As hundreds of thousands of children settle back into the classroom for the year ahead, others will be at home. Because while children are legally required to be in full-time education in the UK, school is not compulsory.
Homeschooling, or ‘home education’, as advocates prefer to call it, is gaining popularity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean staying cooped up in the house all day. A growing number of parents are joining forces to provide their children with an alternative learning experience.
Dan Rust, who home educates his six-year-old daughter and plans to do the same for his two-year-old son, says the home ed community in Birmingham is flourishing. A highlight of “last term” was sports day, he says, where around 80 home educated children of different ages competed in a local park.
“Home education is a bit of a misnomer because we are hardly ever at home,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I think home educated kids are better at socialising than other kids because they’re out and about talking to other people all the time. You’re not just among 25 to 30 other six-year-olds. You’re talking to children of all ages – and a lot of adults.”
This growing focus on community within home education could be one reason behind its increasing popularity. The Department for Education does not keep a central record of how many children are home schooled across the country, but a BBC investigation earlier this year suggested the figure was as high as 48,000 children in 2016-17, up from around 34,000 in 2014-15.
Rachel Plummer, from Edinburgh, has thrown herself into the home ed community since making the decision to keep her children, Audrey, seven, and Robin, two, out of traditional school. The trio attend community meet-ups every day of the week, with classes ranging from art to science. Parents contribute in any way they can. As an award-winning poet, Rachel runs two creative writing groups. The community also creates its own Christmas show and harvest festival. With such a group focus, is it so different from regular school?
“I think that school can sometimes foster unhealthy social environments, with bullying [and] an emphasis on conformity,” says Rachel. “I want my children to be able to follow their interests and work at their own pace. So much time in school is devoted to, essentially, crowd control.”
Outside group classes, the rest of the day is often a far cry from the national curriculum for home ed children and is completely at the discretion of parents.
“Local authorities have existing powers [and] can intervene if a child is not receiving a suitable full-time education, which we would expect them to do if they had any cause for concern,” a Department for Education spokesperson tells HuffPost UK. But DfE does not define what “suitable” education is.
Dan and his wife, Helen Marriott, do not plan set sessions each day and say learning “evolves naturally” from the family’s surroundings. According to Dan, educational environments can range from museums to a trip to the shops. The couple also supply their children with educational games, allowing them to pick which they want to play.
Bethan and Olly Armstrong, from Birmingham, also opt a for “child-centred” approach when home educating their two children, who are seven and five years old.
“We aim to work on reading, writing and numeracy through various ways, often play-based, sometimes with worksheets and books, but other times through a more natural process like when we bake and cook together, reading and writing a recipe, counting and measuring, using a timer,” Bethan explains.
Mainstream school is very much a square peg, round hole, tick-box scenario." Gee
Gee Gardiner, from The Cotswolds – who was home educated herself for some of secondary school and now home educates eight-year-old Eloise and two-year-old Lily – believes this tactic helps children learn at their own pace.
“Mainstream school is very much a square peg, round hole, tick-box scenario. You get the round pegs who fly through and really thrive in that setting and then you get the square pegs who are, more often than not, let down because of the overstretched teachers trying to teach 30 different kids with 30 different learning styles,” she says.
Such a loose timetable does not suit everyone and former headteacher Cherry Newby, from Lincolnshire, followed the national curriculum fairly strictly when she home educated her eight-year-old daughter Elle for a year.
“I would always say to any parent who is going to home educate to look at what the national curriculum says – not to follow it necessarily but just to be in the back of their minds,” she explains.
“However, I often have found that home educated children are far ahead of their peers in communication, language, social skills, resilience and independence – all of which are as important, if not more, than being able to recite their times tables.”
“I would always say to any parent who is going to home educate to look at what the national curriculum says." Cherry
Not all parents choose to home educate their children for the same reason, of course, and this is often reflected in their teaching style. Dan and Helen, and Olly and Beth, all raised concerns about mainstream school being “too rigid”, saying they did not want their children to learn by rote simply in order to pass an exam. Meanwhile Rachel and Gee both think school starts too young.
For Cherry, taking her daughter Elle out of school was a way to give her one-to-one attention and help her catch up with her peers.
“She has a communication disorder and has attachment disorders which means she is great at masking a problem and no one noticed how far behind she was drifting,” she explains. “She was also struggling socially as she was six-going-on-three and often either had no friends to play with or was being targeted by the other girls in her class. So she was unhappy.”
After a year of homeschooling, Elle returned to mainstream school. “I knew that my daughter really needed to be around her peers in order for her to be able to learn the social niceties, but also her brother was always in school and loving it, so she was beginning to feel as though she was missing out,” Cherry says.
For those temped to take the plunge, home education can be draining, Rachel warns. “You don’t get any breaks ever, and it is physically and emotionally exhausting. You have to build that network of support from other home ed parents, and learn how to pace yourself or you’ll burn out.”
Dan and Olly both raise the fact that home schooling has financial implications for the entire family, and is almost impossible unless you are in a two-parent family that is able to afford one parent not working, or both working part-time. And this can lead to other compromises.
Learning is bigger than a classroom five days a week." Beth
Dan and his wife Helen run a business together, but they split all homeschooling duties meaning neither can focus on the business full-time. “As it stands, we don’t have enough money to buy a house, he says. “If we had two incomes I think we’d be able to.”
Meanwhile Beth doesn’t work and Olly supports the family through his business, plus his role as a Labour councillor. “Even though I come from a very working class background, I’m aware that’s it’s a very middle class thing to be able to home educate my children,” he admits.
But for Beth, the sacrifice is worth it: “Learning is bigger than a classroom five days a week... self-directed learning is the biggest gift we can give to our children for their whole lives.”