Examining the home-schooling boom
A home-schooling boom has given children freedom to learn what they – and their parents – want. But is it another example of modern ‘cocooning’ of kids?
Every morning Ben Mumford starts his school day with maths. At the age of 10 he is already working at GCSE level, but he doesn’t always bother to get out of his pyjamas in time for the class. He reads more books than most of his friends, studies science on the beach, and recently built a go-kart in a technology lesson. Ben is happy and fulfilled. All, his mother Claire Mumford believes, thanks to home-schooling. “It’s not that I’m anti-establishment,” says Mumford, who has been home-schooling Ben and her other children, Sam, 11, and Amelia, eight, for the last year. “It’s just that schools haven’t got the time to nurture and teach children the way I think they should. School is very oppressive for young people. It’s not natural to be sat at a desk all day, with fluorescent lights, computer screens, barely able to see outside.” Her children get “time to relax and to be kids – to go to the woods, build dens and to learn what they’re excited about”.
Mumford, 40, a community volunteer, was born on the Isle of Wight, where her father had taken early retirement as an army captain following an accident, and her mother was a former teacher. She moved back about eight years ago, when she separated from the children’s father, a chauffeur.
She describes her style of home-education as “childled”. The only formal lesson is maths, where the children work from books for half an hour every morning. “Then we see what we want to do that day,” she says. Lessons can take place in the library or the woods; rather than learning science, they “experience it” by growing plants, say, or by digging water channels on the beach. Structured weekly activities include youth club; home-ed drama group; talks by the police, air ambulance or the coastguard organised by Rookley Home-Ed Meet, a group on the island made up of around 20 families; and football training with Southampton FC on the mainland.
Amelia also does work experience in a hardware shop in her village, and has widened her social group to include sixtysomethings and a variety of dogs. She is also learning the Latin names of flowers. “The job has been amazing for her confidence,” says Mumford.
Sam likes “designing stuff ” such as underwater cities, produces a weekly local newspaper, St Catherine’s Chronicle, and re-enacts battles with his toy soldiers. Ben is currently interested in footballers’ autobiographies, nutritional tips for athletes and teach-yourself guides on how to be a premier league player. Amelia studies fashion books and magazines, writes songs and paints pebbles.
“The best thing is you get to be free and you don’t feel squashed up,” says Ben. “At school people have to sit inside at a table and you might not learn anything new,” adds Amelia. “At home you can choose your subjects and you can go outside and see your friends more.” The only downside for Sam is that he is “a bit cleverer than Mum”. True, says Mumford. “I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time.”
The home-schooling movement emerged in UK in the 1970s, when it was considered a fringe pursuit. Today, it is probably the fastest-growing form of education in the country. The number of home-schooled children has risen by about 40% over three years, according to recent research by the BBC. Around 48,000 children were being home-educated across the UK in 2016-17, up from about 34,000 in 2014-15. But the real number is
likely to be higher. Data is not collected centrally, and while local authorities keep a register of home-educated children, this only covers children who have been withdrawn from school. Children who are never put into school are currently not required to register.
Many parents who opt to home-school their children say they are avoiding bullying, exam pressure and stress. Others have concerns about special educational needs not being addressed, not getting a place at the school of their choice, or the school environment. “It used to be a philosophical ethos; now it’s about children having some sort of difficulty at school,” says Edwina Theunissen, former trustee of Education Otherwise, a home-education charity founded in 1977.
Helen Lees, visiting research fellow at York St John University, and a specialist in alternative education, believes the increase suggests “something quite worrying about the state of the education system. I’m not sure having 30 children in a classroom all doing the same thing works any more. Not with the way the classroom is structured, and the way the curriculum is followed.”
Changes in technology have made it easier to teach out of the classroom, and methods range from the traditional approach of textbooks, study schedules, grades and tests to “unschooling” or “autonomous education”, a philosophy conceived by the US author and educator John Holt in the 1970s. He believed that if you give a child the freedom to follow their own interests, and a rich assortment of resources, they will do the actual learning themselves.
