Finishing the Race: How Home Education Prepared Me For Life

By popular demand, here are the notes for Suzannah Rowntree’s workshop on home ed graduates.


I want to begin by saying what I’m not here to tell you. I’m not here to tell you how to do your job of raising and training your children. I can’t do that because I’ve never had children, and I’ve never had the training of them. All I can do, and what I want to do today, is simply to share my experience as a home educated student, along with the experiences of some others who’ve walked a similar path. Most of all, I want to take this time to honour the wonderful parents, my own first, and you second, who have made this decision to put your children’s training above your own free time, disposable income, and in some cases, social acceptability.

At the moment, home education can still be an unpopular choice, and sometimes it can be a difficult choice. What I want to do today is to tell you how immensely rewarding it is, and how deeply grateful I am to my parents for sticking to home education through the tough times.

Today I’m going to give you profiles on four young men and women I know who were home educated all the way through “secondary school”, and show you how their start in life being home educated has had some amazing repercussions on how they now live their lives. I also want to spend some time sharing some of the most important things I learned from my parents and provide examples of how they and other parents have prepared us, the home educated, for life beyond the school years.

Isaac Rowntree

The first home-ed graduate I want to tell you about is my own older brother, Isaac Rowntree. Growing up, Isaac and I were basically inseparable, so our stories are very similar. Our parents decided before any of us were born that they wanted to provide their children with a Christian education. Mum was actually a qualified chemistry teacher for a while, so she knew better than most people how undesirable a state school education really is. Our parents were adamant that we should get an excellent Christian education and be sheltered from the bad influences at school. But even more than that, they believed and confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. And the Lordship of Jesus Christ needed to be the foundation of our study–not the good of society or the benefit of the state.

We used a number of different teaching packages growing up. Mum taught us to read using Romalda Spalding’s wonderful book The Writing Road to Reading, which is a very simple and effective way of teaching phonics and spelling at the same time. She still recommends that book, but she now regrets the many years she spent teaching us with curriculum packages like Rod & Staff or A Beka. Often, this kind of ostensibly Christian curriculum contained little more than a weakly whitewashed version of what was presented in the state schools.

So it was never the curriculum package that taught us the most during our school-age years. Rather, I have vivid memories of three things. One was the books we read, either alone or as a family. Both my parents spent a lot of time reading aloud with us. My mother introduced us to a wide range of classics including the Chronicles of Narnia and GA Henty, while my father introduced us to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and the poetry of Banjo Paterson.

The second thing I remember very well is the conversations we used to have about the Bible and theology, even from when we were just two and three years old. During family devotions, my father taught us how to study the Bible. During our reading-comprehension studies, which used Scripture as a basis, my mother taught us a whole lot of theology. These conversations taught us not just our faith, but also how to think and how to read critically.

The third thing I have vivid memories of are the sibling adventures that my brother Isaac led us on. In fact, without Isaac, I don’t think my education would be even close to what it is. Later, Isaac, always more adventurous than me, was the one who introduced me to some of my favourite authors–JRR Tolkien, PG Wodehouse, and others. He also was more interested than me in science and mathematics, and it’s from him that I learned about dinosaurs, black holes, and megabytes. As very small children, it was Isaac who led us on long bike rides across town. It was Isaac who organised us to build rafts out of old doors so that we could paddle around on the dam. It was Isaac who orchestrated wrestling and tree-climbing in the back yard. It was also Isaac who supplied us all with pocket-money by starting a small garden-maintenance business in our neighbourhood using his younger siblings as the employees.

My Dad has always been a bit of an entrepreneur and he was always keen to encourage Isaac towards starting businesses. Even more importantly, my Dad taught us to see our work as a calling, a vocation, a ministry done unto the Lord. So, when Isaac was 15 or 16, Dad began to talk to him about his calling. At first I remember Isaac was interested in flying planes, since he’d loved Biggles books growing up. But pretty soon they figured out that Isaac has always been most interested in computers.

Around the same time, Dad was trying to start his own business making tiles. That never quite got off the ground, but he had Isaac working hard in the shed pressing out tiles with a home-made tile press. Isaac worked hard and my parents paid him enough to buy a really good computer. With the help of books from the library, he began teaching himself simple programming and web design. Shortly after this we moved a little closer to a small rural town and Isaac was able to bicycle the six kilometers in to speak to local businesses. He went around door-knocking–this was the early 2000s–and offered to build websites for the farming supplies and mobile phone and furniture shops. That’s how his business, Zack Design, got started. I still remember the long conversations he and Dad used to have at that time, in which they’d sort out things like business strategy and customer service.

