50,000 children are educated at home or out of school. That’s the number of children in England who are not signed up to a school, who don’t go to school regularly, who don’t have to follow the national curriculum, and who don’t have to be tested regularly. This is all perfectly legal. Whilst an education for children aged 5-16 must be provided, that doesn’t have to be in a school. This is accepted, though it is not always checked or monitored.
So what happens to these children? Some are literally educated at home by the parents or carers, doing mainly what the adults think is best or what has been agreed between them and the children. This can include visits to local art galleries, museums and libraries, an outdoor education and general exploration of the world around them, as well as more standard study at home. For the more adventurous, however, education outside of school can involve travel, and if so, often for a year or more. There are families who set sail on boats or head off in camper vans, with the next lesson their next horizon. One such family travelled around the United Kingdom, before setting off to Europe. To provide an example of what they gained, on one occasion they visited a wind-farm and used the knowledge gained to learn about physics, engineering and conservation. Another family travelled around the continent; as they went the children learned Mandarin and Spanish – the second and fourth most widely spoken languages in the world ( and incidentally, they also became proficient with the keyboard, the violin and the guitar ). In a world full of conflict and misunderstanding, they might argue, it’s important that young people grow up able to understand the languages huge numbers of people speak. And indeed, it is often a matter of debate in this country that the number of children who are growing up with the choice or will to do that is actively falling, lending this all the more credence.
Distance learning, whether it be more domestic or expansive, can see that young minds are liberated, that creativity and spontaneity are encouraged, and unorthodox skills and knowledge are valued. The degree to which the national curriculum is followed is allowed more flexibility. And when the time comes, children can ease their way back into the system for exams and maybe university entrance. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, others argue plenty. Home education is often seen as an indulgence by the parents / carers; there can be a suspicion that there is some kind of self-interest in their disapproval of their children’s schools, and that maybe they’re the ones who want the gap year. Still others argue that the single most important function of a school is to encourage socialisation with peers, and that the very independence from the family mainstream education develops is something these travellers may well not get.
We live in curious times – individual freedoms are said to be important. But many of our structures, schools among them, seem to stifle them. Whilst the debate over home education is unlikely to go away, statistics would suggest that taking its path can lead to achievements just as good as those attained via the mainstream. Do we not have the right to keep our options open, then?