Reflections on Home Education

IMGP6676I’m coming to the end of a three year phase as a home educator so I thought this might be a useful point to share reflections. This is my take on the benefits, needs and motives of the Home Ed community based on our experience. It might be of interest for parents considering choices for their children, or for people who work in cultural and creative learning.

I think this should be of interest because I predict a big growth of Home Education in the UK (especially England) over the next few years, for the following reasons:

  • A growing shortage of school places and this being tackled by growing the size of schools. Many without their choices of schools may decide to go for alternatives.
  • The Gove-isation of schools in England: More formal learning for Early Years, a curriculum that emphasises national pride over diversity, the demotion of vocational qualifications, the removal of coursework in GCSEs, forced academisation and back-door privatisation, removing parent’s rights to take children out of school in termtime, longer days and more homework, the demotivation and demotion of teachers and the list goes on. In short, state schools are becoming more homogenous in their learning offer and culture, despite a confusing variety of governance structures.
  • Other European countries (France, Germany, Sweden, Holland…) are making it increasingly difficult to Home Educate. We may see more families move to the UK for this freedom.
  • Restrictions on Flexible schooling – whereby heads must now mark children as absent on days when they are being educated outside school. (At one point, DfE described it as disallowed but this reference was removed. However, it is perceived as more difficult so more families may choose Home Ed instead.)
  • An increasingly polluted environment, leading to a pandemic of developmental toxicity with growing numbers of diagnoses of conditions such as asthma, diabetes, autism and ADHD. When schools are emphasising sedentary and academic learning, combined with cuts to Teaching Assistants, school can be difficult for many children with such conditions.
  • The internet enabling more networking between Home Ed families, as well as the provision of a wealth of excellent learning resources online.
  • Home Ed is growing in popularity in the US, and here in the UK we’re very susceptible to following cultural change over the water.

The term Home Education is favoured over Home Schooling, as Education is less about forming or controlling a child than Schooling. Some use terms such as Family-based learning, Alternative Education, Education Otherwise, or Unschooling or Deschooling. The choice of term indicates something of their philosophy but most use the common short term of ‘Home Ed’. The Home Ed community is very culturally diverse (including travellers, parents with roving jobs, recent migrants, exiles from countries that ban Home Ed, parents of mixed nationalities and a few of orthodox faith) and very varied in views about parenting and education. Some parents are more structured and organise more formal learning, others leave much more space for children to get bored and make their own arrangements. However, the great majority broadly share some views in common, mainly that they care greatly about their children’s wellbeing and want their children to be interested in everything they are doing. Some have distinctly chosen never to be involved in schools, others have Home Ed more or less thrust upon them (or are ‘sucking it to see’). Beyond a philosophical choice, the kinds of circumstances that nudge or force a choice of Home Ed include children being chronically ill or disabled, having learning and emotional difficulties, family upheavals or traumas, talents that need nurturing, being bored at school, not getting a school place, being excluded, parents moving from one place to another or working abroad, or children experiencing school phobia, bullying or school refusal.

Home Ed has not, for us, been about rejecting the whole idea of school, but the sheer unsuitability of local secondary schools for our daughter’s needs. She was adamant in refusing any school with uniform as she is very expressive with her clothes (see the picture of a cape/throw she designed and crocheted – a design I’ve never seen anything like). She did start at a Secondary school, part of the Haberdasher’s Federation which is the epitome of good practice in Michael Gove’s eyes. The transition from a very creative primary to a regime of strict discipline, timetables, lack of playground space, daily homework and deep-diving into subjects like Spanish, was just too much for her at the time. In particular, she was horrified by a system of sanctions whereby homework below a certain (fairly high) mark would result in shortened break times. Refusing school was for her, traumatic, as she missed her friends and really wanted the structure offered by school. Home Ed was our only option as forcing her to go to school just did not fit with our values of parenting.

She is now gearing up to go back to school, one that suits her needs. She has a place to specialise in Visual Art & Design (and Drama) at the BRIT School for Performing Arts, so it’s not quite like going back into normal school. If you’re not aware of it, this is an independent state-funded school for 14-19 years that combines academic success with very well resourced, professionally taught and vocationally driven Creative Arts. It’s very competitive to get a place and students travel from well beyond London. There’s no uniform, no bells between lessons, no locked doors and lots of physical exercise. Two days are relatively off timetable for creative learning at the right pace. The rules are all based around values and positive behaviours, and transgressions are dealt with by conversations. It will be difficult at first for her to get used to the nature of the work in the academic subjects they still take alongside creative BTECs. On the other hand, she has not lost interest in study, and is going into it in the very best of mental and physical health.

Home Education is not perfect, and it has not been perfectly easy. However, it is thankfully an option because it is allowed in this country. It is also easier than you might imagine, and there are many positive dimensions to it. Some of the dimensions are immensely positive – and there have been five key ones for us.

