My sons (aged 20 and 21) have no GCSEs: they decided several years ago not to take them, because they wanted to carry on with their self-directed learning and the GCSE curriculum didn’t encompass the skills they has chosen to develop. I supported them in this, because I had a theory that I’d been developing since I was a teenager myself:

That there are saleable skills in all of us, which – left to our own devices and without coercion – we want to work on developing.

My sons always knew that they’d have to pay their way as adults. I trusted them to develop the skills to enable themselves to do so, and they didn’t let me down. They’re both still working from home, doing the same kind of activities they’ve always done according to their own schedule – and making enough money to pay for their share of the bills, the mortgage and the food. And they’re debt free.

Their absence of official qualifications has never been a problem, because they don’t need full-time jobs, and they don’t need full-time jobs because I’m not asking them to move out. Why would I? They pay their way now, so I’m not out of pocket, and it’s nice to have them around. I give them lifts in the car: they do bits of babysitting their younger sisters for me. They cook their own food, and even fill and empty the dishwasher (I must admit, life was a bit less easy going here before we got the dishwasher.)

The thing about autonomous learning is that unless the child is self-motivated at some point to do GCSEs, then if they’re going to be done there has to be some coercion on the part of the parents. So at some point the parent has to say: “That’s enough of doing exclusively your own thing now. It’s time to do some GCSE work, because I’ve decided you should,” or if not explicitly that, there is some element of persuasion on the part of the parents.

So in making the decision to home educate a child – and in how to home educate the child – I think these things need to be taken into account: Autonomous home education doesn’t always naturally, automatically lead to the procuring of official qualifications. In fact, from what I can gather if carried on indefinitely in its purest form, it rarely does.

If a parent has assumptions about people needing at least five GCSEs, grades A* – C to earn money, they’re probably in for a few years of stress and conflict when their child is a teenager. Young people probably do need either five GCSEs, grades A* – C or the equivalent to get most jobs and to get on most post-GCSE college courses and I think it’s folly to try to pretend otherwise – I’m just pointing out that being employed by somebody else on a full-time contracted basis isn’t necessarily the only, or even the best way to live and earn money.

Yes, it provides a sure and relatively safe regular income, but sometimes the cost of that is happiness, contentment and/or freedom.

Yes, if the young person wants or needs [or their parent wants or needs them] to move out of the family home and start paying rent or a mortgage in their own right, then obtaining a safe and regular income is probably necessary despite the cost in human terms. But if staying in the family home as adults is also an option, then self-employment becomes more feasible, and autonomous home education is great training for that.

I like the idea – and now the experience – of extended family living. It has a lot of benefits in terms of work sharing and co-operation, and not many disadvantages for all concerned. People yearn for communities, for more company and shared support and there’s no reason why the natural bond between parents, children and siblings shouldn’t supply some of that. At least, in most cases, it’s a bond that can be trusted.

I certainly like the idea of people being free of the tyranny of public examinations and jobs that they don’t want to do. Obviously a life on benefits isn’t feasible – my sons have never claimed a penny from the state and intend to never do so – but using one’s teenage years to develop a skill of choice, then marketing it on a self-employed basis as and when you want to work or need the income, is.



Filed under Business, Co-operating, Innate, Natural learning - how it works

11 responses to “On GCSEs

  1. Allie

    I think it’s good to hear about paths that don’t include qualifications at 16. It’s too easy to assume that everyone without qualifications is hampered by that.

    My concern is that I want my children to have all the options at 16 that they would have had had I sent them to school for 12 years – because I want them to have maximum choice all the time. I don’t mind if they have no interest in going to college or university or getting a full-time job. But I want them to be confident that they *could* take on what other sixteen year olds do in terms of academic courses. If they choose not to then I want that to be because they understand what academic work is and decide it’s not for them or that there’s something else they want to do more.

    I would never force my children to do qualifications but I do feel I have to be honest about the power they have in society. It’s easy (far too easy) to let qualifications become God-like and presume that getting them is an end in itself or, indeed, that it really means anything much in terms of your happiness or ability. But I’d be a hypocrite to say that qualifications don’t mean anything when I wouldn’t have the job I do if I didn’t have any qualifications.

    In the end I think it’s all ‘horses for courses’. If someone has a passion that can clearly support them in adult life without the need for qualifications then that’s great. If they don’t, or are unsure about what they want to do, then a few qualifications might be a wise move just so options stay open to them. Of course, qualifications can be done at any age if you need them but the way things are going it may get harder and harder to pick up academic courses later in life.

    • Horses for courses: I definitely agree, and didn’t want to knock the choice of taking qualifications. For Tom and Al’s sake I’m happy that opting out of them was still a choice they could be free to make though.

      It almost goes without saying (I think I have said a lot elsewhere) that the various options and consequences etc were repeatedly set out to them, but they wanted to do what they wanted to do – having had, by then, a lot of practice in so doing!

      I think the point I really want to make is about consistency and consequences. The decision to allow a child 100% autonomy in educational provision (like any other major decision in education) can be a far reaching and profound one, with long term consequences of all kinds. Having allowed full autonomy, I wasn’t then in a position to put my foot down, no matter how anxious I might have been about their decisions. I had to trust them, or fall out with them I think, and am glad I picked the former!

