Education in this country is a mess. The complaints roll in. The children are taught less than their grandparents were, but are more pressured by tests and the meeting of other arbitrary targets. They play truant. They are bullied—around 20 children every year commit suicide because of this. They take too many drugs and have too much sex. They are force-fed political correctness. For the past month, the politicians have been issuing competing promises to sort out the mess—as if they had not made it in the first place. We can be sure of one thing: nothing will improve. Of course, if you can move to the right catchment area, or join the right religion, your children may get a semi-decent education. If you have the money, you can go private and get them a good education. For everyone else, though, it is a matter of what the Prime Minister, with uncharacteristic honesty, calls the "bog standard comprehensive".
Or is that it? The answer is no. There is an alternative.
The law on education in this country is clear. Parents have a legal duty to educate their children, but no duty to send them to school. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 reads: "The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable: (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special education needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." The meaning of this is that you can educate your children at home.
Until quite recently, home education was a common alternative to school. Noel Coward, for example, was educated almost wholly at home, briefly attending the Chapel Royal Choir School. Agatha Christie had no formal schooling before the age of 16. She later wrote that her mother believed "the best way to bring up girls was to let them run wild as much as possible; to give them food, fresh air and not to force their minds in any way". C.S. Lewis had only two years of formal schooling as a child—part of this at Wynyard School in Watford—a place he later called "Belsen".
By the middle of the last century, home education seems largely to have died out. Recently—partly because of the collapse of standards in the state sector, and partly following the American example, where the home schooling movement is huge—there has been a revival of interest. No one knows how many children in England are being educated a home. The estimates range between 84,000 and 150,000. The only agreement is that the numbers are growing fast. They include children who have been bullied or otherwise harmed at school, the children of the devoutly religious, and the children of parents who simply do not like what formal schooling has to offer. They are from all social, educational, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
One reason why we cannot know the numbers is because the law is so astonishingly liberal. You do not have to seek permission from the Local Education Authority to educate "otherwise"; nor inform the Local Education Authority that you have children of school age; nor have regular contact with the Local Education Authority; nor have premises equipped to any specified standard; nor have any teaching or other educational qualifications of your own; nor cover any specific syllabus; nor have any fixed timetable; nor prepare lesson plans of any kind; nor observe normal school hours or terms; nor give formal lessons; nor allow your children to mix with others. The only requirement is that children receive a "suitable" education. In a landmark decision from 1981, this is defined "one such as to prepare the children in life for modern civilised society, and to enable them to achieve their full potential". And that is it. You can sit your children down in a room full of books and maps and reproduce a school at home. Or you can tell them Bible stories as they help make bread. Or you can let them run about, picking up whatever learning takes their fancy. There are no controls.
You might suppose that children not committed to the care of professional teachers would become illiterate barbarians. There is no evidence at all that they do. Indeed, what evidence there is shows that children educated at home do significantly better. In 2002, Dr Paula Rothermel of Durham University published the largest study ever made in the United Kingdom. She found that 64 per cent of such children scored over 75 per cent in standard tests, as opposed to only 5.1 children nationally. Other achievement levels were far above the national average. She found that "home educated children were socially adept and without behavioural problems. Overall, the home educated children demonstrated high levels of attainment and good social skills".
She also notes that the children of working class, poorly-educated parents were doing better than middle class children. While five and six year old children from middle class backgrounds scored only 55.2 per cent in the test, they scored 71 per cent.
Of course, just because it appears to work is no reason for the authorities to approve of it. The law remains unchanged in England. But there is pressure for change. We can be sure the teachers hate anything that shows them in a comparatively poor light. In June this year, one of the main teaching unions heard calls for regulation. Apparently children educated at home were "the only group… who have no consistent level of monitoring or inspection yet are the only group taught in the main by those with no qualifications". One can almost hear the nervous shuffling of bottoms.
If this were not enough, we live in an age where the authorities just cannot let anything alone. During the ten years to the beginning of October 2004, the phrase "completely unregulated" occurs 153 times in the British newspaper press. In all cases, unless used satirically, the phrase is part of a condemnation of some activity. We are told that the advertising of food to children, residential lettings agents, funeral directors, rock climbing, alleged communication with the dead, salons and tanning shops, contracts for extended warranties on home appliances, and anything to do with the Internet—that these are all "almost completely unregulated" or just "completely unregulated", and that the authorities had better do something about the fact.
Then there is the ideological agenda. Schooling is only partly about teaching children to read and write and do basic sums. It is mainly about teaching them to think and do as the Establishment desires. When the Establishment was broadly conservative, children were taught how sweet and fitting it was to die for the country: would ten million young men have marched semi willingly to their death in the Great War without the prior conditioning of state education? Nowadays, the Establishment is almost solidly of the left. Children now are taught how guilty they must feel if they happen to be white or male or middle class, and how they must accept the anti-western, anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment values of political correctness. And this is even thought a basic human right. In its own draft bill of rights, the National Council for Civil Liberties asserts the "right to an education that prepares them… to respect diversity and human rights".
Given this fact, the Establishment sees home education as a challenge to its ideological hegemony. The academic literature is filled with denunciations of "neoliberals, neoconservatives, and authoritarian populists" who seek to frustrate the noble efforts of teachers. Home education is seen as an example of "individualized behaviour" that "threatens to undermine the quality of public education".
There has been no concerted attack in England There are ugly stories to be found in the newspapers. It seems that some authorities are trying to conflate home schooling with truancy. Individual officials have been accused of threatening parents known to be educating their children at home—saying that their children would be put on the "at-risk" register. There is one story of a school that informed a mother that it was illegal for her to take one child out of school following the suicide of another who had been bullied there. But none of this yet reflects official policy.
There has, however, been an official attempt in Scotland to make home education less easy for parents. In 2002, the Scottish Executive, proposed that local authorities should be able to use details from the United Kingdom Census, from birth registers, from medical records, and from other confidential sources, to identify those children being educated at home. These proposals were bitterly fought by the home education movement—not just in Scotland, but also in the United Kingdom as a whole, and also from America. The law remains unchanged, but the proposals have not gone away.
But, for the moment, home education is perfectly legal in this country. It is expensive: at least one parent must be at home at least some of the time to look after things. On the other hand, it can be brilliantly successful. So if you are really think your children are not getting the best at school, stop looking to the politicians. They either have no idea how to make things better, or are planning how to make them still worse. Do it yourself—and almost certainly do it better.