Would your child do better learning at home?

Published by Nathalie Bonney on 16 March 2011.
Last updated on 01 June 2011

ABC blocks

Every day Juliana, nearly five, gets up and doesn't get ready for school. No uniform to put on, no packed lunch to pick up, and no scrunched-up school forms to fish out of her schoolbag for mum or dad to sign.

Instead, after breakfast with her parents and two-year-old sister Gabriella, Juliana makes the considerably shorter walk out to the back garden to a wooden cabin or 'schoolhouse' - as her mum, Lynsey, 34, calls it.

The stereotype of a home-educated family is usually that of hemp-loving hippies or socially awkward parents going against the grain. But it's a growing trend among all sorts of people.

While there are just 20,000 home educating families registered with the local authorities, Alan Thomas, fellow of the Institute of Education, suspects the real figure is now closer to 40,000. "This is a lot compared with 10 years ago, when there were only between 5,000 and 6,000," he says.

"The advantage of home education is that you're able to educate according to ability rather than the age," says Lynsey, who has been home educating Juliana for just over a year.

Teaching values

But for both Lynsey and her husband, Fabian, the main reason for deciding to home educate was a matter of faith. As committed Christians, the couple wanted to ensure their daughters were taught these values.

However, religious belief is only one of the reasons why parents decide to take their children out of school; for others it may be that their child is being bullied or because they have behavioural issues, special educational needs or other health issues that make mainstream schooling a challenge.

Parents with exceptionally bright children may also feel that the confines of a state school hinder their child's progress, and educating them at home is considerably cheaper than the option of a private school, where the average fee is £3,480 a term, according to privateschools.co.uk - amounting to an alarming £175,000 for 13 years of study (based on a presumed inflation rate of 3.5%).

Taking your child out of school is also surprisingly easy: the Education Act stipulates that children of compulsory school age must receive an efficient education "either by attendance at a school or otherwise".

With home education counting as an 'otherwise', all you need do is inform the school your child will no longer be attending and that you've made alternative arrangements.

Each local authority has a home education representative who will visit families on an annual basis to ensure education is taking place, although they won't offer tips or advice on teaching methods. Parents have the right to refuse these visits.

Money matters

The drawback, however, is that you won't receive any financial assistance from your local authority because choosing to home educate is in essence the same as choosing to send your kids to a private school: you are rejecting the state option. 

This fact often leads to another misconception - that home schooling is a purely middle-class phenomenon, only taken up by well-off parents. In fact, close to half (42%) of home-educating families earn less than the national average wage, according to Mike Fortune-Wood, founder of Home Education UK.

Janet Ford, 51, and her late husband, Phil, managed to home educate their two children, Chris, now 25, and Meri, 14, on an income of just £15,000.

Phil was a teacher who took early retirement for health reasons, and the couple made the most of his knowledge, as well as using books and resources from charity shops and local libraries.

Katie Campbell, 47, who educates her son Ben at home because of health issues, also makes use of free or cheap resources to keep costs down.

"There are lots of events organised by museums, art galleries, English Heritage and local councils during the school holidays which are often free. And of course there's the internet, public libraries, YouTube and TV - all of which have a wealth of either free or cheap 'educational' resources," she says.

The different learning style of home educating means you don't have to spend a fortune on teaching materials. Dr Alan Thomas, fellow at the Institute of Education, explains: "Babies learn languages from their parents informally - we don't impose the language on them, they just pick it up. It's the same with learning at home."

Home schooling styles

A former teacher, Thomas argues that until the age of 14 children can learn more than adequately at home.

Janet's son Chris, for example, who is now 25 and has a PhD in dermatology, didn't learn to write properly until he was 12. She says: "We didn't do lessons; it was 24-hour learning."

In much the same way that schools use different teaching methods, there's a great difference in styles of home education.

