Two of the greatest advantages of home education are the depth in which subjects may be covered and also the spontaneity and choice which is possible with this type of education. For example, at school history is for most of the year restricted to the classroom. There might be the odd visit to a museum or castle, but these are rare exceptions. Mostly the children are limited to watching DVDs, looking at books and so on. How very different is the case for the child being taught at home! If World War II is being studied and the family live near London, then the range of activities is immense. The National Army Museum in Chelsea, HMS Belfast, the cruiser moored in the Thames, the Imperial War Museum, the RAF Museum at Hendon, the Cabinet War Rooms under Whitehall, the Churchill Museum next door, visiting relatives who were alive at the time, hunting out old pill boxes, looking for bomb damage on buildings in central London; the list is endless. Home education is definitely something of a misnomer really; little of it takes place in the home for much of the time.
Because no timetable is involved, visits can be arranged as soon as the child expresses an interest. If the child asks a question about knights or castles, then a visit to a castle can be laid on for the next few days. Any work planned for that day can easily be postponed. The same applies to all subjects. When my daughter was studying biology a few years ago, we were hard at work looking at the physiology of mammals one day when news came through that a whale had become stranded in the Thames. The following day we went down there and watched it for a couple of hours. Straight from textbook to real life marine biology in the space of an hour or two. And all completely unplanned! This sort of spur of the moment trip is of course not really possible with schools. When you have the needs of thirty children to consider, planning any sort of day out is a pretty arduous undertaking.
Of course, living near London made a lot more available than would have been the case if we were living in the middle of the countryside, but then again there are many things in the countryside which are not readily accessible in London. The study of early man can be brought vividly to life if we take our child into a forest and see if we could find enough to eat and drink for the day. How on earth did those hunter-gatherers manage to survive? Can we make a spear or bow and arrow? What about taking flints and trying to fashion them into axes or weapons? Biology is also very easily studied in forests and fields, as are chemistry, physics, theology and geography. Nor need this sort of learning be at all parochial. Observing the eutrophication of a local pond or erosion of a river bank can lead to the discussion of problems faced by those living on the other side of the world in India or South America.
I cannot offhand think of any academic subject which cannot be covered or at the very least enhanced by trips through streets and fields in this way. Theology can just as well be taught in a wood as it can in a cathedral, so to can geography be studied in the centre of a big city or by the side of a stream. This is what I mean by studying a subject in depth. Attacking a question from various angles will allow a child to get to grips with far more effectively than by simply looking at a DVD or book. This is the glory of home education, the ability to move freely through the world learning about first one aspect and then another, seeing how they fit together. One day, one sees evidence for the Deity in the trees of the forest and the next we can watch how men and women worship Him in churches and mosques. Last week we saw a dead rabbit in the wood and this week we visit a zoo to see a live one. Perhaps next week we shall see a rabbit skeleton in a natural history museum.
This then is the great advantage of home education over schools. In schools, every topic must be planned months in advance from a centrally dictated curriculum. There is no flexibility to linger over some aspect of history for a week or two, one cannot wander down a byway in order to investigate how spiders build their webs. The structured nature of mass education can be useful to ensure that various important subjects are not neglected, but it can also be a straitjacket which prevents a child's curiosity from being roused. Clearly, during a chemistry lesson one cannot allow thirty children all to conduct different experiments, but at home one can certainly let a child extend the idea of an experiment and find out what would happen if some constant were varied.
One of the things which I have observed about some home educating parents is that they seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. They start from the same initial premise that I myself hold; that excessive structure and planning in an education can be stifling and kill the curiosity of a bright and inquisitive child. Their deduction is that the remedy lies in no structure or planning at all. My own conclusion is a little less radical; there is a need for less structure and a good deal more flexibility in planning. The mass education of children as it is currently practiced in schools lies at one end of a spectrum. The concept of autonomous home education lies at the opposite end of this spectrum. Somewhere between these two extremes lie most home educators, who both eschew the stultifying National Curriculum and at the same time reject the fanaticism which leads some to avoid even teaching their children to read and write.