As home educating and home educated members of the Labour Party, we welcome the suggested National Education Service, and especially the emphasis on making it democratic and democratically accountable. We assert that true democratic education is diverse, empowering, flexible, and is first and foremost guided by the voices of learners and accountable to them. It is lifelong, with special protections and thought given to children, but with no room for coercion or humiliation of learners, regardless of their age. It is respectful of learners’ diverse values, goals, and inclinations, and its main aim is providing them with tools in pursuing those goals – not achieving some arbitrary uniform standard. It allows a rich diversity of methods and approaches, and keeps accountability mechanisms simple, direct and unobtrusive, not permitting them to take over the learning process.
Home educators in the UK have been implementing this approach for decades, and can become a valuable example and a source of learning for the NES. Despite continued fear-mongering in the media and hand-wringing in national and local government, in reality home education has created a range of tolerant and diverse communities of learning that provide a haven for children who are vulnerable in schools, whether because of their neurodivergence, disabilities, health needs, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. Thanks to the freedom currently afforded to them by law, British home educators take their cues first and foremost from their children’s needs, and tend to become more learner-led with time (1). They are highly flexible in their educational provision, and their accountability process is exceedingly simple and effective: it is always directly accountable to the learner. Home education in the UK (contrary to popular ideas imported from abroad, or borne by ignorance and fear) is community-focused; highly diverse and tolerant; based on an understanding of children’s development and differing needs and abilities; and has a deep respect for learners’ voices.
Research from around the world shows that home educated people achieve results that are at least as good as those educated in school – and often better than them. Contrary to common assumptions, some studies suggest that it might be especially beneficial for learners from groups traditionally considered disadvantaged (2-5). Learner-led, autonomous education is not restricted to families, although it is especially suited to them; it has been successfully implemented by democratic schools worldwide for nearly a century, led by the examples of Summerhill and Sudbury. Research carried out on students of those schools and other self-led contexts upholds the results from research on home education (6-8). In fact, there is increasing evidence that any partial increase in autonomy and respect for children in schools not only benefits their wellbeing, but also raises traditional educational measures (9, 10).
Considering the effectiveness of learner-led education both in family and in appropriate institutional contexts, we hold that the routine coercion, disrespect, and humiliation techniques employed by mainstream schools to achieve their results are morally indefensible. Those range from small everyday humiliations such as not allowing children to pursue genuine interests during class or use the toilet when they need to, to extreme punitive practices such as putting children in isolation booths. Those techniques are not only immoral, they also undermine education and are counter-democratic: they create a culture in which learning is a dreaded chore, and diversity in learning styles and interests is a nuisance instead of an asset; they disempower students by training them from a young age that an arbitrary curriculum is more important than their own goals and values; and they instill the idea that collaboration and effective use of modern tools are cheating. By its very structure, standard school education teaches students that they have no power in the system they inhabit apart from the choice to conform or rebel – a very damaging dichotomy for many pupils, and certainly counter-productive for citizens of a democratic society. None of this is the fault of teachers, who are failed by the authoritarian and rigid structure of the system nearly as badly as the pupils.
We believe that the NES, like the NHS at its best, should offer a wide range of flexible services that are embedded in the community and are always optional. Education and childcare should be viewed as separate services, and while many providers will undoubtedly continue to offer both, their regulation and funding should be totally divorced so that education can be efficient and not a time-filling exercise, and the actual childcare needs of British society in the 21st century can be understood and fulfilled, instead of following an outdated 19th century factory model. Families should be able to make as much or as little use of the offered services as suits them, allowing for a diversity of children’s needs and abilities, as well as for a variety of families’ work demands, cultural practices, and lifestyle choices. A culture that values and supports education should be fostered by drastically increased funding for a range of flexible and inviting educational services for all ages – from libraries, museums, playgrounds and community learning centres to learning apps, websites and television programmes. Schools should become centres for community learning and involvement, offering their facilities for continued education when they are not otherwise in use. Programmes to bring in the community during school hours should be encouraged, such as offering work space in return for teaching skills on- or off-premises.
We reject both the notion that home educators should be regulated like schools, and the notion that home education should be considered in total isolation from other types of education. We also reject the idea that home educators should be regulated like external educational providers – like any other aspect of parenting, childhood education does not need to be regulated within families, and the fact that this specific task is usually outsourced shouldn’t change the basic trust we have in families to care for their members. Within the current system, families choose home education for a large variety of reasons, but increasingly more do so for failures of the school system to meet their children’s needs. Attempts to regulate home education as a way to combat this phenomenon penalise the victims of a broken system, disempowering them when they seek to create constructive solutions to the difficulties they face. Instead, those families should be viewed as a valuable source of information for understanding and rectifying the underlying issues in schools, and their decisions should be awarded the same respect given to families who home educate as a first choice. Policy makers need to keep in mind that however parents arrive at home education, they do so out of a deep investment in their children’s education and future, and there is no evidence to support the common assumption that a negative past experience in school has any impact at all on the quality of home education. In a future flexible access NES, full home education could become just one point on a continuous spectrum of different modes and measures of access to publicly funded education, providing learners, their families, their communities, and NES staff with the ability to tailor education to learners’ specific needs, goals, and circumstances.
