Home Education

DIY GCSEs and A levels (Part I)

The advantages of homeschooling are so many that they would fill a book. The disadvantages number just two.

The first disadvantage is the problem of finding enough other kids to form a football team or the cast of a play, and although team sports are really not our thing, and none of the kids miss them, Xoë would dearly love the opportunity to direct, produce, and star in a play. The lack of opportunity is frustrating for our budding actress – but her chance will surely come.

On the other hand, the second problem is one which will not wait; on the contrary. The second disadvantage of homeschooling is the difficulty of studying for GCSEs and A levels, and since these qualifications are a major factor in determining what opportunities and chances lie ahead it is imperative that the child be given the opportunity to attain them at the appropriate time.

When I say that studying for these exams is difficult in the home environment, I do not mean that the learning is hard. The learning is just as straightforward as any other kind of learning. The problem is more concerned with logistics. If you want your child to study for GCSEs at home then the first step is not to teach him anything; the first step is to discover what the various exam boards have to offer. This probably sounds straightforward enough – but it isn’t. For a start, each board offers a number of different examinations in each different subject. Most of the options involve “coursework” – work which has to be marked by a tutor and approved by the examining board – and this puts an almost insuperable obstacle in the path of the DIY student. To further complicate the matter, the exams are forever changing. If your child needs to sit his exams in 2009 then you had better be certain that he is not embarked on a course which is not available for examination until 2010. And vice versa.

Working one’s way through the quagmire of specifications and syllabuses takes weeks. The information is all freely available on the various examination board websites, but deciphering it is not at all easy and the board staff are notoriously unhelpful towards homeschoolers. Nevertheless, this is the best place to get the job done. If one had to write to each of the boards and wait for their replies the chain of correspondence could easily run on for months.

Having found out what is available and suitable for your scholar you then need to study the various specifications to see precisely what knowledge is required of the candidate – because, of course, the exams cannot cover every aspect of biology, religion, history, or what have you; each one is designed to test the student on his in depth knowledge of a very small fragment of the whole subject.

Finally, when you have discovered which aspect of the subject is to be tested you then have to get hold of the appropriate books and other teaching materials. One of the easiest ways to be sure of providing the right study materials and the best possible teaching is to get somebody else to do the job.

Get somebody else to teach the kids? Having home-schooled them since they first drew breath, and having taught them how to teach themselves, why would we now want to hand over the job to someone else? A full set of tutors for ten GCSE subjects requires a considerable financial outlay, so why bother?

There are three reasons. The first is that teenagers – girls in particular – seem to have more respect for other grown-ups than for their own very wise and learned progenitors. (Note: this information is based on a very narrow sampling…) The second is that Yours Truly and the Ship’s Captain know nada about quadratic inequalities, surds, and Virgil’s Aeneid. Thus our ability to teach Maths, Further Maths, and Latin is somewhat impaired. Naturally, the kids could teach themselves, from books, but book learning is nowhere near so complete and reliable as book learning backed up by input and assesment from someone who knows their stuff. Even in subjects, such as History and English, where we Aged Parents feel confident of our abilities it is very reassuring to have our opinions and assessments ratified by a higher authority. More importantly, knowing that they are travelling along the right lines is a tremendous boost to the children’s confidence.

The third, and most important reason for wanting some outside assistance is that a good tutor has years of experience of getting kids through their exams. There is a lot more to this than just knowing your subject well. As someone once told us when we first embarked on this adventure, “The GCSEs don’t test intelligence. They don’t even test knowledge. They test your ability to pass GCSEs. If you want to pass them,” the cynic continued, “then remember to use no thought. Above all, use no original thought.”
Having now helped the children through the GCSE mill I would say that this remark applies especially to Biology and History.

The quality of tuition varies according to the ability of the teacher and, above all it seems, according to his or her level of dedication. One disadvantage of homeschooling is that you can never meet the tutor and check him out; everything is done by post or by e-mail. One advantage over the usual system is that you can sack him. (There are quite a number of teachers that I would have loved to have been able to sack, when I was at school…)

Caesar and Xoë studied for their GCSEs with teaching materials and tutors supplied by the National Extension College (NEC). The teachers were a mixed bag. One did little more than mark each assignment with an A grade. Since the children both went on to get A grades in this particular subject we can hardly complain, but nor can we really say that she was good value for money. Of the other teachers two were outstanding, and the rest were pretty good. All but the first mentioned tutor accepted and returned work assignments, by e-mail, within one day; and all but she were happy to chat on the phone at any time and on any day of the week. Together, they (and we) pushed Caesar and Xoë along, and within five months they each had five GCSEs under their belts.

So far so good.

If only the NEC taught A levels in Latin, Further Maths, and Spanish… but they don’t, and since these were three of the subjects selected by our scholars for the next stage in the game we had to look elsewhere. At first it seemed as if we would have to go it alone – and this was a thing which the children considered to be most ill advised; they were sure that they would never have got A grade GCSEs without the help of their tutors. Then, when all seemed lost, we stumbled upon Mercer’s College.

No link, because Mercer’s College is a very old fashioned establishment; they don’t have a website. Indeed, the main man behind Mercer’s seems to feel that internet and e-mail are dirty words. Nor do they have the same efficient level of organisation as the NEC. In fact, Mercer’s College appears to be virtually a one man show, with John Mercer himself answering the phone, and sending out the books, and even doing some of the teaching.

Mr Mercer is amusing and cynical. His derogatory remarks concerning the NEC made us chuckle – but since we already had a high opinion of that particular establishment they did not actually cut much ice. The selling point – the line which made us snatch up the bait – was this proud boast: “We can teach anything,” said Mr Mercer.

“Can you teach Spanish at A level?”
“And Latin?”
“And Classics, and History, and English?”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Physics, Maths, and Further Maths?”
“No problem, ” said John Mercer.

And thus it was that Caesar and Xoë came to be enrolled as students of Mercer’s College.

Part II of this article will describe the children’s progress and their experience of distance learning with Mercers. In the meantime, if anybody has any comments, questions or advice, please fire away. If you are feeling shy, use the contact form, but if you are happy for your question or contribution to be viewed by the wide world, please use the comments box, below.


  1. Hi all at the Yacht Mollymawk…

    Absolutely incredible is all I can say. As a failed student (failed by the system I believe) and like scores of others who slipped through the “normal” educational net I find your description of home schooling amazing. It has taken me a lot of hard work to learn the things I know now because back then I was never taught how to “learn” by teachers or even given a goal in life. At 42 I still struggle to organise my learning capacity.

    Well done all of you and I wish you the best for the future exams… 🙂


    1. Jill  (article author) 

      Thanks for that, Clive. You are absolutely right: teaching the child how to learn is the key to education. Until we embarked on these examinations we had never followed a curriculum of any sort and the children’s entire schooling consisted of equipping them with the tools: basic maths, writing, computer skills, and above all, reading. They have all read fluently from a very early age. Once you have those skills then all you need to know is how and where to find information and how to process it – to write an essay or article, for instance, or to do further research – and how to incorporate your own thoughts and observations into your work.
      School is a system of force feeding knowledge. Home schooling provides the opportunity to allow the child to follow and develop his / her own interests.

  2. Thank you for this article – it is just what I have been looking for over the last two days! It has given me a greater understanding of how to go down the GCSE route with our home-educated children – expressing some of my own frustrations perfectly -and helping us ex-South Africans to make a bit more sense of this whole process.

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