Homeschooling a girl: The Beginning

So it’s finally happened. I’m now officially a homeschooling dad.

Dr Seuss quoteAfter the emotional turmoil of the last few months with my children’s school closing down amid great controversy and, quite honestly, disgusting lack of care and communication for those the school promised to protect, St Bees School finally closed its doors for good at the beginning of July.

My children then both tried a week at a local state school. My daughter (Thing I for new readers), predictably, hated it. My son (Thing II), equally predictably, loved it. The result, after family consultation of the four of us, is that his nibs will go to school come September and her ladyship will homeschool.

I’m not a believer in holidays and so, after a couple of weeks allowing the pair of them some rest, we’ve cracked on with homsechool for Thing I with my son to audit the time partly so he can see what it’s like if he ever changes his mind but mostly because his ADHD means he has to have a timetable during the holidays or we he goes mad!

That said, he’s been off on a camp in Keswick this last week so it gave Thing I and I a real opportunity to see what this is all going to be like for us once September comes and we’re staring at each other 24/7.

I’m encouraging her to write about her own perspective on homeschooling on her own blog Just a third culture kid) so you will probably see some very different views there but so far I’d say this homeschooling lark is going pretty good!

My own ADHD means I try to pack way too much into the day and so have to timetable myself (as I have done since I was 14). That works well but only as long as I actually remember to stick to it. Having my daughter here has helped me to do that because it is her education and happiness at stake – which is all the motivation I need.

I’m sure things will evolve but so far our timetable each day looks something like this:

8-10 am:  I do two solid hours of writing, getting Thing I out of bed at 9 during my tea break. We do 10 minutes of flash housework just before 10 am.

10-11 am: We walk Asha, our puppy and talk about our mutual plans for the day.

11-12 noon: Thing I has her first study period while I iron and then do some music practice.

12-1 pm: We spend 30 minutes reading our own books in the study while listening to classical music and finish with discussing what with we’ve read. Thing I is reading Wuthering Heights and I’m reading The Trial. Then we spend 30 minutes exercising on the exercise bike and weights bench.

1-2 pm: We have lunch, do the dishes and then have a study period together where Thing I tells me about her studies and we discuss any problems and set goals for the next day.

2-3 pm: I give Thing I her music lesson for 30 minutes then she begins an hour of writing while I do emails and paperwork.

3-4 pm: While Thing I continues writing I take Asha for her second, shorter walk. Then we come together again for 30 minutes more study – usually languages, memory technique training and shorthand training (yes, I can write shorthand!).

4-5 pm: I go back to my writing work and research while Thing I studies languages and does her music practice.

5-7 pm: Wifey returns home and I teach Thing II his music lesson and do some magic tricks work with him (he’s just got into card magic which I love!). Thing I does two hours of study as needed plus her own interests – reading, dancing, crochet etc.

The rest of the evening is family time. We eat together, watch specific TV programmes together (just finished Lost and now halfway through all the 24 episodes). Sometimes we play pool together upstairs.

Once a week Thing I and I go to the pub with our books and do our reading there while having lunch which is really cool. I dread to think what we look like to the other customers!

Beer and book with daughter

The beer is mine. Just so we’re all clear on that point…

This week we made the final decisions about what GCSEs Thing I is going to begin with. We’ve ordered Psychology, Sociology and Business Studies. The materials should arrive on Monday and then we can begin this studying routine for real and see if we’re giving the right amount of time to complete it in half a year or if we need to adjust the timetable. I’m not sure which of us is more excited about getting the books! What a couple of nerds we are :)

So far, so good. We’ll see if it continues so well.

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Race for Life and Memories of Cancer

This Sunday, Wifey and Thing I are taking part in the Race for Life 5K run in Carlisle. I’m trying to make sure all my writing commitments are sown up for the week so the weekend will be completely free to support them. So I’m putting the finishing touches to one last story in my collection of short stories which I’m still trying to get finished and published (the woes of a busy freelance writer!) and it is an interesting coincidence that this story is based on a real event in my life when I found out my mother had cancer.