Some parents do the teaching; others subcontract it to experts – club leaders, online schools, tutors. This is not cheap. The cost can be up to £34,000 ($44,000) a year, according to Stephen Spriggs, head of education at William Clarence, a tutoring company that offers a 30-hour-a-week home-education programme.
There are families that dip into home-education for short periods – to get into competitive secondary schools, or retake exams, for example. For others it is not just an interlude; it’s their lives.
Mumford says none of her children were happy at school, adding: “I should have done it before.” Sam, Ben and Amelia went to a local primary, where Sam, in particular, struggled to fit in. “Our house used to overlook the playground and I could see the only person Sam talked to was the dinner lady,” says Mumford.
As well as having difficulty with friendships, Sam is very rigid in his thinking: “If the school lunch was five minutes late and no one told him why, he’d get very frustrated,” says his mother. He also has obsessive interests, such as the Romans and Norse mythology. Mumford suspected autism, but it would be four years before it was confirmed, when he was eight. There are lengthy delays on the island owing to the lack of a diagnostic service.
When Sam was eight, Mumford decided to teach him at home for a while. “He was very well behaved at school, but he’d bottle it up and he’d come home and explode. He’d be violent and horrendous,” she says. Home-schooling “was really good for his confidence because he realised it was OK to be different”. After six months, he decided to go back to school. “It was the summer term and there was fun stuff like sports day,” Mumford says.
In September 2017, all three children started the new school year at the same school. But by the end of October, Mumford had pulled them all out. She says that Sam was bored. “He is very clever. If they were learning this much about the Romans, he already knew this much.” She holds her hands out wide. It was painfully clear to Ben and Amelia, meanwhile, that they weren’t performing well enough for the school. “Schools want to get good Ofsted [the school inspection body] results. The councils want their schools to get good Ofsted results. The system is about trying to please the people at the top, rather than help children,” says Mumford.
Mumford was herself taught at home for a year after her family moved to rural Cornwall when she was eight. “I did very limited work and yet when I went back to school I was put in the top sets. It didn’t hold me back, so I wasn’t worried about them falling behind.” But she acknowledges that home-schooling is a financial strain. “I can’t work while I’m home-schooling so I have to rely on benefits, and I don’t like that,” says Mumford. “That’s partly why I do so much voluntary work: I feel like I’m giving something back.” Families have to pay for all exams, and many exam centres also ask for an administrative fee.
“Because we don’t have much money, there are things the children miss out on. Amelia would love to go horse riding. Ben would like to do more sports. We don’t go on holiday, and just occasionally I could do with half an hour to myself,” she says. While she doesn’t lack support because of the island’s large home-educating community, spending so much time together can occasionally be too much. “Sometimes I have to go up to my room to calm down, so I am not shouting at them. I don’t like shouting. Unless something extreme happens, like someone gets injured, I am ‘do not disturb’ for a bit of time.”
Critics argue that the “cocooning” desire of some home-schooling parents is fuelled by a romanticised vision of the past. “It is not just about seeking an escape from the problems of the ‘city’ (a metaphor for danger and heterogeneity), it is a rejection of the entire idea of a city. Cultural and intellectual diversity, complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and proximity to ‘the Other’,” writes educational theorist Michael Apple in Away With All Teachers: The Cultural Politics Of Home Schooling. He likens home-schooling to a “gated community”, mirroring the filter bubbles that have been created by the internet. “Even with evident shortcomings,” he says, schools “provide a kind of ‘social glue’, a common cultural reference point in our polyglot, increasingly multicultural society.”
There is criticism, too, from within the community. “The most popular educational method used by those who withdraw their children from school is autonomous education and involves nobody teaching children anything at all,” says Simon Webb, author of Elective Home Education In The UK. “Children’s interests often involve lying in bed until very late, then getting up and watching cartoons on television and eating nothing but sugary snacks. Children aren’t the best judge of what to learn or what lifestyle to adopt.”
