There are many parents who feel a deep dissatisfaction with the schooling that their children are receiving. Some wonder why their child has such a low level of achievement, and are concerned when they see various learning difficulties developing. Others, when they see children exhibiting strong emotional and behavioral problems, suspect the school environment is seriously damaging their child’s well-being.
There are very genuine reasons for concern. Class sizes can be huge; teachers are under pressure from many directions and they are often too preoccupied with their own problems and ambitions to be concerned with the needs and difficulties of the children supposedly in their care. Also, teachers have absorbed the worldwide ethos that their job is merely to impart knowledge to the student, and to facilitate the passing of exams for those judged capable, the prestige-gaining high-performers. The children who are considered less able academically are often more or less ignored. And wider considerations about the whole development of the student, and his or her general well-being, are simply none of the teacher’s concern.
In our present education system, conformity is so highly valued that initiative and creativity are mostly destroyed, perhaps forever. In the intensely competitive environment, with vast amounts of school work to take home, there is little time for play; for the simple activities and pursuits of childhood, which are so essential if a child is to grow up healthily, sanely.
For so many reasons, school is often a desensitizing, even brutal, often deeply hurtful experience and parents are quite right to feel disturbed when they see the signs of deterioration in their offspring. Many children develop a deep distaste for school, which may continue to affect their ability to learn throughout their lives. Increasing numbers of schools are becoming hotbeds of drug dealing, places where drinking, smoking and other vices are picked up. Violence is rife, bullying is an everyday occurrence, making children’s lives a misery. Some find solace in identifying with gangs, isolating themselves from their families and society, and perhaps engaging in antisocial behavior.
So what can parents do, faced with all this, seeing their children suffering and corrupted; perhaps even developing physical illness in a psychosomatic response to the unavoidable pressures they face at school? What is the right action when one sees all kinds of learning difficulties develop in one’s children, or seeing how they are becoming callous, insensitive, lacking in right values? Some parents are concerned enough to look around for a different sort of school, and some are lucky enough to find one. But real alternatives are rare. Often having changed schools in response to extravagant claims of a “caring”, “child-centred”, “holistic” education, the words are quickly revealed as so much hype. Or if a more humane school is discovered, it is so far away as to make attendance a very difficult business.
What is to be done? If parents accept that they are totally responsible for the well-being of their children, if they deeply care for them, what action can they take when they see the effects the education system is having on them? An increasingly common response among parents in the West is to withdraw their children from school and educate them at home. Or not send them to school in the first place. The purpose of this article is to ask the reader if this is an option you could consider.
I’m not qualified enough to do this. I may damage or disadvantage the child. The children would not have enough socialization. What if they wanted to go to University? Would the children be able to learn enough skills at home? I wouldn’t have enough time to do it. I just wouldn’t know what to do.
Obviously to educate a child at home is an enormous step and undoubtedly represents a huge commitment. If it is contemplated at all, several fears may arise, such as:
All these appear to be serious concerns, and in an article like this they can be dealt with only briefly. But before we even begin to investigate them, I would ask the reader to consider the origins of these fears. From where does such thinking arise? I think that a major problem is that we ourselves have been through the school system and it has strongly conditioned our minds. We have absorbed a very limited concept of what education is about. I was reading a letter recently from a lady contemplating home education who said “I wouldn’t know how to make the children sit down and learn” - as if learning can only take place when sitting! Similarly we have been fooled into accepting the myth that only qualified professionals can teach. Nothing is further from the truth. An important part of the home-educating process (indeed for the writer an essential component) is exploring if we and our children can free ourselves from such limited thinking, if we can put aside our preconceptions of how learning should be.
In reality the fears listed are mere speculation. Do you actually know what would happen if you took this step? One thing I can assure the reader is that the unexpected will happen. Freed from the straight jacket of the school, new qualities, new expressions, new interests, new skills, new perspectives will open up in the child (and hopefully in the parents). Many parents who have taken this plunge have been amazed to see the transformation in their children - a transformation which can flow into the whole family. As a great exponent of home education, John Holt once wrote:
“For many, the deepest and most abiding benefit of home schooling is the claiming (or reclaiming) of their family. Home schooling families spend incredible amounts of time together living, learning and playing. They have the opportunity to develop a depth of understanding and a commitment to the family that is difficult to attain when family members spend their days going in separate directions”.
Given the space, the freedom, learning comes naturally to children - they don’t have to be forced into it but so often, with their emphasis on punishment and reward, with a system more or less based on fear, schools manage to pervert this love of learning. Consider these words of Albert Einstein:
“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry”.
Incidentally, Einstein himself was the product of home education. As were many famous, creative people, including Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Pascal, Pierre Curie, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Yehudi Menuhin, Agatha Christie, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Schweitzer, Franklin Roosevelt. And there are many who failed at school only to become outstanding successes in their fields.
Returning to the commonly held apprehensions about home educating (which are really misapprehensions) the issue of socialisation needs to be considered. A very common response from people, when they learn one’s children are home educated, is something like: “Don’t they miss out on the valuable social life of the school? Don’t they become isolated?” Again I will use the words of John Holt
“If there was no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, who is talking to so-and-so and who is not. Even in the first grade, classes soon divide up into leaders, their bands of followers and other outsiders who are pointedly excluded from the group.”