It was many years ago, when I was in my first job as a teacher for a school in Cambridge. That first teaching job was the most stressful I’ve ever known, so when I received the call from my mother telling me she had cancer I had little emotional reserves to cope with it. My short story is based on the effect that news had not just on my teaching at the time but how it affected the whole of my teaching career after that.

My mother recovered from the operation and, to my knowledge, the cancer never recurred. Certainly it is many, many years since it happened (can’t be too far off 20 years I think?) and she is still living a happy and fulfilled life now.

The second time cancer entered by life was just before we moved to Bangladesh in 2008. This time it was my father – who had never had a day in hospital in his life (or mine at least) – and it was terminal. Sometimes being healthy is a curse. My father, so used to being so well bar the odd bad cold or two, hadn’t noticed anything was wrong and basically the cancer had grown and spread in him for many years until it was too late to do anything about it.

My father and I

My father and I

In retrospect I should have guessed something was up. We were living up in the north of England by then and my parents have always lived in the Midlands since I was young, so we only saw them a couple of times a year at most. This one time we came and I was shocked that somehow my dad had become old. For the first time in my life I had seen him not as I always thought of him – a tall, middle-aged man with broad shoulders and imposing bulk – but as a frail old man, thin and ravaged by time. I mused at the time that old age comes to us all but I should have realised that the contrast was so stark that it couldn’t just be age. In fact it wasn’t: it was cancer.

My father battled it and almost lost the fight after the operation when something wasn’t right during the recovery. Eventually the medical experts were convinced something was amiss and went in again, if I remember correctly. After many days in intensive care my father pulled through and I got my dad back. But it was touch and go for a while.

I’m grateful for those days following. My father was always a jovial chap and loving and caring as any father could be, but he was also of the post-Victorian generation where bad feelings were not aired and the British upper lip had to remain stiff. After the cancer we both had the chance to tell each other how much we loved each other and how proud we were of one another. I am blessed that when my father did die I knew that I had said everything I ever wanted  him to know. There were no regrets.

Just as my mother’s call to tell me she had cancer had come at a stressful time in my life, so her call to tell me my father was dead was lousy timing too. We were in Bangladesh by then and suddenly my vision had gone to pot. I couldn’t see correctly and huge black spots were floating around my line of sight. The fear was that I had a detached retina and I was packed off into a private car and taken to Dhaka – a good 12 hour journey – to see an eye doctor as quickly as possible. He saw me and after an agonising half-hour of examining my eyes told me that my retinas were fine and that this was simply age catching up with me. Relieved, but now with eyes in great pain after the examination, we travelled all the way back up to LAMB in the Northwest. I lay down in the back of the car all the way, unable to see for the pain and feeling nauseous.

It was the next morning when I received the call from my mother. My dad had gone from feeling perfectly well, to feeling off, to telling my mum to call for an ambulance within a very short space of time. By the time the ambulance came he had already gone from us.

We packed up and left for Dhaka a second time as quickly as we could and were back in the UK after a few days travelling in good time for the funeral. I wrote a piano piece and performed it for the service and talked briefly about the thing I most cherished about my father – his sense of humour. I will never forget him and miss him every day.

So the fact that my Wifey and daughter, Thing I, are running Cancer Research’s Race for Life this weekend is very important to me. Although I have spoken about my parent’s battle with cancer, my wife’s family have also had their battles but that’s a story for her to tell and not me. We’ve all felt the effects this last great scourge of mankind can wreak on people. One  day it will be cured; until then, research continues to need funding and these races are great ways to raise awareness and funds.


If you’re a regular follower of this blog you’ll remember that Thing I is a dancer. That dancing life has had to come to an end because she has suffered from a problem with her knee for years and it has hindered physical activity; sometimes she’s had to be on crutches.

So it is particularly brave of my young daughter to attempt 5K in one go. The pair of them have been training – when weather had permitted – to build up to the run over the last month or so. The moment of truth is almost here – we’ll see how my girls do!

If you would like to donate to the cause please do sponsor them both. They have a site where you can donate money and if you are a UK tax payer they can use gift aid to increase the value of your giving. Please consider donating a few pounds and pennies (dollars etc. too) to this worthy cause. Click on any of the links above or here to donate.

