Home education in Britain

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2005

In 2005 I was invited to speak at the World Home Education Conference in Tokyo, Japan. This is the text of my powerpoint presentation that was translated and published in Japanese for the Japanese home educating community following the event:

INTRODUCTION

My name is Sarah Fitz-Claridge. I am the founder of Taking Children Seriously, and was the editor of the TCS paper journal, Taking Children Seriously, throughout its decade long existence. You can find the TCS web site at takingchildrenseriously.com. In the past I have been a director of Education Otherwise, which is one of the leading groups for home educators in Britain. I have been home educating for nearly 16 years and have written and spoken widely on parenting, education, and the law relating to education and children’s rights.

Now that you know who I am, let me tell you what I am going to say. 

First, I shall explain the legal situation in regard to home education in Britain, and how the law came to be the way it is, there. 

Then I shall stress the diversity of educational philosophies and practices that there is in Britain. 

I shall illustrate that by talking about some of the many different reasons for home educating and styles of home education that exist in Britain.

Finally, since one of the most common styles of education in Britain is apparently unheard of, or possibly even illegal, in Japan, I’ll try to explain how it works in a little more detail, so you don’t go away thinking that most home educated children in England must reach adulthood unable to function properly!

SCHOOL IS NOT COMPULSORY

Home education is, and always has been, legal in Britain.

Education has been compulsory since the late nineteenth century, but school never has been.

THE LEGAL HISTORY

Parliament wanted to make education compulsory but also to retain freedom in education. Some say this was because it would have been unthinkable for the elite schools of the aristocracy to have been subjected to the authority of petty officials from the lower classes.

The aristocracy were always partial to home education too. In fact, probably the most famous home-educated person in Britain today is an aristocrat: the Queen.

Home education is sometimes criticised as ‘elitist’. The aristocracy wanted an exclusive education for their children. And obviously an education where a child sits in the same class as twenty others can’t be all that ‘exclusive’.

But the crucial thing for us is that such an education can’t be especially well adapted to any one particular child either. 

Wanting an education suitable for your own child is not elitism, it is a human right.

Different individuals, and different philosophies, disagree about what is best not only for a particular child, but for children in general. 

One of the great virtues of freedom is that it allows diversity. So the British way is to allow different ideas about education to compete, facilitating progress in education.

Achieving this raised an interesting philosophical issue for the British Parliament: how to make education compulsory without making any particular educational method (such as school, lessons, exams…) the only lawful one; and without making any particular content (such as a curriculum, compulsory subjects…) the only lawful ones; and without imposing any authority on the subjects (such as particular textbooks, a local headmaster, the local education authority, Parliament, examinations). Because if the state were to make any particular method, content, or authority on the subjects the only lawful one, it would be forcibly taking sides between different educational theories – in other words, between different philosophies.

That would be a recipe for stagnation as well as cruelty and tyranny. Indeed, the countries that did impose a single educational philosophy on all their children in the nineteenth century – in Europe, notably France and Germany – have suffered intellectual stagnation as a result. And subjecting parents to the experience of having their children taken by the state into a collectivised system whose overriding purpose was the supposed ‘common good’, was an efficient, and perhaps necessary, preparation for doing the same to the whole population, as the totalitarian societies of the twentieth century did.

THE CURRENT LEGAL SITUATION FOR HOME EDUCATORS

Anyway – back to the puzzle of how to make education compulsory without the government favouring any particular method or philosophy: 

The answer that was chosen (and then refined through successive precedent-setting cases, as is the British way), was a very elegant one:

The law made the parents responsible for educating their children, and the local education authority responsible for ensuring that they do.

But the local education authority is not allowed to lay down fixed requirements for how the parents are to achieve this ‘education’. For instance, the authority must not require parents to have any qualifications; nor that the children pass any particular educational test. Nor may they dictate the content, the method or the form of the education provided. 

The word “education” is not defined in the Education Act.

The local education authority may only act if it genuinely seems to them that the parents are not educating their children.

The parents can respond by providing evidence in any reasonable form that they are educating their children. 

One way of satisfying them would be for the children to pass tests similar to those that the authority uses in its schools. But that’s only one way. Another way might be to get some friends of the family to write sworn declarations detailing the education they’ve witnessed. Another way might be to invite the local education inspector over for a chat with the parents. Or with the children.