To those unfamiliar with the home education community in the UK, it may seem surprising or strange that we have so much to say about the educational institutions which we avoid. The current reality, however, is that home educating communities across the UK have seen over the past few years an enormous influx of the children most appallingly let down by the current system. Many of us have gone through this process with our own children, removing them from schools which have badly failed them; a sizable minority of us have even left our jobs in education to home educate our children, not being able to continue to operate in such an oppressive system. Even those of us for whom home education has been an ideological choice from the very start cannot ignore the issues that have harmed so many children in our communities so badly. We are proud to be a safe haven for those children, and we are honoured to witness their journeys toward healing and learning, but we would much rather that home education’s very necessary function as a haven for vulnerable children would become a minor one, alongside its other roles as a place for community learning, educational experimentation, tolerance and diversity.
How Labour could support parents and children who choose to Home Educate
- Considering current home education culture in the UK, we strongly oppose regular monitoring of home educators. Monitoring shifts the focus away from learners’ goals and needs to arbitrary, external measurements, and creates a particular source of stress for families already marginalised because of their ethnicity, religion, class, disability, or educational approach. It should only be used in a limited way in situations where there is serious cause for concern.
- We oppose mandatory registration, but would support a voluntary registration scheme using non-essential incentives such as funding for extra educational resources. Home educated children should not be treated like violent offenders.
- We support the inclusion of relevant education questions in the census, as a minimally-invasive technique to determine the number and perhaps some other basic demographic information of home educators in the UK.
- Monitoring of any kind should only be carried out by comprehensively trained officers. This includes following up concerns of children not receiving a suitable education.
- Training for home education officers – and indeed,foranyone involved in legislating, policy making, or implementing rules around home education – must at the very least cover the law regarding home education, existing research into home education practice in the UK and worldwide, reasons different families chose this path, styles of home education – including autonomous education – and what to expect that they might look like in practice, available resources for families in the region, and awareness of mental health and SEN in children. This is essential, and attempts to begin legislation without this requirement will result in real and lasting harm to the most vulnerable among us.
- The NES should institute a clear and affordable complaint procedure and real consequences for officials who abuse their power to harass home educating families, an unfortunate reality today around the UK for which home educators have little recourse.
- As much as possible, national and local governments should aim to employ home educators and formerly home educated people for all levels of policy making and implementation concerning home education.
- Maintaining positive ongoing relationships with local home education communities should be mandatory for local authorities, and funding should be allocated for this purpose.
- Other service providers coming into regular contact with families, such as social workers and health visitors, should also receive proper training about home education. At the moment home educators are referred to social services at about double the rate of the general population, while those referrals are 3.5 – 5 times less likely to lead to a Child Protection Plan (11), reflecting societal bias against home education. Home educators report significant harassment by uninformed social workers, and even when investigation shows that there is no cause for concern, this can later carry over to further harassment by authorities because the family is “known to social services”.
- A home education entity within the DfE should be set up to deal with research, policy, and complaints. It should be staffed by people with significant experience of home education, either as home educators, as formerly home educated students, or as researchers (provided that a majority of people with diverse lived experience is maintained).
- In the 1960s, Labour invented the Open University, giving adults the chance to “home educate” themselves rather than go to a university. Today, we have the opportunity to set up an Open School service where home educated children could access modular online courses and take part in collective discussion groups / learning with children with the same interests and abilities across the country. This service should not be limited to home educated children, but we suggest that the home education community would be an enthusiastic and valuable development partner for a resource that could positively impact the education of all children in the UK.
- All children in the UK should have the opportunity to pursue their chosen qualifications. Home educated children (and indeed, all UK residents of any age) should have reasonable access to exams, apprenticeships, and work experience programs.
- Local authorities and the NES should work with home education communities to enable them to access community spaces and resources for free or affordable prices.
Home education is the most appropriate setting for some children
- Labour should recognise that for some children, home education is the most appropriate setting for a suitable education.
- Labour should make sure to provide additional support for those families who may not have chosen home education as a first choice, but do so to provide their children with the best education for their specific needs.
- Additional support services for children with SEN should be available regardless of educational setting.
- Home education is particularly well suited to children who are overwhelmed by the noise and activity in school, whether as a result of neurodiversity or as a reaction to trauma.