Webb, who is married to a social worker, home-educated his daughter, Simone, “from birth to 16”. After passing four A-levels at A* at college, she went to Oxford University, and gained a first in philosophy, politics and economics. Now 25, she is doing a PhD and teaches at University College London and King’s College London. “If you do ‘unschooling’, if you don’t get your children to take GCSEs, you are really handicapping them,” he says.
Families in the UK have long welcomed the relaxed laws governing home-education. While home-education is illegal in, for example, Germany, Croatia, Brazil and Turkey, the only requirement for a parent in England wishing to withdraw a child from school is to send a written request to the “proprietor” of the school (typically the headteacher); they must accept if you are taking your child out completely, but can refuse if you want to send your child to school some of the time. If a child has never been to school, you don’t need to tell anyone.
Under the Education Act of 1996, parents have a duty to ensure their children are educated. And that’s about it. They are not required to teach the national curriculum, have any specific qualifications, register with a local authority, allow inspectors into their homes, or get approval for the sort of education provided at home.
But the government is now seeking to tighten and clarify rules surrounding home-education. Proposals include a mandatory register of home-educated children, along with increased monitoring and support from local authorities.
This is prompted in part by the steep rise in the number of children educated at home, and by concerns over child welfare in the wake of such high-profile cases as that of Jordan Burling, from Leeds, who died after severe neglect in 2016. Jordan, 18, had not attended school since he was 12, when his mother announced he was to be home-schooled. He never took any exams or achieved any qualifications and was rarely seen outside the house.
The growing number of illegal schools – unregistered establishments that operate outside the supervision of the Department for Education, local authorities or the Ofsted inspection framework, and are often religious in character – is another worry. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools, warned they posed a threat to “British values” and gave the impression that home-schooling was being used as a cover for terrorism. “I have previously voiced concern that many of those operating unregistered schools are unscrupulously using the freedoms that parents have to home-educate their children as a cover for their activities,” he wrote in a letter to the secretary of state for education in May 2016. Ofsted inspectors had previously uncovered 100 suspected illegal schools in England, including some with a narrow, Islam-focused curriculum. In a separate move, the government wants to fine schools found to be “off-rolling” – a process where the parents of challenging children are persuaded to home-educate, most commonly in year 11, prior to doing their GCSE exams.
The home-schooling community has reacted angrily to the new focus on its activities, claiming government proposals “infringe parental rights” and fuel “unwarranted suspicion”. “The government doesn’t want to admit the reason that home-education numbers are rising is not to do with radicalisation,” says Chris McGovern, a retired headteacher and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. “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.”
Rita Ball, 40, an educational entrepreneur, and her husband Anirban Nandi, 42, an accountant, have been home-educating their two children, Ilora, 10, and Elam, eight, for the last five years. “Before, I had the impression that home-schooling was for fundamentalist weird people in the midwest,” says Nandi. “Normal people didn’t do it.” He admits the couple weren’t obvious candidates for alternative education. They both enjoyed school and got good grades: Nandi at a state primary, and
‘Home education is every sort of freedom. Freedom for the children; freedom as a family’
then an independent day school in south London; Ball at a primary in Zambia, where her doctor-mother worked in a hospital for the mining community, and then a private girls’ school in London.
When Ball told her parents she was taking Ilora out of school, “they thought I’d lost the plot, like borderline child neglect, if not actual child neglect”. Both families are from West Bengal in India, and emigrated to the UK in the early 70s. “Their only priority was education,” says Ball. In rural India, Ball’s father “walked two miles through tiger-filled forest to get to a school. If you didn’t go to school you would be stuck in poverty for ever. Everything they worked hard for, their country has worked hard for, is to get children to school.”
Ball and Nandi had a place for Ilora at a good local primary. “I thought, ‘Job done’,” says Nandi. What’s more, they say Ilora would have thrived there. “She really enjoyed nursery. She loved interacting with other kids. She was very popular with the teachers. She was diligent,” says Nandi.
