Monday 16 September 2019

Friends told us it would do more harm than good - mother who educated her 8 children at home

Margaret Quaid (54) from Co Wexford taught her eight kids, aged between 13 and 26, around the kitchen table from primary through to second level

Home work: Margaret Quaid teaches maths to two of her children, Liadháin and Enya. Photo: Patrick Browne
Home work: Margaret Quaid teaches maths to two of her children, Liadháin and Enya. Photo: Patrick Browne

I was a primary school teacher and when I went to Australia and New Zealand on a career break, I met the man I would marry. I was 25 at the time and Vaughan and I were married two and a half years before our first child, Christopher (now 26), came along.

I went back teaching after the birth and my mother used to mind Christopher. I remember she would sit doing nursery rhymes with him and he was absorbing everything like a sponge. I began to look for information on home education but there was none. I rang the Irish National Teachers' Organisation and the National Parents Council.

I heard an interview on the radio with a lady who was home educating her children so I rang the radio station and they passed on my number to her. She called me back and told me about an organisation called Sa Bhaile and when my third child was three weeks old, we went to our first home education camp. We met people from all walks of life there.

That lit the spark and we knew we wanted to do something different. I wanted my children to learn organically and I also wanted to be involved. We were lucky we had that choice. Vaughan is a nurse and I stayed at home.

There's different types of home education. It's not homeschooling as that gives you the image of a school in a house, although some people will set up a room with a blackboard. But in our house, it was always at the kitchen table because I would be ironing or baking. It was like a home-based industry.

Our eldest son, Christopher, always wanted to play the violin. When he was five I remember Vaughan saying he used to play the violin. I never knew it. Christopher is now doing his masters in violin in London and he plays piano and flute as well. You wait until the child is asking you for something and you follow the child's talent.

The girls on the violin and piano. Photo: Patrick Browne
The girls on the violin and piano. Photo: Patrick Browne

With home education, you start off with the basics - things like colours and play dough. We did baking and you'd be measuring things and doing sand play. I was always experimenting with Montessori methods and trying to make it real for them.

They'd help me in the kitchen. I'd tell them magic happens in the kitchen when you have a pan and eggs. You can teach your child so much. Some of mine were early readers. Christopher was always telling stories. I'd write it down for him and he learned to read in a very 'look and say' way. My next son Timothy (25) would hear a word and sound it out. I just kept reading to them all and showing them words.

The eldest four Christopher, Timothy, Aisling (23) and Eiméar (22) formed a musical quartet. They'd play at family events doing gigs and weddings. It was great pocket money for them.

They've all followed their dreams. Timothy is in South Africa travelling at the minute. He went into the Army band for three years and he wants to go into physiotherapy.

Aisling is teaching in Wicklow and she did music education at Trinity College. Eiméar is doing business and German at Trinity and Aoibheann (20) is doing language and translation at DCU. They're all doing the things they love.

Erin started secondary school in Gorey last September. She's doing her Leaving Cert next year. Enya is 15 and Liadháin is 13 and they're both still at home. When they look back, they all say they had so much free time. They loved that they could do what they wanted and they could spend all day doing a project if that's what they wanted.

I feel when you follow the children's interests and when they follow what they love, they just spark. They had the freedom to say "this is not for me". Twenty four years ago, when we decided to do this, people questioned it. They wondered if they'd have any friends and said things like "it will do more harm than good".

Things have changed dramatically today. I'm the Home Education Network contact officer and anyone who wants information can contact me. I get three to five emails and calls a day from people. Parents are much more open to it now and they want to research it to give the child a choice.

I say listen to your child. There are so many options now with education. It's very positive for people as not everyone is equipped to sit in a class room or to put up with the pressure of school. What I loved about home education was that I was involved all the time and I really know my children. They will ring me and talk to me and ask me about decisions. I love that they want me to be involved in their lives. I've always listened to them. If they wanted to try something, I let them try it.

My life is so full - I learned with the children. We were learning Spanish together and I'm still improving every day. It can be hard to break the rules of society. I thought long and hard about it. But my neighbours' opinions didn't matter.

I've always said to the children "follow your heart". I never had to push them. They had the space to know what they wanted to do and they were able to find themselves and not be influenced by peers. There is another way but it has to suit your family. Ideally with home education there should always be one parent at home - I found that better. Some people can't home educate because they have to work. It's great for some and it doesn't suit others.

Then you just start by listening to your child and start engaging with them. By going for walks you'll spark their interest in the world. Listen to them - they are intelligent little beings. I would say to people don't be afraid to do something different.

The Home Education Network is a great support. We have our annual gathering in June in Meath and five of the children are going.

For more information see In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

Irish Independent

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