Home schooling – a vision of the future? Telegraph 11th April 2009

James Bartholomew, Telegraph 11th April 2009


We’d certainly subscribe to the sentiments in this article. We have long argued that we have much to learn from home-based education.

Let us hear it for Essex. The county has not always had the best of public images, but put aside the clichés about drunk ladies in white stilettos. Essex has asserted itself as a place where truth survives – where the government spin machine has not wholly subdued the desire to say what is sensible and honest.

It emerged this week that Essex County Council is to pay a little over £10,000 to six families in which the children are being home educated. The parents in question had refused to send their four boys and two girls to failing secondary Bishops Park College in Clacton-on-Sea and had, instead, hired home tutors.

Why had the parents declined to send their children to the local school? Because its results were awful. Any parent who really cared that his or her child should be educated well would quite reasonably try all possible means to avoid the sentence of going to a school where a mere eight per cent of the 16-year-olds achieved five or more good GCSEs. The national average of 48 per cent is bad enough.

Rumblings from the National Union of Teachers, gathered for their annual conference season, worry parents still further. They have complaints about the dumbing down of the curriculum, the horrors of literacy hour in primary schools and the scarcity of places in sixth forms and colleges, and we agree with them all. Their proposed boycott of Sats tests for 11-year-olds and call for an end to the pernicious league tables also gets our vote.

So, of course, does Essex County Council. By giving the families some cash, it has implicitly admitted some things that the Government, in its cocoon of self-congratulation about education, does not like to hear. Namely, that some state schools are actually condemnations to low-achievement. Taking children out of them reveals a determination by parents to do the best for their offspring. Stout Essex has implicitly agreed that home education can be as good as, or better than, the schooling offered by the state. Well done. It is a kind of backhanded official recognition of salient truths that those of us who have done some home education are delighted to see.

It is also a token of how attitudes have changed. At least, I think they have, based on comments I have heard. When I took my younger daughter out of her school in west London nearly three years ago, it felt as though I was doing something weird and unconventional. Not as far as the school in question was concerned, which was tolerant enough. One or two of the teachers were even enthusiastic, saying they hoped to take their own children out of school when they reached 11 or 12 and travel the world.

No, it was some of the other parents who made me feel as though I were perverse. They subtly implied that my child would suffer from lack of “socialisation”. There was a wider sense, too, that anyone who chose to educate their children outside a normal school was likely to be odd or, horror of horrors, a creationist.

But now, when I tell people that I spent two years home educating Alex, they tend to say, “How marvellous” and coo with admiration, or even envy. It is a pleasant change. I admit my experience is anecdotal but there are some statistics to support the idea that attitudes are changing.

Several sources suggest that the number of children being home educated is rising fast. Four out of five local authorities contacted by Channel 4 news in 2007 said the number of those who were being home educated had risen in the past year. And there was an average 61 per cent rise over five years among those authorities whose records stretched that far. There are no reliable figures for the current total – about 50,000 has been mooted – but what is certain is that they are on the increase. In credit-crunch Britain, this is one area that is booming.

The familiar arguments in favour of home education are, in my view, generally right. But there is one plus that does not get enough attention, and that is a shared experience between parent and child that is unparalleled in normal life.

Home schooling can create a bond that is far closer than most parents – especially fathers – ever enjoy with their offspring. One of my favourite photos from the two years during which Alex and I lived and worked together is of us standing on the dome of the cathedral in Florence. Before climbing up to it, I told her the story of how builders had reached the level where the dome would start without being quite sure how to finish it off. No dome of that diameter had been built since Roman times. One man, Filippo Brunelleschi, claimed he knew how to do it but wanted the commission to be the architect, so he refused to reveal his technique fully until he got the job. Finally, he got his way and the dome was successfully built. Only after I had told her this background did we climb the steep steps between the two skins of the dome and get to see the glorious view over Florence.

The picture shows how relaxed and close we had become. We were spending two weeks in Tuscany, mostly living in a rented flat in San Gimignano. We talked a great deal about every subject. I gave her Italian lessons as we sat in a café. We could practise our early attempts at Italian conversation with the waitresses, who were charmed by my impish girl. These experiences were exceptional and wonderful. Having had them, I would encourage any parent who is contemplating such a thing to go ahead. Yes, the home education I did was, financially, a luxury. But it was a far more profoundly satisfying luxury than a flash new car.

What about the actual education? I remember how, when I started, some people suggested that surely one person could not possibly compete with the varied skills and expertises of an array of teachers in a school. But I was not teaching at university level. Any reasonably bright, educated adult can teach primary-school-age children. Wholly personal, individual teaching has clear advantages. Alex was never left behind in class and never bored by doing something too easy for her. After a year and a term of home schooling with me, she took the entrance exam for Godolphin and Latymer, one of the top private schools in Britain, with seven or eight candidates for every place. She and I were both ecstatic when she was accepted. It was an achievement. Indeed, I very much doubt that she would have got in had she remained at an ordinary preparatory school.

In addition, home education made her more responsible and more of a self-starter. I was told by one teacher of primary-school children that she could tell the ones who had experienced home education. They were better adjusted, she thought, and better behaved.

There is one cloud on the horizon. While the general public, I believe, has come to think better of home education, there are those whose mindset is: “if it moves, inspect it; if it is independent, regulate it”. A Government review of home education will report next month, and its mandate looks suspiciously as if it were designed to increase government powers over home-schoolers. There are some who think, “we can only be sure everything is fine if the government is the ultimate controller”. It is false reasoning.

The Government controls Bishops Park College. That school is not fine. When the Government manages to make that school, and all the others like it, offer a really good education, then, and only then, should they presume to interfere in home education. The parents who make the effort and give the time to home schooling are, almost by definition, the ones who care most about their children’s education. Please leave us alone.

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