Thursday, 13 November 2014

Why do people home educate their children?

I've previously talked about our own reasons to home educate, but I have recently been following a number of conversations on home education forums where the issue of 'why' has been discussed at great length and I thought it would be interesting to set out the main reasons given.  Many families home educate because they feel that this is a lovely time they want to share with their children, but others are pushed out of the mainstream by a whole host of perceived problems.  This article is very much looking at the negative reasons for the choices, I know this does a disservice to the many positive reasons why people choose to educate at school or at home, and I can only apologise for that and promise a more positive article in future.  Since this is all drawn from recent discussions on the forums, the reasons were however by far weighted towards the negative reasons, and so this is what I am reflecting here.

By far the largest response to the question 'why do you home educate' was lack of special educational needs provision in schools, lack of good training of teachers in this area and children suffering as a result of it.  The needs were wide ranging, including life limiting progressive conditions, frequent illnesses, conditions such as diabetes, physical needs, emotional issues and 'ADD'.  The most frequent need quoted that was not dealt with well in school was regarding children on the Autistic Spectrum, with large classrooms, large schools and poor teacher training being given as the main issues.  There were stories of children being battered and bruised by being physically restrained during rages brought on by the unsuitable environment, and of parents being treated like the problem rather than partners in their child's education.  A particularly worrying lack seemed to be in staff's awareness of children's illnesses.  This is something I experienced myself as a teacher - the parents would carefully fill out all the health information when they registered the child, which was available in a file in an office for the form tutor to note down, but the information wasn't given to subject teachers and cover teachers were particularly in the dark - an issue I raised several times.  The solutions to these problems would include simply better staff training with SEN being a core subject during teacher training rather than just an option, but my old bugbear of schools and classes being too big are an issue here too.

This is a shame because when schools are properly set up and run for inclusiveness or as specialist schools they are a fantastic environment to provide children with an individualised plan to support their educational, emotional and social development and work in partnership with parents to provide strategies that can be used at home to support the child's progress.  It can be done well, but the hundreds of families pushed into home education who had intended to have their children educated at school is testament to the lack of provision and understanding in this area.


The second largest area of concern was bullying.  Gone are the days when a child would be expelled for assaulting another child.  Now schools are judged on retention, paid bonuses for taking violent children expelled from other schools and issues of behaviour management are firmly in the classroom teachers area of responsibility rather than that of the family or the senior management.  The bullying I experienced at primary school - the name calling, silent treatment, exclusion - made me miserable enough, but the bullying of today goes far beyond this.  Children are being home educated after being subjected to nothing less than daily torture, with beatings and physical violence such as being stabbed with compasses and slammed into desks being commonly reported.  'Cyberbullying' was also mentioned, with children receiving vicious abuse, even death threats, and having their torment in school filmed and put on the internet.  A friend who teaches recently brought to my attention the phenomenon of 'banter' where every verbal or physical assault challenged by a teacher is met with a shrug of the shoulders and the recommendation that the teacher 'calms down - it's only banter'.  In some cases the teachers themselves were the bullies, with constant criticism and sarcasm being used.  Children as young as 5 were stated as having been withdrawn from school because they were depressed, self harming, talking about wanting to be dead.  Parents talked about having spent years repairing the damage and getting their children back to the happy, confident, keen learners they had dropped off at the school gates at 4 years old.

This seems an insane situation, where the quiet studious kids are forced out of schools and the education they crave because the bullies who have no intention of opening a book are the ones who are pandered to, rewarded and praised.  Every child has the right to an education in safety, whether at home or at school and as much as I believe every child can be supported to behave in a considerate way, our current school system doesn't seem to foster that.  It is undoubted that many of the bullies are victims in their own right - perhaps of neglect, disinterested parents, abuse at home, but this does not give any child the right to make the lives of other children a misery.

