Anna Dusseau | 7th October 2020
A government inquiry has been launched into home education in the UK, seeking to: “understand the extent to which current arrangements provide sufficient support for home educated children to access efficient, full-time and suitable education, and establish what further measures may be necessary in order to facilitate this. It will also explore the impact of COVID-19 on home education, and any particular needs arising from the pandemic that need to be addressed.” The Call for Evidence to be submitted to the Select Committee looking into this is happening now. Whatever your level of experience with home education, I urge you to join this important discussion and put together your own response to the key points raised in the Call for Evidence. We have witnessed our French neighbours – just last week – lose the right to home educate; now is the time for everyone to speak out against state interference in family lives and individual freedom. Whether we home -“school”, unschool, home educate or are still deep in deschooling, now is the time to stand shoulder to shoulder and speak as one. Here’s my evidence. What’s yours?
This is my submission of evidence on the subject of home education to the Select Committee. I write as a former secondary school teacher, Sixth Form senior manager, examiner, local school volunteer, education writer, and parent to three home educated children. A copy of my first book – The Case for Homeschooling, published by Hawthorn Press – has been sent to Robert Halfon, and is well worth consulting as it draws consistent comparisons between the pedagogical approaches of state education and home education, crucially pointing out that this pedagogy – whilst sound – is impossible to deliver in a state school classroom. Teachers know this. In the evidence submitted hereafter, I will speak plainly and naturally, for I am not a politician and do not wish to associate myself with the mechanical “professionalism” that has come to represent mainstream education. I address only four of the points raised in the Call for Evidence, as these are the areas where I feel I have a contribution to make.
On the Pros and Cons of Home Education
I put it to you that there is no disadvantage to home education in and of itself. What disadvantage could there be to educating children through the cultivation of personal interests and engagement with the real world, the way humans have raised their children for past 200,000 years of our existence as Homo Sapiens? I appreciate that this may not be a popular view with the Select Committee, but I ask you to consider the fact that you too were almost certainly educated in the powerful and self-perpetuating ideology of the school system; an ideology which within just a few generations has come to dominate the imaginative landscape of almost all “modern” nations, in the same way – and, indeed, following much the same geographical path – that Protestantism swept through Western Europe during the Reformation. Many animal species exhibit cultural traditions based on repeated behaviour patterns, but only we as humans exhibit the relentless “ratcheting up” of these traditions, a tendency which leads us fast into the territory of “progress for progress’ sake” and the swallowing up of all other ways of being and thinking in our own expanding, self-perpetuating ideologies. School is a vehicle for this. Do, therefore, begin by being sure of the basis of your argument and ensure all members of your Committee understand fully what the institution of “school” represents, and thus how home education differs from it.
The benefits of home education are myriad, but I will summarise a few key points.
What education is about:
- Children are born with a natural instinct to learn, which is tampered with from the moment they start formal schooling.
- Education is about preparing the ‘whole person’ for spiritual – as well as, potentially, material – success and happiness in adult life.
- Academic learning is one aspect of a holistic education which also includes emotional well-being, building basic life skills and allowing the natural evolution of childhood.
- The measure of a successful education is a young adult who has become ‘trustworthy’; responsible for themselves, the planet and the people in their life.
How children learn:
- Children learn best from pursuing their own natural curiosity.
- Children learn from observation, and we should pay attention to the influences they are receiving.
- Children learn effectively from informal conversation and from observing children of different ages during free play.
- What Peter Gray refers to as ‘mindless busywork’ and constant assessment are distractions from real learning.
- Children require time to digest and process learning, in line with their natural body clocks.
The benefits of home education:
- Home education is a historically established and effective way of learning.
- Homeschooling removes children from the destructive impact of school-based tribalism and bullying.
- Families who choose this path enjoy a better quality of life and can find their natural rhythm; part of the Whole Family Benefits of home educating.
- Children who are homeschooled can find their ‘niche’ and are not limited by arbitrary constraints on their learning.
So, then, the “issue” with home education, in terms of any disadvantage, lies not in the concept of home education itself, but rather in the integrity of the family unit. The question that we are really asking is: “are all families a safe, purposeful, happy place for children to spend time learning and growing within?” If the answer is “no”, then this is a major social concern, going way beyond the realm of home education, and one which will not be solved by any legal action taken towards home educating families themselves. The root of the problem – if the real concerns are abuse, radicalisation, and the poverty of resources and opportunity – needs to be addressed elsewhere and, I suggest, is perpetuated by the school system; an institution which fails many children, creates huge economic and social division, and is a source of stress and emotional disorder for a significant proportion of the population.