- Home education is a good solution for children who find the demands of school difficult because they struggle with anxiety or depression.
- An autonomous education approach in any context means that education is tailored by default, and is thus easily adaptable to different learning styles and needs, turning differences from a liability to an unremarkable fact.
- Training for social workers and SEN providers is essential. If officials are ignorant of what home education is and how it works, they will deprive some children of what could be the best educational strategy for them.
What can the schools and the NES learn from home education
- We strongly encourage funding large-scale research into home education, both in order to understand home education better, and to inform policy making for the whole of the NES. Because of its flexibility and adaptability, home education allows for a diverse space for exploration of educational alternatives that can be used to provide fresh ideas for slower-moving institutions. Research specifically into children who have left schools because of failures of the system can shine a light onto those problems, and illuminate which helpful strategies employed in home educating these children can be adopted into institutional context.
- Education and childcare should be decoupled in funding, regulation, and policy making, and families and learners should be able to access both flexibly.
- The NES should offer modular, non-coercive, flexible education that anyone of any age can access according to their needs, abilities, and goals.
- The NES should be built around learners’ needs, instead of trying to contort learners to comply with the system’s needs. This means educational and behavioral expectations should be based on current knowledge of child development; children should have ample opportunities for free, unstructured play and exploration; school timetables should facilitate healthy sleeping and eating schedules; and toilet access should never be restricted.
- The NES should foster healthy relationships and a nurturing environment. Students of all ages, and especially children, learn best when they are in a safe environment and have trusting relationships with the people they are learning from and with. This means small classrooms and good working conditions for staff; a less authoritarian ethos within schools; non-punitive behaviour correction methods; and awareness of mental health issues, early trauma, and attachment problems.
- Learning should be community-focused and community-embedded. This means drastically increasing funding for resources such as museums, libraries, adventure playgrounds and nature reserves; using schools as centres for community learning and involvement when not otherwise in use, as well as inviting the community in during school hours; significantly increasing opportunities for volunteering, work experience, apprenticeships and mentoring programs in the community, and offering those at earlier ages; plus offering a range of lifelong training opportunities for the whole community.
- The NES should provide quality education fit for the 21st century. This means that students should practice setting and pursuing their own goals at all stages of their education, and schools should primarily help pupils identify and pursue their goals and the skills and knowledge they need to achieve them; group work and cooperation should be heavily encouraged and rewarded; education should be lifelong, self-led, and modular; Neurodiversity should be celebrated, not just grudgingly accommodated; and all NES establishments should be built, stocked, and maintained with environmental awareness.
- All educational establishments should be democratically accountable to their community, and first and foremost to their learners – of all ages. Participation in active democracy from an early age will create active and involved citizens. Curriculums should not be dictated from above, testing should be functional and limited to later years, and results should never be used as a way to measure the performance of institutions or staff. Accountability should be kept as direct and as simple as possible. The essential measures of success should be a safe environment, free access to a wide range of resources, and fostering a culture that values learning.
- The ideal goal of all educational endeavours should be 100% success rate. Current testing and accountability structures often necessitate a certain rate of “losers” so that there can be “winners”. In a system that aims to help learners make and achieve their own, different goals instead of some arbitrary set of benchmarks, no one needs to lose for others to succeed.
1 Thomas, A. & Pattison, H. 2008 How Children Learn at Home. New York: Continuum
2 Ray, B., 2015. African American homeschool parents’ motivations for homeschooling and their Black children’s academic achievement. Journal of School Choice, 9(1), pp.71-96.
3 Ray, B.D., 2017. A systematic review of the empirical research on selected aspects of homeschooling as a school choice. Journal of School Choice, 11(4), pp.604-621.
4 Rothermel, P., 2004. Home-education: Comparison of home-and school-educated children on PIPS baseline assessments. journal of early childhood research, 2(3), pp.273-299.
5 Rothermel, P. ed., 2015. International perspectives on home education: Do we still need schools?. Springer.
6 Gray, P., 2013. Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.
7 Gray, P., 2016. Children’s natural ways of educating themselves still work: Even for the three Rs. In Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp. 67-93). Springer, Cham.
8 Greenberg, D., Sadofsky, M. and Lempka, J., 2005. The pursuit of happiness: The lives of Sudbury Valley alumni. The Sudbury Valley School.
9 Covell, K. and Howe, R.B., 2008. Rights, Respect and Responsibility: Final Report on the County of Hampshire Rights Education Initiative September 2008.
10 Hart, J., 2010 Rights Respecting Schools–the emerging evidence about impact and implications for teacher education. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 1-4 September 2010.
11 Charles-Warner, W., 2015. Home-education and the safeguarding myth: Analysing the facts behind the rhetoric.The Journal of Personalised Education Now, 22.