Hey, busybodies – leave those homeschoolers alone
But many people are, and good for them. Before Covid, a growing number of parents were choosing to home-school in England (as education is a devolved responsibility, generalising across the four nations is difficult). Although numbers are imprecise, with estimates currently varying from around 60,000 to over 80,000 children being home-schooled, the trend seems to have continued now lockdown is a receding memory.
Parents’ motivation for home schooling vary. For some it is a hippyish thing, a philosophical or lifestyle choice. Some parents may lead a peripatetic career and want to take their children with them. There may be health reasons why children must stay at home. There are parents who think that local schools are inadequate, or have let their children down: they feel that they can hardly do worse by teaching themselves. Bullying or indifferent treatment of sensitive children, or those with special needs, may also be a factor. There have also been cases where schools allegedly have wrongly excluded children with behavioural difficulties or to keep up a school’s exam performance.
In fact we know rather little about motivation – these observations come from what local authority respondents say, not parents. I am unaware of any large-scale survey of home-schooling parents’ motives.
The legal position is not widely understood. Many people assume they have to send their children to school from age five – or even younger, as schools generally want pupils to enter in the school year in which they become five, even though they may have only recently turned four. This is far earlier than most other comparable countries.
But formal schooling has never been compulsory here. Liberals take their cue from John Stuart Mill, who argued that parents must ensure that their children are educated to a reasonable standard, with sanctions for those who fail to do so. But the means by which this is achieved should not be specified by the state. Mill himself was famously home-schooled by his father James Mill and his utilitarian chum Jeremy Bentham, learning Ancient Greek at the age of three.
The restrictions placed on home-schoolers are currently fairly light. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring all children are being educated, but have limited powers to check on this. Parents are not obliged to adhere to the national curriculum, or to provide a given number of hours of schooling, or to enter their children for public examinations. They need no educational training themselves, and there are no formal checks on other people, such as tutors, who help in the educational process.
Of course this laissez-faire attitude is anathema to many who seem to regard parents as mere intermediaries with only a limited role in educating and looking after children, which is seen increasingly as the state’s prerogative.
In Germany, for example, home schooling is illegal – a policy which began in the Weimar period but was a central feature of the Nazi years, when education was an instrument of state power. Similar attitudes to home education prevailed in many formerly socialist countries: it is still illegal in Albania, Bulgaria and Hungary for example.
At the other extreme, home schooling is a major phenomenon in the United States, where there were estimated to be over 3.5 million children in 2020-21 – over 5% of the school-age population, as opposed to perhaps 0.5% in England.
Our own hyperactive government committed earlier this year to tightening up rules on home education. At the moment, parents are not obliged to register home-schooled children. Following a consultation, it now plans to introduce a compulsory register, with sanctions for those parents who do not register, and a requirement to produce information for local authorities.
You can see the concerns that are leading us to drift in the direction of more state involvement. Increased monitoring of schools and childcare through Ofsted has added to longstanding worries about the quality of home schooling. We have become much more concerned about child abuse: children who are never seen by teachers are potentially more vulnerable. There are concerns about unapproved Islamic and Jewish schools, and it is suspected that many apparently home-schooled children may be spending too much time in these institutions. And Covid lockdowns led to large numbers of pupils apparently disappearing from school rolls: officialdom wants to know what’s happened to them.
The consultation exercise showed that 92% of schoolteachers and 96% of local authorities responded in favour of compulsory registration. However, 82% of over 3500 parents and young people replying to the consultation were against it. They fear that registration will be the thin end of the wedge, with local authorities, teachers’ unions and advocacy groups pressing for more and more regulation of what and how parents can teach their children –rather in the way that privately-funded childcare has gradually become part of the formal education set-up.
Fans of home schooling, while aware of some of the dangers, point to the positives. Greater freedom and flexibility, together with closer relations between parents and children and children and their siblings are often stressed. Although little evidence is available in the UK, in the USA it is claimed that home-educated children do significantly better on both standardised academic achievement tests and on indicators of social, emotional and psychological development than those in institutional schools.
There are certainly plenty of successful figures who were home-schooled, from Alexander Graham Bell to Agatha Christie, from Serena and Venus Williams to Sandra Day O’Connor, from Emma Watson to Justin Timberlake. I don’t like anecdotes much, but more than twenty years ago I was running a university business school and we were approached by a father who had home-schooled three brothers aged 14, 15 and 16 who had just passed their A levels together. He wanted to know if they could start a university degree with us. After a good deal of umming and aahing and taking both legal and academic advice, we agreed (we wouldn’t be allowed to do this today, incidentally, as a result of over-cautious government regulation). The brothers all got good degrees, went on to do Masters and all got jobs in the City. The family now funds a generous bursary scheme at the business school.
Liberals ought to defend and encourage home schooling, as one way of extending parental and student choice in education. Nowadays more parents have experienced higher education, have travelled widely and are more confident to teach their children, there is greater availability of online resources and the possibility of linking up with other families for real world or virtual discussions or classes – all of which should make home schooling more varied and exciting.
In addition to the proposed requirement for registration, the government says it wants to encourage local authorities to provide helpful advice and examples of best practice. It could go further. Some schools allow home educated students to join particular classes, for example in specialist A level subjects in which parents lack expertise. This facility could become more widely available, allowing a blend of home and school, a ‘flexible education’ to match ‘flexible working’, perhaps.
More radically, we should remind ourselves that each home-schooled child saves the taxpayer £6-7000 a year, perhaps more. All the expenses of home schooling – including fees for GCSE and A level exams – have to be met from family incomes. There is no financial assistance. Perhaps a portion of the savings could be returned to home-schoolers in the form of vouchers which could be used for extra tutoring, books and software, educational visits and seminars as well as exam fees. In providing such vouchers we would be echoing the ideas of JS Mill, who anticipated Milton Friedman by a century in advocating such assistance.
Allowing and indeed encouraging those parents bold and committed enough to take the responsibility of educating their own children is one way in which freedom can be maintained as a deadening orthodoxy descends on more and more of our lives. As Mill said, “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another… it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.” Schools should not be the only way of getting an education. Let a hundred flowers blossom.