On a practical level, it might be worth considering the following outcomes, if more families were given the freedom and encouragement to home educate their children, where circumstances permit:
- There is some economic disadvantage to choosing home education. Most families drop to a single income for a time, or survive by working two part-time jobs and sharing the responsibility of home educating. This represents a tremendous commitment to providing a quality of education that cannot be matched by school, and should be recognised as such, with tax allowances and/or other financial support for home educating families.
- The government should work on building trust and support with home educating families, and addressing the wider societal origins of the problems that exist in families where children are vulnerable, or not benefiting from a nurturing environment for learning. Such issues will not be solved within a generation or a term in office, and so there is a requirement for actual inter-party collaboration and long-term social planning, as we have seen effectively modeled in countries such as Finland.
- There is a clear need to diversify the political perception of legitimate pathways to employment. Having worked for over a decade in education and on both sides of the examination process, I can confirm that it is a farce. Real skills and knowledge come from real life and cannot be cultivated in a classroom, watching a PowerPoint presentation. The best school leaders know this, but it is incredibly hard to move things in a different direction given the sheer scale of the operation and the neuro-diversity of each individual child. Home educated children, therefore, provide an ideal opportunity to model what real learning is about and, in turn, to realign our educational value system, placing less emphasis on the “tick box” of national examinations, and re-emphasising the full spectrum of pathways into employment, including apprenticeships, vocational courses, the arts, and online courses.
On the Role of LEAs, Safeguarding, Quality, and Inspection
Let’s be honest about the fact that schools are gigantic corporate institutions and, as such, are able to protect themselves from scrutiny and “cover up” cases of neglect, incompetence, and even abuse in ways that would be impossible for the private citizen. In my time training, teaching, and visiting in various schools, as well as the current research I am undertaking for a book examining school-based trauma, I have either personally witnessed, or been informed about, the following examples of school safeguarding failures:
- Teachers known to be alcoholics turning up still drunk at work.
- Inappropriate relationships with students, including actual kissing and physical intimacy with Sixth Form students and/or uncomfortable behavior on school trips.
- Bullying and intimidation by senior management of staff members and countless students. Public shaming of staff at meetings, and of certain students identified as “ring leaders” in assembly. Often, this has been construed as having a racist or otherwise discriminatory basis.
- The shutting of a child in a cupboard as a punishment. I have two actual cases of this in the past fifteen years.
- Falsifying coursework, grades and data entry for various reasons.
- Spending of public money on iPads and taxis for senior management, in schools where classrooms remain shabby and resources are relatively poor.
- Physical restraint of a child by several adults at once for reasons of “safety”. The child was six years old and was held down for several minutes. Anecdotally, I have heard of several other cases which match this.
- Verbal, physical and emotional intimidation of children, with some members of staff keenly aware of where the cameras are positioned and the areas where such bullying and/or abuse “cannot be caught”.
- Informal racist, sexist, and otherwise discriminatory language used in reference to students and their families, taking place in staff rooms and department offices.
- Intimidation of staff by senior leadership in connection with “pressure points” such as assessments and OfSTED inspections. Commonly, staff will be expected to work late into the night prior to an announced OfSTED visit to get their paperwork in order, magically produce documents relating to demographic tracking which simply didn’t exist before, and rehash “outstanding” lesson plans to fit with their current curricular delivery. There is nothing natural or honest about it.
In fact, I could go on and on. This list is just a short summary of a few items that came to my mind when putting together this evidence. There are many, many more and they run across all types of schools and all rankings, as rated by OfSTED. The point, though, is that all the schools in which these events have taken place are still operating, often with the same leadership, and with almost all parents having no knowledge of some of the corruption that has taken place, or still is. Schools have incredibly effective ways of hushing up scandal and protecting their own image; ways that either are not apparent to political leaders, or which are willingly overlooked because of the societal “sticking plaster” that schools provide. If, generally, schools turn out young people who are able to plug into the job market, who really cares about the mechanics of how that happens? I am not aiming to prosecute schools here, but rather to question exactly what the Committee’s understanding is of the context in reality – not in theory – of the field of education when it comes to safeguarding.