In the event of not being able to resolve the dispute, it’s ultimately up to a court (again without deferring to any fixed authority) to determine, given the evidence the parents have chosen to present, whether the parents’ conception of education is a reasonable one.

This has worked well. Very occasionally there have been miscarriages of justice, but there is a strong tradition in Britain of tolerance for educational diversity. In the vast majority of cases the courts have not enforced any particular educational philosophy. 

In particular, those parents, such as Taking Children Seriously parents, who give their children complete freedom to learn what they want, when they want, and how they want, are not breaking any law.

HOW MANY HOME EDUCATORS ARE THERE IN BRITAIN?

There is no law requiring parents to inform anyone that they have chosen not to send their children to school. So in practice, most home educating families are not known to the local education authorities. Thus, we really don’t have any idea how many families are home educating in Britain. But England hosts one of the largest annual home education festivals in the world.

WHO HOME EDUCATES IN BRITAIN?

Home educating families in Britain are very diverse. There’s a significant demographic difference between the British and American home education scene: in the United States, the most prominent group are religious people; in Britain it’s tree huggers (middle class politically left-wing liberal ‘green’ vegetarian sandal-wearing hippy types). But in both countries there are all sorts of other home-educating philosophies represented as well.

For example, we have some parents who educate their children because they are dissatisfied with the school system and know they can do better. 

As one such parent said, “Why should I entrust my children’s education to a bunch of ignorant, barely-literate adults with only a teaching certificate, when I can entrust it to someone with a PhD and numerous other qualifications?” [i.e., herself]

Yet we also have some parents who are not very literate themselves but nevertheless successfully educate their children outside the school system. One common reason is that their children were bullied in school.

We have some parents who home educate because they dislike the heavy political agenda and consequent bending of the truth that the state school system, in practice, frequently displays at the moment.

As one parent said, “Even Science classes are full of political messages. A Year 9 Science teacher told my daughter’s class that carbon dioxide is poisonous, but that is not true! This was environmentalist propaganda. Carbon dioxide is necessary for life!”

Some parents home educate because they travel a lot and want their children to be able to travel with them. Some travel a lot because their home-educated children can travel with them, and enjoy it.

DIVERSE STYLES AND METHODS OF HOME EDUCATION

Some British parents design their own curriculum. Some use no curriculum at all; others follow Britain’s National Curriculum (which is, in keeping with the general philosophy of these things, only compulsory for state schools, not for private ones).

Some parents take a Montessori approach, or they are ‘unschoolers’ whose approach is based on the ideas of the home-education guru John Holt, 
who wrote the bestseller How Children Fail and founded the Growing Without Schooling movement in America. Indeed, we have everything from ‘hot-housers’ to Taking Children Seriously parents.

Hot-housers are parents who think that by teaching their babies to read even before they can talk, they will be giving their children a head start. These parents have their young children doing advanced examinations and sometimes get them into university many years before their school-going peers. 

One example of this is Ruth Lawrence, whose father taught her, and who agreed to delay entering Oxford University until she was 13 because when she passed the entrance exams at 12, they deemed her not yet mature enough for undergraduate life…

When TCS parents home educate (as they usually do), it is for philosophical reasons. In this view, subjecting unwilling children to school-style education, whether in school or elsewhere, is inimical to learning.

HOW WE LEARN

The school model of learning, with many children simultaneously undergoing the same process, is an inherently passive one. But genuine learning is inherently active.

As human beings, we do not learn by having knowledge poured into us like water into a bucket, we learn through noticing problems and seeking out solutions to those problems. 

Real learning is not showing that you have memorised information – that is the mere semblance of education. And it is not about pursuing someone else’s educational agenda; real learning is about pursuing your own interests. If you are pursuing someone else’s educational agenda, that will be interfering with and adversely affecting the real learning you could be doing.

AUTONOMOUS LEARNING

Some parents recreate school-type lessons in their homes. In Britain, this is a tiny minority. Most British home education involves few lessons, and for many parents, educating their children does not involve giving their children lessons at all. Instead, they try to give their children access to as much of the world as possible, and they help their children to pursue the children’s own interests. This form of education is often called “autonomous learning”.

