How home schooling can challenge our beliefs about education

Philip Ball:

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.