It's very curious, in this age of measurement and quantification in education, to discover that there are some facts that no one knows. And one of those is how many children are educated outside school. Education Otherwise, one of the home educators' organisations, says 170,000. A cautious academic researcher says at least 10,000. No one can be certain, because in England and Wales only parents who are withdrawing their children from a state school are required to register them as educated at home. A child who has never been in school, or who moves from one local authority to another, or who leaves primary school without going on to a secondary, need not be registered at all. But on one thing everyone involved is agreed: home education is expanding fast.
A mother in rural Wales says that in the past six years, the local membership list has doubled every year. In Scotland, the main home educators' support group says inquiries that were running at three or four a month eight years ago are now running at roughly a hundred. Lewisham Council had one person working in the department dealing with home educators four years ago; now it has three. And Education Otherwise claims a 20,000 increase in home educators in Britain in just a year. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Department of Education estimates that there were 1.1 million American home schoolers in 2003 (2.2 per cent of the school-age population), up from 850,000 in 1999.
Why is this happening? Is it a good thing? And can the experience of those who teach their own children tell us anything about what is right and wrong in our schools?
"The only qualification you need to teach your own children is love," says Gina Purrmann, a mother of two home-schooled children. "If you don't like your children and enjoy their company, then you've lost it and you'd better send them to school. But if you do enjoy them--then it's very exciting."
Taking a child out of school is usually costly for families. One parent, almost always the mother, usually has to forgo an income and a career and assume a teacher's role. One might assume, therefore, that home education is an option only for the relatively prosperous, well-educated middle class. That does not seem to be true.
The people who do it are extraordinarily diverse. The ones I talked to included a builder's wife from the north of England, a hill-farmer's wife who left school at 16, and a wealthy mother from Notting Hill. Dr Alan Thomas of the University of London's Institute of Education is the author of Educating Children at Home (1998). He studied 42 home-educating families in Britain and found that they spanned the income range, from single mothers on benefit upwards. Half the parents he came across had had no post-school education. Only one thing united them: a belief that schools had failed or would fail their children, and that they would do a better job themselves.
Some have ideological objections; they might be religious or want alternative lifestyles, or believe that a family is a better place for education and socialisation than an institution. But many others have chosen to home-educate--for a term, a year or a decade--as a pragmatic response to a child's unhappiness at school.
Emma Lyttelton arrived to collect her quiet nine-year-old son from his state school and found him sobbing as he sat at his desk doing lines. The teacher, Emma says, was simply engaging in crowd control. Her son had already been scared by children carrying knives. She removed him immediately. "I just let him go free; it was heaven. He read a lot, and I got a maths tutor, and a fantastic boy who did English and just let Charlie lead."
Gina Purrmann's eldest son, Mark, was three when she sent him to a charming Montessori nursery. For a year she had to unpeel him from her legs and carry him upstairs to the classroom while he screamed. In the week that he turned four, Mark said: "Mummy, I went to playschool today, and I said to myself 'I'm never coming back'. …