HOME EDUCATION IN BRITAIN IS NOTHING LIKE SCHOOL

In Britain, we don’t use the phrase “homeschooling”, because most home education in Britain bears no resemblance to school-style education. 

– We do not use a curriculum.

 – We do not teach a fixed set of subjects or topics.

– We do not set assignments. 

– We do not require our children to write essays or do projects or memorise information.

– We do not test our children ­– we do not ask our children questions to see if they can answer them; and nor does the government or the local education authority test them.

One of the most important duties of parents is to help their children to discover and pursue new interests, retaining the love of learning that is almost universal in young children and almost universally extinct in conventionally educated adults.

Most home educators in Britain take the view that standardised curricula, and the stultifying educational hoops that schoolchildren have to jump through, sabotage this aim.

So if they do not do any of those things, what exactly do British home-educating parents typically do to educate their children outside the school system?

They do all the usual things conventional parents with young children do – they read them lots of books, show them things, facilitate their exploration of their immediate environment and environments further afield. They talk to their children about things, answer their questions, and introduce them to interesting people including other children.

As the children get older and develop interests, the parents borrow or buy books and equipment the child might want in order to pursue those interests. If, say, a child becomes fascinated by insects and is interested in pursuing his interest in entomology, the parents might buy a microscope, or some exotic insects. If the interest continues, they might find a friendly professor of entomology or post-doctoral student at the local university to be his mentor. The mentor in most cases would not teach the child like a school teacher would, but instead, would simply converse with the child, or explore a habitat with the child, discussing and analysing the results.

In a case I know about, one mother took her child out of school after her son’s teacher had shown insufficient interest in answering his questions about dinosaurs. That mother took her child to the Natural History museum, bought vast numbers of books for him, and through the internet found an eminent palaeontologist willing to answer all her son’s questions.

If a child were to start asking questions that the parents, their acquaintances, and the internet, couldn’t answer, they would find somebody who could answer, and introduce the child to that person. Real experts in their fields are often happy to answer the questions of a child excited by their field.

This style of education requires being continuously available for the child, conversing with the child, and thinking about whom the child might want to meet and what the child might become interested in. The children have unlimited access to books, magazines, computers, the internet, television, video games, and so on. But they are not left to rot! The parents are actively involved with, and committed to, their children’s education, but not dictating its direction, form, or content.

You may wonder how children learn to read unless they are forced. The answer is that they want to learn to read because reading gives them independent access to all sorts of exciting things.

I once met a family whose eleven-year-old son was not reading much, having failed to learn in school. When his parents took him out of school and bought a computer and got on the internet, the boy suddenly learnt to read, because he wanted to be able to participate in a chat room without his parents having to type for him and read the responses.

You might wonder how, if given the choice, children will study all the things they need to know.

The answer is that if or when they need to know, they will study those things. And if they never need to know something, why should they waste time studying it?

FREEDOM FACILITATES LEARNING

In fact, children who have the freedom to pursue their own interests and dreams have time to think. They have time to create the knowledge of how to make choices in life. Their knowledge is evolvable.

If everyone learnt exactly the same things, which the school system encourages, where is the future knowledge of the world going to come from? Coming up with new ideas requires having a fresh perspective. 

When children’s learning is not standardised – when they have the freedom to learn what they want to learn, how they want to learn, when they want to learn it – they are more likely to grow up to be individuals able to look at the world with a fresh eye. 

They are more able to solve problems. They are more able to create the knowledge they need to make their lives and the lives of others worth living.

Children educated this way have gone on to become acclaimed journalists, broadcasters, authors, scientists, economists, academics, entrepreneurs, computer programmers – all sorts of things.

They tend to be the intellectual driving force of any group they are in.

And having lived their whole lives in the real world, they have no problems socialising with individuals from all walks of life.

SUMMARY

So – to summarise what I’ve said – in Britain, we don’t use the term “homeschooling” because only a very small proportion of home educators in Britain educate their children using a fixed curriculum, school-like lessons, and tests. Most home educated children in Britain have a lot of freedom and autonomy in their education, and this is perfectly legal.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2005, ‘Home education in Britain’, in Proceedings of the World Home Education Conference, March 2005, https://www.fitz-claridge.com/home-education-in-britain