Thank you :)


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The Black Dog of Doom and other melodramas


I have a confession to make.

I’m struggling with depression.

It isn’t easy to admit it and I’m not proud of the struggle but it is important to admit it, today of all days, because today is the year anniversary of my struggle.





This was not a depression brought on by age, by chemical imbalances in the brain misfiring through natural causes. This was a depression that was done to me. It started suddenly on one day and hasn’t ended since.

The shame comes from the fact that I am a happy-go-lucky kind of guy – I see the glass half-full not half-empty for most of the time. I don’t do depressed and I really don’t know how to handle it; it is a new experience for me and I feel very much the amateur. I’m learning fast but depression seems to be a changeable beast and no sooner do I think I’ve got some aspect of it sorted than it changes shape and takes me by surprise all over again.

I say this was done to me and that’s true. A trauma, 2nd July 2014, happened to me and to my family. I’m not ready to talk about it (not yet anyway) though one day there will be a book, I promise. That book will reveal all and will point blame where it should be pointed, but it is far off and for now this will remain a private grief. But it happened and it was devastating.

The result of this trauma, however, is that I feel my mind and my character has been violated. My very being has been raped. My virginal naivety has been taken from me, forcibly and irrevocably. And those very thoughts and feelings which come to abuse victims have come to me afresh. I feel waves of guilt, of unworthiness, of being unlovable, of simply not being good enough. They’re not constant and I know they’re not true (mostly anyway) but sometimes they come anyway no matter how much I say “out damned spot!”

There is no reasoning depression away and it can attack without warning (Source:

Most of this I can cope with. Once I realised the effect the antidepressants were taking things improved. The tablets cause drowsiness so I always take them at night but that meant they were losing their effect by mid-afternoon and by evening I would feel low and awful waves of paranoia again. Once I understood this and appreciated the effect I was able to start feeling in control and regulating what I did and what I said. But that was before the black dog really hit.

It came all of a sudden a few weeks ago. The ‘black dog’ was  like a thick blackness which simply enveloped around me and no matter how much I analysed and appreciated that it wasn’t real I couldn’t shift the awful despair which almost physically blinded me. The blackness stayed with me for days – something unheard of in my life prior to this – and it was nearly a week before I felt happy again.

Since then the dog has come to me several times. Most of them I’ve kept it from doing anything worse than nipping at my heels. Medication has been changed twice to some effect at least. Keeping busy has been the most useful tactic however.

What I struggle with the most though is the utter powerlessness I feel when it comes. This isn’t me; this isn’t who I am; I know myself and I know myself well. My self-esteem doesn’t come from inside me and doesn’t rely on me(something my therapist has been quite impressed with as a coping mechanism) – and that has kept me from any thoughts of suicide. For me, it doesn’t matter if I really am as crap as I tell myself I am when the fog descends because my self-worth doesn’t come from telling myself I’m any good in the first place. Where it comes from doesn’t matter for this post but it keeps me going through everything.

But this depression has tested it to the extreme. I don’t like the lack of control when it comes. It is a foreigner to me.

There is, however, always a silver lining! When you’re at rock bottom, for a start, the only way is up! Another thing is discovering that the majority of friends and family who I’ve told have been wonderfully supportive and have encouraged and uplifted me. Even when that ‘black dog of doom’ is telling me to give up and die I know that I am loved and cherished and I’m grateful for that knowledge. It isn’t something I take for granted. Humour is another saving grace. Even over-hyping ‘the dog’ helps minimise it – I picture it more like a Disney cartoon dog than a mental Hound of the Baskervilles.

For most of the time, between me and the medicines and the coping strategies and the support network I have, I keep the dog under lock and key – or at least on the leash. And each day the melodrama going on in my head gets a little less, a little tamer, a little more predictable. One day it might just be a puppy.

Love me, love my depression (Source:


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Finding Hope

It’s funny how sometimes it’s the small things in life which make all the difference.

