by James Bartholemew, Adam Smith Fellow in Welfare (September, 5 2008)
It is back-to-school this week. All over the country, stressed parents made last-minute dashes to the shops to force children to try on clumpy school shoes. Then they got up early, hurried their children into cars or on to buses, got stuck in jams, arrived later than intended and said a rushed goodbye. Then they found that the children had gone. Relief may have been mixed with melancholy, loss and a hope that the children were all right behind those high windows, told what to do by strangers.
The return to school is a well-established part of the journey of life. It seems normal, right and inevitable. But actually it is none of these things. Yes, it is normal in the early 21st century. But if modern civilisation started about 10,000 years ago, this way of treating children has been “normal" only for the last 2 per cent of the time. It is a new, artificial construct designed to provide education at low cost. It certainly was not created to provide a pleasant or socialising experience for children.
Schools are not clearly “right", either. People tend to think that what everyone does and what they themselves experienced must be right. But there is nothing obviously ideal about delivering your children to other people who do not love them as you do, and who are likely to teach them things with which you may disagree. And sending children to school is not inevitable. Under the law, children must be educated. But they do not have to be educated at a school. There is another way.
Home education is not for everyone - not even a large minority. It is a luxury in most cases. The parent who becomes a home teacher earns no money. There have to be savings, or partners, husbands or wives must be willing to pay the bills. But lots of well-educated wives do not work and could save money by home educating. For those who can find a way, home-educating is a glorious, liberating, empowering, profoundly fulfilling thing to do. Far more people should try it. At present it is estimated that about 50,000 children are taught this way. The number has jumped from a decade ago but is still very few compared with America.
I have just finished two years of teaching my younger daughter, Alex, now 11. We have become very close. Many fathers see their children at supper time and a bit more at weekends. Alex and I were with each other all day, every weekday, in all sorts of places and circumstances. We knew and shared thoughts, ideas and feelings. I believe the closeness that we developed will benefit our relationship for the rest of our lives.
We had enjoyable educational trips to France, Italy and China. Instead of learning about the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius from a text book, Alex and I climbed up to the rim and peered into the still-smoking crater. We visited Pompeii and Oplontis to see the parts of Roman civilisation that had been preserved by the most famous of its eruptions.
One of the beauties of home education is that you can teach children things that you want them to know - some of which are not taught in most schools. I wanted Alex to know something of the origin of the Universe, and astronomy. We studied far more history than schools do, including overviews of Rome, China and Britain. We looked at the Second World War, using DVDs of the superb Channel 4 series on it. We started learning Italian. But all parents would have different ideas of what they want their children to know. You can go for whatever you think important. This is freedom, thrilling freedom. You don't have to teach just what some civil servant in Whitehall has lighted upon and stuck in the national curriculum.
It is strange that children all over the country study the same bits of history - all knowing certain periods and hardly studying outside them. It verges on the totalitarian. With home education, there can be enormous diversity. At the same time, there is nothing to stop one's child taking the same GCSEs and Alevels that others are taking.
But some of the greatest gains from home education are not easily measured or tested. They come from the daily flow of conversation - the times when your child asks you a question and a conversation follows.
You may make an observation, or your child may see something and become interested in it. If that happens, you can encourage the interest. This is developing the ability to think and discuss. It is a big contrast with what happens at school where it is impossible in a class of 25 to chase the individual interests of everyone present or to enter separate conversations. It may even be the case that schools can damage a child's curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. I have seen children totally turned off education and making no attempt to hide how bored they are.
The widespread concern is that a home-educated child misses out on “socialisation". But I have never heard anyone offer any evidence for this. As far as I know, the evidence from America is rather the other way - home-educated children are better socialised. We know that young children left in inferior nurseries and not given much attention can get withdrawn or aggressive. It is possible, to put it no higher, that being left at school and not given much attention can, in some cases, have a similar, if milder, damaging effect on older children.
You don't have to educate a child for all his or her years of learning. It could be for just one or two. Several teachers have told me that they would love to take their children on a round-the-world journey, perhaps when their offspring are aged somewhere between 11 and 14. I would recommend it.
Home education, however you structure it, can bring you and your child closer together. You can both learn. You will have shared experiences that will enrich your relationship for ever. Yes, there will also be arguments and tears. But children and parents who never experience it are missing out badly.
Published in The Times here