As a result of some of these discussions, my brother decided to pursue a university degree–a Bachelor of Applied Science in Information Technology at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He and Mum researched the degree and the entrance requirements, and found out that no school certificate was necessary. Around this time, the Internet was revolutionising tertiary study. More mature-age learners than ever were choosing to return to university to get new training, and there were “back doors” which allowed them to return to study without a recent school certificate. My brother Isaac was able to make use of one of these back doors. An institution called Open University provides training without entrance requirements, and the relevant Open University credits can often be used in Australia to gain access to university courses. He had no trouble getting the relevant maths credits, and over the next few years, he did a whole course of university study from home, continuing to run and build his business the whole time.

Over the next few years, Isaac gradually moved away from home, then further afield, as his business needed better internet than was available at home. In 2009 or thereabouts, he settled in Melbourne, where Zack Design continued to grow and flourish. In more recent years, Isaac began to think about taking his business in a new direction–a more general marketing role instead of just building websites. He was finally offered a position as a digital analyst with the marketing team at the Melbourne office of Ray White. He’s recently moved on to a new job, but I continue to learn oodles from him about entrepreneurship, business…and the correct way to turn a cartwheel.

I have a few observations about my brother’s home ed experience. The first thing is something that really applies to both him and me. It’s this: Reading aloud is your secret homeschooling weapon. I can’t emphasise this enough. Reading aloud is an amazing way for families to hear and discuss stories together. It provides a quiet time in which everyone is sitting still and resting – important if you have young children. It appeals to a wide range of different ages. It helps build vocabulary, it helps with reading comprehension, it gives children a huge incentive to learn to read (since it shows them what the purpose is), and it tends to provide those who might be behind a bit academically with a chance to catch up.

Second, don’t underestimate the power of older siblings in teaching and encouraging younger siblings. To this day I swear the major reason I learned how to read was Isaac telling me I couldn’t read the Chronicles of Narnia because the back cover said they were suitable for children “8 and up”. He was 8. I was 6. I wasn’t standing for that…

More seriously, Isaac’s example has always been a huge inspiration to me to get out of my comfort zone and try things I thought were impossible. As the eldest in our family, Isaac was our pioneer into university and the world of business. From games of Monopoly at 5AM in winter huddled around the heater in our early years, to eavesdropping on client conferences in more recent years, I’ve learned a lot from him.

Third, don’t put too much stock in university degrees. Isaac will be the first person to tell you that he considers his degree a waste of good time and money. He was trying to build and run a business at the same time he was studying, and he said that it wasn’t until he finished his degree that he was really able to focus on Zack Design. He got so little benefit from the things he studied at uni that he felt his degree did little but hold him back. Meanwhile, in recent years he’s gone on to land a number of huge jobs both as a contractor and as an employee, and none of those came to him on the strength of his degree. His job with Ray White was handed to him on a plate with a sprig of parsley on the top because of expertise in his field and a track record of hard work, not because of a piece of paper.

Christina Baehr

OK, now I’m going to change gear a bit and tell you about my dear friend Christina Baehr. Here’s an excerpt from her website,

Christina Baehr (formerly Christina Sonnemann) grew up in a tiny Tasmanian bush town but has become an influential figure in Australia’s harp community, as a performer, teacher, arranger, composer, harpist-singer, and advocate of the harp.

She has performed and taught all over the world, including in cities as diverse as London, Paris, Copenhagen, Memphis, Canberra, Vancouver and St. Petersburg.

My friendship with Christina is special for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that ours is a second-generation friendship. Christina’s parents, Jack and Margaret Sonnemann, discipled my parents before I was born while both families were attending the same church in Melbourne. It was the Sonnemanns who first interested my parents in home education, and in many other ways started them on the path which both families continue to follow to this day. In fact, the Sonnemanns have had an even broader influence than that–Mrs Smith often tells me that it was something Mrs Sonnemann once told her about the importance of books and reading that turned the Smith family into such confirmed bookworms.

As Americans, the Sonnemann family came to Australia quite familiar already with the concept of home education, which took off a bit earlier over there. They knew they wanted to home educate their daughter before she was born. Margaret especially saw home education as a way to ensure against the extremely distant relationship she’d had with her own parents, who (unusually for the 1950s-60s) both worked full time. Christina’s grandparents also worshiped formal education, but were not able to transmit that religion to Margaret, who was completely dependent on her peers for acceptance and affirmation and became the quintessential rebellious young woman of her day. After becoming a Christian in her 20s, she was determined not to repeat these mistakes.

Sadly Mrs Sonnemann got very sick with chronic fatigue when Christina was 4. By necessity, she was forced to adopt a very natural learning style for her daughter. As I heard it, Christina’s education was very self-directed. She tells me that even now, she tends to “go on a learning bender”. Just as in her childhood, she’ll get an interest in a subject, go to the library, and borrow all the relevant books. Then she’ll read them, usually (these days) while feeding babies in the wee hours.

In a recent post on her blog, Baehrly Reading, titled “Home Education and Chronic Illness”, Christina shared the two main strategies her mother used to succeed in home-educating while chronically ill.

