Headteacher David Dixon takes a close look at the philosophy behind elective home education, enshrined in a recent consultation document on guidelines to cover this parental option

Human beings are often characterised by seeking perfect solutions to intractable problems. This is manifested in many forms according to the situation. It can range from looking for the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow to a Valhalla which will satisfy all needs and wants. In the context of education, such an ideal type might be construed as a system which suits each individual regardless of ability and aptitude, fostering the love of learning and giving school professionals the freedom to construct their own curriculum without the need to adhere to the strictures of subject or examination. Well… I have found such a system lodged within English education. Before I reveal more, let us tease out a more detailed description of the ideal system described above. I believe it is worth doing this because since the inception of the National Curriculum, there has been very little spoken of what the aims of education should be, other than to equip students for the employment market. This sort of philosophical discussion has been usurped by one calling for the standardisation of subjects and curriculum delivery as defined by QCA, Ofsted and latterly the TDA. Quite right too, many say, because pre-National Curriculum education professionals were pulling a ‘fast-one’; accepting low standards, being poorly trained and retreating from the scene for large parts of the year during exorbitant holidays. What we needed was curricula stricture and constant testing which defined professional accountability and this is largely what we have got. It has been tempered slightly by curricula revision aka Dearing and by initiatives such as the recent revision of the Key Stage 3 curriculum.

Enlightened initiatives

We also have social emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) and other enlightened PSHE additions. However, at the end of the day league tables and target-setting rule (OK?). These are linked to individualised learning and the performance-related pay of teachers and heads. They depend on easily measurable outcomes, not touchy-feely pastoral activities or wishy-washy cross-curricular work. So, what about this philosophical discussion about the aims of education? It is worth looking at the origins of the word. Education comes from the Latin words ‘educare’, meaning to rear or foster and ‘educere’, meaning to draw out or develop. It is focused on what educators do to facilitate learning in others. These origins stress the need to equip students to learn. They are not hung up on what people should learn. The ‘should’ is all about those in political, economic and cultural power who determine what is taught. In the context of the UK in the 21st century, this is inextricably linked to consumerism, ie creating people who will produce and consume at ever-increasing rates so that the economy grows and we all become wealthier in terms of money and the lifestyles this will buy.

Higher ideals

Up until now this article is sounding increasingly like an anti-capitalist diatribe (and perhaps it is!). However, even the National Curriculum has higher ideals than merely producing rampant producers and consumers. At the front of the document it states that: ‘The school curriculum should pass on enduring values, develop pupils’ integrity and autonomy and help them to be responsible and caring citizens capable of contributing to the development of a just society… It should develop their awareness and understanding of, and respect for, the environment in which they live, and secure their commitment to sustainable development at personal, national and global level.’

This is getting closer to the real meaning of education but alas it is not the part of the ideal system that I alluded to above. No, this system is allied to Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that: ‘No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’

I will tease you no longer. The system to which I refer is ‘elective home education’. This is where children do not attend a school and are instead educated by the parent. This right is enshrined in English law, namely section 7 of the Education Act 1996. This provides that: ‘The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable: (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.’ This means that the responsibility for a child’s education rests with their parents. It is interesting to note that ‘efficient’ and ‘suitable’ education is not defined by the Education Act 1996. Only, it seems, in schools are statutory measures in place for this, hence the conflicting messages about what sort of education schools need to deliver.

‘Suitable’ and ‘efficient’

The recent consultation paper for local authorities on elective home education issued from the DfES (as was) says that ‘efficient’ has been broadly described as an education that ‘achieves that which it sets out to achieve’ and a ‘suitable’ education is one that: ‘… primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so.’ To me this is quite mind-blowing. It has no official relationship to the National Curriculum; although in reality most home educated children go on to take national tests. The bit about not having to comply with ‘the way of life of the country as a whole’ seems to be an almost perfect form of individualised learning. It means that both the content and the process of education can be tailored for an individual.

Parents electing home education for their children do not have to adhere to ‘contact time’, ie between 22 and 25 hours a week for 39 weeks a year, and can be totally flexible when their children take part in learning activities. In addition, parents are not required to:

  • teach the National Curriculum
  • have a timetable
  • have premises equipped to any particular standard
  • have any specific qualifications
  • make detailed plans in advance
  • give formal lessons
  • reproduce school-type peer group socialisation
  • match school, age-specific standards.

LAs only have a duty to check that a proper education is taking place if they think there is a problem. However, the aforementioned consultation advises that: ‘… where parents do not want any involvement with the local authority, the LA should not automatically assume that there is a problem which needs investigating.’