The age of school entry was a third large reason, with many parents stating their belief that 4 was far too young to start school, especially for the summer born children who were closer to 4 than 5 when they start full days in September. A few schools, at the discretion of the head, still offer settling in terms of part days, but this is increasingly uncommon.  Even 5 is felt to be too young by many, with the trend for starting formal education at 7 in the countries with the best standards for literacy and numeracy in Europe being given as proof of this.  Daily homework was a complaint, especially in light of research which shows that it actually damaged young children's learning.  Restricted movement and opportunities to spend time playing and being outside was also a concern of parents with primary aged children.  Age structuring of classes was also mentioned, in that in no other place would you expect to spend all your time with people the same age as you - in social situations and in the workplace you have friends and colleagues of every age.  The one size fit all approach is a concern, both in terms of what children should be achieving and who they mix with - we all know 6 year olds who are happier in the company of smaller children, and others who prefer to make friends with older kids and adults.

Bright kids were another group that were commonly home educated - 'my child was told they were naughty, but they were bored because they had done everything'.  What do many overstretched teachers do with a bright kid who has finished their page of sums?  They give them another page of the same kind of things - an approach that can make kids feel like they are being punished for being quick.  What do they do to the child who always has his hand up to answer questions?  They ridicule them by using 'that tone of voice' to say that there are actually other children in the class, always pick them last to answer, make them feel like a nuisance.  All things that can be avoided by decent teacher training and providing support with differentiated lesson planning and questioning techniques.

Another concern was that children were not having their basic needs met - not being allowed to go to the toilet as needed, not having access to water, being hungry.  Hassle from schools over children needing to be home ill from school was mentioned - including the recent instructions to parents in Wales of the list of conditions that the child should not be kept home from school with, including glandular fever!  With my own little ones poorly this week, I was certainly glad that I didn't have to phone them in sick to school and nursery while trying to get a doctors appointment at the same time.  I'm also glad that with Toby having been on a nebuliser twice, and prescribed antibiotics, steroids and an inhaler I didn't have to drag him out in the rain to take Ollie (who also had a cold) to school.  Being educated at home gives the kids permission to be ill, to recover properly, to go to the park for some air in the afternoon if they feel better without worrying about being spotted out and about having been taken out of school sick.

None of this is intended as a slur against teachers, this is just an overview of the most common reasons why kids were taken out of school, or never sent.  The over riding theme was that the children were miserable and failing to thrive.  My own opinion is that since our national wellbeing and economic success in the future depends on these children that are being made so miserable at school, it should be an absolute priority to provide safe, inclusive, academically and socially good schools for those who want the option.  Class sizes should be capped at 20 to give teachers the chance to actually get to know their students, provide for their individual needs and mark properly (tick and flick marking gathers data, it does not support learning), schools should be small enough that the Head knows every child (I've worked at a big school were the Head didn't even know the names of the rapidly turning over staff, never mind the kids, a big difference to the schools I attended where the Head greeted each of us by name), violence should never be tolerated, teachers should feel valued, have good training, including in special educational needs of all kinds such as supporting educationally high potential students and those with statemented issues, and they should be allowed to offer a wide curriculum with literacy and numeracy integrated into creative and investigative projects,

Even if every school was a safe, welcoming environment there would still be lots of families choosing to home educate, and I don't want to give the impression that home education is a 'second best' always chosen by families with no other choice.  However, there do seem to be an increasing wave of families voting with their feet because they can't bear to see their children suffering and this is not fair to anyone.  Since it costs the Government around £6,000 per year to educate each child at school, I'm not sure that they have the will to reverse the trend for home education, especially in light of new research that shows how well home educated children do academically and how they contribute to the workforce and society as adults.  In one study in Canada I read about for example it was found that not one adult who had been home educated was claiming social security benefits, and the percentage of the population who participated in weekly social and sports clubs was far higher in adults who had been home educated.

This all sounds as if I'm very anti-school - I'm not.  The right school, with the right staff, can be an amazing place for learning and growing, and many schools are trying their best to put children first despite all the restrictions and counterproductive initiatives thrown at them.  I'm also not anti home education - it's not always something forced on people, and when it is for the vast majority it is in the end the best outcome for the children involved.  I'd just like to know that every family has a genuine choice between the different and equally good forms of education.