In an email to the Guardian a few days ago, Mike Fortune-Wood claimed that only a 'vanishing few' among home educators were of the 'hothouser' type, people like Harry Lawrence. He may well be right, although it is hard to know where he gets his information. After all, the vast majority of home educating parents belong to no support groups or other organisations. However, whether or no, it set me thinking upon this subject.
The year before Education Otherwise was founded, a parent began home educating his daughter. Following in the tradition of John Stuart Mill's father, James, Harry Lawrence wished to turn his child into a genius. Fathers like this, for such people almost invariably are fathers, have seldom presented any particular problem for the authorities. It is always quite obvious that an education is taking place and the proud parent is rarely reluctant to talk about the project or describe his child's achievements. The provision of highly structured and carefully planned education of this sort, delivered in the form of one-to-one tutoring has never alarmed local authorities in the way that the softer and less rigorous teaching which many mothers favour does. Whether this is due to sexism is an open question.
Until relatively recently, this sort of intense education was probably the commonest form of home education. This is partly because it is a form of education readily recognisable and accepted by local authority officers. The academic results of the home education which Ruth Lawrence received were astonishing. Like John Stuart Mill, she was kept by her father from contact with other children. At the age of eleven she began studying Mathematics at Oxford University, completing her degree in two years rather than the more usual three. Her final marks would have been enough to earn her two Firsts! Her father lived with her while she was at Oxford and when she was offered posts first at Harvard and later at Michigan University, he went with her to the United States. While there, she fell in love with a man almost thirty years her senior, about her father's age in fact. They married and moved to Israel. There are rumours that she actually resents her childhood education and feels that it was not a good idea.
I think it fair to say that this sort of highly structured and academically demanding education is the exception these days, at least in British home education. I don't know whether or not I would go as far as Mike Fortune-Wood in describing it as being limited to a 'vanishing few', but one certainly does not encounter such parents as often as one does the more laid back autonomous educators. The Internet list HE-Exams has a lot of people who enter their children for GCSEs and A levels, but even there, few of them seem to be the hothouser type. I can think of two possible explanations for the relative rarity of this breed of home educating parent.
In the first place, the great majority of home educators now seem to be women. These schemes, where young children are crammed full of knowledge and their skills accelerated, simply do not appeal to women in general the way that they do to some men. Perhaps they don't often regard their children like racing cars which have to be tuned, tested and raced round the track faster and better than anybody else's kid! It could be that that attitude is simply a male trait.
The other reason for the decline of the hothouser is of course that it is very hard work. According to the available research in this country, the majority of home educating parents are keen on home education because of the lifestyle and freedom which it provides for their families. Hothousing is most definitely not a relaxing lifestyle; it is far more taxing than sending a child to school. It is easy to see why a parent would avoid this way of life if lifestyle were the deciding factor in choosing to home educate. Of course, it may be that both Mike Fortune-Wood and I are quite wrong about this. After all, there are tens of thousands of home educators unknown to their local authorities and not belonging to any support groups. For all we know, the majority of them could be loopy and eccentric men who are busily engaged in trying to turn their young children into geniuses.