FT Weekend Magazine: A Class Apart
It's 11 o'clock on Tuesday morning. Throughout Britain, school bells are ringing and corridors are pressed with shrieking teenagers on their way from geography to double science. Excuses are being formulated for late homework; gossip is being shared. But elsewhere, an alternative vision of contemporary British education can be seen. Across kitchen tables and on suburban sofas, in museums and parks, a growing tribe of home-schooled children is learning without whiteboards, timetables or uniforms.
At a rugby club in Bromley, London commuter-belt country, nine home-educating parents are giving their charges a day's "socialisation". Amid a wall of high-pitched noise, some kindergarten-age children are mixing paints and playing with glitter. Two 11-year-olds are idly flicking a table-football machine, and two boys – friends 30 seconds ago – are fighting over whose turn it is to play with a toy castle.
Alex, a pale, undersized seven-year-old with dyspraxia and autism, has upset Sam (below left), 10, who has Asperger's syndrome – which means he too can find it hard to read social signals. "It's not fair. Go away, go away," shouts Sam. Sam's father runs over to rule, Solomon-like, on their contested claims. Just as the dispute is resolved, one girl breathlessly reports that she has seen another child climbing on the roof.
Elsewhere I speak to a self-possessed 10-year-old girl whose mother has taken her out of school because she felt she was too advanced for the work. She reels off reading lists of children's classics: "I'm reading the Just Williams. I'll read them all in two days. I finished The Hobbit. I'm now on book five of The Chronicles of Narnia." Though she's precocious, she speaks unselfconsciously. As we're approaching Easter, I ask her if she takes school holidays. "We don't really need to. We learn wherever we go. Say we went to the south of France – we'd learn stuff about France on holiday."
Home schooling has been on an upward trend in Britain over the past 10 years. Since there is no legal duty on parents to inform local education authorities that they are home schooling their children, the government has no idea how many children are in this position. Only if a child starts school and is then withdrawn is there an official record. But this misses out the thousands of children who never start school in the first place.
Mike Fortune-Wood, a pro-home-education researcher, estimates that about 50,000 children are presently being schooled at home – but says that number is growing fast: "The rise I got was 17 per cent annually. If you kept on at this rate, the figures start to get quite scary for schools by around 2020." Still, Britain is decades behind the US, where an estimated 1.2 million children are home educated, largely for religious reasons.
Unlike in Germany, where home schooling is banned, there has never been a legal obligation for British parents to send their children to school. The only demand is that every child receives an "efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude … either by regular attendance at school or otherwise".
But within this definition parents have generous latitude. They don't have to follow the national curriculum, enter their children for exams, observe school hours, give formal lessons, or mark work. Local authority inspectors can ask annually for written information on how a child is being educated, but they have no right to meet the child or visit the home. Should a local authority decide a child is not receiving a "suitable" education it does have powers to send him or her back to school. In practice, though, courts rarely rule in the authority's favour.
Sam's mother, Ann Newstead, is a spokesperson for the Education Otherwise support group for the Kent area. She withdrew her son from school in July 2005 because he was being badly bullied: "The differences between him and his classmates got more obvious. At school he couldn't have a meltdown like that. You can't start shouting and screaming in class." Ann and her husband Roarke (right) gave Sam's elder brother Josh, 12, a choice about whether to stay in school or leave. Initially he opted to stay: "He said, 'I've got friends at school, we're doing a really interesting project at the moment'. He carried on for one day. That night I went into his room. He was really tearful and said: 'I don't want to go back tomorrow'." Sam's younger brother, Will, six, is also educated at home.
Do the children have any regrets? "We live opposite school and they hear the kids playing. I think they miss that. But they don't remember that it's the every-single-day aspect of it that did their head in." Children on the verge of adolescence, however, can be stifled by a home education. "Because they're closer to us, letting them out of your sight can be a bit harder," says Newstead. "If [my son] was going on a school bus every day, he would be totally independent. Now he's not."
. . .
In the US, 75 per cent of home-schooling families are practising Christians – and a third of that number cite religion as their main reason for choosing home education. In secular Britain, only 8 per cent home-educate for reasons of faith. But it's a contributory factor for many others who feel state schools have become too permissive.
