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Home education? Help!

As schools close, isn’t it time to bring home education in from the cold?

Home education has suddenly come in from the cold – or at least from the coronavirus. With schools across the United Kingdom in process of closing, many parents – especially of primary-age children – are wondering what to do next. The good news is that parents or other responsible adults who are blessed with common sense, perseverance, and a healthy dose of imagination can create outstanding opportunities for learning within the home. How do we know this? Because we’ve seen it happen.

Home education certainly suffers from an image problem. For many people, it’s associated with far-out drop-outs, who reject all forms of social organisation. Other critics link home education with religious or political fundamentalism. It is true that home education can be many things – which is one of the reasons why the government makes periodic attempts to control it. So far – thankfully – their efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Home education works precisely because of its flexibility. When it’s done well, it creates opportunities for learning that are closely matched to the needs and interests of the small number of children that are typically its focus. This flexibility is why home education appeals to celebrities as well as ordinary people. Of course, it allows for “un-schooling” – the practice of allowing children to develop at the pace of their changing interests, typically pursued in a yurt – but it also provides a home for the revival of Latin and Greek. We’ve seen great examples of home education being provided by people from all kinds of social backgrounds, with different kinds of political and religious commitment, from many different walks of life, and in all parts of the country. But one thing these educators have had in common – they have been driven by a concern for the well-being of their children.

Since its emergence during the 1960s in the counter-cultural left, the home education movement has grown exponentially. Around 100,000 children are being home educated in the United Kingdom. Somewhere between two and three million children are being home educated in the United States. The home-schooling community in America is growing at around twelve times that of the number of students entering public schools. And the outcomes are positive. Ivy League universities compete to recruit the best home-school graduates.

This might explain why interest in home education has been growing in popular culture. Major publishers have begun to promote it. The well-trained mind: A guide to classical education in the home (2004), by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, was published by Norton, while Leigh A. Bortins’ The core: Teaching your child the foundations of classical education (2010) was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross, 2016) was an emotional comedy that explored the lives of a home educating family in the American north-west, while Tara Westover’s Educated (2018) adopted a more critical tone. 

As a result of the growing popularity of home education, a huge range of resources and networks have been developed to support learning within the home. The variety of these resources can be overwhelming – in 2009, the market for home school curricula was worth almost one billion dollars per annum, and it has certainly grown since then. But many of the most useful resources are freely available online. In fact, you might be using them already – think of nature documentaries, audio books, Khan Academy presentations, maths games, and Duolingo. 

But it’s attitude, not resources, that marks home learning. Charlotte Mason, the Victorian educationalist, argued that it is the atmosphere of learning that makes that learning work. Parents and other responsible adults can do a great deal to create an atmosphere in which curiosity and imagination are encouraged, in which conversations and relationships are key, and in which children understand that they matter. Parents and other responsible adults are equipped to teach their children because they know them best, love them best, and have their best interests at heart. Home education is so much more than the effective delivery of information. This is why, for most of its advocates, the goal of home education is not to create a miniature replica of the experience of school. When the books are on the kitchen table, all of life is education. 

So, if home education has been thrust upon you, why not seize the opportunity to do something different? Don’t mimic school. Create a structure for your day, so that you and your children know what to expect and which goals you set out to achieve. Then get outside, and listen to the sounds of spring. Curl up with a great book. Start to learn a language. Try out a new recipe. Set something on fire. 

You will have a great time. After all, there’s a lot to do when you come in from the cold.

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