Interview with Dr Alan Thomas

Homeschooling in the UK

Dr Alan Thomas

Dr Alan Thomas is a developmental psychologist. He has been a teacher at all levels, from primary school through to university in the UK, Holland, Spain and Australia. For the last 12 years he has been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, researching home education, especially informal/autonomous/unschooling/natural learning. He has written three books, the most recent one How Children Learn at Home jointly with Harriet Pattison. Altogether he has worked with nearly 200 families in the UK, Australia and Ireland.

Dr Alan Thomson submitted evidence about the effectiveness of autonomous home education during the Badman Review of 2009.

Axis: Why do parents choose to homeschool their child?

Dr Alan Thomas: It is impossible to give an exact reason. For some parents homes education is a last resort, especially if a child is bullied at school. There may also be a more general dissatisfaction with mainstream provision. There are also parents who have children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) who feel they will be able to provide a more suitable education than local schools.
But more parents are choosing home education as a positive option before their child starts school. In many cases, parents are teaching their 3 and 4 year old children at home before they start school. They see that the child is making good progress and simply don’t think the child will make any more progress by going to a primary school.
My feeling is that 20 years ago, most people wouldn’t have known that homeschooling was an option. Now, however, there is a growing awareness of homeschooling as a possibility and more parents are taking it up.

Axis: What is the impact of home education on children?

Dr Alan Thomas: Many of the anti-homeschooling arguments revolve around the idea that pupils may be harmed by homeschooling due to lower standards of education and exposure only to their parents’ worldview, particularly in the case of religious fundamentalism. There is also concern that homeschooled pupils will lack social skills because they have far less interaction with their peer group.
These are not very persuasive arguments: first of all, if a child has parents who are fundamentalist in some way, they will try to impose this view on their children whatever type of education they receive. Second, there is no reason that just because a child goes to school, he or she automatically develops social skills. There are myriad possibilities for homeschooled children to interact with other children outside of a school context. In a sense, it would be up to the parents to take responsibility for giving their children opportunities to develop socially.
In terms of actual outcomes, it is impossible to gauge the exact impact of homeschooling. Without doubt, it is a messy system and there is no formal monitoring. Homeschooling legislation has not been developed from scratch and so it is somewhat piecemeal. Although there are no hard figures, from my research, up to about the age of 14, home education is a viable alternative for nearly all families. I can say this because most children opt into formal education at some stage without difficulty, either in school or further education.

Axis: How is it proven that homeschooled children are receiving an education which is ‘suitable’, ‘efficient’ and ‘full-time’, as required by the 1996 Education Act?

 Dr Alan Thomas: Again, this is a difficult question to answer because there are very few statistics surrounding home education. It’s also difficult because of the difference in attitude between homeschoolers and the government. When the government wants information on homeschooling, they will consult senior educationalists who will want to see the things that are happening at schools happening in homes: a structured timetable, designated breaks, a detailed curriculum and so on. However, these things aren’t necessarily needed or appropriate for homeschooled children. In fact, if homeschooling were required to be exactly the same as school, there would be little point in it.
In terms of homeschooling, it may be better to look at the question from the other direction: rather than checking to see what parents might get wrong, look at the kind of parents that opt to homeschool. It is a big commitment in terms of time and energy and, in most cases, represents a serious dedication to educating a child or children in terms of skills and the culture that surrounds them.
In essence, the 1996 Education Act is very vague and does not give much guidance to local authorities or the government. However, government has been fairly cautious in extending its reach into homeschooling because there is definitely a libertarian streak in many homeschooling parents who would resent the interference.

Axis: What kind of system would ensure that information about the number and characteristics of home-schooled pupils is easily accessible so that issues related to pupils’ well-being and academic progress could be monitored?

Dr Alan Thomas: Currently, there is no requirement for parents to notify the Local Authority that they are home educating, only if they are withdrawing their child from school. For this reason, there is very little formal data about how many children are homeschooled, their educational attainment, and their life outcomes.
Speaking personally, I think it would be a good idea for parents who want to homeschool to inform their local authority, just to keep track of numbers and to ensure that an education is taking place. However, I don’t think sending inspectors to monitor homeschooled children would be helpful. As I said before, most though not all educational monitors, will generally expect to see a school environment transplanted into the home; this was certainly the thrust of a recent government report on home education. For most parents such expectations would not be appropriate because they have developed educational approaches which are very different from school, much more informal for example. In other countries where there has been recent legislation, the different approaches to home education have been recognised, in Ireland for example.

What are these different approaches?  Well, many parents when they start out try to emulate school but find that school methods, while appropriate in the classroom, do not make much sense at home and adapt methods that suit their children. At one extreme, home education is very much like school. At the other extreme it is simply an extension of the way that all children learn in the early years, holistically, following their interests, without any planned teaching or curriculum. The majority settle somewhere in between.

In terms of educational results, my general feeling would be that home educating parents would be quite averse to being obliged to enter their children for statutory tests. In particular, I suspect they would generally find things like the Key Stages quite trite. A major benefit of homeschooling is that it allows children to learn at their own pace – whether faster or slower than average – and Key Stage tests would be a fairly inappropriate judge of its success. That said, the vast majority of homeschooling parents acknowledge that the purpose of education is for their children to be able to make their way in the world. Homeschooled pupils are also, far more often than not, keen to sit GCSEs and A levels because they understand the importance of having recognised qualifications in terms of getting on in life. As I said earlier, in my experience, children tend to re-enter mainstream education from a homeschooling environment at around 14 and are not at any educational disadvantage.

Axis: If homeschooling was illegal in the UK, but there was a move to legalise it, what legislation would be put in place and how would it differ from the current UK laws controlling homeschooling?

Dr Alan Thomas: It would surprise me, if the government were introducing homeschooling from scratch, if they did not make it mandatory for parents to tell local authorities that they were opting out.
Otherwise, it would very much depend on the government in question and their reasons for legalising homeschooling. The two places where home education schooling have recently undergone legislation are Ireland and Tasmania. In both instances, mandatory registration and monitoring have been introduced.  However, in both, a great deal of flexibility with regard to the type of education children receive is included in the monitoring process and home education inspectors are specifically trained for the purpose.
What’s good about the Irish model is that it does include all models of education rather than simply trying to transplant the school environment into the home. Certainly, some parents do homeschool in quite a formal way with structured days and lesson plans. Others, however, are much more informal and holistic, letting their children follow their interests and learn for themselves.