First, focus on simple but significant goals when it comes to your children’s education. Christina’s mother focused on the following four goals:

  1. Character attributes: obedience, respect, cheerfulness and diligence.

  2. Self-motivation. Christina was never allowed to say “I’m bored”. This was a great motivation to Christina to find ways of productively occupying herself.

  3. Worldview discernment. She was taught to evaluate her interests and materials for quality, suitability and usefulness, from a worldview shaped by the Bible. This helped Christina to focus on really important pursuits, rather than frittering away her time on small things.

  4. Aspiration. To make big plans and pursue them using the above skills.

Basically, since Christina’s mother was unable to do all the work of providing Christina with an education, she focused on training Christina to provide herself with an education. Christina says, “Investing in these attributes/skills meant that she could be reasonably confident in my use of time and pursuit of my interests, with minimal (but wise) supervision from her.”

The second main strategy Christina’s mother used to cope with home educating while chronically ill was to delegate. Parent-directed learning doesn’t all have to be done by the parents. As we’ve seen, Christina herself was allowed to direct her own education to a large extent. She was also encouraged to enroll in adult education classes (which she did from the age of about 14), listen to audiobooks, and get outside tuition from music, dancing, and riding tutors who were willing to travel to her home.

Despite her mother’s best efforts, Christina didn’t learn to read until she was 8. Finally, one day, something just clicked for her–and she was away. The first book she read was Pride and Prejudice. To this day, Christina continues to draw on her mother’s immense book collection and on local libraries for her education. Here’s what her husband, Peirce Baehr, says about her education:

My wife was homeschooled the whole way. Yes, by that I mean that she was homeschooled through primary and secondary school. But I also mean something more. Not only was my wife homeschooled right through year twelve, but she also did her entire tertiary degree without ever setting foot on campus. Or rather, not until she received her diploma.

Contrast that with me. I was never homeschooled: I went to a private day care; I went to a private preschool; I attended Christian and secular primary and secondary schools; I attended Christian and secular institutions for my BA; and for my MA work I did exactly the same. A number of these institutions are brand names – Wheaton, Oxford, Middlebury, University of Chicago, Regent – institutions known for their academic and intellectual rigour.

But I can tell you, between my wife and me, who had the better education. Hint: it wasn’t me. No question: my education was good, but hands down, my wife wins the contest (for which I abundantly thank my in-laws). Sure, her maths are basic, she did almost no science, and she doesn’t know how to format a research paper according to any manual of style. However, she is exceedingly well and widely read, both intellectually confident and humble, perpetually self-motivated to explore topics of interest and fill gaps in her knowledge, discriminating in her tastes, and wise. What more could you want from a good education!

End quote.

As a child, Christina began to play the harp. Like my brother Isaac, and like many other home educated students I know, it was around the age of 15 or 16 that she became quite serious about the harp as a calling, and attained a level high enough to enter tertiary studies with the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music. Before she and her parents had discussed this in much depth, however, her harp teacher quit his job as professor at the Conservatorium. He was, however, happy to mentor Christina professionally and guide her through the Australian Music Examination Board exams. Those exams were administered by the Conservatorium, and ultimately Christina’s two diplomas, one in harp and one in classical singing, were awarded by the University of Tasmania. Christina says,

The first and final time I heard a lecture at my Uni was my graduation lecture. It was a bit of a lark. The first time I attended a class there (on composing for the harp), I was teaching it.

As she transitioned to adult life, Christina spent much of her time reading history, cooking, learning the craft of screenwriting, and performing and working behind the scenes in the theatre industry–which she calls “the most toxic environment she’s ever been in”, which she survived only because her parents were involved along with her.

Christina was also involved in her parents’ work, helping to edit her father’s political lobbying materials. Jack Sonnemann has been involved in the fight against pornography in Australia since moving there in the 1980s, and has quietly won a number of significant battles.

This is good and important work, but not something that Christina’s parents wanted to involve her in too closely. Instead, she was able to focus on her harp-playing. From the age of 17, Christina began playing small concert tours, releasing albums, writing music, and getting media coverage. On two occasions she was asked to become Harp Professor at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music, although she did not take up the position on either occasion. She’s played at the Australian Embassy in Paris, at a Hollywood movie awards gala, and on cruise ships in the Arctic Ocean.

These days, Christina is enjoying the new adventure of wifehood and motherhood in Tasmania, where her husband Pierce plans to build and run a hostel ministering hospitality and the Gospel to travellers from all over the world. Christina continues to teach harp as a useful supplement to the family income.

Christina is a wonderful illustration of a major truth of home education, which is that true academic excellence will naturally flow from high Christian character. Put another way, education is ultimately something that your children have to seek themselves. To some extent, we are all auto-didacts. If we have learned anything, it was because we put in the hard work. This is not to belittle parents’ involvement. Rather, it’s to point out that the most important thing you can help us with, either in our academics or anywhere else, is the strength of our character, not the contents of our heads. In Proverbs 4:7, Solomon tells us, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding.” Without Godly wisdom and character, we will never discipline ourselves to learn anything. With it, by God’s grace, we should be able to take our education into our own hands.

