So the headline news is Ruth got A*s in psychology and sociology and A grades in graphic design and her EPQ. We were already happy going into the college to get the results as her UCAS track had been updated and she had been accepted at Bath very much her first choice! This made getting the results envelope a much less stressful thing.

The history is not what you may expect. Ruth would not have been my predicted child to get the academic qualifications. She didn’t read until she was nearly 9 , didn’t write a paragraph until she was 13 and doing her environmental management IGCSE. We didn’t hot house her we had a pretty autonomous approach to home-educating and Ruth definitely was more artistic and physical rather than academic, although she always had a great instinctive feel for maths ( and did her maths GCSE when she was 12 having done no formal maths before starting the GCSE study (blog post about maths here)).

She studied 4 IGCSEs/1GCSE at home before fighting to get a place at the local 6th form college – they weren’t happy to accept the English IGCSE – bet they are pleased they took her now! At this stage she was ready to do more formal study and really apply herself, she worked amazingly hard whilst still keeping her job at Robin Hill.

We are so pleased that she got into her choice of university and very proud of her – regardless of her results we were so proud of how she decided what she wanted to do and really applied herself to it – but we are delighted that she got grades that reflected her hard work and dedication. Well done Ruth


Because I tutor maths and have got mine through a few GCSE exams I sometimes get asked about exams and maths so I thought I would layout what our maths journey looked like.

Two out of my three children did no formal maths before starting their GCSE studies aged between 11 and 13. In the interests of complete honesty I will declare that Ruth did do some worksheets that I found lurking about that involved packets of M&Ms and I taught Jonathan to add up in columns aged about 10; we were going round Lidl and I had a money off voucher to use but not much extra money so needed to add up. Rebekah was strange and liked doing worksheets or, better still, activities on the computer where her work would get a score and come with a printable certificate, so she sometimes did some formal maths.

Our general philosophy about education is that we (the adults and kids in the family) tend to learn things either at “point of need” or “point of interest”. Jonathan learned about adding in columns when I needed him to keep a fairly accurate idea of how much money we were spending from a complex list of numbers, until this point he had had no need to do this. It took him about 1 minute to get the concept. So what maths had they done to that point? They had done counting when they were small; we counted steps the same way as we would name colours of cars. Maths came up as we cooked: counting, approximating, doubling, halving, imperial measures, metric measures, times etc. etc. without making it a forced or contrived activity; as we cooked together these thing just came up as we talked and baked. Going to the shops, halving and quartering toast, playing with Lego – and I really mean just playing with it, not turning it into a maths activity, just playing with it automatically built the skills of estimating and realising that that you need four of this size to make one of that size. I remember my girls spending car journeys from Fife to Edinburgh to go to church chanting counting in twos and fives and tens – I never got them to do this- I have no idea why they were doing this but they did.

The other thing we did was play games, not made up “maths” games but real games. Obviously we played things like snakes and ladders,ludo and some strange game about snails by Orchard Games when they were little. Then endless games of Yahtzee as they got a bit older along with some Rummikub (and on very very few occasions because actually we all hate it – Monopoly). Card games at all levels from basic versions of Pontoon and Crib to the more complex games of Canasta we now enjoy. We discovered real games like Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride etc. possibly not using so much arithmetic but the amount of probability that is informally calculated when we play Settlers is enormous.

For us game playing and cooking are a very real part of our lives so inevitably our learning has come during theses activities, not in a contrived way but in a natural way, yahtzee started with counting the numbers on the dice but quickly developed into doubling and Ruth, who liked to think about such things, would ask probing questions about the scores and what the best way of arranging answers etc. would be – the others never did.

Some current game playing pics to break up the waffling about maths:

Scatergories and cocktails at Christmas

Scatergories and cocktails at Christmas

Exploding Kittens - the most serious game in the world

Exploding Kittens – the most serious game in the world

Seven Wonders - complicated but good.

Seven Wonders – complicated but good.

Some rather serious scrabble playing.

Some rather serious scrabble playing.

I like maths so and again inevitably it gets talked about, when the girls added something up to work out costs or something we would discuss which methods they had used for it and they would be different, Ruth’s were always more creative – we called this Sum Talk at uni and it was one of my favourite things.

So how was our transition from informal, need to know, maths to formal GCSE? In all honesty, mixed. Rebekah wanted to do it and I couldn’t face the prospect of doing it with her and then a year or so later starting with Ruth so we did it together. Firstly I am not good at maintaining a self imposed structure so I asked a couple of friends to join us following the syllabus so I would have some external pressure to keep me focused – lets face it there is always going to be something more interesting to do than a GCSE syllabus maths session, there is no way I would have been able to keep to a timescale to help them through the GCSE. I have recently done the Gretchen Rubin Habits Quiz – it turns out I am an Obliger and respond well to having some external pressure so obviously this was the right approach for me to take. So we structured ourselves to do a class a week for about 18 months. These were supposed to be two hour classes, but sometimes they went on for as long as 5 hours – with runs round the garden and biscuits to keep everyone going. I had two different types of people in my group two “I have an instinctive feel for maths but no structure” types and two “I like to learn the method and stick with it” types, which was interesting. We had to back-fill a lot as we didn’t have 9 years of previous experience to draw on. This was usually done pretty quickly but all added to the time required to manage to get through the syllabus.

