Record numbers of children are now homeschooled, but who’s keeping an eye on the parents?
Nearly 30,000 children in the UK were educated at home in the 2016 to 2017 academic year. This is an almost 100% increase from 2011 – when just over 15,000 pupils were classified as home taught.
I have four school age children. Tomorrow I could, without any forewarning and without notifying my local authority, withdraw them from school and educate them myself at home. My wife and my children would probably kill me. But, from a legal perspective, I would be acting within my rights.
This is because the UK has one of the lowest thresholds for the regulation and monitoring of home educators in Europe – anyone can choose to home educate and there is no requirement to inform local authorities. And local authorities are neither required to monitor who is home educating or how they are doing it.
In part, this is a consequence of ambiguous legislation such as the 1996 Education Act. This tasks parents with ensuring their children receive an education “suitable” to their age, ability and aptitude. It does not however, require school attendance.
The need for regulation
The Badman Review in 2009 and more recently Ofsted both identified “risks” associated with home education. The Badman review was instigated following the tragic death by starvation of a seven-year-old girl in Birmingham. Her mother claimed she was home educating and consequently was able to deny social workers access to her home.
Ofsted’s more recent interest in home education followed investigations into allegations that some schools in Birmingham were being hijacked by radical Muslim fundamentalists whose aim was to teach a narrow Islamocentric curriculum. This led to fears that some children were being taken out of mainstream education and instead sent to small unofficial schools that had been set up by “Islamic hardliners”.
Micheal Wilshaw, the then chief inspector of schools, wrote to the secretary of state for education describing his extreme concern for the safeguarding of Muslim home educated children.
Both Ofsted and the Badman Review recommended introducing a national register, greater monitoring regimes and more clearly defined roles for local authorities. But so far, none of their recommendations have been implemented.
The right kind of education
My previous research with Gypsy families also revealed concerns about some types of families being identified as problematic “home educators”, who are “putting their children at risk”. Many Gypsy families have traditionally chosen to home educate, and following the Badman Review, these families came under scrutiny, with suspicions they were “using” home education to avoid prosecution when their children did not attend school.
Similar negative responses to home schooling are often seen with poor families who choose to home educate – with claims they are putting their children at risk of neglect and abuse. These findings echo the sentiments and suggestions that many Muslim families use home education as a “cover” to radicalise their children into non British values.
But quite often while Muslims, Gypsies and poor families are identified as potential sources of “risk” in terms of home education, other families such as those from middle class backgrounds seem to be portrayed in a more positive light.
Newspapers are often full of “lifestyle” stories exploring the different choices made by middle class home educators. Typically these families are portrayed as sacrificing the material luxuries of their daily lives in favour of extended child-centric travelogues.
More recently, there was also sympathetic accounts of home education for children with special educational needs. Let down by failing, underfunded state schools parents were said to have been forced to make the difficult decision to home educate.
Our more recent research found that while there are many different types of home educators, a large majority of parents came to the decision to home school for similar reasons. Many ethnic minority families, including all the Muslim and Gypsy families we interviewed, described racism and bullying in schools as a significant factor in their decision. Families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds also described how letdown they felt by local schools.
In this way, we found that many home educators are simply parents who have actively made choices to help meet the needs of their children. But despite this, not all families who home educate are viewed positively. In this way, stereotypes of home educators distort both negative and positive accounts – home educators often seen as problematic not based on what they do, but rather on who they are.
Our more recent research found that while there are many different types of home educators, a large majority of parents came to the decision to home school for similar reasons.
This is where a national register of home educated children and the monitoring of their well-being would be a step in the right direction. This would not impose on parental choice, it would simply help to monitor what, can at times be, something of a grey area within the UK education system.
Ultimately, what all this shows is that for many families there is a real need for home education, because of problems with schooling, bullying or racism. And in this way, home education is not always a lifestyle choice. But even when it is, this decision should still be respected, because as our research shows, choosing home education is a difficult and challenging decision – but one that is often made with the best interests of the children in mind.
Martin Myers was Lecturer in Education at the University of Portsmouth.