When I look at Christina, I think the main conclusion I come away with is that she has not just received a wide-ranging and excellent education, she’s also been trained to think Biblically. As self-directed as her education was, she continually sought her parents’ input and counsel in all her reading, studying, practicing, and performing. As a result of Christina’s close bond with her parents, I can truly call her a wise and gracious woman. She is full of love, of joy, of peace and patience and all the other fruits of the Spirit. This character training is the most precious thing she has to offer. This, not the international harp celebrity, is what truly sets her apart from the rest of her peers and confirms the success of her education.

Peter de Deugd

The next home-ed graduate I want to tell you about is a name you might have heard before. Pete de Deugd is the husband of my very dear friend Genevieve de Deugd, who was formerly a Smith of New Zealand. Unlike the three other home-ed graduates I’m talking about today, Pete actually started out life attending the local state school. Unfortunately, this was a classic case of a square peg being fitted into a round hole. Peter de Deugd–as you’ll know if you’ve ever met him–was never intended to be chained behind a school desk with books and sums. He was a nightmare of a student, alternating between mischief-making or staring blankly into space. Compounding the problem was the fact that he had a nightmare of a teacher. Pete has described to me the moment at which his teacher, a man with a serious anger problem, loomed over him, seized the font of his desk, and began shaking it violently while screaming swearwords at him–all in an effort to get Pete to stop daydreaming.

At the age of eleven, Pete still hadn’t learned to read. So his parents made the decision to pull him out of school and begin home educating him. Progress was slow at first, but Pete’s parents could provide this dreamy, mischievous boy with something that his teacher could not: Vision. At the age of fourteen, Pete read his first book: Revolt Against Maturity, by the American philosopher and theologian Rousas John Rushdoony.

Pete’s mother used the Accelarated Christian Education package to teach him. This is not a programme I would normally recommend, and it did little to address his academic disadvantages. What made Pete the man he is was God’s grace and his parents’ amazing discipleship, which encouraged him to think Scripturally about every area of his life.

They also encouraged him to pursue his love of woodworking. In 1994, when he was 16, Pete registered PD Woodcraft, which he’d already been running for two years as a part-time business supplying one-off commissioned furniture and machined components for furniture manufacturers. In 1999, he was awarded two cabinetmaking awards and in 2000 he commenced full time cabinetmaking, working out of a small shed on his parent’s property. He’s still in that business today, and last year PD Woodcraft expanded to take in its first employee–my father.

Now one of the amazing things that I love about home education is how it prepares young people to think outside the box. It frees us to approach life from a highly individual standpoint. Pete is a great case in point. Pete’s dad especially is passionate about a concept he calls “the trustee family”–which sees property not as belonging to any one person, but as belonging as a sacred trust to future generations. I’m familiar with this concept because I used to see it neatly expressed in a magazine ad for Swiss watches, which came with a slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Phillippe. You only take care of it for the next generation.” In this view, property ultimately belongs to God, and it is our duty to steward it wisely for the next generation.

As a result of this vision, Pete decided he wanted to live his life and build up his business, 100% debt-free. Machinery, labour, materials, and a shed to work in–all of it would come after he had saved up for it. The challenge was finding a wife who would be willing to share in this vision. Well, you probably know how this story goes, and if you don’t, you can find it all on Genevieve’s old Issacharian Daughters website. To cut the long story short, a mutual friend put him in touch with Craig Smith, and in 2008 Pete and Genevieve were married.

Today, by God’s grace, Pete de Deugd has five adorable children, with a sixth on the way. Genevieve is already teaching them to read and figure. It’s Pete’s vision to win their hearts, encourage them into self-control and maturity, and include them not just in his home life but also in his work life. PD Woodcraft continues to grow to meet high demands, providing exquisite craftsmanship to customers across Australia with the help of some exciting machinery, including a five-axis CNC router which, if you know what that is, you know how awesome it is. Pete’s vision for Godly business practices also includes winning the regard of his competitors by assisting them where he can, in the belief that a healthy and God-honouring market is one that is free and competitive.

Pete is the outstanding example of several things I have found to be true. First, some people, especially boys, need vision and purpose if they are to be motivated to excel. Vision is not something you can get from a textbook, but it’s what a man needs if he’s to become a reader, a leader, or a thinker. For a dreamy and mischievous boy like Pete, a solid sense of purpose which he could grasp with both his mind and his hands was the key to his success as an adult.

Second, it’s interesting that Pete registered his business when he was 16. We’re conditioned these days to expect a child’s education to continue until the age of 18, but my family has found that by 16, most home educated students already want to be moving on to their life’s calling. While it will probably vary from child to child and family to family, 16 seems to be the age at which boys especially lose interest in formal education and begin to look further afield, begin to start businesses and pursue their life’s work.

