For the great majority of children – and their parents – the return to school has been a cause of celebration. Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke of each of his children returning “with a spring in their step and their hat at a jaunty angle – except we don’t seem to have school hats or caps anymore”.
But circumstances vary. Even before the pandemic the number of children being ‘home schooled’ or ‘home educated’ in the UK had been increasing significantly. That is an arrangement where parents take full responsibility for their children’s education, not just a temporary arrangement where they encouraged their children to follow online learning from school teachers during the pandemic.
In 2018, Oxford Home Schooling reported:
“Using Freedom of Information requests, we discovered that the number of students being taught at home increased by 130% between 2013 and 2018, growing from 24,824 to 57,132. However, some local authorities saw far larger rises than others, with Barnsley Borough Council reporting a 772% increase – the biggest in the UK.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) have released some more recent figures, just covering England:
“Based on the data received, we estimate that a total of 75,668 children and young people were being electively home educated on the first school census day, 1 October 2020. This is an increase of 38% from the same school census day in 2019 (3 October).”
Of course, coronavirus may have temporarily boosted the numbers: some parents might have refused to send their children back to school for fear of the virus, others might have confused the challenges of full home education with the background noise of their children doing online lessons guided by a teacher.
Still, the general expectation is that this is a growing trend. We have around 6.8 million school age children in England – so those being homeschooled are only around 1%. But the ADCS survey found a high degree of variation. In some local authorities it was under 0.5% of pupils, in others over 4%. That suggests this is not just a general fashion, but may be a sign that in some areas there is greater dissatisfaction with the state schools on offer than in others.
It would take us some time to catch up with the United States – where 3.4% of children are homeschooled. By contrast, in much of the world, educating your own children is illegal. Not just in Communist countries, such as China and Cuba, but in Western democracies such as Germany, Spain and Sweden too.
Here in the UK the law states that while education is compulsory for children, school is not. Parents that are home educating are required to provide a “suitable” education. Someone from the local council can arrange to come round to meet the family to carry out checks – to see examples of work completed, to establish the wellbeing of the child and to ensure some structure and timetable is being maintained.
The stipulations are reasonably simple: there must be a broad and balanced curriculum (though the National Curriculum does not have to be followed); the child must learn to read and write; there’s no requirement to take GCSEs and A-Levels, although homeschooled children are often entered privately for these exams and get impressive results.
But what is behind the increasing interest in homeschooling? Surely the quality of our schools has improved significantly over the past ten years, both in terms of academic results, behaviour and a reduction in bullying? That would be the evidence of the statistics, as well as anecdotally talking to fellow parents about our own school days and the rather more congenial experience our children enjoy. But if the standards in state schools have risen then it is apparent that the expectations of parents have risen further.
The obvious escape route for parents unable to find a good state school is to go private. More have taken that option. The Independent Schools Council’s census puts it at 537,315 pupils, “the highest number since records began”. That still leaves the problem for most of us that the cost of the fees is prohibitive. There have been pioneering examples of low-cost private schools – such as James Tooley’s excellent Independent Grammar School in Durham. If some of the barriers to opening more such schools were lifted that would be welcome. That would be entirely possible, though there are no indications of any plans to do so.
The free schools movement, meanwhile, has increased choice and nurtured innovation – but the good ones tend to be heavily oversubscribed.
So that is the context of the growth of homeschooling. It is no longer a few oddballs making an anti-establishment lifestyle choice. Indeed with some of the Wokery capturing of the school curriculum, some may regard taking their children out of school as the surest means to defend conventional notions. More often it is a decision reached by parents, usually reluctantly, after rigorous and open-minded considerations of the alternatives.
“The demographic has changed,” Hannah Titley, founder of the Home Schooling Association tells me. It has become more mainstream, more respectable. “They might be those who could afford school fees but don’t like what is on offer. They might want to take coding. Or they might want to avoid the pressure of the school environment.”
Hannah would favour a national register of children being homeschooled to ensure those moving from one local authority area to another are safeguarded. But she adds that any increase in regulation would be “controversial”. The libertarian element would object on principle. Others are concerned about the ‘thin end of the wedge’ aspect, with ever more regulatory burdens being imposed.
A commonplace objection to homeschooling is that it leaves children isolated and denied the chance to socialise with their peers. One mother I met who took the homeschooling plunge is a Brown Owl – that is the organiser of her local Brownies – a good example of the many non-school activities where kids can get together. She has no interest in politics or in joining some alternative subculture, just in making a practical decision to do the best for her child.
Hannah also explained to me that many of the homeschoolers form local groups to organise educational trips to museums and other venues – rather more frequently than school classes would manage.
Some take the collaboration a stage further and form microschools. These have taken off in Richmond, for example. Two or three families would join forces. The children might visit different houses for some lessons. Sometimes private tutors might be brought in, with parents splitting the bill. Here regulations do come in. For up to four children from different households, there is no constraint. With five children there is a limit of 18 hours a week. But if the arrangement was applied to six children or more it would constitute an illegal school. I suppose the concern is to stop children from being brainwashed by Islamic fundamentalists of some other group of fanatics. That is understandable. But surely this complete prohibition is a crude way to proceed with that objective.
The presumption should be to trust parents. Those interested in homeschool will have all manner of different reasons, but the motive in every case will be love and a desire to their best for their children – and they usually do a pretty good job. The state should not be looking at ways to obstruct that choice. Instead, our politicians and officials should reflect on why an increasing number feel driven to it through the lack of a better alternative.
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