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Home education has more than doubled in the past year, but what are its benefits and challenges, and why are more families choosing it?
The experience of the last year and a half, often managing homeschooling and working simultaneously, has been the source of huge stress for many parents, particularly parents of smaller children. However, for some it has been the stimulus for a rethink. Some have seen their children respond well to homeschooling and have enjoyed the experience themselves.
A recent report from the BBC showed that the number of children registered for home education grew by 75% in the first eight months of the 2020/2021 school year. The BBC found that more than 40,000 students were formally taken out of school in the UK between September 2020 and April 2021, in comparison with an average of 23,000 over the previous two years.
The responses received by the BBC from 153 of the 205 county councils and unitary authorities in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, also showed that some areas have seen a bigger increase. In North-West England, for instance, where there have been high numbers of Covid infections, there has been a spike in home education, with the numbers up by 92% on the previous two years.
Some parents opted for home education before the pandemic, thinking it was the best option for their children. However, this recent spike is most likely attributable to Covid-19, the disruption caused to the education system and anxiety around it.
It is noticeable from the increasing number of calls and applications registered by home education organisations across the country. “We have seen a huge rise in calls to the helpline. Some days it is up to 20 times the average from before Covid,” says Wendy Charles-Warner, Chair at Education Otherwise.
Education Otherwise is one the organisations in the UK “to support and promote parents’ rights to provide their children with the best education for each of them, as individuals”, as well as raising awareness around the notion that, although education is compulsory, it does not have to happen in schools.
“There is a distinctly negative attitude toward home-educating families by some sections of society, based primarily on a lack of understanding and this can at times be wearing,” says Charles-Warner. “Otherwise works hard to educate the public about home education in order to address this issue.”
The pandemic is an opportunity to change that narrative. “We saw a huge rise in numbers of home-educated children during the pandemic last year and there was a general assumption by public bodies that this was driven by fear of Covid,” says Charles-Warner.
Some parents were worried about unvaccinated kids being exposed to Covid-19, particularly the Delta variant, which is the predominant strain in the UK. However, that is not the whole picture.
Charles-Warner adds: “We found that, as the weeks went on, more and more parents were telling us that lockdown school at home had allowed them to dip their toes in the home education water and that their children had thrived both in terms of academic attainment and mental health.”
According to Charles-Warner what really happened is that parents realised that “home education resulted in happier, thriving children”. But was that because they were not working or were on furlough or perhaps because their employer was offering additional temporary flexibility due to the pandemic? And is it likely it will continue longer term?
Helena, a civil servant, is one parent who has opted for longer term homeschooling for decided her 13-year-old daughter Cora, starting this academic year. She says: “The last academic year at least I felt comfortable with the fact that schools did have mitigations in place, like social distancing, mask wearing and isolation.”
“It was only with the change in policy this year and removing all of them that I started thinking about what the alternatives would be to school education.”
One of the questions around home education from parents considering it, is related to their child’s social life.
Charles-Warner argues: “We often find that those outside the world of home education judge socialisation by school-based norms, but it is not normal to spend five days a week with the same large group of people of the same age as oneself.” She adds: “Home-educated children have rich and varied social lives.”
Indeed many who are being homeschooled have been bullied or have mental health issues related to the school environment.
Cora’s social life was, however, a concern for Helena. She explains: “We didn’t want to limit my daughter’s options to see her friends and make new ones and we didn’t want her to be isolated.”
However, as home education grows as a viable option so do the related support groups who arrange social opportunities. Indeed, it is becoming easier to organise events, tuition groups and get-togethers. At times, homeschooled children can attend specific home education groups, but many also join other types of afternoon clubs, such as drama, sports or extra classes.
Besides meeting up and keeping in touch with old school friends, Helena is trying to be part of the home education community. “There is still a bit of work to do in terms of finding teenagers to socialise with, but we are also taking opportunities for her to get involved in local community groups,” she says.