Matching definitions

As long as parents seem to be capable of educating their child, the balance of risk should be in their favour and they should largely be left alone. This judgement would be made on the programme of education the parent proposes to implement and this in turn is acceptable if it complies with the ‘efficient’ and ‘suitable’ definitions mentioned above. Most of the conflict between parents and LAs tends to emanate in the Gypsy/Roma and Traveller communities. They are deemed to lack the requisite skills in educating their children. This can sometimes be a harsh judgement, particularly where families run very successful businesses, which are passed from one generation to another. However, there can be instances where there is a detrimental gender bias, ie girls prevented from going to secondary school because of doing domestic duties, which are ultimately disempowering. Some of the philosophy behind home educating has resonance with the ‘deschooling’ movement of the sixties and seventies made famous by writers such as Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, 1971). They saw schools as insidiously damaging institutions, which imposed conformity at the expense of individual freedom and happiness. In reality, for the foreseeable future the vast majority of children will need to be educated in institutions we call schools. This is because we live in a complex industrialised society dominated by the march of technology and the division of labour. However, developments in ICT and school design can make learning much more flexible and individualised. This can only happen if the organisation of schools becomes more flexible. This in turn depends upon the leaders of schools standing back and thinking about what education is really about. Of course, it is about making children literate and numerate and having a good knowledge of all the traditional subjects, but should this not be underpinned by curiosity, joined-up thinking and the capacity of learning how to learn?

A lot to learn

It is my belief that we can learn a lot from the philosophy behind elective home education. It is no coincidence that increasing numbers of parents are opting out of the national education system because they feel that it does not meet the needs of their children. Inevitably, most of these parents are those who have a certain level of economic prosperity which allows them the ‘luxury’ of doing this. In another guise this is the ‘middle classes’ voting with their feet and choosing salubrious schools in salubrious areas (although this is really playing the system rather than opting out of it). Schools can be very damaging to many children just because they are schools, ie mainly state institutions where children are herded each day to receive a state education. We see many children effectively opting out of schools through poor behaviour; others stick it out to the detriment of their mental health. As we know from studies such as the one from Unicef (2007), our children seem to be in dire straits when in comes to general wellbeing. This is also reflected in Sue Palmer’s arguments in her book, Toxic Childhood. Both these pieces of work link poor mental health with the ‘consumer society’.

Bucking the system

In recent years, schools have been given more autonomy, although have also had the burden of extra accountability outsourced from government. I believe that strong and truly effective school leaders tend to ‘buck the system’ rather than pander to it and it is these leaders who can nurture the process of education in its real sense. They should also continuously lobby the powers that be to change the national system for the better, rather than just seek to interpret, adapt or subvert what is handed down from above. I feel that education leaders, particularly headteachers, have failed to do enough of this in the past; hence, we probably have the education system we deserve. If a Victorian were to be beamed into the 21st century, they would have difficulty understanding modern transport and multi-media systems. Interactive whiteboards aside, they would have little difficulty understanding our schools. Getting back to the much-maligned Gypsy/Roma/Travellers: if, as Al Gore and others believe, through inaction we end up with an ecological disaster which decimates the modern economy, who will survive? Will it be economists, advertising executives or dare I say it headteachers? Or will it be truly adaptable people who can live off the land, make do and mend and have strong extended families? Perhaps it will be the Gypsies et al who will inherit the earth and elective home education will finally be vindicated.

Acknowledging diversity

Early in 2007and for the first time, the DfES (now DCSF) embarked on a formal consultation around issuing guidelines on home education. The consultation document spelt out its view that the educational provision parents made for their children would reflect a diversity of approaches and interests: ‘Some parents, especially those who have other children attending school, may wish to provide education in a formal and structured manner, following a traditional curriculum and using a fixed timetable that keeps to school hours and terms. Other parents may decide to make more informal provision that is responsive to the developing interests of their child. One approach is not necessarily any more efficient or effective than another. Although some parents may welcome general advice and suggestions about resources, methods and materials, LAs should not specify a curriculum which parents must follow. ‘Children learn in different ways and at different times and speeds. It should be appreciated that parents and their children might require a period of adjustment before finding their preferred mode of learning. Parents are not required to have any qualifications or training to provide their children with an appropriate education. Their commitment to providing an efficient education that is suitable for their child may be demonstrated by them providing some indication of their objectives and resources.’

References

  • UNICEF (2007) An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries. Published by UNICEF.
  • Palmer, S (2006) Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It. Published by Orion.
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