So, my point here is that schools are in themselves abusive, ideologically single-minded, and often corrupt in their practices. This is in spite of – or perhaps because of – stringent auditing practices and regular inspection. Academic research relating to the impact of OfSTED inspections in fact shows that the culture of “being on show” and “covering yourself”, as inevitably occurs in the case of an inspection, leads to the evolution of negative teaching and learning practices. Teachers focus increasingly on their own performance, how to improve as teachers rather than how to develop the minds and interests of their students. School managers, similarly, focus on “new initiatives” and delivering fancy PD opportunities, rather than the actual task in hand: education. In many schools, the staff turnover is high and the environment is tough with a relatively mediocre salary if you are standing at the front of the classroom every day. NQTs therefore almost immediately incentivised to hit the ground running and are looking for positions of responsibility – and, importantly, creating evidence to support such an application – from the word go, in a bid to “get out” of the classroom, improve their income with the boost of a TLR, and essentially develop their own career. Individual children are like stepping stones to achieving this aim, although some in the profession might deny this and deny it well. Teachers are, notoriously, articulate and persuasive; that’s how they get children to operate in a prison-like environment without adopting actual prison-style tactics.
So, with this in mind, what would be the purpose of inspecting home educating families, as a general rule? Vulnerable families, where children might be at risk, are almost universally known to social services and the procedure for this exists outside the realm of whether or not the child is home educated. In the case of families where home educating has been thrust upon them due to “off-rolling”, such practices undoubtedly place strain on parents and children but again, are not representative of elective home education, which should not be brought under the same umbrella. I would question, too, who exactly would be placed on an inspection team looking into the “quality” of home education: what would such a team understand about the pedagogical framework of home education, and what level of intrusion on the privacy of family life could be expected? The most important point to highlight here, must be that home education is defined by its infinite flexibility and freedom for families to cultivate a learning environment that is right for the individual child. Therefore, all notions of curriculum, schedule, and assessment – structures which facilitate only the mass management of “education” on an industrial scale – must be left at the door.
On Regulation and Academic Progress
Home educating families are as varied as snowflakes. One family might follow a curriculum and perhaps use online learning tools/courses to supplement learning. Another family may contain a parent whose job is woodworking, and a large proportion of the day could be spent in the workshop where their children may learn from observation the skills relevant to the trade, or instead read their own books, play together, and meet their friends at the swimming pool after lunch. My own children are “unschooled”; a term which simply means that we do not follow a curriculum or any kind of guide as to what the children “should be doing”. Contrary to any concerns you might have about this approach, it is one which almost immediately transforms and enriches daily life and reveals what very few teachers actually know about their pupils: their true potential.
Below is a short extract from the unschooling journal which I keep every day to record what takes place. Rather than telling the children “what to do” and determining “what is important”, I follow their interests and allow them to explore learning for themselves. Of course, all good teachers will tell you that this is the bedrock of solid educational theory, but that it remains theory only in the packed classrooms of state schools. Rather than attempting to align my children’s activities during a single day with the arbitrary value system of school-based assessment and “progress tracking”, I invite you to simply consider how much further autonomous home education goes; the variety and challenge that is generated by this kind of experience, and how on Earth it would be possible – or indeed desirable – to regulate a field as diverse and dynamic as this. I also ask you to bear in mind that my children are aged two, five, and seven.
1st October 2020
- Today begins watching morning cartoons and playing with Lego cards.
- Dancing in the kitchen, listening to music before breakfast. My eldest is reading the animal encyclopedia with the youngest, teaching animal names in French. My middle son is helping make homemade pancakes for breakfast.
- We discuss hang gliding with grandpa on FaceTime. The older two are very interested in how it works, air currents, and what the harness is like. We look at some old photos of grandpa hang gliding.
- There is a helium canister in the garage which we use to fill some party balloons. Using plasticine, we weight the balloons to achieve neutral buoyancy and watch them float around the house in mid-air. The little one loves it. The eldest observes that there must be air currents making the balloon move. We watch a short Ted-ED video on wind movement, air pressure and displacement. We look in the encyclopedia and learn about gravity. My middle son notices that the gravitational pull on the balloon is greater the bigger the ball of plasticine.
- The big ones play fight on the bed while I dress the little one.
- The eldest settles down on the sofa to read another chapter of The Hobbit (I have never taught her to read; she simply taught herself by looking at the newspaper over my shoulder at breakfast); the boys are playing on the piano. Our middle son is trying to teach the little one a tune. Again, I have never formally taught piano and in fact had forgotten that I can play – and enjoy playing – until I began home educating.
- We go to Music Club, which is an outdoor (due to Covid) club for home educating families. I play with the little one in the woods and around the lake while the older two join in the class. Afterwards, all the children spend a couple of hours playing in the woods together, building dens, climbing the rope swing, playing hide and seek, chatting and interacting with the adults who are all very varied and bring different skills and opinions. The children at the group today range in age from babies up to fourteen or fifteen years old.