A kind word here, a smile there, an appreciative comment, a meal made for you when you arrive or a bath run, an offer of help, a text message saying ‘thinking of you’. We can be facing terrible trials of hardship, battling against odds which seem insurmountable, coping with grief or terrible illness or maybe just feeling down or ‘under the weather’ – things for which there may be no simple answer – and yet these odd acts of kindness can give us hope again.

I’ve been blessed by two such acts this week; both artistic in their own way and both coming at a time when I’m battle-weary, despairing a little of mankind, struggling with illness and overcoming an injury. Both raised my spirits considerably.

The first is a genuinely beautiful piece of art from a good friend (she’s a very private person so I won’t name her) which now hangs up on my wall in front of my desk. It says ‘insha’Allah’ in Arabic which means, roughly ‘as God wills’. For many reasons I’m not yet ready to talk about, this phrase has come to mean a great deal to me over the last 18-24 months.  I’ve waited quite some time for my dear friend to send it but it was worth the wait. The painting is in front of me where I work so that I never forget it and never forget to keep hope in my heart even when things get pretty bleak.

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The second piece of art is a complete contrast to the first. This one came from a friend who used to be a student of mine. When I last saw Bryony  seven years ago she was just a young girl. She’s grown up a lot since then!

What was nice to see though was that her quirky, fun and slightly zany way of thinking about life doesn’t seem to have changed a bit from when she was a child. On her Facebook page Bryony wrote the following a few days ago:

Hello everybody!

I’ve had an idea…
From below you can probably gather that I cannot draw to save my life, BUT I’ve realised over the past however long, some people find them quite hilarious.
So here’s the plan…

1. Drop me an inbox of something you’d like me to ‘draw’, this can be a self portrait (if you promise not to be offended) or your favourite animal or anything.

2. I’ll spill all my artistic creativity onto a blank page ;) and when I give it to you all I ask is for £1… Or less or more, whatever change you have at the time.

3. Any pennies that I may collect over (insert a certain period of time here) I will pass on to Great Ormond Street Hospital :)

(All drawings will be original and signed/dated by lil ol’ me :) )

This really appealed to me; it’s exactly the kind of thing which gives me real hope for humanity – something which is fast dwindling for me. What I love is that Bryony isn’t attempting to present herself as the next Van Gogh or even a dab hand with a pencil. She has just decided to do something crazy, something fun, for a good cause.

And her friends have come to her in droves and with all sorts of requests. One friend asked for this:

‘I want you to draw “six elephants standing on top of exactly 785 isosceles triangles”. For this image I will pay ten of the Queen’s English’

So she did.

Elephants and triangles

Six elephants standing on top of exactly 785 isosceles triangles

Over a few days Bryony has drawn dozens of pictures. Here’s two of my favourites:

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All rather mad.

My request was simpler.

I would love a picture of me playing the sitar (pics on my facebook or blog) with Beatles-like psychedelic imaginings coming out of my head

Mine was the first of her pictures to use colour so I was especially touched. Personally I think it is a perfect likeness of me!

Me playing the sitar in Beatles-esque fashion

Me playing the sitar in Beatles-esque fashion

Maybe her pictures will never hang up in the National Portrait Gallery but a worthy charity is going to be a few (quite a few) pounds better off as a result of this completely barmy and wonderfully silly idea. It may not go viral, it might not solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict, it might not lead to a cure for a cancer and Bryony might not end up writing a best seller book about her experiences from doing these drawings – but for a brief moment in time she’s brought a smile to the faces of many, contributed to society in a worthy manner and made this world just a tiny little bit nicer. Albeit nice bordering on insane.

I’m honoured to know both these friends, so very different in their characters, backgrounds and approaches to life. Both have reminded me that we all have ways in which we can help each other out and make life meaningful, easier, better or just plain bonkers. We don’t need to be brilliant, clever, witty or wise. We don’t need to be the best, or energetically outgoing, or attempt to raise thousands for charity.

We just need to make the effort to put in a little more than we take out. Doesn’t have to be much but it does add up.


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Home Schooling: The Nuts & Bolts

Save St Bees QuoteIntroduction and update

This post is primarily written with the parents of children at St Bees school, Cumbria in mind though it should also be useful to any British parent who is considering whether or not to do home schooling themselves. For the rest of you (especially anyone new to this blog) I’ll give a brief update of the situation and the future of St Bees School.

