To school or not to school?

To school or not to school?

And if not school, finding your place on the spectrum of alternative approaches to learning – and holding your nerve when questioned about it!

What’s been said?

It’s been encouraging to see sympathetically written articles about home education carried by local news sources in recent weeks. On 24 June the Cumberland-based News & Star reported on the decision made in March this year by Kelsey Hall to de-register her seven year old son from school, citing her comment that ‘Logan hated school ever since the day he started.’ Now, along with her sister Rachel Andrew and her children, Mila, 4, and Ronnie, 2, Hall has opted for elective home education.

Similarly, North East news Chronicle Live reported on 2 July that a twenty-nine year old mother from Hexham, Bethany Bishop, who had applied to become a teacher, has now decided against joining the profession and has taken her six-year-old son out of school.

A parallel report was also featured in the Metro News. Videos featuring both families have been posted by NationalWorld, a relatively new media company, here and here.

Hall’s son, Logan, does have workbooks to help guide his learning, but his mum won’t force him to use them, choosing rather to be led by his interests. Meanwhile, her sister’s experience of the constraints of school as a child herself clearly played into her decision not to inflict potentially similar issues on her own offspring. Rachel Andrew stated that she was forced to do lessons she wasn’t interested in at all and had never used her GCSEs, whilst being “very aware of this life outside of school,” and having “so many passions that [she] wanted to pursue.”

Bishop, currently in a season of post-deregistration “de-schooling,” is also taking a relaxed approach. For now she is letting her son choose whatever he wants to do – even if that’s a lie-in, playing with Lego, or an afternoon at the park. And she plans to continue home educating him for as long as he wants.

Her motivation to spend time with her own children will chime with some readers:

“I applied to be a teacher last year and I got accepted but I thought I will be going out and teaching other children when I can teach my own children. I wanted to spend more time with my children.”

Others may appreciate her honesty about the challenges of becoming more child-led in her approach to learning, though being “a product of the school system” herself, and her recognition that “de-schooling can be harder for the parents than children.”

Why does it matter?

Self-directed learning will not necessarily be the right choice for all learners but some students, given appropriate support, will thrive. Negative stereotypes regarding all styles of home education abound, but the evidence suggests that the results belie these adverse assumptions. A growing body of research shows that home education is a very viable form of education.

An intuitive sense that a self-directed learning route would be right for their particular family does not necessarily equip parents with the confidence, and bigger picture necessary, to at least justify the viability of their choice to others from a research point of view. Along with the mums mentioned in these articles, can those who choose a more self-directed approach to their children’s education, be confident that this mode of learning works?

Suitable Education’s website carries a useful summary of the evidence base for self-directed learning, pointing to the extensive body of research confirming that “children’s natural development, their way of engaging with the world and their insatiable drive to play is all geared around learning…”

They also make the very valid point that self-directed learning and the less formal end of the spectrum is “the type of home education least understood and therefore most likely to be harmed by proposals to introduce closer monitoring and state involvement.” [Emphasis added] This is an important point for all HE parents to bear in mind when communicating with national or local politicians.

Two useful pieces of work were undertaken by American researchers Peter Gray and Gina Riley. The results of the first are presented in a 2015 paper “Grown Unschoolers’ Evaluations of Their Unschooling Experiences.” The researchers questioned seventy-five adults who had been unschooled for at least the last two years of their high school about their experiences, and the findings offer the following reassurance:

“The great majority of respondents reported that they were very happy with their unschooling. Nearly all of them valued the freedom it gave them to pursue their own interests in their own ways, and many reported that unschooling promoted their capacities for self-motivation, self-direction, personal responsibility and continued learning. A minority said they experienced a learning deficit as a result of unschooling, and most of those said they easily made up that deficit when they needed to. Most said they had satisfying social lives as unschoolers, and many commented on the special value of having friends of a wide range of ages…”

Their second paper reports equally positively on the experiences of the same seventy-five adults regarding their subsequent pursuits of higher education and careers, saying that “Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation, and desire to learn.”

Moving on to other potential objections, it is commonly believed that home education puts children at a disadvantage, with the school experience being seen as ‘necessary’ in order for children to learn socialisation skills. Most home educators will therefore have encountered that well-worn question, “But what about socialisation?”

Other American research concurs that this highlights an important issue, but sees the question as very ambiguous. In his 2013 research paper “Homeschooling and the Question of Socialization Revisited,” Richard Medlin (citing Maccoby, 2007) suggests it should be reframed to accord with a more accurate definition of socialisation and ask whether homeschooled children are “acquiring the ‘skills, behavior patterns, values, and motivations’ they need to function competently as members of society.”

Medlin’s answer to that question, based on three decades of homeschooling research, is a clear “yes.” Other research previously reviewed by him also “gives every indication that the socialization experiences homeschooled children receive are more than adequate.”

Similar findings from veteran American homeschool researcher Brian Ray are set out on this page. This recent summary of research facts on homeschooling covers generic statistics and trends plus findings on other specifics such as motivations for home educating, academic performance, socialisation and success in the ‘real world’ of adulthood.

What can I do?

Be encouraged by these comparatively positive news reports about parents’ decisions to home educate. Are there any outlets where you could share your own story? And if you encounter any newly home educating families, do reach out to encourage them in any way you can in the early stages of their journey.

Broaden your own understanding of the range of approaches possible so that when well-meaning friends or relatives point out the ‘harm’ you are doing to your child by opting for elective home education, you can more confidently allay their fears (and perhaps your own) with the facts. Three decades of research consistently show that:

  • the socialisation experiences home educated children receive are probably more advantageous than those of children who attend conventional schools, and
  • home educated students score above average on achievement tests regardless of their parents’ level of formal education or their family’s household income.

Remember too that wherever you choose to position yourself on the spectrum of approaches to out of school learning, it’s important to defend all parents’ right to provide a suitable education, and to advocate for the full range of approaches. As noted above, a child-led, autonomous style is more likely than a more structured approach to be adversely affected by demands for more monitoring and assessment.

In the present climate, let’s be sure to remember that the quality of any education is ultimately determined by its outcomes rather than its inputs, and continue advocating for parents to be recognised as those best qualified to determine the form and content of a ‘suitable’ education for their own children.