- Back at home after lunch, my older two are looking at their new calculators. I am in touch with Professor Sugata Mitra about an experiment on enabling children to learn through freely accessing technology to assist them. Calculators seemed like a good start for my older two. They are fascinated. My middle son wants to know what all the buttons do and consequently ends up learning mathematical terms like “square root” and so on. My daughter is enjoying “big numbers” and is testing my mental arithmetic on complicated calculations that I cannot do as quickly as the calculator. She seems to instinctively know when the calculation was incorrect, though, which is a superb test of her own mathematical ability. “Oh no, that can’t be right,” she says. “Maybe I forgot to add the last number.”
- My eldest is now setting up a game of chess. A friend is coming round to drop off a few things and she knows that he likes to play chess. She checks with a library book to see that she has all the players in the correct position and asks her dad what some of the pieces can do. The boys are in one of the bedrooms putting solar system stickers on the wall; I have to help out because the little one doesn’t know the order of the planets from the sun, which is frustrating my middle son.
- We have some interesting conversations while doing the stickers. My middle son wants to know: “How do telephones work?” and “How does satellite navigation work?” We are a bilingual family and so I find a few short information videos from the French YouTube channel “1 Jour 1 Question” which answer his questions along with cartoon illustrations.
- The kids can’t decide whether they want to do dressing up or bake banana bread, so they do both. We listen to more music on the radio and talk about some of the items on the news.
- My eldest settles down with the book basket and starts reading “The Human Journey” book, which the little one looks at too. He likes the pictures.
- My middle son is looking at his special book on cheetahs and sounding out some of the words in the subtitles with his dad, before he goes to work (night shift). We have never asked him to sound out words; he just does it instinctively and is learning to read of his own accord, but quite differently to his older sister.
- The children go out into the garden. The neighbours’ children are in the garden, too, and they all go on the swings and shout over the fence at each other. Now my middle son comes into the kitchen while I am cooking dinner to ask how a compass works and which way is north.
- Over dinner, the eldest is looking at a library book on oceans and wants to watch a Blue Planet documentary before bed. The boys aren’t very interested in this, but they build Lego together in the living room and occasionally look up when there is something impressive like a shark or an octopus.
- Back on the calculators, none of the children apart from the little one feel like stories before bedtime tonight. I read board books with the littlest one, while the older two quiz each other on complicated calculator questions. They send a video message to one of their good friends in London – who goes to school – asking whether she has a calculator and what she has learnt to do with it in school. They make up a dance to do at the end of the video and then say “see you soon” because we are planning a joint family trip to Centre Parks, once the current Covid 19 restrictions are lifted.
Why have I bothered you with this extract from our daily diary? What purpose does it serve in your investigation? I think it is an important starting point to acknowledge that this kind of self-directed, inquiry-based learning is the goal of most teaching professionals, albeit it extremely hard to deliver anything that comes close to this in a classroom setting. When we consider “where we are going” with education and what “cross-curricular” links and connections are being drawn through the learning process – or indeed what measurable progress is being made – it is important to recognise that this terminology is really for adult and professional use only, and makes sense as a way to justify a salary but not as a method of developing minds. Children don’t need to be “going anywhere” in their education; why should this be the case? They simply require the time, space and resources necessary to develop an aptitude for learning and a genuine interest in the world, something which home educating families achieve in various ways through the innumerable interests, lifestyles, and learning preferences of their children.
It is easy to pick holes in this methodology. We can say “oh, but you have a tonne of books” or “oh, but you have a piano and other resources to support your children’s learning”, but actually such arguments fall flat. The majority of families today view education as something that happens at school and consequently pay little attention to their crucial role in developing a culture of curiosity at home, as well as providing interesting learning resources beyond the classroom. Ask anyone in school senior leadership and they will tell you that parental engagement is the number one problem facing student progress in schools and that, where it can be properly harnessed – not through homework diary signatures and report card feedback forms, but in a tangible, meaningful way that enriches family life – it drastically improves the motivation and academic performance of the child. For home educating families though, this is the every day. I could show you hundreds of pages of unschooling journal entries just like this one, just as a more structured home educating family could evidence the breadth and scope of the curriculum they are using, and the schedule that works for their family.
I do not believe there can be any meaningful regulation of the academic progress of home educated families for the simple reason that top-down regulation and monitoring of human capacity necessarily cramps it, limits it, and defines it in a way that a small group of bureaucrats can understand and measure. On the contrary, home education practices in willing participant families should be observed more closely to better inform school-based approaches to learning, and not the other way around.