Modupe has come to Britain from west Africa after completing a masters degree at an Ivy League university. She's teaching her son, Theo (left), at home, with a curriculum partly based on the teachings of the 19th-century home-education pioneer Charlotte Mason. Mason warned of the dangers of insulting children's intelligence by giving them "twaddle" to read, and Theo's reading list is furnished with such doughty classics as The Pilgrim's Progress and H.E. Marshall's Our Island Story (a volume of high Edwardian patriotism that has long since disappeared from British classrooms but is still taught in traditional African schools). "The modern stuff doesn't make you think," says Modupe. "It almost seems to be for entertainment. It's important for Theo to be aware of the history of this country."
Theo was attending a private school in the south of England. His teacher – who seemed to be unmarried – fell pregnant. As a Christian, Modupe felt awkward having to answer a child's questions about why an unmarried woman would be having a baby. There were worrying hints of racism at the school, too: Modupe's son was the only boy in class not invited to a classmate's birthday party for three years in a row.
She also felt she was fighting low expectations from some staff. One teacher said: "It's really good that you are keeping [your son] busy so he doesn't get into trouble." "He hadn't even spoken to my son," says Modupe, "but he was really negative towards him." A sociable boy, Theo was initially upset at being removed from school: "At first he complained that I had ruined his life. But the socialisation they get from school is not the kind of socialisation we want."
Ronald Meighan, a former professor of education at Nottingham University, has been part of the home-education movement from the days when it was a besieged minority. In 1977 he knew of only 20 home-schooling families in Britain. "Home education started as an alternative lifestyle for people living in smallholdings," he says. "People who believed in a better and more self-sufficient society also believed in a more self-sufficient form of education. At the first meetings of Education Otherwise, I was the only one wearing a suit. But the message got round to doctors and solicitors and teachers that this could work for us. The Sound of Music – which shows a home-education family in operation – gave it a shot in the arm."
Still, it was a risky lifestyle choice. Before the early 1980s, parents who home-educated their children stood a good chance of seeing them taken into care. In the 1960s and 1970s, a generation of home-education martyrs fought the government in the courts – greatly restricting the powers of local education authorities. Now, official attitudes vary. Some local authorities provide teaching materials online for home-educators and allow them to take extra books out of the library. Others, though, have inspectors who are still deeply sceptical about the value of home education.
Meighan is a proselytiser for "purposive conversation" – the belief that in-depth discussion is the most effective way to teach children. He believes formal schooling is actively harmful: it removes children from the comfortable home environment in which their natural curiosity thrives and they learn best.
According to a survey of 297 home-schooling families by Mike Fortune-Wood, 62 per cent never use a timetable, the same percentage never consult the national curriculum, and 50 per cent disagree with the statement that a child should be able to read by the age of eight. Fortune-Wood, who home-educated four children, says: "I know of children who've started to pick up books at nine or 10, and there are no indications that they do any worse than others. One of our children didn't read until he was nine or 10 – and he's just completed an MA in creative writing."
. . .
A week later I join a home schooling trip to an educational farm amid the lush countryside of the south downs. On a windswept hill, to the bleating of Pygmy goats, I meet Janice, a former policewoman turned homeopath who educates her 11-year-old son Jesse at home. Jesse is a gifted footballer – and for most of the trip he is a hurtling streak on the horizon. "I've never been to school but it doesn't sound very good," he tells me during a two-minute hiatus before tackling the adventure playground. "This boy at a school that I know had his head flushed down the toilet."
Janice home-educates because, "Like most boys, Jesse has an enormous amount of testosterone. And the school system does not really allow for that. Jesse does not absorb information if you go over 20 minutes. He needs to run around the garden and be manic for a minute and then come back." Jesse is following the "Unschooling" philosophy: "We're not following the national curriculum. His writing is coming along really well, but it is at his pace. He wouldn't be at the age level that the schools are at. He might be in a specialist reading class because we did not start reading with him until he was seven-and-a-half."
Jesse is a "practical learner" so he learns "experientially" – going on outings, visiting museums, taking photos and creating scrapbooks. He has daily morning sessions of maths and English and a weekly session with a private tutor. But it's Jesse's gentle self-assuredness that his mother sees as the main achievement of home schooling: "He's so confident. He gave a talk about football training to a group of parents. He spoke with such authority. When he's training he always involves the younger kids."