Third, being home educated trains you to think outside the box, to swim against the current. One gets used to being different from everyone else, and the result is that it becomes easier to be different later in life. For Pete, this manifests in a number of different ways. He wants to be debt-free. He wants to win his children’s hearts. He wants to do good to his business competitors and the market in which he operates.

Finally, and most importantly, Pete stands for the fact that academics is a lousy measure of home-ed success. Even today, Pete doesn’t read all that well. However, there are people–including his customers–who regularly call him a genius for the many labour-saving machines and innovations he’s invented to make his work easier.

Additionally, I know few men of higher character. Pete applies God’s word consistently to life and meditating on it has given him wisdom beyond his years. He is truly a home education success.

Suzannah Rowntree

And now we come to my favourite topic: Me.

I’ve already given you a bit of a sketch of the early years of our education. As I mentioned, we started out using a number of homeschool curriculum packages. As time went on, however, we all began to realise that these packages were not really doing the work when it came to teaching us what we needed to know. Sure, they were full of facts, but the facts were often presented in a very inefficient way more suited to a classroom full of students the same age than to a family of six children all at different stages of life. More, the facts were usually presented with a veneer of Christianity, but the underlying worldview was compromised by a humanist worldview which saw history, culture, and philosophy as ultimately meaningless. In our quest for a radically Christ-centered education, we began to opt for other materials and a more natural learning approach.

When I was in my mid-teens, my mother discovered the Veritas Press book catalogue, which is associated with the classical education model, as well as the “living books” teaching philosophy of Charlotte Mason. At once we knew we had stumbled across something much more efficient. The idea is to ditch textbooks whenever possible and just read real books about history, culture, philosophy, theology, or great men. So, instead of reading a history textbook on Ancient Rome, I began reading actual Ancient Roman histories by people like Suetonius, Livy, and Plutarch, people who actually lived through and witnessed the events they were describing. Instead of getting my theology from Bible study materials–helpful as those might be–I began reading church fathers like Athanasius and Augustine.

And dare I say it, although science and maths never thrilled me, my whole family read and loved books like The Colditz Story, about a castle full of mad inventors bent on escape from Nazi Germany, or The Code Book, a history of cryptography from the simple Caesar shift cipher through Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine to private-and-public-key encryptions used in the present day. These were real books about real life, and they were much more readable and memorable than any textbooks. For me, books like this still constitute some of the only science and mathematics that I remember.

As I began to dip into more primary sources and living books, I was shocked to discover that I was having to unlearn much of what I’d learned in the textbooks. This was particularly bad when it came to history. Our textbooks fed us the usual majority viewpoint on things like the Emperor Constantine, the fall of Rome, the Crusades, the English Civil War, or the American War Between the States, and as a result I’ve had to spend much of the rest of my life unlearning what my textbooks tried to teach me. Hopefully, one day, my own children will have the privilege of learning the truth from the beginning.

Sadly for me, my mother did not discover the wonderful wide world of “living books” until I was already fourteen or fifteen and my formal education was nearly over. Like my brothers, I lost interest in formal schooling pretty much at the age of sixteen, and my mother let me take the reins of my education into my own hands, which is where they’ve been ever since. I read a lot of Greek and Roman literature that year, but by seventeen, apart from some reading in early church history and theology, my focus had shifted elsewhere.

I always loved reading, and so it was inevitable that sooner or later I’d start writing. I finished my first long story when I was sixteen. When I was seventeen, I wrote another book, but knew it would take a lot of work before it was ready for publication. I knew that no matter what, I wanted to write stories. But that doesn’t pay bills very well, and meanwhile, my parents were encouraging me to pick a career.

I’d better back up and explain. From my earliest years, my mother had taught me to hope and expect one day to marry, keep a house, have children, and home educate those children just as my mother was home educating me. She had even told me that while my brothers needed to find good jobs so that they could support a wife and family, she and my father were willing to keep me and my sisters at home until we were married. As I grew into my teens, however, my parents began to be more concerned about my prospects. At any rate, we reopened the subject, and my parents encouraged me to find some way of earning money and being productive in my single years, and of supporting myself if I should never marry.

Of course, with my interest in writing, we looked at a journalistic degree, but after speaking to the local newspaper, we decided against it. The job market was glutted with thousands of would-be journalists, and few of them were able to get jobs. I kept discussing ideas with my parents, but finally one morning I woke up and had a truly new idea. Many of my favourite novelists had started life by getting law degrees. It seemed to have done their writing good. Perhaps it would do my writing good, too. My parents were enthusiastic about the idea, so I began to shop around for a law degree.

I knew, of course, that it would take some inventive thinking to gain admission. At that point, there were still some universities that made it difficult for home-educated students to get in. Eventually I decided which back door I would use. I could get into law at Monash University if I transferred there from a bachelor-level degree at some other institution. So I decided to apply to Charles Sturt University, satisfy the lower entrance requirements for a Bachelor of Arts, do that for a year, and then transfer to law at Monash.

