Monday, 8 February 2010

Halting the rise of home education

Whenever I talk about the various reasons why parents choose to educate their children at home, somebody is always sure to challenge me by asking if I think that one motive is better than another. I think that at the back of some people's minds is the idea that I am determined to set up a hierarchy of home educators, with noble men who decided not to send their children to school in the first place, at the top, and those weaklings who withdrew them because the school did not cater for their special educational needs at the bottom! This is of course absolute nonsense. I find this whole question interesting in itself and also vitally important for the future of home education in this country.

Nobody has any idea how many children are not sent to school, as opposed to those who are sent and subsequently deregistered. Similarly, nobody knows what percentage of parents withdraw their children from school for this or that reason. We do know that very common reasons are bullying or the inadequate provision made for special educational needs. We also know that the number of children being taught at home has been climbing inexorably for some years and shows no signs of declining. So much, everybody would agree. It also seems quite likely that many of those who have taken their children out of school for various problems, would not have done so if things had gone smoothly. They were happy to send their children to school, a problem or series of problems arose and so they deregistered their children. Also fairly certain is that once these children are out of school, they are likely to remain so, even if the original problem is sorted out. In short, they and their families get out of the habit of school. Once out, they are liable to remain out.

The implications of the above are profound. To begin with, if the schools had tackled the problems of which parents complained, robustly enough, then the children would probably have stayed at school. In other words, it is the schools and local authorities who are really responsible for this type of home education; the impetus does not come from the parents themselves. This being so, it is pretty likely that local authorities could, if given sufficient incentive by central government, get their act together and deal with bullying and special educational needs in a better way. If they did so, the numbers of home educated children would begin to fall.

It is, as I say, impossible to know how many children have been withdrawn for this reason or that. It is a fair guess though that there are something like twenty thousand home educated children known to local authorities. It may well be that the same number again are being educated at home unknown to their local authorities. Those unknown, have probably never been registered pupils at a school. In short, their parents decided not to send them in the first place. Of those who are known to local authorities, the great majority are known because they have been deregistered from schools which they were attending. That being so, and bearing in mind what I said recently about few people taking their kids out of school for purely educational reasons, it is probably the case that most of the twenty thousand children know to local authorities have been taken out of school because of problems which the school has been unable or unwilling to resolve.

We thus reach a point at which we can say with some assurance that roughly half the home educated children in this country were originally sent to school by their parents and are now being educated at home because the schools fell down on the job in various ways. A natural and inescapable corollary is that fixing the schools so that they meet parents' expectations would eventually halve the numbers of children being home educated in this country. This would not happen overnight. I cannot really see a mad rush of home educating parents besieging these improved schools with requests to enroll their children! It is likely though that dealing with the schools would perhaps halt the exponential rise in the numbers of such children being deregistered which we see each year and probably reverse the trend entirely, leading after a period of time to a sharp decline.

It is this idea that I have been trying to explore when I talk of the motives for home education; the idea that "home education by default", as Graham Badman called it, is the driving force behind the rise of home education in this country which we have seen in recent years.


  1. Fixing the problems which triggered our decision to deregister would probably have deferred that decision rather than prevented it altogether. Furthermore, I don't see any way of fixing the problems without drastic, improbable and impractical change. None of the politicians have a clue what to do or even an appreciation of how bad things have become.

    I'm not trying to be awkward here but merely realistic; as parents we are both highly educated in spite of the school system, and trying school initially for our first child was a triumph of hope over experience; we were prepared to believe that our own experience was uncommon (in spite of hearing similar things from friends and colleagues).

    I agree that fixing some of those "trigger" issues might slow the growth of HE, but the school system is a rotting hulk and often a single minor issue leads to greater scrutiny and then the bigger holes become apparent.

    However, I'm pretty certain that the growth of HE will ultimately be stemmed by the decline in the number of parents who know or care about a good education. A poor education system is self-reinforcing and that is already evident in the younger part of the teaching population.

  2. I'm in the "never had any intention of sending them to school" category, which I would guess is much smaller than the "de-registered later for one reason or another" one. I have no figures to back that up of course. A couple of points on the latter group though:

    1. You've made the assumption that they were originally happy to send their children to school. It seems equally likely that they didn't realise they had a choice, and only discovered the option in desperation later.

    2. You also suggest that if they remain out of school once "the original problem is sorted out", it's because they've got out of the habit of school. That's an interesting turn of phrase, and perhaps you could liken sending your children to school to smoking, in the respect that people start mainly because everyone else is doing it. I don't suppose that's what you had in mind though. Anyway, I would argue that perhaps, once out of school, they see that their children are happier and learning more effectively.

    I tend to think that the more home education happens, the more it will continue to happen, as more people become aware of it. Perhaps too, parents who were home educated more likely to do the same for their children?

    That's not to say it will continue to grow unchecked - I doubt that very much. I think the most important limiting factor is that for probably the majority of parents, the "free childcare" aspect of state education makes it the only option they can (or want to) consider. Even when parents are prepared to make the huge commitment time and finance-wise, there is still a vast amount of negative pressure against home educating - from friends, family, self-interested educational establishment and local governmental types, and even the inevitable exchanges that begin with the shopkeeper's favourite - "why aren't they in school?"

  3. Yes, the free childcare aspect of schools and nurseries certainly seems to be what attracts many people! You are also right about the tremendous amont of negative pressure which home educators encounter. I definitely had my share of this. As to why people don't return their children to school when once they have removed them, I suppose that this is somethingwwhich is hard to establish for sure. We seem to agree that it happens though.

  4. I don't think it's any accident that the number of home educated children has been rising since late 1970s, when comprehensive education was being rolled out across the nation. This was followed by an increasingly uniform education system driven by the NC and SATS. Parental preference had to be introduced as an 'add-on' to give parents the impression they still had some say in their children's education.

    The rise in HE isn't due to problems with individual schools, or LAs, it's the system itself. Until that changes, the rise in numbers will increase, probably more rapidly given the publicity it has received courtesy of the current government.