Morag Gaherty, 45, took her two sons, Bob and Tom, out of state school for a year in 2009. "I'm not the most maternal mum in the world so people laughed when they heard I was taking the kids out of school, but I thought we could do better," she says.

Morag admits to taking an unstructured approach, with late mornings and Bob teaching himself to play chess on his Nintendo DS. The family also went on a three-month tour around Europe in a mobile home.

But it's possible to apply a more structured approach by using distance-learning programmes: pupils can take part in online interactive lessons or take correspondence courses. The Open University also offers free junior courses for under-16s, although you have to apply for a course and admission is not guaranteed.

Some families also choose to use tutors when their children are approaching exam age.

The exam challenge

For most parents, exams are an inevitable cost, as well as a logistical challenge. Invigilating a GCSE examination in the living room is not allowed, so children have to register with a nearby exam centre.

In some cases, this will be a college, but independent private schools are generally the easiest option. This is because state schools tend to take the standard GCSE, which includes coursework.

New rules on coursework and the necessity for strict monitoring are usually incompatible with children educated out of school, whereas IGCSEs (the I stands for international) have no coursework element so are better suited to individual candidates.

Although some state schools use IGCSEs, it's mainly the province of private schools.

The cost of exams can obviously be a problem. "Entry fees vary between £30 and £115 per exam, depending on the exam centre," says Shirley Oliver, who educates her four children, aged between nine and 15, at home.

Shirley also warns that home schooling can be especially tiring in the build-up to exams. "I mark their practice questions, and if I find weak areas, I study the textbook quickly to find out where they went wrong, then go over it with them," she says.

For many parents, that would be reason enough to leave education to the teachers.

Morag, for example, decided to send her sons back to school after a year. "I love them dearly, but it's hard spending all that time together," she admits.

The other criticism typically levelled at home educators is that it's socially limiting and potentially isolating for children. School, after all, is about more than algebra and assemblies. However, home-educating parents seem to go out of their way to involve their children in hobbies, activities and groups to ensure they're interacting with other children.

Whether home schooling is for you will depend on your personal preferences. However, if you don't think the state system is good enough but can't afford whopping private school fees, teaching your kids at home could be an option worth considering.

The cost: what do you need to factor in?

• Resources: There are plenty of free resources available online and through home education groups, while an hour's tutoring will cost approximately £40. Distance learning software will potentially cost a few thousand pounds.

• Exams: In most cases these will cost you. It's rare for a state school to allow your child to sit exams there, so you will need to find an independent exam centre or school that will. This can cost £115 per subject.

• Home education meetings: These are beneficial for swapping ideas. Depending on the local home education group, expect to pay a small fee (around £5) towards the running costs of the meetings.

• Extra-curricular activities: Sports or music lessons, for example, take on extra importance as they provide an opportunity for your child to interact with others. The costs vary hugely depending on the activity.

"Home educating is really child-centred"

In 2008 Lucy Moreton, 42, together with her husband, Gregory, decided to home educate their daughter Rowan, now aged 11. Over two years later and the family from Surrey haven't looked back.

"There were two reasons for taking Rowan out of school: she was being bullied and she was extremely bright. It was actually the headmistress of the school we were planning to move Rowan to who suggested home educating her for a couple of months until the start of the next school year.

"After we started, though, we couldn't see any reason for Rowan to go back to school. As a barrister I can work from home a lot, and when I'm in court Gregory (who's an artist) can cover," says Lucy.

"Home educating is so child-centred: Rowan is free to pursue her interests. A large part of her learning is through distance-learning programmes. A great online resource is futureschool.com/uk - she can watch live lessons and participate with the use of a webcam.

"We also take advantage of loads of free resources like the BBC bitesize series, exam board test papers and open university courses.

"When Rowan was at school she was there from 8am to 5pm, and as she did show jumping, she couldn't do any after-school activities, but now her weeks are full of different things - from rock climbing to English GCSE book club, science club and fencing. She sees more kids now and mixes with children of all different ages."

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