How home schooling can challenge our beliefs about education

It is rewarding, exciting, scary and frustrating. It also forces us to confront the question, “what is education?”
August 13, 2017

This September my eldest daughter starts secondary school, a prospect that, like many parents, I regard with a mixture of excitement, pride and trepidation. But when she heads off, it will be a bigger change for my partner and I than for many others—because for the past two years we have been schooling her and her sister ourselves.

When I tell people that we have been home-educating my children, a common response is: “I could never do that!” It’s pitched somewhere between an awestruck, “I could never imagine being able to do that!” and a horrified, “I would never do that!” Homeschooling is generally perceived to be both hard and risky.

I won’t pretend it’s easy. My partner and I were constantly juggling schedules so that one of us was free, if not to be “teaching” then to be ferrying the children between activities. And practicalities aside, there’s a constant inner voice: “Do you really know what you’re doing?” (Answer: of course not.) But having had previous experience of several schools, both state and independent, I know that many of the worries about children’s education—Are the kids happy? Do they have friends? Are they keeping up?—are the same, whether they are taught at home or in a school. The difference is that we have more chance of doing something about it.

Anxieties about children’s education and well-being have become pathological for many parents, and the school system is a big part of the cause. The fixation on choice and constant assessment has created a mad scramble to get to the top of the pile, without, to my mind, any overall improvement in education—possibly quite the reverse. Instead, the results are insecurity for parents and institutions alike—panic, constant tinkering with curricula and teaching methodologies, and an obsession with ranking and tests. These are not just interfering with education but subverting its purpose.

“Many British parents express surprise when they discover that they have a right to home-educate”
Home education offers an alternative. But while freedom from the madness of SATs, fronted adverbials, catchment areas and league tables is tremendously relieving, we’re not really fleeing oppressive schools and “bad teachers” (trying to teach kids yourself only increases your respect for teachers). We just figured our children might be happier this way. As Fiona Nicholson, who runs the home-education website, says, one of the main benefits is “taking charge of your own life.”

It is rewarding, exciting, scary and frustrating. It wouldn’t—probably couldn’t—work for everyone. And perhaps it’ll never work unless you accept that there are no perfect answers. In my experience the greatest satisfaction comes from having to decide for yourself (and of course for your child) what a “good education” really means, and to figure out how to get somewhere close to delivering it.

That might sound hubristic. Isn’t this, after all, what teachers are trained to do? Sadly, many teachers will tell you that it is not. Their training in child development is minimal, and there is scant opportunity to put such insight as they develop into practice while maintaining order in class and marching through the national curriculum. If you think home education is grossly presumptuous about what goes on in schools, consider that many of the parents I know who home-educate are teachers. They do it precisely because they do know what goes on.

The arguments for a role for homeschooling are not just about rights and responsibilities for giving children an education. They are about what education should be. While some teachers, educationalists and most education ministers believe they know the answer already, many employers, university lecturers and developmental psychologists are less convinced. The world that young people enter on leaving school is profoundly different from what it was several decades ago. Homeschooling offers one way to think differently about the requirements and objectives, and can catalyse an urgent and overdue debate. What is an education? It is a question I have been forced to confront and one that should be asked more widely.

*** It’s hard to find reliable statistics for children home-educated in the UK, not least because it can mean so many different things and because there is only an obligation to inform local authorities if children are taken out of regular schooling. Recent estimates put the figure at around 35,000-50,000, from a total of 9.5m children in schooling. The numbers are increasing, by as much as 65 per cent in the past six years, albeit with considerable churn as families move in and out of regular schooling.

Many British parents express surprise when they discover they have a right to home-educate. The Education Act 1996 stipulates that it is the duty not of schools but of parents to ensure that their children receive “full-time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude, and to any special educational needs they may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.” But that “otherwise” is ambiguous and some educationalists have argued that subsequent clauses in the Act imply that it is up to local authorities, not parents, to decide what comprises a proper education. The meanings of the law have not really been tested.

Other countries differ markedly. Homeschooling is illegal, for example, in the Netherlands and in Germany, where a few parents who have tried to oppose the law have faced the risk of having their children taken from them. Some other countries, such as Spain, lack any clear legal framework, meaning that families who try to opt out of the school system may find that they face school-attendance orders. Only 11 other European countries make homeschooling a legal right, including France, Ireland, Denmark and Italy. Few seem to have evolved a strong homeschooling culture, however, and the proportions of children educated this way are estimated to be less than a tenth of a per cent.

The UK, then, is unusually permissive, with few legal obligations. A local-authority representative will typically ask to meet home-educating parents each year, but a face-to-face is not mandatory and in our experience was fully supportive.

Some home-educators fear this is a precarious situation, not least because of concerns about radicalisation in out-of-school environments. In late 2015 there were ominous reports of a threatened government clampdown, but the then Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan affirmed that the monitoring is directed at “tuition centres and part-time settings” that offer services to homeschoolers. “We fully respect the right for parents to educate their children at home,” Morgan said.