To gain entrance to a BA at Charles Sturt, I had to sit a Special Tertiary Admissions Test. It was a fairly basic test which tested mathematics and reading comprehension, and although like many home educated students my maths is pretty basic, I breezed through in the 95th percentile overall. Pretty soon I had a year’s worth of a BA under my belt and was ready to transfer to a law degree. I had planned on attending Monash, but now I heard that Deakin University was now accepting home educated students to its law school. This was attractive because, unlike Monash, Deakin offered law as an off-campus option, which meant that I would get to study from the safety of home. A year before, I’d decided against Deakin because they required applicants my age to have a Year 12 certificate. Only mature-age students were allowed to sit the Law School Admissions Test and get in that way. However, now things had changed and I was permitted to sit the LSAT.

So that’s what I did, and was accepted to the Deakin Law School at the age of nineteen. My university record, on retrospect, is not one I’m extremely proud of. I didn’t find myself naturally good at law, though studying it was very good for me and disciplined my mind in ways I’m very thankful for. It was hard work, and my natural laziness shone through at every opportunity. However, it trained my mind in some amazing ways–to go to the heart of a question, to quickly distinguish between relevant and irrelevant facts, to distill principles of doctrine from muddled situations of fact.

You probably want to know how I found the transition from home education to university. There was definitely an adjustment period. In some ways it was difficult. I had to learn how to present my papers in a way that would be accepted by the markers. I couldn’t just write an interesting and informative essay; I had to provide references for all my statements, and I had to answer the actual question given by the professors. That was sometimes a pain, especially when I felt they were asking the wrong questions–and most of the rest of the time, I felt they were deeply suspicious of any information they hadn’t personally put into my head.

In other ways, university was quite easy. I did a number of arts subjects, both at Charles Sturt and at Deakin as electives. In my first few weeks of study at Charles Sturt, they gave us a crash course in English grammar, and my solid home education made me the go-to person for grammar tutoring. I would log on to the student forums and dispense nuggets of wisdom. Like, “The subject of a sentence tells you who or what the sentence is about. The predicate of a sentence tells you what the subject does or is.” I had other students thanking me with tears in their eyes, while the actual university tutors danced around in the background a little alarmed that someone else was doing their job. It was pretty funny.

Overall I was deeply disappointed by the quality of the arts subjects I did. At the beginning, I looked forward to reading English literature and studying it in greater depth than I had with my mother. However, I soon discovered that I was already well beyond an undergraduate level of study. At the university level, we only studied simple texts, in a superficial manner.

Law, on the other hand, was certainly a challenge! Usually I would advise most people to skip university. Teach yourself what you love, either by developing self-discipline and getting a library card, or by gaining hands-on experience. But, there are still some professions where university will actually discipline you to a high level and provide important qualification and resources. Law is one of these disciplines, and I suppose medicine would be another.

At the same time I was studying law, I got my first and so far only job. I went to a well-respected local law firm and asked them if I could have regular work experience, since I was studying law. Amazingly they agreed, and pretty soon, that spun out to a regular casual position in the litigation department. I occupied a privileged position in the firm. You had the lawyers, who were fully-qualified and highly experienced, and then you had the secretaries, who had often come straight into the firm from school –excellent and efficient assistants, but not so accustomed to researching case law, or drawing up important documents. As a home-ed graduate, however, I was able to come alongside the lawyers and take on quite a bit of their work. I had huge fun. Sometimes I’d work as a detective, finding long-lost relatives or lost superannuation. Sometimes I’d work as a researcher, providing a memorandum of advice on the status of the law in some arcane area. Sometimes I’d interview clients and prepare their affidavits. Sometimes I’d prepare briefs for barristers. And I became the go-to letter writer whenever we had to threaten someone with a defamation suit. In summary, although at all times I worked under the supervision of more experienced lawyers, my home-ed background made me extremely useful to them, since I could both think and write.

The work was interesting, and I expected that I would be able to go on working at that firm as a fully-qualified lawyer once I’d finished my law degree. Sadly, however, halfway through 2010, the final year of my law degree, I lost my job. The Global Financial Crisis had impacted the firm quite badly, and one of the extras they cut was me. So, with just six months left in my law degree, I decided to move in with my brother Isaac in Melbourne and begin looking for a job.

It was the first time I’d lived away from home, it was the first time I’d sought a full-time job, and I soon discovered I didn’t like it. To make matters worse, our family was going through some difficult stuff with their extended family at that time, and I knew I needed to be with them. I began to ask myself a few questions.

  • My family needs me right now. What am I doing leaving them in the lurch?

  • I want to be a wife and mother, and a writer. So why am I pursuing a career in law?

  • Why am I putting off all my dreams about home and family and writing until sometime in the future when I might get married?

  • What if I never get married? How could I possibly be happy spending the rest of my life in an office?