The Governors of St Bees School announced in February of this year that the school was failing financially and they had to close it at the end of this academic year. A huge outcry ensued, a huge rescue package put together but the Governors were adamant they had looked into every possibility and refused to change their decision. In fact they rejected three rescue offers – one of which was with potential investors ready to invest millions of pounds into the school. They didn’t even get a reply to their initial approach. Since then, our campaign team has worked tirelessly to bring the current board of governance to an end and continue education at the school.

We believe the first goal is almost there though, through subterfuge and bullying, the Governors have clung on to the bitter end determined to see the doors close before they leave. They did try to appease ‘the masses’ by suddenly announcing they had actually found a way to ‘save the school’ and reopen it with a vague promise of September 2016. This, of course, means they made everyone angry all over again for the rescue package could have kept the school afloat until they changed the business model (which everyone agrees is vital) and began the school in a new form. Effectively they’ve gone from closing the school to evicting all the children and staff. All done in the ‘best interests’ of the children. It’s amazing what atrocities can be carried out under our noses when said to be done in ‘best interests’. Furthermore, we have it on good authority (and I mean really good authority) that it is extremely unlikely the school could open next year at all. It is much more likely to be September 2017.

So for a handful of us, unhappy with the choice (or lack of it) for schools which can provide a place for our children, home schooling is a definite contender and one which is beginning to create some excitement among those who have fought to save the school and also with some of those who are still involved with managing it. It is even possible that a home schooling community may be the basis for something bigger still but at the moment I can’t reveal any more details. There are plans afoot though. I will say this though, on top of the amazing story of the school which was saved nine days before it was to end and reopened with just 32 children we have also now found another school which also faced closure, was saved and open with less than 10 children! That school is now thriving with hundreds of children. It ain’t over ’til it’s over, baby…

Anyway, after this catch-up, time to give a concise ‘how to do home school’ for all those interested in this option.

Home School – what you need to know

Here in a nutshell is the information I’ve gathered from parents already home schooling their children, from internet sources and from talking to our LEA home school contact.

1) You need an adult present to supervise your children.

This is mostly likely to be the parent but it doesn’t have to be. Grandparents or other close family member would be fine. Obviously, if you don’t have family on hand and both parents are working then home school is not for you. Otherwise, you don’t need to be a teacher, highly educated or anything like that. You role will be to help keep your child on track rather than trying to teach them.

2) You need a computer and internet.

While many of the courses I’ll detail below are book and paper-based, the mentoring help that comes with them needs the internet and, to be honest, you really want to have you child working from the internet to supplement work if nothing else. This isn’t the same as letting them hide away in their bedrooms with a laptop and having no control over what they’re doing on the internet. You will be keeping an eye on them as they work and probably have a work space area in the home to use for study (it could be as simple as one end of the kitchen table!).

3) You need to agree a timetable which will work for you

From parents I’ve spoken to you can pack a full day of learning in a school environment into just a couple of hours with home schooling. I asked if that meant our children will be twiddling their thumbs getting bored for the remaining hours of the day but parents told me ‘not at all’.

Instead, your children have the chance, finally, to learn at their own speed and as that is likely to be much faster than at school they can go on to extension work or even learn extra subjects. I was told of children learning Japanese through Rosetta Stone which they could never do in traditional schools. Another child was interested in film-making and is studying that.

What’s important then is how you agree to work the day with your child. The younger they are the more ‘hands on’ you need to be but children over the age of 11 through to the teens (this is the age of St Bees School children and so I’m concentrating on this age range) can work very independently. So one parent has their teenager study from say 10-12 am then after lunch from 2-4 pm. They do reading in between and around those times and take breaks as often as they wish.

This gives loads of room for other projects such as music practice, creative writing and visits to places. The teenager I mentioned who is interested in film-making is doing work experience with a company which makes films and can take out this time because studies are well ahead. It also means that your child learns to work independently – something vital at A Level stage and much prized at University. Indeed, home schooled degree applicants are seen as real assets to universities and are eagerly sought after.

