Home education in France
Deborah Curtis meets an expat couple who live in Languedoc-Roussillon who have taken the decision to home school their children...
Illustrator and artist Allison Carmichael and her husband Martin Woods knew they wanted to home educate their children before Tormey and Saskian were even born but if you’d told them five years ago they would be home schooling their boys in France they might have dismissed the idea as an impossible dream.
They were living in Kent and Martin was making the daily commute up to London to his job as a manager for a mental health trust. It was a good job and they had a good life but they both felt unfulfilled.
‘It wasn’t the ideal set up,’ Allison tells me from her home in the pretty Aude village of Laval. ‘I wanted Martin to be with us more of the time and he wanted to be with us more of the time. We had talked about what we could do to make that happen then I thought, “why don’t we paint this house, sell it for lots of money and then go to France, buy something for practically nothing, do it up and rent it out”.’
Fast forward to 2007 and that’s exactly what they have done.
‘Once we have an idea we really go for it,’ says Allison. ‘We took the children down to the south of France for a holiday and we came down as close to the Mediterranean as we could with a view to buying something. We thought we might just have a look but when we got here we loved it. We saw this great big place in the middle of Couiza which was in pretty good nick and we bought it. We were terrified obviously but we had no doubts about swapping our old life for a new life because the life that we were leading wasn’t serving us.’
The property was huge on three floors and had great g�te potential. Martin and Allison decided they would live on the top floor with the boys while the first and second floors would be converted into comfortable apartments. All they needed to do was install two kitchens, build an internal wall, and completely redecorate – a feat which Allison completed single-handed in the latter half of 2003.
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In the meantime Derbyshire-born Martin, who works as the cryptic crossword compiler for The Big Issue in the North and also designs board games, got to work on a website for the two apartments which was up and running before the couple had actually completed on the property; such was their enthusiasm.
‘We knew it was going to be ours and nothing could possibly take it away from us,’ says Allison. ‘We were so determined. We both wanted it so much.’
As bookings started to come in and their new life in France took shape, the couple embarked on their home educating journey with Tormey, now seven, and five-year-old Saskian; although from the animated way Allison speaks of home schooling, you suspect that what they are doing now under the label of ‘home ed’ is merely an extension of what they have always done with their children.
The boys have never been to any formal school or nursery. They are autonomously educated which means that Allison and Martin offer them a range of learning opportunities and allow their interests to guide them as to which to take.
‘It all happens quite naturally in our house,’ says Allison. ‘Tormey will say something like, “Mummy you know space is far away and the sun is here, well what’s that all about then?” And Martin will leap in, you’ve never seen him move so fast, and will start making diagrams explaining to Tormey how far the sun is away and why it creates a day.’
For the family, the day will often start like this – with a question from one or other of the boys – and then will then head off in whatever direction it takes them.
‘The other day we found a preying mantis so we went online and found out all about it; what it eats, how it lives, how it mates, how it eats its mate. They enjoyed that because it was all very full on,’ Allison laughs.
‘We do very little formal learning and most of their learning is done through talking, play, interacting and being in the real world. They are learning to read and write through bedtime stories, learning letters and sounds from CD-Roms and programmes on the internet.’
And for maths, Martin has designed lots of games to keep the emphasis on making learning fun.
‘In the afternoon they’ll go off with Martin,’ Allison explains. ‘They go off for big long walks where they dig up bits of the river and create dams and they’ll do that for quite some time. They spend a lot of time out doors. In a home ed life there is really nothing but lessons.’
Allison is passionate about her decision to home educate her boys and is keen to let other parents know that there is an alternative to the school system.
‘Most people don’t even know that they have the choice to home educate their children and that makes me terribly sad. Some kids don’t have a great time at school and that must be heartbreaking for their parents – to not know what to do.’
Allison herself had a miserable time at school. One of three children from a military family, she was sent to boarding school in England from a young age.
‘I can’t tell you how horrible that was,’ she says. ‘A lot of people say to me, “I suppose you home educate because your own school life was terrible?” Well there was that or you could look at it this way. I have a choice and I know I have a choice and I’m going to take it.
‘Most of the time, the education system is as good as the child that goes to it. A lot of lovely children go to school and a lot of brilliant children go to school and school’s not going to damage them but what about the children who don’t have that brilliance or don’t have that spark or are just different in their own special way? School can hurt them. I don’t want to put my children in a situation where they might not get to be themselves.’
