There is, among home educators in this country, a mythic narrative which supposedly explains the origin of their chosen way of life. It goes something like this. Before the 1970s, hardly anybody in Britain educated their children at home. Around the middle of that decade half a dozen or so parents, who were determined at all costs not to send their children to school, got together and formed Education Otherwise; a group which would fight to establish home education as an accepted right for parents. There was stern opposition from some reactionary forces in local authorities. This led to the persecution of some of these parents; Iris Harrison, for instance. Never the less, these brave pioneers persevered and now home education is an option available for all parents. We owe those people a great debt for their struggle. This roughly is the story of home education’s beginning in Britain; as put about by home educating organisations and widely accepted by many parents.
There are several things about the above legend which make one a little uneasy; not the least of which is that it is a pack of nonsense from beginning to end. That is not the only problem, although it is certainly a serious one! I hope to explore the difficulties that this myth has created, but it will take several posts. Today, I want to look briefly at home education as it features in children’s literature of 20th century Britain. This might give us some idea of how unremarkable home education has been in this country, as far back as one looks. Far from being a radical movement, challenging the established order; home education could almost be regarded as being a part of the established order, from time out of mind.
Before looking at how home education crops up in 20th century books, it is worth looking back a little further and noting that home education is mentioned frequently in 19th century novels and that the practice at that time was viewed as entirely normal and respectable. To give just two examples, all the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice were educated at home and home education makes an appearance in several of Dickens’ books. The home education by their father of Louisa and Tom Gradgrind is integral to the plot of Hard Times.
Moving on now to the 20th century; by which time universal schooling had become the accepted norm, home education was still seen as being quite unremarkable; even by ordinary families. In The Railway Children, written by E. Nesbit published in 1905, none of the children attend school. This is seen as hardly worth mentioning; it is certainly not a plot device. It is just that quite a few children at that time were taught at home and the author describes the life of just such a family. Moving on a few years to Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, which was published in 1936, we see another example of home education. The three Fossil children live with their guardian , Sylvia and her old nanny. For a time, Sylvia stops sending the children to school and attempts to educate them herself. This does not work very well and so she engages tutors. Just as in The Railway Children, there is no suggestion that this is in any way an unusual course of events; it is presented as simply another incident in the lives of the children. These are not wealthy or important families.
A number of home educated children appear in the William stories by Richmal Crompton, but it is in Enid Blyton’s books that home education is referred to regularly as being something which happened throughout the 1940s, without anybody seeing anything odd or unusual about it. The protagonist of The Naughtiest Girl in the School, 1940, is first met at the age of twelve. When we encounter her, she has always been educated at home. In First Term at Malory Towers, 1946, Gwendoline Mary Lacey is another twelve year-old who has never been to school.
That home education appears in so many children’s books of this period, leads us to suppose that it was a pretty common practice not to send children to school; educating them at home for at least part of their childhood. The idea that home education was somehow freakish and out of the ordinary, does not really stand up. I have explained on here several times in recent months that home education was not at all frowned upon by local authorities; right up to the early 1970s. I know this to be true, apart from anything else, by personal experience. And yet something happened during the 70s to bring about a state of confrontation between local authorities and some parents who did not send their children to school. This was nothing to do with home education as such, and I will look in my next post at just what went wrong with the situation and how home education became transformed form a normal, every day activity into something controversial which generated tension between parents and local authorities.