Better than School (by Nancy Wallace)

Back in the early 1990s, when we lived for a couple of years in the United States, I borrowed a somewhat eclectic mixture of books from the local library. One of them had quite a profound influence on my understanding of education, and was my first real introduction to the idea of homeschooling. The author, Nancy Wallace, apparently died in 2008 but I have never forgotten her name, and was delighted when I found a copy of the book inexpensively in the Amazon Marketplace a few months ago.

‘Better than School’ was written in 1983 where, even in the US, home education was still in its infancy. It wasn’t allowed in every State, and in some it was remarkably difficult to get permission. The Wallace family were living in an area where homeschooling was legal, but families had to get permission; the law in their State at the time only allowed it when children were suffering undue hardship by being in school. Testing took place every year, and very few people were aware that it was possible (and in some cases desirable) to educate one’s children at home.

Rather than being strictly chronological, the book opens with a ‘day in the life’, where we meet nine-year-old Ishmael and five-year-old Vita, having a leisurely breakfast before embarking on a busy day which includes reading, studying, music, preparing food together, and a great deal more. They’re an ordinary kind of family, where the siblings squabble at times, and the mother gets stressed when they are running late. Home education is clearly working for them, and from my perspective now it seems a normal, natural kind of day.

The book then returns to the time when Ishmael started school, a somewhat nervous, intelligent child who struggled with the rules and boundaries that are essential in classroom education. His natural curiosity was dulled, and he became depressed and anxious, prompting his parents to start looking into alternatives. There are sections about the legal battles they had to fight, interesting from the historical point of view, but not really relevant now, when home education is better understood in so many places.

Other chapters cover reading, maths, music, and more. Both the children showed early talent in music; both playing and composing, and part of the reason that Vita was home educated too was to allow enough time for the children to play their instruments, and spend time jamming and generally doing musical and dramatic things with friends and family. Vita learned violin by the Suzuki method, starting at six, and there are some very interesting observations about the pros and cons of this, alongside a detailed description of a week on a Suzuki residential course.

Reading it now, over twenty years after I first discovered it, I wasn’t as gripped or intrigued as I was the first time. My sons are adults; home education in their teenage years worked well, but our situation was very different from that of the Wallaces. Nonetheless I recognise many of the patterns of learning, in particular the tendencies of parents to become frustrated about some particular topic, while the child resists… and then, unexpectedly, is ready to learn and does so. Whether reading, or composing, or even understanding the way society works, children have their own schedule and, given the opportunities and encouragement, will do so when the time is right.

As an aside, Ishmael and Vita went on to be part of a singing duo, who have led workshops and performed internationally and have received several grants and awards.

Inevitably much of this book seems quite dated now; there were no home computers or tablets, and the Wallace family didn’t have a television. Still, as one of the earliest books by a home educating family, it’s an important milestone, and it’s written so well, with plenty of admissions of getting things wrong, that it could make interesting reading to anyone with an interest in learning or children’s education.

'Better than School' is not in print, and hasn't been for some time, but there are quite a number available second-hand, mostly in the United States.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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