Before I begin this review, I would like to issue a disclaimer. In all the years that I have studied writing and undertaken courses, it has continuously been impressed upon me, that it is my writing that is being analysed and not me personally. In many ways, this is the work of a celebrity / influencer and there is a tendency for criticism in such reviews to be viewed as trolling. I am not a troll. I do not have time or the inclination for such things. All writers have to develop a thick skin and perhaps that is why many spend years honing their craft. I accept the unjustness of publishing contracts where gifted writers hardly ever get a publishing deal and yet influencers seem to get one with unparalleled ease. It all boils down to sales, and many celebrities and influencers with their immense followings, are much less of a risk than unknown writers. Whether the work they produce can be classed as a literary work or merchandise, is open for debate. But it always makes me smile when immediately after publishing a book these celebrities or influencers take to calling themselves authors in their social media bios and the celebrities behind this book are no exception.
I used to enjoy watching Nadia Sawalha’s family’s YouTube videos. The vlogs were unique for showing little-known parts of London and a colourful cast of supporting family members. Their less than perfect house, their overgrown garden and chaotic lifestyle, was refreshing and endearing. Sadly, Nadia’s ambition was always to be an influencer and once the freebies started to arrive, and they began to have paid members, we felt that the channel had somehow lost its essence. We do still watch some of their gardening videos. This is an honest review and as such needs to be written with candour. I purchased this book. I was not sent or asked to review it.
I chose to review, ‘Honey I Home-schooled The Kids’ since I have been a teacher and a senior manager within a wide variety of educational organisations for over twenty-seven years. I would like to think that I have a professional up-to-date knowledge of what is currently happening in education. I am also a mother of two children with different needs. I have been through the EHC process and sent my son to a specialist school. Whilst awaiting an EHC, I did home-school my son for a brief time. Even with all my years of teaching experience, I found the world of home-schooling akin to an exclusive members-only club, where it was nigh impossible to discover the truth. Education is a topic which almost everyone appears to have an opinion on. Teachers and schools face a lot of criticism and yet the fact that there is always a shortage of teachers suggests that it is not the easy career that many people might think it is.
On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book but there is a caveat; not for the reasons the authors would hope. It certainly invoked intense feelings within me. This is a very easy-to-read book, written in a conversational style, albeit with several mistakes of punctuation and grammar; a preference for over use of brackets and a multitude of exclamation marks; a preponderance of split infinitives; the invention of new spellings for emphasis and the odd, incorrect apostrophe. It certainly made me think about education and how we school our children. However, the “learning objectives” of this book are not clearly defined. The book may feel it is within the self-help genre, but it appears to drift between autobiography, educational manifesto, parental boasting, and self-aggrandisement with a plethora of sweeping generalisations and a smattering of inspirational quotes more akin to an Instagram account. There are a few suggestions within for home-schooling your child, but little real advice concerning who to approach, how to devise a curriculum and where to discover resources.
It seems rather in-keeping with the subject matter to comment on this book as I would comment on a student’s essay or project. So, let us start with the positives. Mark and Nadia certainly care about their daughters and are passionate about their education and whilst I may not agree with some of the things they have done, much of it comes from a place of kindness, of wanting to do the right thing. They have succeeded in opening up a much needed dialogue about education and the expectations we have of our children. They are correct in stating that the education system at present does assume that one size fits all and it does not. I have said for a long time that we should rethink education at 14+ and permit some children to follow a more vocational rather than academic route.
This manifesto begins with a bold declaration that it is not anti-school and subsequently proceeds over the next two hundred pages to demonstrate the exact opposite. This is an argument built on broad generalities and pious platitudes, not to mention the inaccuracies and the evidence frequently provided by the oracle of their eldest daughter Maddie and her friends. The manifesto would certainly have had more credence had they collaborated or even sought the opinions of a variety of educational advisors, teachers, and home-schoolers. I was surprised given Mark’s academic background, (he is educated to almost PhD level,) that they did not choose to validate their argument with research.
The majority of this book has unmistakably been written by Mark, he sees himself as something of a polymath and tends to stick in the odd big word and use quotations from E.M. Forster, Plutarch, and Einstein. One understands his constant need for scholarly validation when he reveals how his mother refused to let him sit an entrance exam for a scholarship at the prestigious fee-paying academic school, instead forcing him to attend the largest comprehensive in London in Holland Park. Hence the continual reiteration of his intellectuality and qualifications. To the unacademic Nadia, who loves to self-diagnose her dyslexia and ADHD, I suppose he must seem like the font of all knowledge and one is reminded of the saying, “in the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king.”
The story behind their youngest daughter’s move from academic prep school to home-schooling is distressing and sadly not unique. Furthermore, it shows what can happen when a child is forced to hothouse in the wrong environment. Kiki was far too gentle a soul to thrive within such a high-pressure atmosphere. In my experience this is not uncommon, since I would say that probably half of all children are not academic. Mark and Nadia continued to press on trying to prepare Kiki for her 11+ with Kumon sessions and private tuition on top of a full school day until a tutor happened to mention that Kiki’s needs would be much better served with home-schooling. Mark and Nadia were quite astonished by the ease at which they could do this, when so many schools enforce heavy penalties for absence. They sought guidance from a local group and Kiki went through a process known as de-schooling. However, rather than focus on their child, Mark uses this as an opportunity to explain his mental anguish at accepting, as someone who is highly academic, (did I mention he was educated to nearly PhD level?) that his daughter was not academic and needed to follow an entirely different curriculum. After this process, Kiki’s education could restart, and Mark looked at ways in which to educate her in a less academic manner and try to discover what made her heart sing. He used comic books for reading and films and visits to art galleries and museums to stir her passion. Nadia taught Kiki cookery as a way into mathematics with weights and measures. Mark considers these ideas are revolutionary; but they are not. Specialist schools are well known for using this method to unlock a child’s interest. I even know of one situation where a child’s love of heavy metal music, specifically on the theme of devil-worship, was used to spark an interest in learning. Mark and Nadia do seem to forget that one bad experience in one school does not mean that all schools or all teachers should be tarred with the same brush. Had they looked into the network of specialist schools, they would have realised that there are schools who follow a more creative curriculum, where the child’s interests are at the centre of all learning.
