How home education is on the rise as parents opt to keep kids out of schools

Mum-of-four Jax Blunt explains the challenges, advantages and joys of teaching kids away from school and why more parents are choosing to do it

Numbers of children being educated at home in the UK roseby 40 per cent from 2014 and 2017 – around 48,000 according to latest figures. Children are withdrawn from school for many reasons including mental health issues, unmet special needs provision or avoiding exclusion. But alongside this is a growing movement of parents choosing to reject the mainstream school system and instead home educate – not parroting a school curriculum but taking a radically different approach to learning, growth, skills and knowledge, centred around the interests of their child. It involves considerable discipline, time management, creativity and commitment on the part of parents who choose to follow that path. Jax Blunt, who has home educated four children, explains its challenges, advantages and joys

In a way my decision to home educate my children was because I knew they wouldn’t get my experience of education. I went through mainstream schooling. I went to a little village primary school which had 100 kids, the teachers knew everybody, if it was a nice day we had lessons outside. There was no testing at primary level. I went to a private secondary school on an assisted-place scheme and did nine O-levels.

Now they have all these hoops to jump through, which seems to be getting worse every year. When my daughter was born in 2000 I looked at what was going on in education, and by the time she was three or four they were bringing in SATs, and I thought, no. We’ll do home education for the primary years, then maybe she’ll go to secondary school. But we just kept going. And that worked perfectly well.

‘Home schooling’ is an American term and tends to be what politicians and local authorities here use, which is not helpful. It makes people think you are following a school curriculum. You do get people who school at home and follow the national curriculum and do so successfully. But that is not what home education means.

It doesn’t need to be as regular and rigid and regimented as people think. You can cover something in a huge amount of depth in a short time. We will binge our way through something then not touch it for a couple of months. When there’s something on at a local attraction or local event we might go and be interested in whatever that was and do that for the next week, so we’ve done it for hours rather than a 40-minute lesson. They might decide that their interest is in scientific things (my younger daughter likes exploding things), and there’s lots of box kits – we used one that included a film canister rocket – that you can order.

What experienced home educators will say is you don’t have to do it all in one day and you don’t have to do everything that’s on the curriculum – that’s where people often fall down, they expect their children to tick the boxes that they see of school expectations at certain ages. Children don’t grow at the same rate, why would you expect them to learn at the same rate? They just don’t.

I have now home educated all four of my children at one time or another. The younger two, who are six and eight, have never been to school at all. My oldest, who is now 18, chose to go to school at the local academy when she was 15 – it was her choice and I supported her. She decided she might possibly want to go to university, found out what qualifications she would need and worked back from there. The school bent over backwards to set her up, gave her a compressed timetable to do five GCSEs and moved her up a set when they recognised what she was achieving and had a chance to push her grades up. She would do extra self-directed study every day. It was the easiest way for her to get the grades she needed.

It does require a level of dedication from the parent, particularly when the children are younger

She found some aspects ridiculous, like the focus on having your shirt tucked in or wearing a blazer even in boiling sun. She wondered what’s that got to do with learning maths or English. And she found kids messing about in class frustrating.

My son, who is now 15, did things differently. He came out of Montessori [schools with an education methodology based on a philosophy of child-centred education] when he was six and was home educated after that. A local college was offering outreach for home-educated kids to do maths and English from age 14, and that was perfect for him.

It’s an absolute headache finding out what you can do to sit exams in your area as an external candidate, and how to do it. Some GCSEs you can do as an external candidate – that’s increasing because they have reduced the coursework for GCSEs, so it should be possible to access them from outside the system. But you have to find an exam centre that will take you on. If the subject has coursework you have to do an iGCSE, then you can face the problem of a college or university asking if that is a real qualification (it is). Sitting exams as a private candidate is expensive.

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In the 15 years I have been doing it, home education has changed hugely. Digital technology has made it much easier to network: at the beginning a paper newsletter with names and addresses listed was posted out. Now Facebook is the main way people keep in touch, and email, there are still Yahoo! groups too. We share resources, ideas. And it’s a way to just have friends to talk to – parents who home educate can be isolated and Facebook is the ‘school gate’ for us.

My youngest two have access to apps for English, Maths and Science, including Skoolbo and DoodleMaths, and I buy in other resources. I share bargains through my blog, and there are also groups that come together through Facebook to get group discounts on various educational activities. We get very resourceful at finding second-hand resources and sharing things around, and the public library is your friend. There are online courses of varying prices and varying quality.

It does require a level of dedication from the parent, particularly when the children are younger. Co-ordinating everything can be quite a challenge when you have got four children and they’re doing different things – swimming, Scouts, soft-play sessions all at different times. I have a wipe board for writing down who’s where when, who’s driving or can we walk. The older children help, it really is a team effort. It makes your family come together.

At Westminster a massive consultation has just ended which is looking at guidelines for local authorities in England and home educators – we are waiting for the government response. And Lord Soley has introduced a Private Members’ Bill (now progressed from the Lords and awaiting a second reading in the Commons) which wants compulsory registration and annual inspections. I can’t see how this will all be carried out with no extra cost to the local authorities. There are hugely positive things that they could do which would be more cost efficient.

One of the reasons people are reluctant to engage with authorities is the bureaucratic headache when you don’t get anything out of it. If local authorities were saying ‘When your child hits 14 we will guarantee access to GCSE Maths and English’ there would be a lot more people who wouldn’t mind being in touch with them.

But at the moment, although there are good examples around the country, many local authorities can’t even tell you which schools in the area will take private candidates for exams – every family has to ring every school individually to ask. There is no one exam centre that children can sit the exams at. That is one of the biggest challenges.

The biggest benefits are being able to personalise education to your child, being able to follow your child’s interests, being able to specialise at a younger age, being able to become an expert in whatever they want to do. That’s why we do it, because we can fit it to our children.