One has been the health benefits. Home Ed allows children to get enough sleep, avoid undue stress, be out of overheated artificially lit environments, avoid commuting at rush hours and to live in their bodies in natural and energetic ways. Even in study clubs, children tend to be trusted or free to move around, go to the loo or get water. Our daughter often cooks, goes shopping, foraging and gardening, so is well aware of  nutrition and healthy sources of food. Then also if children are unwell, it allows them to rest and manage their treatments. If you see Home Ed children in a group setting, and including those with challenges or sensitivities, their moods range from peaceful to exuberant. Of course, they can have bad times but in general they are both calmer and more expressive than most school groups I’ve experienced.

Another benefit goes against the biggest myth about Home Education. It is incredibly sociable, as so much learning takes place in clubs, groups or trips, rather than being ‘stuck at home’. Sociability is helped by playing and learning with children in wide age ranges, for example teens helping little ones. There are also plenty of natural and equal conversations with adults. There is more free play time for improvisation and chat, which helps build social skills. It’s not just free play though. Children are more likely to be actively involved in planning and organising learning activities than at school, so collaboration with others has a real context. Home Ed children also have more time to connect with each other online.

A third benefit is the opportunity for children to develop gifts and talents, and to extend their learning projects beyond levels they would be able to reach in school. They can work on something when they are motivated, and stop when they are tired or when it’s finished, not when the bell goes. They are unlikely to be distracted by disruptive behaviour in a large class. They can get out all the materials for an experiment or art activity and not have to put them away. Children work to goals they set themselves, for example, getting more views on social media, selling artwork, making people laugh or just getting better at something. They don’t work to attainment targets set by others, except in areas such as music grades or martial arts. Or they might use informal external systems for structuring and rewarding their learning such as Arts Awards, competitions, auditions or open digital badges. There have been several studies that show Home Ed does give an academic advantage, for example a 2002 study in Literacy, suggesting that the emphasis on tests and standards in schools is not necessarily helpful.

A fourth benefit is that Home Ed not only prepares you for ‘the real world’, it IS the real world. This disproves another common attack on Home Ed which says ‘school toughens up children – it gets them used to being told what to do, which is real life’. I believe that school perpetuates certain behaviour in culture. Schools with a strong discipline ethos divide people into two tiers – those who must be respected and those who must obey. I don’t want to see a future world where people are trained only to obey, or to compete to be the ones that must be respected. Home Ed children are more likely to develop the kinds of leadership capacities needed for future work, where mechanical tasks are likely to be automated. They learn through intergenerational, collaborative projects how to be empathetic, responsible and fair. They observe and get involved in their parents’ work (many of whom have home-based, flexible, entrepreneurial or relational work – as it fits into Home Ed). They make lots of decisions for themselves, including evaluating whether any activity is worth doing, or any text worth reading. Projects build on projects and can be applied to real needs in the home or community. It makes sense from our own experiences of work that we can be more efficient when we are motivated and can work at the pace required of the job in hand. Home Ed can intensify parent-child struggles – partly because of the time spent together and the tendency to favour self-willed resourceful behaviour – but the Home Ed children I know are also respectful of adults, and very good listeners.

Finally, Home Ed provides you with all kinds of opportunities as a parent to get creative in helping design learning projects, to collaborate with your partner and other adults, to learn new things for yourself, to have excuses to go to cultural events or to walk in woods, to spend more time with your child before they grow up, to celebrate their uniquely quirky achievements (just as you did when they were little) and to reflect more deeply through the practice of being a parent. Most people who toy with the idea of Home Ed say ‘I don’t know enough to teach it’, or ‘I don’t know how to teach’ but it really isn’t necessary. You don’t have to teach the National Curriculum. You don’t have to teach anything. You might be the last person your child wants to learn from. You just have to be motivated enough by your child’s development to act as a kind of broker between their interests and what you find interesting in the world.

Home Edders can come across as evangelist about the benefits – which must be irritating for those who are tempted but who just cannot afford to reduce or flex their work hours. It’s not surprising that they do evangelise though, because it is attacked and misunderstood, and these attacks are felt to be personal because Home Ed is all about personalising your learning and bringing it home. There are costs involved – some sacrifices in paid work, and paying out for tutors, clubs and trips – so you have to tell yourself a positive story about this investment. It’s not always easy to do that. There have been days of languor or low achievement. There have been days I wish for an empty house. There have been communication slips with other parents and disappointments. But overall, I am so grateful that we are free to do it in this country, free to do it without teaching qualifications, inspections or National Curriculum strictures. It’s important for me to add that I’m not writing this as a pro-Home Ed and anti-schools argument. I work with plenty of amazing, inspiring schools, where teachers are pushing to develop enquiry-based, healthy and culturally rich learning environments. This is really an argument for freedom and choice, whether freedom for schools to develop creative curriculums, freedom for children to learn through exploration and play and freedom for parents to choose what is right for their child.

An update nearly 2 years later: Home education didn’t seem to do our daughter any harm. She is now doing really well academically and artistically at the BRIT School. Looking back it was an interesting experiment, and we learned a lot. Home education is still growing in popularity, though perhaps not as much as I predicted.

Photo taken by Alan Rusbridger in a school uniform section of a department store, shared on Twitter.

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One thought on “Reflections on Home Education

  1. I really enjoyed this post – Especially the photograph at the end and the bit about coming across as evangelical as a result of defending an outside the norm choice. That really resonated with me.

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