It was definitely doable for us to go from no formal maths to GCSE but it did take a fair amount of back-filling of the formal aspects of things and my kids all seemed to have a very good informal grasp of numbers and how they worked before we started and some weeks we spent hours and hours going over things. This was my girls’ first proper experience of sticking with a syllabus and it wasn’t always easy for any of us – we had to make sure the work was done in a timescale and we stuck to it – none of us really liked doing this but it got easier over time and we’ve even managed some other exams now with only the external pressure of the exam date to keep us going. Don’t let me leave you feeling that this was easy for us, despite everyone wanting to do all the exams we have done there have definitely been tears and the odd tantrum during the process. We also had the massive benefit of being able to do the modular exams, which sadly are no more, which really helped with spreading out the stress and were great for my group who had never experienced formal testing so the tiny exams were not very scary.

I hate doing GCSE exams; to me it takes away from the real process of education but they have been done by the kids as a means to an end, a hoop jumping activity. I think Ruth is finding A-level study to have more point to it and to be far more interesting but the idea of exams to test a huge amount of remembering still seems a strange thing to do in our current society.

Do I think it would have been easier for my children to do the GCSE maths if they had had more formal understanding of maths before we started? The short answer is yes, however I wouldn’t have wanted to have encroached onto our earlier time together with formal “work”. I would also say that despite not having done formal maths their informal maths skills were great; they didn’t know multiplication tables but they knew how to work them out, they knew that 1/8 was half of 1/4 and so 2/8 was equivalent of 1/4 so moving on to formal fractions was fairly easy as they knew about them informally. Without having those informal skills working through the syllabus would have taken much much longer.

I run GCSE maths groups despite the fact that I think that people can do it themselves at home with a book and some of the great web resources that are out there. A group can be helpful for a number of reasons: it can help you stay on track, it can help to have someone who isn’t mum or dad imposing the work (when she was little Rebekah always responded better to someone else other than me asking her to do something), as a home educating parent it is sometimes just nice for someone else to be doing the work of finding the resources and teaching the subject (I’ve certainly been grateful to people who have done Biology and English groups so it was something I didn’t have to think about as much).

You may wonder then why I teach a pre-GCSE maths group. From my perspective it is largely about time; in a 2 hour GCSE class we don’t have time to back-fill so if a group knows some of the skills beforehand we can spend more of the time on the syllabus. From the perspective of the students or the parents it can be about confidence, or about building up to working in a more formal group or concerns about their own maths skills. I have absolutely loved teaching the pre-GCSE group for the last year, I don’t have the pressure of sticking rigidly to a syllabus so can teach the things I/they think are important and have time to do it in ways that can really try to build understanding and we have time to play games and investigate things. In my GCSE group I don’t have much time so we can’t spend lessons playing battleships to teach co-ordinates or board games for algebra substitution but in my pre-GCSE group they can do this. This week we had some very competitive algebra game playing!




Photo bomb

Photo bomb





One of the best things about The Learning Zone is our annual cookie exchange, organised by one of our members. This year we had a whole afternoon of festive fun. The English and drama group put on an amusing play with magically growing hamsters – yes seriously. Then we exchanged cookies – some of which had the most amazing wrapping this year. Then we sang a mix of sea shanties and carols rather raucously which was great!

Here are a few cookie pics to make you which you had joined in!

Our basket of rather cheaply and simplistically packaged cookies, we made chewy chocolate-chip cookies, German lebkuchen and Dutch pepernoten :


But got these amazing cookies in return:


And just look at this house – I think some people were just showing off!




We loved these boxes too:


and there were so many other lovely and delicious cookies from so many other generous people, we feel really blessed to be part of such a great group.


My last month has been manic – extra maths classes, festival outreach at church and Rebekah’s 18th birthday celebrations. By Wednesday I had finished all of that and could head off to Oxford for a day with Martin, Martin had a meeting to go to and Jonathan and I tagged along for the ride and I could spend a day with no agenda just chilling out.

We started with a trip to the Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museums – we did stuffed birds, skulls and shrunken heads, and weapons and armour. Jonathan was a little disturbed by some of the human models which were a bit to anatomically graphic for him!




Then we waited for Martin to join us at the University Parks.




When Martin caught up with us we had a wander around the parks and played a quick game of table tennis.



