Scattered thoughts on home schooling
Reading an article on Liberal Conspiracy about home schooling, my first reaction was negative. What follows are some of my thoughts – both pro and con – as regards the article and the issue.
First, a bit of background. The government’s Rose review and the simultaneous but independent Cambridge review have now each been published, examining in a far reaching way primary education. In particular, the Cambridge review is critical of current levels of access, which are narrowed by extensive testing (CR topsheets, .pdf).
To this extent, then, I agree with the instinct of those parents who choose to withdraw their child from the education system. The Cambridge review damns the system for inadequate training of teachers beyond the core subjects, for not seeing standards and breadth of teaching as compatible and, ultimately, for its lack of purpose, due to consistent micro-management by the government.
When I have kids, it’ll be an open question as to whether or not I home school them, on this basis. However, I am not an advocate of home schooling generally and there are many reasons why. The article at LibCon amply demonstrates a multitude of them.
Firstly, as a teacher, I’m not willing to be told what I can and can’t empirically examine by a political lobby. Those who provide education in schools are in a position to examine the education provided by home educators. It may be that the home school lobby don’t want to listen to some of the things which have to be said – but that’s a different issue.
My concerns are as follows: a) what does the child want; b) is the child getting the same breadth of education as in a classroom; c) is the child simply being taught to regurgitate the world-view of the parents; d) does the child have access to sufficient resources to support learning to a level equal to that which his or her peers will reach by the same age.
All of these things can be measured. I have always been particularly concerned about c) since I know that in the United States, home schooling is increasingly prevalent among extreme Christians and I have seen it suggested that this trend is the same in the UK. If home schooling can be a vehicle to prevent scientific learning, then we have a duty to those children to regulate it.
The consequences for science of d) are equally important. If a child is to be kept out of primary school, this question is of less importance, but post-11 large swathes of science teaching are practice-led. Titrations, dissections, circuit-building, oscillations and so forth are just some of the practicals for which the equipment is unlikely to be just lying around one’s house.
I am not so narrow minded, of course, to suggest that the lack of this equipment means that home schooling should be dispensed with. It may simply mean that the LEA should have a remit extending to the provision of such equipment to community centres, where home schooling families can access it. Whether or not it gets used could also be monitored, in order to paint a picture of the opportunities which home schoolers allow their children.
Obviously, in respect of things like cooking or the arts and humanities, an interested parent with the ability to give a child one-to-one time is a huge advantage. As teachers, we can see this even in school – and we know, when meeting parents or talking to pupils about their homework routines, which parents are especially good at this sort of thing.
I’ve never believed in measuring skirt lengths, tucking in shirts and so forth – and one-to-one teaching obviously gets rid of this sort of requirement. Additional time, with a suitably able parent, also offers the chance for a much broader range of activities – from mechanics to ornithology to wood work. However its a big step from saying, “This is possible” to ensuring that every home schooled child has these opportunities.
Ensuring these opportunities needs to be the responsibility of a body with no intellectual bias towards one form of education or the other – but since primary legislation is the responsibility of the State, it is to the State such a body must answer.
Collectively, as a society, we have a responsibility to our children – who are not the property of their parents and shouldn’t be treated as such. Without taking away the right of a child to learn what interests them, there are also certain necessary things every child should know, whether John Holt and his fellow pro-home schoolers want to admit it or not.
We don’t find that a controversial thing to say when we mean the basic life skills – such as toilet hygiene. I am not referring to basic life skills of course, I’m referring to things like the scientific method, skepticism and all forms of rational argument and the examination of evidence required to support or disprove such an argument.
After all, this is a democracy. However distorted our public sphere is by a bias towards Capital, the opinions of the individual still have social consequences. So, as a fellow citizen in a democracy, I want everyone to know about things like evolution and to be able to judge the merits of an argument on the basis of rational thought, not on the basis of prescribed doctrine.
My only problem is that, even in schools, teaching to this standard is far from secure!
In conclusion, I haven’t met a teacher yet who will deny the important role that family can play in a child’s learning. Also I don’t doubt, looking at the Swedish model as example, that there are better ways to organise education than what we currently have. Home schooling certainly has the potential to be one of these better ways – but how we talk about it is key.
Currently the State may be biased against home schooling – but there is no excuse for the near-hysterical reaction of home schoolers to a desire to regulate what they do. We need to find ways to open opportunities for child learning – at home or in school – and we need to do so knowing that this may be against the express wishes of the parents.
This is at the core of my problem with home schooling; parents have replaced the absolute authority of the State with the absolute authority of themselves – and both need to be a lot more open to democratic regulation. This is reflected, to some extent, in the US figures below; of particular interest should be the 38% who are home schooled on religious grounds, and the 12% who object to what the school teaches.
It highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of the home school movement and begs the question, since when are parents more qualified than teachers to choose what their children can and can’t learn? This is the same type of hysterical reaction which objects to the State keeping an eye on home schooled children, as though someone other than the child’s parent can’t evaluate quality of education.
Whether boards of governors, LEAs or some body that will collectively represent home schoolers, this sort of regulation is the right of a democratic society – however we collectively decide to arrange it.