Work, rest and play
But what with their web design work, Allison’s artistic commissions and their board game design work not to mention Allison’s project, renovating their new house in Laval – they expanded their g�te business two years ago and now rent out all three apartments in the Mode d’Artiste – it’s a wonder they manage to spend any time with their children at all.
‘A lot of the things that we do, we can do with the children around us,’ Allison says. ‘One of us or other of us will play with the children or do stuff with them while the other one works and it depends on whose bit of work is most necessary at that time. We prioritise everything. We are quite good at that. Rubbish at organising but really good at prioritising. And I’m a list maker which is vital. If we didn’t do that we’d be completely lost.’
So all the learning time is shared out between them and whichever parent feels most capable of taking on the subject matter steps forward and gets on with the job.
‘Sometimes we pack loads in and sometimes we just sit and watch telly. One of the things the kids like to do is a double bill with popcorn and that will occur on a rainy day or a sunny day doesn’t really matter. It’s time that we spend hanging out. We don’t really know what a school day is,’ Allison smiles.
‘Our weekly routine is very loose as we often shift the focus of their education. There are a couple of things they do pretty much every week, one is pottery on Wednesdays and the other is a play and learn style French lesson twice a week.’
Neither Martin nor Allison speaks particularly good French but they were never daunted by the language barrier and both Tormey and Saskian are learning fast.
‘My boys are picking it up very, very quickly because they play with other children and are speaking it more naturally and with fewer inhibitions. They did have inhibitions to start with though. Tormey was quite shy about speaking French when he first started out and he wouldn’t do it. Now he is happy to chat away in French to anyone and will slip into French with ease and he does it with the same joy and excitement that he has when talking English.’
Allison and Martin have also had to make a determined effort to make sure their boys have plenty of opportunities to socialise with others outside the immediate family.
‘Wednesdays and Saturdays are good ‘children’ days here. We go to places where a lot of children will be, so our children can play with them and if we go there regularly they build up a relationship with the children who go there. In our village they often play football on a Saturday so that’s the day the boys go and play football to get to know the village boys.’
They have also got to know other home-educated children in the area which has made for some lively sessions when they all get together for group activities.
For the most part though, Allison leaves the community liaison to the men in her life preferring instead to keep herself to herself and concentrate on her art.
‘I’m not community minded,’ she explains. ‘I wasn’t like that in England. I have been very clear with the French people. I’m one of those people who doesn’t really mix. I know I’m chatty but I’m timid and I don’t really spend a lot of time in the company of a lot of different people. I’m impossibly poor at small talk. I’m good friend material I’m not small talk material at all.’
And from the children’s point of view how do they enjoy their lessons at home? She says Tormey has his doubts that real school would be as nice in real life as it appears on television and he doesn’t think he would like to sit at a desk all day.
‘Knowing him, as I do,’ Allison says, ‘I don’t think he would. He likes the freedom he has here but occasionally he thinks we work too hard. Saskian likes to spend time with his older brother but of course that wouldn’t be possible at school.
‘I think they like it. I won’t know until they’re grown up and by then they may have changed it in their minds … We do have a therapy fund though. Just in case. But of course the therapy fund could be for anything so when they are older they can either use the therapy fund for therapy or for a really big holiday it’s up to them.’
She says all this with a twinkle in her voice and it’s clear that both she and Martin genuinely treasure every minute of the time they spend with their sons.
‘We do love it here. It’s so beautiful in France. We’ve done everything we can possibly do to stay here and do what we’re doing. We just love it. I do feel that we’re very blessed and part of that is that we do get to spend 24/7 with two amazing little boys,’ Allison says.
‘If anyone ever says to me, “oh you’re so lucky or so brave to do this”, I just want to say just do it. Life’s too short. What’s the worst that can happen? If it goes wrong you can always go home. I’d hate to get to my old age and think I had all those dreams and I never did any of them.’
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If you want to home educate your children in France then from the age of six you will need to register at the mairie and also with the Inspection Academique. From the age of eight a twice yearly test to gauge their development is undertaken by the Inspection Academique, which may be at home or in a local office.
The areas of study you will be expected to cover include:
• French language written and spoken, plus a knowledge of French culture based on French literature
• A foreign language
• History and geography of France, Europe and the world
• Science and technology
• Art and culture