I didn’t go to school until I was 11. I was taught by my parents, mainly my mother, who took us on annual pilgrimages to the James Thin bookshop in Edinburgh to stock up on textbooks for me and my younger sister. I remember the satisfying smell of the new textbooks, but not actually using them – although I know I did. Mostly what I recall from my childhood is all the ‘other’ learning that took place roundabout that ‘formal’ learning. My uncle, teaching me chess. Coming home filthy after days spent outdoors; on the beach that was my front garden, or the cliffs behind us, littered with WW2 pill-boxes, a remnant of the war that I didn’t study in detail until I got to University many years later. I learned about coastal erosion and marine life and agates and the building of Kon Tiki, a favourite audiobook in our home since dad designed and built our own family catamaran, which we inhabited for a short time and ultimately sold.
When I did start school, I was the new girl in every sense. Not just new to the school, but new to school. I completed about half of Primary 7 in a Scottish school, before a move to Wales saw me conclude the final few weeks of the P7 Welsh equivalent Year 6 – except I then had to restart Year 6 after the summer holidays because my SATs revealed while I was miles ahead in English and maths, my knowledge of science was woefully inadequate.
What had been the biggest benefit of home education was also its downfall – I was able to follow and immerse myself in what interested me, and completely bypass any scientific topic, which was of zero interest to my childhood self (or my parents apparently).
High school wasn’t for me, and after first year I returned to home education, before deciding to give college a shot. At the age of 15 I headed off to do GCSEs in 6 subjects. Three years later I had attended three different colleges, and collected a random assortment of qualifications from GCSEs to Highers and then AS Levels. I had a notion that getting to University would be a Good Thing and proceeded to fill in the necessary UCAS paperwork.
I still remember the careers adviser at Manchester College telling me chirpily, ‘you can go to Bolton Polytechnic with 3 ‘D’s.’ I looked at her blankly; I had As, Bs and Cs, and wanted to study Psychology - why would she try and convince me to apply to an institution which offered technology courses to D-students?
I graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a respectable 2:1 in 2007, and am now back there studying an online MSc. My path has been less than straightforward, and I’ve had a range of good and bad experiences with educators and employers. My best teachers have been writers, broadcasters, family, friends, bosses, and yes, ok – the odd professor here and there!
My top three lessons from this less than conventional journey?
1. We are all educators
Mark Twain advised ‘don’t let schooling interfere with your education.’ While I think school does have a leading part to play, children soak up knowledge and insight about the world from many different sources. Every behaviour that we role model, every choice we make in life is teaching our children and those around us something about human behaviour and cause and effect – and isn’t that the most valuable type of learning there is? How to get on in life? Once you leave school you realise just how big the world is, and the things that once seemed to matter so much have now faded away. Peer groups softly disintegrate, self-expression flourishes, and suddenly all life’s decisions are laid out in front of you in a seemingly unending conveyor belt of choice. Hopefully at this point, you feel unconstrained and empowered by the doors that are open to you, and you realise that -
2. There is no wrong path
Whatever you do with your life and your education, you will have learned something (and sometimes that’s what not to do, or what doesn’t work for you). There’s value in that experience. I’m now a board member of DYW (Developing the Young Workforce) Moray, and this great organisation does a lot to educate young people about the different career choices available to them, what roles exist in key industries and how they can develop skills now that will help them in the world of work. Around exam results time, DYW runs a campaign to emphasise the ‘no wrong path’ message, and I always follow it closely on social media and observe an outpouring of relief/dismay/nervous excitement. An exam is one measure of success in a given subject at a given point in time, but no-one’s handing out medals for ‘made it through high school despite feeling like an outsider all the time’ or ‘managed to sit five exams despite suffering from a crippling anxiety disorder!’ (if you do know teachers who have these medals to hand – hats off to them!). I want all young people to know that ten years from now, employers won’t care that you failed Physics (I still can’t tell you the difference between AC and DC but tourism bosses don’t seem to care about that). I don’t even list my GCSEs on my CV any more. It’s a cliché, but it’s all about the journey - not the destination, so choose something you enjoy doing and soak up every bit of learning on offer from every source (acknowledging that some careers advisers can be a little off in their guidance). Just bear in mind on this journey that -
3. The cleverest people are often the worst communicators
The first thing I learned on media training is that you need to be able to explain your message – tell your story – in a way that someone who knows nothing about your industry/cause/area will understand. Yet over and over we hear ‘experts’ who roll out every piece of jargon and academic trope that enters their heads. Even in ordinary conversation, these people fail to make themselves understood and get what they want – because they can’t resist the urge to sound clever, or they can’t stop themselves communicating in a style that makes sense for their peer group, but is utterly useless in everyday life. So next time you hear someone using 100 complicated words when 10 simple ones would do, remember that good communication skills are a far more valuable currency when it comes to the game of life.
I send my kids to school because I recognise that it’s a great source of knowledge, skills and community involvement, and it provides them with opportunities that home education can’t (like friends under the age of 20). But I still live near those pill-boxes, and now that I’ve got a history degree, I’ll be
boring them senseless educating them about our great maritime heritage – with a bit of coastal erosion thrown in. And where to find the best agates, obviously.