On the Impact of Covid 19
The Covid 19 pandemic has – for now – altered the lives of home educating families quite radically, and this reflects the huge freedom and innate sociability of home educating practices which are now, of course, drastically reduced. Families notice a difference in their schedules due to the cancellation or number limitation of clubs and groups, as well as reduced social contact from friends and family members distancing or self-isolating. Families whose jobs and income have been impacted by the pandemic will also be struggling, like everyone else, to cope with this. Significantly, home educated children and young adults hoping to sit national exams this summer have found their position entirely overlooked and neglected by government in the charade that took place this summer. In spite of home education lobby groups highlighting concerns and proposing real solutions as far back as March 2020, such contact has been ignored and these young people are now left adrift, simply waiting for the next round of exams in spite of many being academically very able and ready to progress to the next stage in their lives. Such willful neglect of a minority group is, I believe, washed over by a political approach that sidelines home education as an alternative approach for white liberals, whereas the reality is that this is a diverse sector incorporating a wide spectrum of economic and social backgrounds.
Emotionally, however, the majority of home educating families have coped well with the experience of Lockdown compared to non home-educating families. Why is this?
- Home educating families have close family bonds and generally good relationships with each other, and a respectful relationship with their children. It is in everyone’s interest to cultivate such positive energy in the home when you spend more time together and get to know each other better. The school routine, on the other hand, places families under various strains and pressures which often cause conflict and disagreement between parents and children. This dynamic has played out into the breakdown of well-being in some families during Lockdown.
- Home educated children generally enjoy learning and, whether they are following a structured approach or unschooling, feel in charge of their own learning. It is a part of life and, mostly, comes from a range of personal exploration, books, and some online materials. I don’t know of any home educating families who expect their children to “log in” at the start of the day and follow a series of Zoom lessons, followed by school-style worksheets which, where practice was poor, was the experience for a significant number of school families during Lockdown.
Looking at the general pattern across so-called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) countries during the pandemic, there seems to be a trend towards increasing state control of family lives under the guise of public safety. We all respect the importance of following government guidance regarding the spread of this virus and home educators have no qualm with supporting the necessary services with gathering information to ensure effective planning and safeguarding for vulnerable children. However, it is problematic when “democratic” governments capitalise on the unprecedented opportunity for centralisation which the pandemic has created, to stamp out diversity in the name of public safety and the “well-being” of children. In this respect, our French neighbours are entering doubtful territory and I believe I speak for the majority of home educators in the UK when I say that I view Emmanuel Macron’s latest move to make homeschooling illegal as a dangerous infringement on individual freedom and, in spite of the problems facing France regarding extremism, a discriminatory and divisive act.
Childhood is a sensitive phase of life in which humans are particularly receptive to the environment around them. The are, as we all observe in preschool children, little “learning machines” capable of mastering speech, movement, humour, and innumerable other skills effortlessly before they are placed in schools. What we notice almost immediately when children enter the school system is a lull, a change in their motion and intention; their feet slow down and drag on the way to the bus stop, they sigh and roll their eyes when faced with spellings, phonics books, and other homework tasks, and sometimes they are mutinous in their defiance of the school structures and rules placed upon them. This is, almost universally, not because they have a “bad character” that must be straightened by time served in school. Instead, when you speak with such children one-to-one, you find quite quickly that they are bored, that they are not interested in what is happening in the classroom, and really, is it any wonder? Most classrooms – in spite of brightly coloured washing lines of student work – are unnatural and unhappy environments to spend time in, with constant behaviour management issues affecting the pace of learning and, for anyone with an ounce of curiosity and access to a computer or a public library, incredibly low standards of academic expectation and inquiry. The challenge – and the only challenge; the only skill to it, if you like – is the attempt to funnel thirty children through the same series of activities at the same time, without tears.
I am not writing to appeal for the abolition of schools and I am aware that the purpose of this inquiry is to look into home education, not mainstream classrooms. My point, however, in raising these areas of concern, is to highlight the reality of the alternative to home education. In spite of the incredibly recent invention of compulsory state schooling, we have nevertheless as a society lost living memory of how human beings operated previously. We blindly accept school as “the way things are” and desperately invest in the school system hopes and expectations for the future which are simply unrealistic given the inefficiency of all large-scale, top-down organisations. In a review of home education, therefore, it would be wise to put aside any notion of school as an unquestionable standard against which alternative models are held. Let’s be real about what school is like, let’s be honest about the neurodiversity and subsequent variation in the needs of all people, and let’s focus this review on what will be enabling for home educators, not what will homogenise people in a political move designed purely to facilitate central administration. This world has to be a tolerable place for us all to live in, or else things fall apart.
The Select Committee are currently accepting written submissions to the Call for Evidence via the government website. The deadline is Friday 6th November 2020. Your experience matters, so please do join the debate and add your voice at this critical time.