So why have the numbers of the home-educated grown so quickly over the past five years? In the UK, home-educating religious and ethnic minorities – Muslims, Romany travellers, Presbyterians, pagans – have grown in number, but they have not been the recruiting sergeant for home education they are in the US. Bigger factors have been the increasing number of children diagnosed with special needs, parents fleeing the British state sector's testing and targets, the ready availability of teaching materials on the internet and the doubling of private school fees in a decade.
But a survey of 34 local authorities showed that by far the most significant factor was bullying: 44 per cent of parents cite it as the reason they withdrew their children from school. In this less deferential age, parents are less willing to trust teachers – and when faced with a problem such as bullying, they sort it out themselves.
In spite of its somewhat anarchic origins, home-schooling is more than anything a product of consumer power. Take the Norton family. They live on a suburban close near Rochester, where Rob works from home for British Telecom and is a squadron quartermaster sergeant in the Territorial Army, while Karen works evening shifts at the local retail park. The couple deregistered their 11-year-old son, Andrew, from the school roll last Easter after an unhappy move from junior school to a comprehensive with 2,000 students. It was, says Rob, "educational factory farming". There was "lots of disruption, lots of behavioural problems. The place is just too big. We logged everything that happened over two terms on two sheets of A4. We are looking at assault, stealing and criminal damage."
Andrew, a serious-minded boy, gives a litany of complaints – from scrawls of "boffin" across his exercise book to a lesson in which one pupil hit another over the head with a chair. "We hated taking him to school," says Karen. "He didn't want to cry but you could see him welling up. I was concerned that I was going to see a child that wanted to start self-harming." The teachers "tried their hardest" to sort out the issues. But in the end, according to Rob, "they didn't get the support they needed. They've got the crest, they've got the uniform, they've got the procedures, but they haven't got the willingness at a higher level to deal with the problems."
After ruling out private school on the grounds of cost, they signed Andrew up to InterHigh – an internet-based school that runs virtual classes each weekday morning in real time. Teachers scattered across Britain speak to pupils at home via a Skype-type headset and microphone. Inside his bedroom – all Star Wars posters, Lego space stations and Airfix models of helicopters – Andrew shows me how he files his homework by e-mail and his teachers upload their class notes to a central database. There is no disruption – any pupil who misbehaves in cyberspace is logged out by the teacher.
For a few hours in the afternoon, Andrew does his homework on his own and bounces on a trampoline in the garden in lieu of PE lessons. Rob's meticulous accounting gives a taste of the new home-educating consumer: "We worked out that the cost in petrol of taking Andrew to school – up and down the gears – is about £1,000 a year. It costs £2,000 for the internet course. So we've knocked half the cost off already."
The Nortons are home educating not because of any sweeping alternative vision of education. Theirs is a pragmatic decision, based on a belief that state education is lagging behind expectations: "We as a family are so happy," says Karen. "Andrew has opened up his world a lot more."
The most common fear is that the home-educated miss out socially. American studies have yet to prove this: observations of home-schooled children at play show they have fewer problems with social interaction than state-educated children – and are involved in a wider variety of activities outside the home. It is true that home-educated children seem well-balanced and thoughtful. But isn't there a contradiction between an educational philosophy that stresses a child's independence and the fact that they remain much more cloistered and dependent on their parents?
Home education can produce the ultimate "helicopter parents" – constantly hovering over their children, protecting them from the failures that might be thought essential rites of passage. And oughtn't we be concerned that so many parents, particularly those under pressure with children with special needs, are finding state education so poor they take the drastic step – and make the financial sacrifice – of keeping their child at home?
More fundamentally, the growth of home education is a challenge to the age-old concept of universal education. It is bizarre that while the state insists on a detailed, legally enforced national curriculum for every pupil at school – whether at Eton College or an inner-city comprehensive – those schooled at home are able to opt out of these obligations entirely. The teachers' union Voice – which represents 34,000 educational professionals – is campaigning for greater inspection rights for local authorities.
As general secretary, Philip Parkin, says: "It is absolutely unbelievable that we don't know how many home-educated children there are and we don't know who is educating them. Society has got to get a grip on this."
Tagged: Financial Times Reportage
Posted on 23rd June 2008.
Last changed at 15:20 BST, 7th August 2008.