4) Socialisation

One big worry for parents thinking of home schooling is what about socialisation? Won’t their kids go stir-crazy on their own at home?

Everyone I spoke to tells me socialisation is better with home schooling. With support groups such as Education Otherwise you can find lots of other home schoolers with whom you can meet up, share resources, do activities together and so on. Your children won’t have homework in the evenings because all study can be done during the day so seeing friends when they come back from school is easier. They can get involved with youth groups or you can team up with other parents home schooling children of the same kind of age and hang out together.

It’s up to individuals to work out how it will work best but generally home school environments prevent bullying, feeling unsafe in an environment and other issues many kids feel at school. Instead they can interact with adults, experience real life environments through work experience and enjoy time with friends in an entirely wholesome and positive way.

For those of us from St Bees School considering home schooling, we have lots of teachers in the area who have signed up to help with tutoring the children. This means we will have group teaching sessions several times a week. The LEA allows us up to 15 hours each week where we can have group lessons – more than enough time for friends to enjoy studying together and chill out before and after!

5) Decide on your course of study

For me, this has been the most exciting discovery. There are a plethora of options for course materials to use in home schooling. Some are free, others cost, but all lead up to qualifications which are accepted by British educational institutions such as A Level Centres, colleges and universities. But there is no requirement for you to follow any course at all. You merely need to make sure the LEA knows that you are home schooling and what you are intending to do to provide education for your child and all should be well – at least in Cumbria!

The first resource which must be recommended is the Khan Academy. This is a world famous initiative which is changing how teachers think about teaching in the classroom. Many schools in America now teach using the Khan Academy. This is entirely free to sign up for and is a complete online course for hundreds of subjects. Especially strong in maths and science, your children will love watching the informative videos which are complete lessons in themselves. Check out this ten-minute video about ions to see what I mean:

Some parents who are of the Christian faith use an American teaching system which has been adapted for European use and results in a qualification (ICCE) recognised and accepted by LEAs and universities. This costs about £300 per child per year which is very little indeed. One child just recently was accepted into Oxford University with the ICCE qualification which is very similar to the Baccalaureate qualifications now popular in the UK.

Those wishing to continue with the traditional Key Stage 3 and GCSE curriculum will find plenty of courses on offer – some better than others – but they do cost and you will have to pay for the exams.

The best is probably Oxford Home Schooling which provides full course materials, marked assignments and tutors available via email and phone for any learning needs. You are also provided with a list of Examination Centres which you can contact to book your child in for exams at the right time. GCSEs cost about £350 each but the price goes down the more you buy in one go. The cost is spread out over nine payments. offer cheaper GCSEs but only do four subjects and Little Arthur Independent School  offer all the GCSE subjects at £215 and KS3 at £145 each but the website doesn’t look brilliant so I personally would go with Oxford. I spoke to someone at Oxford and found them very helpful and knowledgeable.

6) Tell the LEA

Once you’ve decided on how you’ll organise your child’s working time, socialization and what course material they’ll study and you’ve decided you are definitely going for home schooling, the final stage is to contact your LEA Home school coordinator and have them send you the form you need to complete. With this form you are simply de-registering your child from school and informing the LEA of how you intend to provide alternative education for them. My understanding from those who have done it is that checks on you are not really intrusive – you don’t have to let them come to your home to check on you and you can send a report on the education you’ve given once a year and this should be sufficient. Again, that’s in this part of Cumbria. Other places may well be different. You can make this decision to home school right at the last minute should you wish and withdraw your child from state eduction at any point.

7) For St Bees School parents

I am helping to coordinate those of us who want to home school to make sure all children continue to have an excellent education – especially those partway through their GCSEs. I have at least one local school who have agreed in principle to accept our students as external candidates for exams and several former teachers at the school and other retired and former teachers who have offered to do group teaching, one-to-one tutoring and mentoring. If your child is currently doing Key Stage 3 or about to start GCSEs and you would like to home school them please get in touch with us. We will do our best to make sure you’re fully supported.

Contact Hazel Barker to leave your details with her and we’ll be in touch:

Mob 0793 637 3345

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