  • Why do I need a career? Why do I need to find a job in Melbourne so that I can make enough money to live in Melbourne so that I can keep my Melbourne job?

  • And most of all, why is the Lord shutting every door to every sniff of every job possibility that comes my way?

A couple of years previously, I’d seen a documentary which may be familiar to some of you–The Return of the Daughters. This documentary, produced by Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, presented a different paradigm of singleness for women. Instead of university and a career why don’t young women with a vision for home and family choose instead to live a productive life in their parents’ home?

As a Christian, I’ve always understood and believed that women were created to be the helpers to men and that women should be keepers at home. My highest ambition was always to be a wife and mother someday. But when I first saw The Return of the Daughters, I was confident it didn’t apply to me. I knew the Lord had provided a way for me to get into university, and I knew the Lord had provided a part-time job where I could get a practical experience of the law. I also counted on being able to continue to live at home and work locally. All that changed when the Lord suddenly took away my job and I realised that in order to follow my career I’d have to move away. Suddenly, I had to choose between my career and my home.

And I chose my home.

With my parents’ blessing, I gave up the job search and returned home, eager to find some niche in our little community where I could be happy and productive. It took me a year or two to figure this out, but with my parents’ support and help, I’ve muddled my way into a busy, happy, and useful life.

So here’s what I do these days.

First, I’m a blogger. I started my blog,, in late 2010 as a platform for sharing book recommendations. I’ve kept it going since, mostly focusing on classic and vintage literature which is available in the public domain. My vision for Vintage Novels is to provide in-depth reviews that home educating parents can use to evaluate the worldview behind classic literature. Vintage Novels was named one of the Top Ten Blogs for Book Lovers by Story Cartel in 2013, so it has a wider appeal too, but if you are a home educating parent trying to find good book recommendations and evaluations on classic literature, I really hope you’ll make use of it.

Second, it was quite early on that I decided I should make myself available for whatever needs might arise among my friends. Many of my closest friends are now married with young children, and on a semi-regular basis they need someone to come into their home and take over some of the housework and childcare for a time while they recover from a difficult birth, try to move house, or just catch up on the cleaning. Sometimes I travel for half an hour to spend a day cleaning a friend’s house; once, a year and a half ago, I travelled to Tennessee for three months to keep house for a friend with chronic illness. In fact, I’m on assignment right now here in New Zealand–I’ve just helped Mrs Smith move house, and at the moment I’m a sort of travelling companion/chauffeuse!

Last, but by no means least, I’m an author. In early 2013 I published my first little book, which is titled The Epic of Reformation. It’s a short study guide to The Faerie Queene, an epic poem by Edmund Spenser–think of it like The Pilgrim’s Progress, but with way more knights and fair ladies. In early 2014, I published a second book, a longer work which I’ve titled War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian Life. This is a collection of essays revised and expanded from my blog, covering eighteen great works of Christian fiction. I’ll be updating that book sometime soon with suggested essay topics, in the hope that it will be a useful tool home educators can use in studying books like Beowulf or Mansfield Park.

But my great love has always been fiction. Just a few weeks ago I published my first novel, Pendragon’s Heir. I mentioned that when I was seventeen, I wrote the first draft of a novel. Well, in the ten years since, I’ve rewritten it from scratch four times, and in the end it’s become quite a decent novel–or so readers tell me. Here’s what one reader, Rachel Gray of Byte-Sized Theology, said:

As much as I enjoyed reading the book, I had no idea that it had impacted me so deeply until a week later when I realized that it had ignited a spark inside me- a spark of absolute resolve to follow my King, no matter how hard life gets or what sacrifices I have to make.

Which–I don’t think I can say anything better than that about it. That was definitely my aim in writing the book, and I’m thrilled to have achieved it.

I’m afraid I don’t have any paperback copies of my books here with me, but if you search on Amazon or The Book Depository, or if you visit my website, you’ll be able to access copies in either ebook or paperback format.

So that’s my particular niche in life. I don’t just blog, write, and travel around as a sort of homeschool Mary Poppins, though. I’ve helped organise international conference tours, I’ve appeared in print and on the radio as an advocate for home education, and I regularly have the opportunity to use my legal training in doing research and giving advice to organisations like the Home Education Foundation. I can’t wait to see where the Lord will take me next. I have no idea, but I know it’s going to be a thrill.

So here are some of the lessons I’d point out from my own experiences transitioning from home education to adult life.

First, really, I have to say once again that textbooks are not a great way to give your children an education. I remember very little of what I learned using history or science textbooks, but I do remember very well what I learned reading living books–real books about real people, places, and times.

Now I know textbooks are often useful, and better and better materials are appearing all the time. I especially would recommend such materials as Wheelock’s Latin, James Nance’s logic textbooks, Jay Wile’s science books, and best of all, George Grant’s history lectures. But by and large, if I was to give you all a personal message from Zoe Rowntree, veteran home educator, it would be this: Wherever possible, avoid textbooks. Read real books instead.