When Ilora was four, however, Ball sat down with her laptop to download the school application form. “I was like, ‘What? Kids go from nine until 3.30 every day? Four-yearolds spending all that time in a classroom? Not outdoors, but indoors?’ And there were all these rules. ‘If you don’t send your child to school you’ll be done for truancy.’ I was just, ‘Whoa, this doesn’t sit right with me.’ And then slowly, slowly, other alternatives opened up.”
First they tried “flexi-schooling”, with Ilora attending school four days a week and learning at home on Fridays. The following year, Ilora went full-time, but left at halfterm. “I knew I would miss the lunch – I used to have chicken and chips and beans, with apple crumble, or peaches and syrup – playtime and friends, but I liked staying at home a lot.” She has been home-schooled ever since. Elam has never been to school.
Ball was set on an academic career before an accident in her early 20s “shook things up” and made her question the value of finishing her PhD in water pollution in Bengal. She went on to manage a bookshop that specialised in mind, body and soul for 15 years and now runs Roots2Grow, an initiative to make mathematics more accessible. She places high value on “freedom”.
“For me, home-education is every sort of freedom,” she says. “Freedom for the children – to be bored, stimulated, to self-motivate; freedom as a family. When Ilora was at school she would come home and it would be bathtime, dinner time, no relaxed time – you’ve got to go to bed to be on time tomorrow. It just seemed like you wake up and it’s basically a race to put them back to bed again. And freedom of thought.”
She believes league tables and budget cuts have stifled creativity and critical thinking in schools. “Everyone’s just going through the motions.”
Nandi admits he was worried about the children drifting in academic backwaters. “But actually, if you do the maths, an adult/child ratio of one to one, or one to two or five, compared with one to 30, well, it’s going to be better, isn’t it?” Isolation was a concern, but he says the homeeducation community has grown so much this isn’t a problem. Their local South London Home Education group has 3,000 members.
“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,” says Nandi. He’s aware, however, that he honed key survival skills in the playground. “It’s lack of bullying I’m worrying about.”
Nandi and Ball operate a shift system. When Ball is at work, Nandi, who is self-employed, is in charge, and vice versa. They combine structured classes with free time for the children to read, draw, play card and board games, watch films and amuse themselves. On Monday mornings, for example, Nandi takes the children to Sutton Home Education Forum, where they do football, gymnastics and multi-sports. On Tuesday mornings they go to the Forest School in Streatham and learn to do such things as build fires, whittle wood or just “appreciate nature”.
Elam does classes in capoeira, a Brazilian martial art; Ilora does kung fu, performing arts and Scouts. They both go swimming, and to a maths group (run by their mother and her business partner) and learn about science with an informal group of two families. llora has an English tutor for an hour twice a week – partly to placate her grandparents. “It keeps them calmer,” says Nandi.
It is expensive, they agree: £100 ($130) a week on the tutor; clubs at around £100 a term. “Day trips can cost a lot, even if you’re subsidised as an educational workshop,” says Ball. “A state school offers a wide social mix, whereas home education is limited to those who can afford it, whether they are doing it cheaply or not. On the other hand, I do feel they’re exposed a lot more to children with special educational needs, children with disabilities, than they would be at school, and in a very relaxed way.”
The plan is for the children to sit GCSEs and A-levels, then ideally do a degree.
But aren’t you only showing the children what interests you, I ask. Nandi disagrees. “I spent my life avoiding Bengali dancing and singing performances but Ilora loves it so I’m taking her to those.”
“They are spending a lot of time in our company,” Ball admits. “Yes, they have friends, meet other adults, all of that, but there is this massive influence of us in their life. And that is positive and potentially negative. The parent/ child dynamic is not broken up enough. It’s a relationship that needs a lot of space. But I don’t see the space that school gives children as the healthier option.”
Hands on Above, Claire Mumford with her children Sam, Amelia and Ben; right, the children take a break from their lessons
Cutting class Ilora Nandi takes some time out in the garden
Extra help Ilora brushes up on her English with her tutor