Numbers Rising, but the Reasons for Choosing HE are Changing

What’s been said?

The Guardian has been publishing articles on HE with some regularity over recent months. A long piece “School is very oppressive: why home-schooling is on the rise” by Sally Williams appeared on 3 November, featuring case studies, a summary of the changing reasons parents are opting for HE, observations about the pressure schools are under to deliver good results, and comments from various educational researchers.

The article opens with remarks from Claire Mumford, who is home educating her three children aged eleven, ten and eight on the Isle of Wight. Describing her educational approach as “child-led”, Mumford points out that her children are well integrated in the community since they participate in several structured weekly activities, both within and outside local HE circles. “It’s not that I’m anti-establishment,” she says, “It’s just that schools haven’t got the time to nurture and teach children the way I think they should.”

She reports that school has not proved to be a good fit for any of her children for different reasons. The son with autism struggled to form relationships and was frequently bored; the other two felt under increasing pressure to attain the standards expected. The mother’s view was that, “Schools want to get good Ofsted results. The councils wants their schools to get good Ofsted results. The system is about trying to please the people at the top, rather than help children.”

Williams also references a recent report by the National Association of Head Teachers, noting how “accountability systems” – Ofsted inspections, government tables and targets – have created a “culture of fear” in schools and resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to excessive focus on preparation for tests.

Another family to be featured are Rita Ball and her husband Anirban Nandi, who home educate a ten year old daughter and an eight year old son. Nandi’s first comment illustrates what is probably a common impression of EHE, “Before, I had the impression that home-schooling was for fundamentalist weird people in the midwest. Normal people didn’t do it.” After first-hand experience of HE however, he made a complete volte-face, as a later comment demonstrates: “I got more and more confident that home-education was not only not the wrong thing to do, but a positively good thing to do,”

Why does it matter?

Interspersed with HE family interviews are explanations of how perceptions of HE have altered since “it emerged in the 1970s, when it was considered a fringe pursuit”. Williams claims that it could now be “the fastest-growing form of education in the UK”, and points out that the reasons parents are opting for HE are somewhat different from what they used to be.

Avoiding bullying, exam pressure and stress, concerns about special educational needs or the school environment are all cited, then summed up in a quotation from Edwina Theunissen (former trustee of Education Otherwise),“It used to be a philosophical ethos; now it’s about children having some sort of difficulty at school.” [EO’s 2016 statement on compulsory registration for HE children is available here.]

Williams also quotes Helen Lees, visiting research fellow at York St John University and a specialist in alternative education, who connects the rising number of children in HE with “something quite worrying about the state of the education system”, wondering whether “having 30 children in a classroom all doing the same thing works any more.”

Williams rightly points out that changes in technology have made learning outside a classroom environment easier, and highlights the range of methods employed by HE parents, from a traditional textbook approach through to unschooling, as advocated by US educator John Holt in the 1970s.

The piece is not without criticisms of HE, of course, but Williams has certainly done her research. She concludes with a relatively sympathetic round-up of the issues currently being faced by HE parents in the light of government proposals about registration and monitoring, ending with these words from Chris McGovern (retired headteacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education), “The government doesn’t want to admit the reason that home-education numbers are rising is not to do with radicalisation. That is a concern, but it is a far greater problem in state schools than in home-schooling. It’s because schools are failing ever greater numbers of children.”

What can I do?

Read the piece to inform yourself, noting significant points for future use. You could consider sharing it with those who are unfamiliar with EHE, with some caveats.