December 20, 2002
Home schooling – just do it

My profuse thanks to Michael Peach for linking to this Guardian piece on Home Schooling by Stephen Cook, which I completely missed when it first came out.

In Britain, the internet and the media have ensured that an increasing number of people are aware that there is no legal requirement to send children to school. In England and Wales, you don't even have to tell the local education authority if you home teach from the start. If you withdraw children from school, you have to tell the authority, who will probably send someone along to "inspect" what you do. In Scotland you have to get the consent, rarely refused but often delayed, of the education service.

Let me repeat the key sentence here, for the benefit of all those who still assume that here in Britain school attendance is compulsory: "In England and Wales, you don't even have to tell the local education authority if you home teach from the start."

This means, as the Department for Education and Skills discovered in a feasibility study, that there is no reliable way of counting the number of home-educated children. Estimates for England and Wales range from 12,000 to 84,000, which would be about 1% of the school population. In Scotland, the home education pressure group Schoolhouse estimates there are about 4,000.

As Cook explains well, some like to count as many home schoolers as they can find, to prove that the existing education system is doing badly, and needs to change:

One attitude within the home education movement is to play the figures up in the hope that this will lead to changes in the formal education system, regarded by some as seriously past its sell-by date. …

But there is much to be said for everyone, including and especially the DES, remaining ignorant of the true numbers involved.

… Another is to play the figures down for fear that a busybody state machine will see them as a threat and start to crack down.

Exactly so.

It really is a very good piece. Over on samizdata I've been ruminating on the relationship between the blogosphere and the Old Media. This piece illustrates just how far the blogosphere has to go before it seriously matches the accurate and to-the-point reporting of the Old Media at their best. It also illustrates, for all the fulminations of many of my ideological confreres, what a very good newspaper and internet operation the Guardian can often be.

Professor Alan Thomas, of the Institute of Education at London University, complains that home schooled children can become "socially isolated". But of course, the last thing many home schooling parents worry about is that their children will miss out on the socialisation process of the average school. For many, that's the whole idea. But more interestingly, Thomas reflects on how home schooled children seem to learn.

What excites him is the discovery that children at home do not learn in the same way as those in school. He says they learn in fast, unpredictable bursts which are not amenable to conventional timetabling; this, he says, could bring about "the most fundamental change in our understanding of children's learning since the advent of universal schooling in the 19th century". If the lessons and benefits of home-education could be understood and taken on board by the system, fewer people might want to do it and the system might benefit.

Speaking for myself, I too learned in unpredictable bursts. The only difference that conventional schooling made to this process was that it got more or less seriously in the way. And I love the implication that "we" are only now learning this. But he's on the right track. I suppose.

So why does it bother me that people like Thomas are starting to take a sympathetic interesting in home schooling?

Mike Fortune-Wood of Education Otherwise sums up my sense of unease, with a pronouncement quoted at the very end of the Guardian piece which is a hell of a lot creepier than he seems to realise:

"The cat's out of the bag and people know it's a legal option," he says. "All kinds of people are doing it and if it continues growing like this, the authorities are either going to have stop it or embrace it."

Stop it. Or "embrace" it. I don't know which is worse.

No, what the authorities are "going to have to do" is just keep out of it. That would be the best arrangement by far.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 AM
Category: Home education