Furthermore, Mark criticises teachers and sees himself as being an inspiring teacher, perhaps even the only one. I am sure he is a wonderful father and teacher, but that does not mean that there are not many equally inspirational teachers out there. In my experience, it is rare to find a bad teacher. Most do want to inspire their students. Sadly, the state sector faces an epidemic of low level disruption in lessons, which inhibits learning and causes unnecessary teacher stress. I do not wish to criticise Mark’s ability, but I would like to see him try and inspire a bottom set Year 9 last period on a Friday. Mark also claims erroneously that all schools only teach based upon the majority. He has clearly never been inspected by OFSTED, where you are expected to have a list of every child’s individual needs in each lesson plan, along with details of how the work is differentiated to meet all needs of every child in the classroom. There is far too much of this “a friend who is a teacher told me, so it must be true” and “Maddie’s friends said.” Mark can never substantiate his argument with examples. The book lacks balance in this respect and had they used the input of someone with a background in education, they could have presented a more objective view.
I was not really convinced about Mark and Nadia’s reasons for moving their eldest daughter into home-schooling because of bullying. I am not saying their daughter was not subject to bullying. In fact, I am sure that she was, given her mother’s outspoken views and behaviour on television. However, if I were a teenager and saw my younger sister having a much less structured education with no get-ups and none of the downsides of school, then I’m sure I would have pressurised my parents to let me do the same. Nadia claims that her eldest daughter is passionate about Shakespeare; something she would not be if she had “done it in school.” I know many children who love Shakespeare. They were introduced to it at school through a national drama company called Shakespeare for Kidz. It uses a condensed form of the bard’s plays along with his language, to ensure that children’s first exposure to the playwright is positive and above all, fun.
Mark and Nadia have chosen not to make Maddie sit any GCSEs because they feel that she does not need them. She wants to go into performance. Choosing the performing arts as a career is perhaps one of the riskiest businesses out there. What if she does not succeed, then where is her fall-back plan? Most actors spend the majority of their working life doing jobs in the hospitality trade to pay their bills. Nowadays, everyone who wishes to do any job is expected to have at least GCSEs in Maths and English. What about if Maddie later changes her mind and realises that she does want to do her GCSEs? It is much harder to do so as an adult. Taking GCSEs is not just about sitting the exams. It teaches self-discipline and how to manage and deal with anxiety and stress. Nadia may claim that Maddie has severe examination anxiety but so do the majority of students and examiners are aware of this when they mark papers. I agree that the current system is flawed, and we should consider changing it to suit non-academic students. Sadly, it is the only system out there at the moment and sometimes in order to make a change you need to conform. Again, if my parents asked me at fifteen if I would prefer not to sit them, I too probably would have agreed. For the moment, GCSEs are a measure we use. One person not sitting them is not going to change the system. There are some things such as taxes and driving tests that much as we would prefer not to, we have to do. Surely, they would have been much better off letting her take them with no pressure? They may have convinced themselves that this is the correct decision, but they have failed to convince me. Mark’s argument is also founded on a belief that he would sooner Maddie understand that learning does not stop at GCSE or A level or degree level rather than pass her GCSEs. I fail to see how this is an either / or argument. I went to a school where I was taught that education does not stop at eighteen or twenty-one. As a result, I have continued to educate myself throughout my life.
Yet there is one thing that sits incredibly uncomfortably with me. Both Nadia and Mark acknowledge that their eldest child was bullied because of her mother’s fame, and that the youngest is introverted, sensitive and riddled with anxiety. It is mainly because of this that both children were removed from schools. So, why then place their story centre stage in a book? Why continue to place videos of your children on YouTube for people to comment? It seems rather hypocritical and almost blindsiding their children’s needs for the sake of achieving celebrity. The teenage phase for children is notoriously difficult. It is a time when parents need to understand the boundaries of relationships and show respect to their children’s privacy. I think that we are speeding towards a major issue when the children of influencers move into adulthood and explain how their lives have been affected by growing up in the media spotlight. For all Mark and Nadia’s declarations of putting their children’s needs first and their concern for their children’s mental health, this has so far bypassed them. Mark may claim the idea of involving his children in filmed movie reviews is part of teaching them comprehension, but why not keep the ones where children are involved private?
Despite these limitations, if you are considering home-schooling your children, then this book is a good starting point for those who just want to read about someone else’s story. Yet, it is important that you really do your homework and look to other organisations and agencies if you are considering home-schooling seriously. Home-schooling your child is an immense commitment and it is incredibly hard work. What works for one child will not always work for another. If your child is unhappy in their education, take time to open up a dialogue with school and present your concerns. Regardless of the view this book portrays, most teachers and school managers do care about each individual child and want to help them reach their potential.