Credit and Your Family

Gov.uk – Universal Credit and Your Claimant Commitment

Citizens Advice Bureau – Universal Credit

Turn2us – Universal Credit

Ed Yourself – Benefits, Welfare Reform, Universal Credit

Ed Yourself – Universal Credit Sanctions

A trip to London

Colin’s cousins turned 18 and 16 at the end of January, so we went up to London for the weekend for their birthday party. Aaron and Tabitha each took a small rucksack filled with things to keep them amused on the train. I downloaded a Paddington audio book onto their Leappads, along with a new game, which kept them busy for a lot of the five hour journey. We also played Dinosaur Top Trumps, spotted things from I Spy books and had a picnic lunch.

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Colin’s uncle Cliff met us at Waterloo station and took us for a tour around London in his black cab. The children were excited to see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, the Shard, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge amongst other famous landmarks.

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On Saturday morning we woke up to snow, the first (and so far only) flakes we’ve seen this winter! We wrapped up warm and took the underground to the Science Museum.

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It was very busy, so we didn’t look around everything. The children especially enjoyed the space and flight galleries, whilst Colin was excited to see one of the huge steam engines in action.

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We did spend a long time in the Launchpad, which has lots of hands-on interactive exhibits.

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After leaving the museum, we walked around Kensington and Chelsea for a while and found a nice little pizza place. We ended up doing a lot of walking that day as we had to walk another couple of miles back to the Travelodge thanks to line closures!

In the evening we had a lovely time at Elliot and Haydn’s birthday party. The boys are brilliant with the children and Aaron and Tabitha adore them. They also made friends with another little boy there and had a go at playing darts!

We had to set off early the next morning, as our journey was complicated by several line closures and it took us a couple of hours just to get to Waterloo Station. It did mean that we got to walk past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament though, which the children loved!

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Tabitha spent hours on the train diligently filling in her English and maths workbooks.

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Poor Aaron had a fever and slept for the entire journey. We had an hour to wait in between trains at Exeter, so we bought some Calpol from the nearest pharmacy and then went to a cafe for some food, where he fell asleep on the table! Fortunately his fever began to come down and he even managed to eat something.

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It was only a flying visit, but Aaron and Tabitha loved their first trip to London.