Unschooling the Kids
Education was one of the mantras that propelled British Prime Minister Tony Blair to power in 1997. Ahead of the May election this year (2005) that won him a third term in office, there was no change in the refrain: "Education has been, is and will be the driving mission of a new Labor government: to give our children, all our children not just those at the top, the best start in life, the best chance to succeed."
For many, though, these words have taken on a tone of bitter irony. A growing number of parents feel so strongly that Blair has not delivered a good enough state schooling system that they are educating their children at home - or "unschooling", to use the jargon preferred by those who dislike the very idea of school and its inflexibility.
Since many of these parents do not register their children, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures. (Parents are not required to register children if they are educating them at home from the very beginning. However, children are required to be 'deregistered' if they are pulled out of school for home schooling.) But home education bodies say an estimated 170,000 children are taught at home in England and Wales, and that the number is rapidly increasing.
Parents have many problems with the state sector. "There are now so many tests, targets and inspections that teachers do not know which way to turn," says Professor John Benyon, Director of Lifelong Learning and Professor of Political Studies at the University of Leicester in central England. "In these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why increasing numbers of parents turn to private education or home tuition. By so doing, they consider that their children avoid over-testing, large classes, and poor behavior and discipline."
At the same time, the availability of Internet and other computer resources, and the trend towards an increasingly individualistic society, distrustful of big institutions, have emboldened parents into believing they are capable of teaching.
Some claim even Blair has opted out of the state system by sending his children to a faith school. Critics say the Roman Catholic school that his children attend handpicks students, arguing that Blair's choice contradicts the Labor Party's commitment to good schools for all and to breaking down the class barriers that are bolstered by selection.
Many home educators have decided against trusting even the better state schools with their children's futures. Claire Turnham, who has four children aged between six months and 10 years, began home educating two years ago. "It was a lifestyle choice to take more responsibility for our children's education," she says. "The world became our classroom. It's a thinking, feeling, seeing, touching education." Now, they are learning all the time at their own pace. Their day's activities might include scientific experiments, a visit to an art gallery and language lessons with other home educating families.
Turnham believes that children should shape their own education, rather than have a system imposed on them. (Home-educated children can take tests if they wish, although they are not required to do so. They are also not required to follow the national curriculum.) As a woman home educating and running her own business, Turnham says there are logistical difficulties, but she has the help of "a very supportive network" of other home educators in Oxfordshire, central England, where she lives.
If her reasons were primarily personal, others' are more political. Mike Fortune-Wood is one of Britain's most prominent home educators. He began educating his children at home in 1992 and has set up a website to share his experiences. Fortune-Wood maintains that as early as the Education Act of 1870 - which established compulsory public elementary education for every child - state schooling was geared towards the interests of state and industry, not the children.
"The state originally decided that education should be compulsory not because of a widespread concern that children were ignorant but rather to control a perceived, rampant immorality among the working classes by providing day care for children whose parents were laboring in factories," his website states.
"Later the 1944 Education Act enabled a class-driven education system to provide the appropriate labor resources industry then demanded. In today's scientifically advanced economy we need graduate technicians, so the drive is on to provide industry with 50 per cent of its new labor with a marketable degree."
The 1944 legislation provided grammar schools for children who passed an entrance exam taken at the age of 11, while secondary modern and technical schools catered for the rest of the population. That system broke down in the late 1960s when Harold Wilson's Labor government began introducing comprehensive schools to educate children of all abilities. Critics say comprehensives have lowered overall standards, where earlier there were at least islands of excellence; while critics of the old two-tier system argue that deciding a child's future on the basis of a one-day examination is grossly unfair.
While comprehensive schools dominate, some grammar schools have survived the shake-up. Blair has rekindled the debate about elitism by setting up city academies, or state schools that attract extra government money in return for private sponsorship and aim to improve standards in deprived inner city areas. Critics say that, like the grammar schools, they concentrate resources and talent at the expense of other schools.
While some home educators failed to get their children into a good local school and were left with the option of sending them to a bad one, an important reason for opting out of formal education appears to be bullying. Education Otherwise, a British organization that seeks to help home educators, surveyed 456 cases of children leaving school and found that 266 of them cited bullying by peers as the reason. The organization takes its name from a provision in another of Britain's many Education Acts, that of 1996, which states it is the parents' responsibility to ensure their child receives full-time education "either by regular attendance at a school or otherwise".
Research also provides positive reasons for home education. In the first British study of its kind, in 2002, Paula Rothermel of the University of Durham in northern England surveyed some 419 home educating parents and carried out 196 assessments of children aged 11 and below. She found that 64 per cent of home-educated children scored more than 75 per cent in their PIP (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) Baseline Assessments compared with 5.1 per cent nationally. The study also suggests that home educators tend to be more motivated on the whole.
Yet another study shows mixed results. Dr Alan Thomas, visiting Fellow at the University of London's Institute of Education, followed home-educated children into adulthood and found as varied a set of people as among ex-school pupils. "Most have gone to university. Some have done exceptionally well...One is on probation for robbery. You get a whole mix," he told Britain's Observer magazine.
Almost oblivious to all the debate, Blair continues to insist that Labor has made great strides in improving British schools.
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