In addition to all this, the highly charged climate of modern parenting means it is depressingly hard to make an unconventional choice without it being interpreted as a criticism of those who don’t. Traditional schooling can become demonised and vilified in home-ed circles, while advocates of “unschooling” reject formal education altogether. But the range of motivations for homeschooling is too wide for generalisation.

Some want to hothouse kids, away from the distraction of disruptive peers. Some are parents of children with special needs that they feel schools can’t accommodate. Some have ideological motives, fearing that school will corrupt their children’s sense of self or moral values, although in the UK home education on religious grounds is rather rare—in marked contrast with the United States, where many advocacy groups are dominated by conservative Christians and where as a consequence the debate has a different tenor. Then there are home-educators who simply like to spend more time raising their children.

For us it felt like the best available option at the time, and was a choice made for positive reasons rather than out of necessity, certainly not an ideological rejection of traditional schooling. As my eldest prepares to re-enter the school system (the youngest will, at least for now, continue home-schooling) I feel confident that it was the right decision.

Some of the advantages are obvious: a very high teacher-to-pupil ratio (at very little cost), accommodation of individual learning styles and interests, flexibility and freedom of schedules, syllabus and methods. If something isn’t working, we’ll do it differently tomorrow. My youngest daughter says she likes having some say about her daily curriculum—she doesn’t have to do maths when she feels like doing English. We can take holiday breaks when we like, free from scandalous half-term price hikes. The joy of being released from the daily drama of getting the kids out of bed, dressed and fed, and through the school run—certainly weighing on many parental minds as the new term looms —is not to be underestimated.

It’s an opportunity to integrate learning and home life. Because you know exactly what your child is learning, you can seize the opportunity to support that with whatever comes along, ideally without them feeling like this is just more work. And they generally have the energy for it, whereas school can be exhausting. When it works well, home education becomes a way to engage with possibilities rather than being a series of hoops to jump through. Regular education can become overly focused on “evidence of learning” at the expense of learning itself. In my experience, a child’s engagement with, say, Macbeth is vastly increased when they know they’ll not be required to answer questions on it afterwards as proof that they’ve “covered” it.

“My hope is not to teach my children to pass exams, but to equip them with skills to learn efficiently and critically”
When children aren’t constrained by notions of “which lesson they are in” or what they’ll be tested on, or what they should and shouldn’t be learning at different stages, their imagination and creativity can take wing. Drawing time-distance graphs to learn about velocity, my then 10-year-old daughter asked what happens when the graph has infinite slope. So I decided to talk about why an infinite velocity is impossible (it’s to do with special relativity), which led somehow to a discussion of the fundamental particles called neutrinos and to her electing to write a series of stories about two twins made of those particles. Stretching the conventional syllabus this way can yield surprising results. When I took on chemical displacement reactions, thinking it was perhaps a little ambitious, I was rewarded with a series of comic strips about the dating arrangements of the Halogen Girls and the Alkali Boys.

Naturally, I’m delighted about the occasions when learning catches fire. I’m also excited about what they show education can be when it responds to the interests of the child. These are not possibilities unique to homeschooling. We have been inspired by the example of child-led Montessori education in schools which, when done well, embraces a holistic view of learning about the world instead of fracturing it into “maths,” “science,” “history” and so forth. There seems little point in reproducing a classroom at home.

If all this sounds like fun, I should admit that in the early days I stormed swearing from the house, that phrases not unheard in our house include “Mum’s a much better teacher than you” (and vice versa), “This is boring” and “I’m not doing it!” Doors have not gone unslammed, voices have not remained unraised. But what would you expect? You’re not magically transformed from parent to teacher and back again. If the grandparents ask anxiously how it’s all going, of course they will be shown the model solar system, the robot, built from scratch, with buzzers and flashing lights, the homemade Tudor clothing. Those were the good days. You don’t want to hear more about the bad ones. (At any rate, you’re not going to.)

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It can be demanding on your patience—and also your time. The biggest deal-breaker for many people who otherwise like the idea is how to school your children and do a job. Since I’m a writer and my wife is an artist, we have the huge advantage of flexible hours, but there are still only so many of them in the day. The challenge of teaching physics or French when you didn’t even take the O-level is less intractable. There are groups and tutors for the specialist stuff: they’re not cheap, but much more so than school fees.

For some sceptics, the chief concern is not educational but social. It’s a significant issue, but at least in most urban centres there will be plenty of group activities for homeschoolers—there’s no need for children to be at home learning alone all day. Mine have attended home-education groups on science, English, pottery, robotics and ice-skating, as well as conventional out-of-school classes for gymnastics, drama, ballet and Chinese. In London many institutions from museums to leisure centres offer special sessions and rates for homeschooling groups. Families often arrange informal group activities: I’ll take yours today, you take mine tomorrow.