Home education does not imply social isolation, far from it - social horizons can be far wider than in school. There are many opportunities for healthy social contact (and far more time) both within the family and in pursuing activities outside. In my experience home educated children are far less likely to become social misfits; in fact they are usually cooperative and helpful. And from meeting the world from a secure base they tend to be self-confident. Good home educating does not isolate itself from the community, in fact interacting with it becomes part of education. Also, hopefully one can find similar families in the neighbourhood. Groups can form, which encourages others to consider the home educating option. The potential for development in this area is enormous (please see the end of the article for suggestions).
Much depends on the parent having the courage to allow the space for new things to happen, and not merely to substitute the pressures of the school with their own pressures. One common consequence of allowing that space is that initiative and creativity are released in the child, which are extremely important characteristics. Children start to become self-reliant, directing their own learning and taking a very real interest in things around them (not necessarily reflecting the parents’ interests!). And for those parents who are concerned about their children’s employment prospects, I point out (and I have heard this from employers themselves) initiative and creativity are very marketable traits indeed.
Children start, perhaps unconsciously, to find out what it is they love to do in this life. And surely it is only when people have discovered this that they can live happy and fulfilled lives?
Here are some comments from parents who found the courage to home educate :
“Let me tell you what happened to our son after we removed him from a local public school’s first grade last November. He stopped wetting his bed. He stopped suffering from daily stomach upsets and headaches and he has not had a cold for six months, although he averaged one cold a month while attending school. He has gained five pounds and has grown almost two inches. And he is HAPPY! ……..”
“The changes that have occurred in Ishmael since we took him out of school have been unbelievable. Gone are the fits of temper that erupted every day around 4pm, gone are the headaches, the lines of tension around his mouth, and gone is his depression…..”
“As soon as the decision was taken [to home educate] he seemed to be released from some terrible burden, he immediately began to take charge of his own life and learning, began to approach everything with the zest and enthusiasm formerly reserved for his own nature study, sports and building projects. For example, he always hated maths, and the necessity of doing maths homework caused the most unhappy and miserable hours in our household. Now he has set himself the task of getting maths and is proceeding to do so with none of the emotional overtones formerly present……..”
Apart from these individual testimonials, is there any solid evidence that home educating works? Well, recent statistics indicate that more than two million students in the USA are home educated. And considering only academic results, in 1997 the results of numerous independent evaluations were published which showed that home educated students scored as many as 30 percentile points higher than national public school averages on a Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. After presenting similar statistics showing that home school children out scored public school children in every subject, Dr Brian Ray concluded: “…home schooling works. Even many of the State Departments of Education, which are generally biased towards the public school system, cannot argue with these facts.”
And for those parents who feel they are insufficiently skilled or qualified to take on home education here is an interesting fact: Dr. Ray found no statistical differences in academic achievement of home schooled students taught by parents with less formal education than those students taught by parents with higher formal education. But if parents still feel apprehensive about academic qualifications and future entry into higher education, a very real alternative exists in India, well suited to the needs of home education. This is India’s National Open School. For more information see
In any case, in home educating, a great part of the children’s learning, perhaps the most important part, is probably not going to come from a curriculum, or even from the parents necessarily. Instead it will come from themselves, from their interactions with the world around them, from their own unique interests and talents, which will be revealed much more readily when there is freedom from the classroom. Please realise you don’t need to know everything they want to know, or be interested in everything they are interested in. In many ways the question “what will I actually do with them” is a wrong question. Taking them out of school is the greatest positive action, and what you need to do further will be revealed as things unfold. Your job is to facilitate their learning, rather than to teach them. You will be able to respond to their true educational needs in a way that is impossible in a classroom.
I said above that it is a myth that only teachers can teach. I think any well intentioned adult can teach the basics, reading, writing, mathematics. And if there are subjects with which you’re not familiar, well, you can learn alongside your child. Actually learning like this is an exhilarating part of home educating and is deeply satisfying. It is the learning process itself which is important, - learning how to learn. And once learnt, the confidence to learn easily will permeate all aspects of a person’s life. It is crucial in today’s ever changing, insecure, employment environment. It is a skill which will remain with them throughout their life, long after much of the knowledge they once absorbed is forgotten.
I personally have home educated my two children for the last 10 years (along with their mother) and would never dream of sending them to a mainstream school. The results, I feel, are well worth the effort, and people do seem to notice a different quality in them. But I can appreciate how difficult an undertaking home educating might appear initially. Remember, there have been a great many parents who have felt similar apprehensions but have taken the step anyway - and who have never regretted it. They have realised that the fears they once held about home educating and its consequences were groundless. In fact their decision not only saved their children from immense damage but transformed their relationship with them. I meet and read of many parents who have watched their children blossom, who have watched them, (perhaps slowly at first), rediscover a great enthusiasm for learning, something which was utterly lacking when they were attending school. Their children have become well able to take responsibility for their own education, and indeed for their own lives.