Field Trip: Reading and the rules of the road

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 11:29am

It all seemed so simple in theory: travel to some of the most beautiful parts of the world and home-school the children along the way. A few hours teaching in the morning could be followed by whole days of outdoor enjoyment. What could be nicer?

We had never done anything like it before, but how hard could it be to teach just two children - not a class of 30 screaming kids - the basics of maths and English? And like all doting parents we believed that our children were dedicated students.

Looking back, I realise that we were a little naive. As rock band Coldplay put it in The Scientist: " Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be this hard."

When we lived in Beijing we knew several people who took their children's education into their own hands, partly because they believed it was the right thing to do and partly because they could not afford expensive international schools. They devised fun and interesting timetables that taught the basic skills and left time for other activities.

One parent we knew spent a lot of time travelling around China while teaching her daughter. She made home-schooling look easy. So when my husband and I decided to leave Beijing and take our children Sam, eight, and Tilly, five, on a five-month trip before heading back to Britain, we naturally turned to home-schooling. We thought we could enjoy Bali, Australia and New Zealand to the full while ensuring our little ones did not miss out on their studies.

But the difficulties began on day one. "Oh, do we have to?" whined the children when we pulled out the books for the very first time.

No amount of cajoling could get Tilly interested in learning to read, the big challenge we had set ourselves before leaving China.

Both Sam and Tilly would take trips to the toilet, beg to finish off what they were already doing or employ other tactics to avoid starting work. Whenever we mentioned getting out the books they began bargaining to reduce the amount of time they had to spend studying.

I suppose we should console ourselves that at least they know how to haggle. All those hours spent bargaining over prices in Beijing's Silk Market have not gone to waste.

We would try to explain that if they were in Britain they would be doing up to six hours schoolwork every day, not including homework. We told them that no teacher would put up with this kind of abuse, but they knew we were their parents and not their teachers. On more than one occasion the arguing about home-schooling got out of hand. Ashamed as I am to admit it, when persuasion failed we sometimes tried threats.

"We could always go home early," my husband and I would yell, leading to howls of protest and the odd tear from the children.

But there are some positives as well. The children have now settled down to twice-weekly language lessons on Skype in Chinese and French. Their Chinese teacher is an old friend from Beijing; the French tutor is in French Polynesia.

And Sam and Tilly have started to produce some wonderful work based on the things they have seen in the time we have already been away: colourful pictures, expressive postcards and interesting collections of things they have found.

Sam keeps a diary; his last entry features a cheeky seagull that stole two fish he had caught from the river. Even Tilly seems finally to be enjoying trying to read.

And there is something more. If the children are learning how to be better students then their parents are learning how to be better teachers - or perhaps just a touch more patient.

So home-schooling has been tough, but worth it. It has opened my eyes as well as my children's, and I will return home with a new-found respect for teachers.

Helen Leavey and family are taking the long road home to Britain after more than seven years in Beijing