Second, between my brother and me, I can vouch for the fact that it is possible to home educate all the way through secondary school and then get into university without a great deal of trouble. Basically, home educators can get in through the same back doors used by mature-age students. If the university system in New Zealand is as friendly to older students as the Australian universities are, then all you’ll need to get into the degree of your choice is a bit of creativity and forward planning.

Third, home education does provide students with an edge on state-schooled students. If you can instil in your children such things as initiative, fearlessness, and the ability to think outside the box, then your children will be benefited in the job market.

That said, fourth, do think seriously about whether university and a career is what your children, especially your daughters, really need. In my brother’s experience as a high-flying businessman, university held him back. In Christina Baehr’s experience, tertiary education sought her not as a student but as a teacher. In my experience, law was something I probably needed to attend university in order to study, but I’ve come to realise that a university degree was not necessary to my success in life. Meanwhile, some of the most successful and hard-working home-ed graduates I know–photographers, musicians, animators, cabinetmakers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs–have got by just fine without the piece of paper. In the experience of many–not all, but many–home educators, university is just one more institution which can be done without.

When it comes to careers for girls, I’d just love to see every young Christian woman considering spending her single years productively in service to her family and community rather than feeling bound to chase an unfulfilling career. Obviously not every young woman will be gifted with a family-centered life, but this has been such a freeing vision for me and my sisters, and for so many of my friends, that I want to highly commend it to others. For me, a career was not something I chose because I had a specific vision for it, but because it was something everyone else was doing and I thought I had to as well. Deciding to dedicate my unmarried years–however long or short those may be–to my family and friends is the best decision I’ve ever made.

There are a lot of good resources out there to help you flesh out an idea of exactly what so-called “stay-at-home daughterhood” might look like in practice – hint, it can look like travelling on a speaking tour in New Zealand! – but I’d particularly recommend two recent messages from Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, both available on the Western Conservatory website: It’s Not About Staying at Home – which you can get for free! – and Developing Your Gifts Within the Family Economy. Also I’d recommend snapping up a copy of Jasmine Baucham’s book Joyfully at Home, which is out of print now, but which you can still get some copies of out on the HEF table.


To conclude, I want to take a moment to go over thirteen observations I’ve taken away from my own and others’ home ed experience.

  1. Reading aloud to children is the best way I know of to wake a lifelong love of reading and therefore, learning.

  2. Textbooks are a sure-fire way to kill curiosity. Instead, seek out real, living books to bring a subject alive.

  3. Elder siblings can have a powerful impact for good on younger siblings’ education.

  4. It’s getting easier and easier for home-ed students to access tertiary education without needing a school certificate.

  5. Don’t put too much stock in a university degree. Ultimately, it’s a good work ethic, self-motiviation, and experience that will set you ahead of the pack professionally.

  6. The two most important things you can give your children are worldview discernment and Christian character. Academics will flow naturally from that; not the other way round.

  7. To give your children Christian character, walk alongside them through all their activities–reading, studying, hobbies, starting a business.

  8. Some children, especially boys, need vision and purpose before they’ll learn anything. Without this, they are like the proverbial horse: you can lead it to the fount of knowledge, but you can’t make it drink.

  9. Don’t count on having 18 years to prepare your children for life. If they’re anything like the other home educated students I know, they will be ready to pursue their life’s calling by 15 or 16.

  10. Home education by its very nature prepares young people to think outside the box in more areas of their life than just education.

  11. Home-ed grads who have learned to think outside the box, who have learned to be self-disciplined and motivated, are already well prepared to compete in the job market.

  12. Neither academics nor career security should be the measure of home ed success. Rather, the measure of success should be that the young person has discovered a fulfilling calling in pursuit of which they show a high level of Christian character.

  13. Having pioneered alternate education during the school years, don’t be afraid to pioneer alternate modes of higher education or pursuing a vocation as your young people mature into adulthood.

Thanks for listening to me today. I hope this has been encouraging and thought-provoking.

PS. More helpful links:

Should You Go To University? – blog post and super handy decision tree from Peirce Baehr.

My list of Essential Non-Fiction – list of living books catalogued in three maturity levels.


Needing help for your home schooling journey:


Here are a couple of links to get you started home schooling:

Information on getting started


Information on getting an exemption

This link is motivational:

Exemption Form online:

Coming Events:


Red Tape Cluster Buster Meetings and the Scoping Survey:

Writing Research Papers


Writing Research Papers 0

Is your homeschooled high schooler learning how to write a research paper? Then tune in to this week’s programs. Home School Legal Defense Association High School Coordinator Becky Cooke joins Mike Smith to share balanced, experienced advice on assigning a topic, learning the basics of citation, and keeping it fun.
Program Listing:

Click on a program title to listen online and read a transcript

2/25 Mission: Research Paper
2/26 How to Begin
2/27 Understanding Citation
2/28 Make it Fun!
2/29 Evaluating the Paper