We headed back to the covered market and shared some delicious Thai food, junmped back on the park and ride bus and headed back to Southampton somewhat earlier than expected. We managed to get on an early ferry and were back in time to head out to Freshwater Bay and a quick swim before bedtime!


It’s been ages since we had a “circus” in The Learning Zone so I thought I’d host one. Everyone brought an activity and we had fun trying out different things.

We had sherbet making (acids and bases) and paper chromatography:





Various watery activities to do with things like surface tension:




Psychological memory testing:



The well known milk, food dye and washing up liquid demonstrations – we experimented with Ecover and cheap washing up liquid there was quite a difference:



And balloon rockets and the ever fun to play with non Newtonian fluid which I didn’t manage to get a pic of.

Had a lovely day.

Rebekah was out at work in the morning then spent the afternoon and evening planning and preparing music and then going out for a drive with her friend who has recently passed her test.

Ruth was heading to the hovercraft and a day on the mainland with friends thanks to one of their mums getting some free hover vouchers.

Which meant that I had an excuse to take Jonathan over to Ryde and to the skate ramps which he had just recently asked me to do. Add in a couple of his home-ed friends and he had a great morning getting more confident scooting. A trip home discussing tax avoidance along with Jeremy Vine on Radio 2.

He suddenly decided to start learning the ukulele so spent the afternoon swapping between youtube clips teaching him and games on the computer when he got too frustrated with it. Then he spent an age reading in bed.

It was a day I was very happy with.



I’ve had a great day.

I went on a walk with Martin to work and instead of just rushing back I went down to the sea and just stood and watched for a while, peaceful and beautiful.

Then we got the pre-Christmas cleaning up done – all the children joined in and so did Caleb who, unfortunately for him, was around to help out!

We had a bit of time to spend making a few decorations and some gingerbread trees and snowmen followed by a quick spot of lunch.

Then we had friends over to decorate gingerbread houses. Jonathan made a gingerbread camp site complete with a fire and an abominable snowman. Val was quite sure we had made a brilliant gingerbread city. There were a lot more sweets at the start than managed to end up on the houses!

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I also got some mulled apple juice going , non-alcoholic but with a little kick from some Rochester dark ginger drink  and while the icing was setting (we used Mary Berry’s royal icing method and it was brilliant) we made some decorative stars.

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This scene could have taken place over 10 years ago now and I love the fact that in some respects nothing has progressed and nothing has changed!







We have a nicer house now than 10 years ago, Caleb is taller, Rebekah is less bossy, but Caleb is probably her oldest IoW friend and it’s lovely that they are still sitting on the floor making paper-chains.

Today we went to the Learning Zone nativity. It was lovely, like any traditional nativity with small kids. There was some not very quiet whispering, some prompting needed, some very cute lines and a gorgeous outfit very clearly completely made from a stripy sheet. It was exactly what you want.

But none of my kids were in it – they are just too big. Jonathan is nearly 12 and not interested and the girls were too busy even to be involved in helping out. While the rehearsals were going on I was very aware that there was this whole set of meetings that I would have at one time been very involved in that I had no reason to be at. I was even moderately tempted to go along without the children bit that seemed to be a bit too sad! So we seem to have progressed a stage now as a family we really are (and to be honest haven’t been for a while) not a family with anything resembling small children any more. Time to move on in my thinking as Ruth considers college next year and is already out a lot with an internship type thing at WightStars, and Rebekah has just been given a very slightly conditional offer on the course she wants to do at uni next year. 



For the last few years we’ve run a singing group with The Learning Zone leading up to Christmas, we’ve learnt some folk carols and enjoyed singing some sea shanties and silly songs as well. We performed Sweet Bells, Hail Chime On, The Wexford Carol and While Shepherds Watched (Lyngham) at the Newport Churches Carols in the Square. We were in between The Salvation Army band, puppets, gigantic pass the parcel and various other bits a pieces. Our grp did really well and they had worked so hard to produce a lovely sound. You can get a little taste of it here:

Rather than do a concert with the songs we had learned this year I opted to run a Christingle service where we could sing the carols we had learned and some more traditional carols too. We had loads of people, everyone made their own Christingle and there is something so beautiful about singing carols in the candlelight. Unfortunately as I was busy running it I couldn’t take photos during it but here is a snap just after of the girls and Caleb.


We followed the Christingle with another favourite Christmas tradition the annual Learning Zone cookie exchange.

We made 110 cookies at home and packaged them up into 11 bags with labels. When the kids were small it was ever so difficult to make so many cookies – with the “help” of little children – but now everyone does their own thing so it’s only a moderately large batch each.


This year we all sat round in a circle and handed out the cookies explaining who had made what and giving some details of the cookies.


We ended up with 110 cookies of all sorts of shapes. styles and flavours. We always spread the cookies out when we get home and examine them decide if any can be put in the freezer for closer to Christmas and which one must absolutely be eaten immediately. Then we sit and have a cuppa with a selection of the cookies.

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