  2. Allie

    I’d certainly never value qualifications over a decent and respectful relationship with my children. I can’t really bring to mind anything that I would…

    But consistency is a tricky thing! If we are too consistent then we can run the risk of failing to respond approriately to changes in our childrens’ needs as they grow up. We may also give the impression to our children that we are fearful of change. So consistent is fine, I think, if it’s based around basic principles like respect and mutual happiness but not if we let it become a straightjacket. Just as I dislike the ‘naughty step’ school of parenting for its ‘consistency above all else’ so I feel the same about ‘autonomy at all costs.’ The only way to work out the right path is to keep looking around and making sure you’re happy where you are.

    I suppose that’s the thing about qualifications that is something of a stumbling block. Up to age 16 children can make a free choice to be home ed or to go into school alongside other people of their age. As soon as some of those people have qualifications, that option is not there. If your child has no qualifications then they can’t just join in on the same terms as anybody else. If I want all options open for my children at 16 then they need some qualifications…

    • Yes, I think I agree with everything you’ve said there Allie. Lots of options are closed to people who don’t have the standard clutch of qualifications at 16. I didn’t have ‘autonomy at all costs’ in mind, but couldn’t bring myself to revert to the coercion/ heavy “persuasion” 😉 that would have been required to insist on anything else. But having been in school as younger children, and taken so long to recover their love of learning I don’t think, with hindsight, it would have been right for them.

      But the preparing for and taking of exams prevents other choices too: the choice to do and learn other things with the time. So, as you say, if someone is quite sure they’re on the best path for them and that it doesn’t need qualifications, it’s probably OK. It occurred to me that, for example, Charles Saatchi probably didn’t check Tracey Emin’s GCSEs before he paid £150000 for her bed (we have a few of those here if he’s interested in any more at that price..) – which, although an extreme example, kind of illustrates at least one potentially profitable area in which they’re not necessary.

      Tom’s had hundreds of happy customers now – none of whom asked about his qualifications: they just wanted to know he could do the job and rightly assumed that if he was successfully working in the field then he would be able to. I guess he’s lucky in his choice of field, but still I imagine there are quite a lot of them when one starts looking.

  3. Allie

    “I guess he’s lucky in his choice of field, but still I imagine there are quite a lot of them when one starts looking.”

    I’m sure you’re right about that. The trouble is what to do if a teenager doesn’t have a definite field in mind yet – at all. Then it can seem like a big gamble to just say “Pah!” to the qualification game entirely. After all, Tracy Emin’s GCSEs certainly weren’t an issue once she had a name but try getting on an art A level course or even an art BTEC without any qualifications and you might find it harder than you’d think… I really wish it wasn’t so but it is.

    There are other paths and some people make them work very well – OU, self-employment, working for people you know etc. It’s great when those paths work well for people and, of course, there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome from fists full of GCSEs and A levels.

  4. That’s true. I googled “Tracey Emin GCSEs”, just out of interest, since we were talking about her and found this interview in which she says:

    “I’ve never sat my A levels, or my O levels for that matter, but I’ve heard from other people that mentally it’s the most stressful thing of your life. With your tutor it would be good if you can remember that they are there to help you and get you through the exams. They are not the enemy.
    You can always do A levels as an evening class.”


    “Art is the only thing I have ever done. It consumes most of my life. People often forget that it’s hard work that makes the success.”

    That’s the kind of passion I was hoping my children would develop through autonomous learning. To some extent I think they have. If they’d stayed ‘mainstream’ and done something different, they’d be very different people now, and they say they’re happy as they are (whenever I neurotically ask 😉 ) – though I suppose, having had no experience of the other kind of life, they’re in no better position to compare than any of the rest of us.

  5. Allie

    Yes, that kind of passion is wonderful and if things work out then it’s probably all you need in something like art – that and a big dollop of luck. But not everyone has that sort of passion or can identify which among their many interests might become their passion. They need open doors to explore the possibilities in their young adult life and some of those doors seem to be slammed in their faces without at least some qualifications. Because I want my children to find as many open doors as possible then I think it is probably wise for them to get some qualifications unless they can identify a clear alternative path. I might change my mind on that and, of course, it’s all up to them in the end.

  6. Yes, it’s all up to all of them in the end, I totally agree. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – which is why we went down the autonomous path in the first place. If Tom and Al had been keen on – or even remotely interested in – going down the path of GCSEs and A levels, I’d have certainly facilitated them to the best of my ability and they knew it, although at the same time I might have been a bit worried about the limiting effects of that kind of study. (Though as their parent, I’d have worried either way!)

  7. The G.C.S.E. thing is interesting. They don’t really mean anything in themselves but are just stepping stones. From my experience, I worked my way up through school computer support just by enjoying it and being good at it. I didn’t do computing at school and decided to fail my programming module at Uni as I didn’t like computers!

    In computing it is all about aptitude, and I think there are many other vocations, and professions where this can also be true.

    I also believe that between the ages of 13 and 17 when children/young people are expected to decide what they will do for the rest of their lives, so many are not ready for it. Taking a few extra years to decide what they want to do rather than being unhappy for a decade feeling stuck in a job because they made the wrong choice when they were at school seems worth it to me.

    • Very good point Alex. Zara (18) is only now deciding what she wants to do, which is perilously close, IMO, to the time when she’s going to have to earn her keep (20). (But I think she likes to scare me! 🙄 ) She has been, on the quiet, doing some very self-directed potentially vocational studying though.

      When I think back, the boys were still deciding and changing their minds at that age somewhat too.

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