Freedom to Learn

With the unprecedented population surge in recent years, the grassroots home education movement is simply thriving in Britain.

Home schooling is fast becoming a viable alternative for many parents wishing to shun conventional education, which begs the question: is home schooling worth considering?

Barely a week goes by without another news story about how parents are failing to get their children into the school of their choice.

The baby boom and surge in immigration in recent years has led to a huge increase in the number of primary school-aged children and the subsequent demand for school places.

According to recent figures released by the Department of Education, 450,000 extra places will need to be found in England between 2010 and 2015. The Government’s response has been to pledge to invest £4bn over the next four years in the school system. Among other things, they plan to create ‘supersize’ schools and in some areas set up ‘bulge classrooms’ in disused shops and other makeshift buildings.

Many parents find such developments worrying, but most feel powerless to do anything about them. However, there is a small minority who are taking action – and that minority is growing daily. Leslie Barson is the founder and coordinator of The Otherwise Club, a community centre catering for home educating families in north-west London.

“Home education is more known about now and people have a much better understanding about what it is and that it’s a viable alternative to school for anyone. It’s a choice,”

“It’s a completely different type of education to school. We try to differentiate ourselves from the American movement which is dominated by fundamentalist Christians. We have people from all different religions and walks of life who decide to home educate.”

Contrary to popular belief, education is compulsory but school is not. Under section 7 of the Education Act 1996, parents have a duty to “secure education of children of compulsory school age… either by regular attendance at school or otherwise”.

Hence the name of Leslie’s organisation and that of Education Otherwise, a charity supporting home educators nationwide. Families who educate their children themselves are not legally required to register with the authorities, which makes it difficult to count them. That said, sources suggest there are roughly 80,000 home-educated children in the UK, with several thousand living in the London area.

Choosing to educate your child at home is not something parents do on a whim and motives come in all shapes and sizes.

“Some might turn to home education because they don’t get the school of their choice, while others do it for ideological reasons,” says Leslie.

“Then there are a lot of people who see their children suffering at school and have reached the end of their tether. They might face bullying or are failing to thrive. Often parents are told that it’s their child’s problem.

“For them, home education is generally a last resort, but often it goes on to become a really positive experience.”

Children are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum and exams are optional. Parents are not legally required to inform their local authority when they decide to educate their child at home, unless they are withdrawing them from the school system. In both instances the authority is entitled to inquire after the child’s wellbeing as, by law, parents must ensure the child “receives full-time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude”.

Clearly this is open to interpretation and there is no ‘norm’ when it comes to home educating. Some follow a structured learning programme, while others adopt a more laid back approach and being led by their child’s interests. In parts of London, home educating families often meet to join forces and work together.

One example of this is The Otherwise Club which Leslie set up when her children were young. Today it caters for about 40 families, who regularly socialise and attend workshops on a broad range of subjects – from first aid to Egyptian pyramid building.

“The Otherwise Club provides an invaluable opportunity for families with children out of school to meet regularly, exchange views and offer mutual support,” says Leslie.

“Nobody has to come if they don’t want to and there is no obligation to do anything. It’s very project-based, as opposed to academic-based.”

Most advocates of home education argue that the pace of learning is accelerated when the child is not at school. Leslie, whose two children are now grown up, says: “I started off by trying to recreate school at home because that was my model of education, but within six weeks I realised this was geared towards having lots of kids with just one adult and doing things over and over again, which wasn’t necessary at home.

Removing your child from the schooling system is a pretty radical decision and one that inevitably raises eyebrows.

“We are not crazy and we are not trying to hide our kids in the cupboard,” says Leslie, who argues that society’s perception of home education is largely based on ignorance.

“You don’t need to be really intelligent, have lots of degrees or be really wealthy.”

“I don’t have to know about astrology for my child to learn about it. We access libraries and go on outings and find ways to make it happen. With the internet there are now sites where you can learn about brain surgery, if you want to.”

Technology is key to home education. Edwina Theunissen, trustee of Education Otherwise, says: “With the internet, information on parent-led education is more accessible.”

“Our website is a mine of information for the newcomer and we run a helpline with a team of volunteers who answer parents’ enquiries about education out of school.”

“The members of local groups organise visits to museums, country parks and so on, and also organise classes for various subjects and ages.”

This, say advocates, is proof that home educated children do not miss out socially. “The idea that home educated kids are sitting at home alone is just not true,” says Leslie.

It’s a sentiment echoed by former primary school teacher Tina Burnett-Pope, who has educated both of her sons at home. She says: “Many children come out of school having been bullied and abused, lonely and isolated, yet people question home educators and the social development of their children.”

“In my experience, parents of home educating children make every effort to ensure their children have regular social meetings.”

“Moreover, home educated children are more likely to talk to a variety of people through the week, from neighbours to shop keepers to children in home education groups, to friends who come by for the afternoon.”

Outsiders may wonder how home educated children adapt in society later on in life, but Leslie insists that on the whole they do just fine. Of her own children she says: “I don’t think it’s stopped them or held them back in any way at all. They just see it [home education] as normal.”

Parents considering schooling their children at home should be fully aware of the sacrifices, however. It helps to have a strong support network and you must be prepared to make financial compromises.

“To some extent you have to give up on climbing the normal career ladder,” says Leslie.

“You really don’t know what it’s like until you do it. When you spend a lot of time with your kids they get a lot less needy, it’s more relaxing and the quality of your relationship changes.

“It’s like diving off a very high diving board, but once you do you think why didn’t I do it earlier?”

✽ To find out more about home education, visit their website or consider attending the Home Education Fair in September