A large number of people choose to educate their children at home rather than sending them to school. Chris Bond spoke to one mother who opted out
THE biggest concern of many parents nowadays is finding the best school for their children, with some prepared to up sticks and move to a different area in order to give them the best possible start in life.
But perhaps another dilemma is whether or not they should actually send their children to school at all. Most parents do send their kids to school but they aren’t legally bound to do so. A parent has to ensure their child receives a full-time education from the age of five, but they have the right to educate them at home – and it seems a large number of people do.
Although there are no official figures, around 20,000 home educated children are known to local authorities, but estimates put the true figure at anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000. Among those who have opted out of the school system were Janet Ford and her late husband, Phillip, who decided to educate their son Chris and daughter Meri themselves from their home in Sheffield.
“I met a family before I had children and they were home educating and the kids were just really nice, they were mature, well-balanced and confident and that stayed in the back of my mind. And when Chris came long he was very bright, he read early, so I thought I’d give home education a go,” Janet explains.
As well as reading by the time he was two-and-a-half, he also showed a natural aptitude for numbers. “He loved maths. He used to have a till roll and he used to like me to write out sums that were 14 numbers long, that was his idea of fun.” And it was this sense of fun, rather than any kind of curriculum, that dictated what they did.
“Chris was really interested in Sega Mega Drive when he was four or five and played on it for hours,” she says. “He had a game on that where he had to go round the universe finding materials to build a civilization and from there he became interested in how the natural world works, he got into rocks and minerals so we polished rocks and made jewellery.
“Then he got into fossils and dinosaurs and by about eight, or nine he was reading books that were almost university-level, he knew all about genus and species.
“That’s how it worked. We didn’t ever say ‘right, today you’re doing biology. We went to museums, we joined a natural history society and went out for walks in woods and looked at fungi.
“He joined a microscope group, he did jujitsu and we just followed what his interests and passions were.”
From the outside, many fear home-educated children will be at risk of isolation, but Chris made friends through other home education groups and by joining local clubs and societies, plus the family home was also a magnet for other children on the street.
“We used to call ourselves the ‘after school club’ because we’re a child-friendly house and kids just used to appear. His home ed friends would stay for a couple of weeks and then he’d go and stay with them. There was always something going on, we were always going out visiting museums, art clubs, workshops, language groups.”
Janet believes that more parents are going down the home education route, disillusioned with traditional school system.
“When we started 23 years ago there were about three or four home ed families in Sheffield, but now there’s about 300.” She says her local home education group organises all kinds of events from apple pressing to survival training. “You could go to something every day and there are 60 or 70 kids going to each one.”
After being home educated until he was in his mid-teens, Chris decided to do his GCSEs and A-levels at college. He went on to study biology at Sheffield University and after graduating secured a place at Manchester University, where he was the youngest ever entrant on a PhD course at Manchester School of Medicine. Now, at the age of 26, he is a research associate at Liverpool University Hospital where he runs a project into ageing.
Despite the success she and her husband had raising Chris, Janet says they changed tack with their daughter Meri and initially at least thought she would be best off at nearby school.
“I decided it was too much hard work and I thought she should perhaps go to school. When she was five we took her to what’s called a “taster” day at the local school. They told her to write down her numbers from one to 10 which she did, although she got her three and seven the wrong way round.
“I didn’t have a problem with that because she was only little and I knew she’d get it right. But later on when were at home she said, ‘Mummy, I can’t do numbers’ and I found out that even though I’d asked them not to they’d gone back and told her she had her numbers the wrong way round. This idea that she can’t do numbers has stayed with her and it’s why she never wanted to do maths.”
Janet decided not to send her daughter to school, and Meri, who is now 16, has four GCSEs, all A*, and has just started studying for her maths GCSE at college.
“Because she had never done maths before the college didn’t want to take her on, but we managed to talk them into it.
“They wanted to test her to make sure she could cope, so they designed a test specifically for her and she got 92 per cent in one test and 100 per cent in the other and she had never studied maths in her life.”
Smart and articulate, Meri is the exact opposite of the frankly inaccurate image a lot of people have of teenagers. But what does she think about her home education experience?
“I’m glad I never went to school because being home educated has presented me with more opportunities from an educational point of view to explore my own interests,” she says. “Speaking to some of my friends who go to school it sounds like it kills the whole learning experience and I’ve never felt as though I’ve missed out by not going to school and having to sit in a classroom for six hours a day.”
Nor does she feel that having a home education hinders young people. “I think it’s completely the opposite, at school you’re stuck with a group who are all the same age, but if you’re educated at home you meet people of all ages. I really can’t think of any disadvantages in being home educated.”
How much was down to good parenting and how much was down to other factors is open for debate, but the fact is that both Chris and Meri have flourished. So does Janet feel vindicated in choosing not to send them to school?
“I’ve always thought we were doing the right thing, we never faltered and you just have to meet the kids who go through home education, they’re great people. All of those that I know go to college, they become student of the year and whatever they do, they do well.”
However, home education isn’t a practical option for everyone. Janet and her husband worked as child minders for nine years but not everyone can afford for one parent to stay at home. People also educate their children from home for different reasons, with some parents of children with special needs feeling they have no other real choice.
Two years ago, the controversial Badman report was published, which led to proposals requiring all home educators to register their children with local authorities being put forward. This was dropped from Labour’s last education bill after time ran out because of last year’s General Election and Ministers haven’t sought to pick up the baton.
Critics of home education argue that a school education offers the best chance of a child developing into a well-rounded adult, but Janet disagrees.
“They say the school system is broad and balanced and that home education isn’t, but I think it’s actually harder to stop kids learning than it is to help them learn, because it’s an instinct to learn the things you need to survive in the world,” she says. “The system makes the kids fit into the system, there’s 30 kids in a class and the teachers have to try and get them all through the process and they don’t have the time.
“But if you’ve been home educated you are used to being self-motivated and you’ve got independent study skills. Some universities actually put a premium on home educated kids because they’re such good students and they don’t have to spoon feed them.”
A fast growing classless society
While there are no official figures on how many children are home educated in the UK, research suggests that around 100,000 (about one per cent) children of school age are currently being home educated
Additional research shows that the figure is rising at around 15 per cent a year.
While home education was given equal status to traditional schooling in 1996, parents are not eligible for financial help.
Some local authorities will allow parents access to teaching resources and others also offer discounted access to other council-run facilities like sports centres.