Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Home Education in the Early 1970s

There is something of a mythology associated with home education in this country. It runs like this. In the early 1970s, there were a tiny handful of home educating parents who were mercilessly pursued by the authorities. They were threatened with the loss of their children and attempts were made to force them to send their children to school. Just look at poor Iris Harrison. Then, a handful of brave parents got together and formed an organisation dedicated to protecting the interests of home educators and fighting to make the practice acceptable. Slowly, they did so; until today we can all enjoy the fruits of their struggle. Key court cases in the early 1980s established the right of parents to home educate.

Like all myths, there is a bit of truth in this, but precious little. In fact home education was an accepted educational option long before legal decisions such as Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson 1981 or Phillips v Brown 1980. I have in front of me several Penguin Education Specials from the early 1970s and they shed an interesting light upon how home education was viewed by local authorities at that time. I can thoroughly recommend School is Dead, by Everett Reimer and Free Way to Learning, by David Head. It is at the latter book that I wish to look, because it tells us a good deal about home education forty years ago.

Parents who did not wish to send their children to school in the early 1970s had various options. Setting up their own schools was a lot easier than it is now and quite a few were established in disused buildings. Freightliners in Camden was one such, as was White Lion Free School in Islington. Up in Manchester there was Parkfield Street in Moss Side. I was on the fringe of a couple of these ‘schools’. I use quotation marks, because these were really just groups of home educating parents who clubbed together and found a place where their children could learn. Local authorities were not at all opposed to this. They even provided premises for such home educating groups to use.

In addition to communal setups of this sort, there were plenty of parents who simply taught their children themselves. Luckily, we have a snapshot of local authority attitudes to such parents, because in Free Way to Learning, David Head interviewed some local authority inspectors and asked them what they thought of home education and how they got on with home educators. Now according to the popular mythology, they should at this time have been bitterly opposed to home education and determined to get the kids back into school. In, fact they were all, without exception, well disposed towards home education. Also, and this again goes against the what many people now seem to believe, all of them knew home educators; there were plenty around. We cannot do better than to look at what these local authority inspectors said;

We used to ask to see timetables, but with the changes in child education today that could be embarrassing. We also ask for samples of work, and again, changes could mean we’d be satisfied with, for example, tape recordings. The interviews are friendly.

The great thing we’d look for used to be some sort of programme, kinds of books read etc. Usually we found that parents’ approach was way-out reactionary and they had no idea of modern methods.

In fact we couldn’t these days really ask that a child covered a particular subject regularly.

These inspectors were speaking in 1972, five years before Education Otherwise began and almost ten years before the judgment in the Iris Harrison case. One thing stands out and that is that they are talking a lot in the past tense. They used to ask for this and that, but now things are a lot more free and easy. One of them is worried that parents tend to be too reactionary in their teaching methods; he says elsewhere that he does not like to see homes being run like schools! It is clear that these local authority officers have had a good deal of experience of home education and are absolutely fine with it. They are also becoming pretty laid back about the type of evidence that they might want to see and they are no longer interested in timetables.

None of this really ties in with the idea that local authorities forty years ago were dead against home education. They were not only familiar with it, but were pretty much in favour of it. In some ways, things were even better for home educators forty years ago than they are now! Can anybody imagine a local authority today leasing a building to home educators at a nominal rent, as Islington did for the White Lion Free School? Even home visits were not the norm. Here is an inspector for ILEA, the Inner London Education Authority;

The practice is for the District Inspector to see the parent at the divisional education offices and inquire into the details of the arrangements that had been made for educating the child.

Parents meeting the LA, without the child being seen and on neutral ground, away from the home! Evidence in the form of tape recordings, rather than written work, providing premises; things certainly seemed to be going pretty smoothly for home education forty years ago. Yet within ten years, there was confrontation, legal cases and all sorts of trouble. What went wrong? It is at this that we shall be looking in a day or two.

Why should I wish to delve about in the past in this way? What possible relevance has it for today's home educators? It will show how we moved from a situation where local authorities were by and large happy to see parents educating their own children to the position today, where there is a good deal of animosity and tension between the two groups. Those who wish to believe that this has nothing to do with the past, may of course simply not read this. I would not wish to shatter too many illusions!


  1. What went wrong was that people realized LEA officers where telling lies making threats always taking on I know better than you over your child and also always believing what ever a school had said about your child or you.
    people wont put up with that any more until you make LEA behave in a nice and helpful way it never be solved when a parent decides to home educate the parent does not want some box ticking fool interfering and the lies that this type use

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