Another objection is that the school environment supplies an important formative influence to which children should not be deprived. But that attitude is conditioned by assumptions about the roles deemed acceptable for children in our society: they’re always either being family members or schoolchildren. Daniel Monk, a lawyer at Birkbeck College in London, who researches the legalities and implications of home education, points out that home educators often perpetuate those norms by casting themselves as transgressors: “trailblazers” or “educational heretics,” drawing on the language of political dissidents. “It becomes an identity and not simply an activity,” Monk says.

Homeschooling can’t provide all of the social opportunities and skills of a traditional school: the large pool of peers in which to find compatible friends, the immersion in peer culture (for better and worse, one must admit), an ability to navigate institutions. The range of subjects, sports and activities that a secondary school can offer would be challenging to equal. I have little sympathy, though, with the suggestion that, by letting kids knock up against each other, schools provide essential training for later life. Throwing together a few hundred immature individuals and leaving them to sink or swim creates an artificial environment that, unless deftly managed, can wreak immense harm. Teamwork and concentration in the face of noise are valuable skills, but the worst aspects of the adult workplace—cliques, sycophancy, humiliation, bullying and arbitrary justice—shouldn’t be blithely accepted as “real life” and I suspect that schools actually cultivate these things.

Reliable data on socialisation of homeschooled young people is hard to find. One (rather small) 1995 study found no indication that they had been left socially disadvantaged, and that if anything they acquired a stronger sense of independence and self-determination. Other studies have suggested that such children may become less dependent on peer relationships—with potential drawbacks and benefits. It’s true, though, that both parents and children need some separation, even if the traditional educational system imposes too much too soon. The ideal is a cultivation of healthy rather than enforced independence; getting to that stage is probably the biggest challenge we’ve encountered.

Socialisation is not, however, just about the individual. Gemma Moss, professor of Education at Bristol University and President of the British Educational Research Association, argues that home education risks neglecting the fact “that schools are the place where we build community, meeting with other parents who live in our neighbourhood and are bringing up their children alongside ours.” She says that schools should provide opportunities for “building communities that are bigger than our personal networks,” and may therefore be instrumental to “socially just communities that happen with a common purpose.” Whether schools actually fulfil this role is another matter: Moss feels that these communal aspects are precisely “what current education policy is trying to drive out.”

Of course, there’s also the critical issue of whether homeschooled children actually learn anything. Again, research is patchy. What data exists seems to suggest that, while the range is probably vast—from children who acquire few formal academic skills to Oxbridge shoo-ins—on the whole there is no significant difference between the attainments of home- and school-educated young people. That, certainly, was the conclusion of one of the most comprehensive surveys from 2013, although it focused mainly on the American system, where the social landscape of homeschooling is rather different from the UK. If anything, there are signs that homeschooled children who go on to college slightly outperform their peers in some respects, but I’d be wary of placing too much faith in such claims.

*** My own hope is not so much to teach my children all that they will need to know to pass exams, but to equip them with the skills to learn efficiently and critically: to be able to organise information, to have ideas and ask questions, to know how to find out what they need to know, and have the confidence both to trust their instincts and to spot and deal with situations where their knowledge is incomplete. I doubt that the aspirations of many schoolteachers would be very different. Hopefully a child will come to appreciate that learning is a part of living, and that good questions are at least as important as correct answers.

Helen Lees, an educational researcher at Newman University in Birmingham, says that the broader value of home education is to act somewhat like an opposition party. Traditional schools deny both parents and children a “voice,” she says: “trying to have a conversation about your child’s education is close to impossible,” partly because it will be received as criticism. As a result, parents as well as children are being traumatised by school, and Lees says that such issues are a common reason why parents choose to home-educate. “As a researcher I often felt that I had stumbled into an uncharted territory of the harm that schools do to individuals,” she says. Meanwhile, she adds, the attitude of many authorities to homeschooling is one of prejudice and incomprehension, with teachers and local authorities resistant to the idea that it is “education” at all.

This is, then, really a debate about what education should be. For Lees, it “is stuck and dogmatised into one hegemonic conceptual model: the mainstream school.” But while mainstream schools may impose a narrow view of education, there is no guarantee that homeschooling will be free from world views constrained in other ways, whether by religious or political principles or blanket suspicion of state intervention. Daniel Monk advocates compulsory registration of home educators with local authorities, arguing that, “home education… raises questions about both the meaning and purpose of education in a society based on liberal democratic principles and the role of the child in that process.” And so it should.

Many homeschoolers will remain resistant to more monitoring. But their decision to provide an educational alternative highlights the lack of open-minded discourse about the general aims and value of education. One of the big problems with schools is that they encourage us to think that we’ve already answered these questions satisfactorily. That’s why each fresh panic about “educational standards” tends to be answered not with a genuine debate about what we’re trying to achieve but with a new curriculum and new “targets” they must “deliver.”

Michael Gove’s notoriously dismissive attitude to expert opinion during his fractious stint as Secretary of State for Education was a particularly egregious instance of a wider disconnection between academic education researchers, government, school administrators and parents. Education alternatives needn’t be merely an escape from this sorry state of affairs, but a call to action.