On the benefits side, in general, home education offers flexibility when it comes to the child’s pace and approach to study. They can focus on each topic as long as they need to understand it thoroughly and because learning is often conducted in small groups or one to one, it can incorporate their interests, fostering creativity and originality. This can result in increased productivity and satisfaction, more efficient and personalised studying methods and better results.
For example, Helena’s daughter Cora would find classrooms noisy or she would get frustrated with other children disrupting the class. Also, she was always interested in learning Japanese, rather than the French or German options offered to her at school and she has the possibility of studying psychology which she could have not done otherwise.
Charles-Warner states: “Most home-educated children are ahead of their schooled peers, and as young adults, unemployment is rare amongst home-educated children and further education is common.”
It all depends on the child and the circumstances they face. A major issue is resources. As Covid has shown, those who have suffered most from homeschooling have been more disadvantaged children who face more barriers to accessing the internet and have less space to study in. Textbooks cost money, as does tuition, and those who are home-educated have to pay for entry to external exams such as GCSEs.
Charles-Warner admits: “Parents often have to give up some income to make themselves available to home educate a child. This makes it a less viable option for those on low incomes, who cannot access benefits.”
Another big worry is, of course, having to teach your child and ensuring you are one step ahead. Helena says: “I wanted to make sure that the quality of the education that I’d be able to provide for her would be as good, if not better, than what she’d be able to get through school and, ultimately, the final choice lay with my daughter.”
The summer was a stressful one for the family as they were pondering on their options. “Once we actually made the decision to home educate, and I put things in place, like booking a one-to-one online maths course or a one-to-one art tuition with a local artist, that’s when I started to feel a lot more confident about it,” says Helena.
Then there are the logistics of working while teaching. Because of the flexibility of home education, many parents will adjust their working hours to fit around education. In cases where that is not possible, some will reduce their working hours or, if they have the option, they might ask for help from a relative.
In Helena’s case, her extended family do not live close by so it is a joint effort with her husband, who has experience in teaching music. They mainly follow a school routine, Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm, and Helena does not hide that home education involves a significant effort from both her husband and herself, but she believes it is worth it.
She has been able to work from home so that can she take care of her daughter’s education. Despite being able to work while her daughter is studying, she has a lot to catch up on over the weekends too.
On the positive side, Helena says that not being bound by the school’s structure also means having more family time as it gives them more flexibility around their timetable. Indeed, another reason why many parents might choose home education is to spend more time with their children. However, Charles-Warner explains that some parents do like to have a break from their children sometimes, which can be more difficult for home educators.
In this regard, Helena says: “Just working five days a week is hard. Adding some basic family responsibilities onto that and then home education on top of that is obviously a challenge.” She adds: “But, I think it’s just making sure that we still make the time to relax and go for a walk and do all the things that we should be doing on a weekend as well.”
Education Otherwise has collated data over 2020 until now and Charles-Warner explains that they have found a “large rise in numbers of children being removed from school to home educate at significant points, the peaks correlated with announcements of returns to school”.
She says: “Between January and April numbers plateaued, but we are currently seeing a slight rise in numbers enquiring about home education due to fears about vaccinations being made mandatory. Conversely, we have seen a recent rise in parents calling the helpline who have decided to send their children back to school because of this.
Some of the parents who chose to home educate their children only temporarily because of the pandemic are likely to return their child to school once the situation stabilises. However, a percentage of those parents discovered that home education might be a better option both for their children and themselves and have found dynamics which suits them better, perhaps with more flexibility.
Charles-Warner says that the numbers of home-educated children have been rising steadily since 2012 and Education Otherwise expects to have more accurate information in late October.
Despite some of the challenges, it has turned out to be a good option for many families. Helena used to be one of the parents who always dismissed home education until the pandemic, when she realised that the day to day routine from home would suit her daughter better.
Now, she plans to home educate Cora until A-Levels. She has also started a blog in which she posts updates and lessons learnt on this new journey as well as increasing awareness and breaking down the prejudice associated with home education.