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?

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - SALLY WIL­LIAMS IS A FEA­TURES WRITER WHO HAS RE­PORTED FROM AROUND THE WORLD

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

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