For many families – perhaps most – the great home-schooling experiment we involuntarily joined in these past 16 months came at rather a cost. Ask most parents how they found it, and they’ll hardly know where to start. The chaotic Zoom lessons? The reams of work to print out, make sense of, then force our dejected children to complete? The dreaded fronted adverbials and the constant need for bribery? The impossibility of juggling it all with our jobs? Or the point where we all gave up and turned on Netflix?
Each time schools reopened, most of us found ourselves crying hot tears of relief. But not everyone. A significant minority of families so enjoyed their foray into home education they decided to stick with it long-term. Local authorities reported a 38 per cent rise in the number of children being electively home-educated when the annual school census was recorded on October 1, last year. More than 75,000 children were being taught at home, an increase of around 20,800 on the previous year.
But what has become of the pupils who never returned? This week, the chief inspector of Ofsted warned the rise in homeschooling could “seriously derail” catch-up efforts, and that not every parent was in fact “equipped” to be a teacher. Amanda Spielman said a disproportionate number of the children who have not returned to school following lockdown have some kind of problem or need.
Headteachers have attributed the rise in the number of parents pulling their children out of school to their anxiety about Covid-19. But this isn’t the sole motivation.
Lydia Underwood’s children are among those who haven’t returned to the classroom since the first national lockdown. “Some found remote learning a nightmarish juggling act,” says the 42-year-old mother-of-two from Devon.
“For us, though, it was eye-opening in terms of the curriculum content and left us wondering if we could do it better ourselves. We found ourselves scratching our heads over the emphasis on grammar, spelling and maths at the expense of the arts, language and music – so beloved by independent schools but being systematically stripped from state schools.”
She and her husband Chris, 43, decided, along with their 10-year-old and seven-year-old, to continue with home education while running their holiday business.
“Through remote learning, we have been able to connect with teacher’s resources, accessible to any parent willing to subscribe to multiple apps and websites, adding to our confidence,” she says. “None of which would have made any difference had our children wanted to return to school, but the opposite was true. The youngest had hysterics when we drove past the closed gates and the eldest was so much happier away from the stresses of peer pressure and friendship issues. Facing a rebellion, we withdrew them from school to electively home educate.”
Since then, she says, her children have been thriving.
Danusia Malina-Derben, a single mother from Somerset in her mid-40s, also decided to continue home-educating her eight-year-old triplets after lockdown as she felt she could cater to their needs better than their school could. “Lots of parents got to know their children’s educational needs really well over this past year,” she says.
“For some it became obvious that their children thrive better at home, especially if they’ve additional needs. In fact some people realised their children require support that’s not possible in schools and/or hard to accomplish.”
Malina-Derben says lockdown provided an opportunity for her to see up close how one of her children was struggling with reading. A private assessment some months later showed them to be profoundly dyslexic.
“The school could offer one hour a week of support,” she says. “They went back to school for a few days and I decided to homeschool for good.”
Last September, a study of 3,000 heads and teachers in 2,200 schools by the National Foundation for Educational Research found the majority of children had fallen three months behind after missing classes and schoolwork during the first lockdown. The equivalent of one child in every class was said to be six months behind because of the pandemic, with boys faring worse than girls.
But Malina-Derben, who is founder of School for Mothers, author of NOISE: A Manifesto Modernising Motherhood and is juggling home-education with her job as a boardroom consultant, believes that removing her children from school has had the opposite effect. “From being viewed as likely unable to read, my child is now engaged with reading and is coming on really well, not feeling disheartened and instead is declaring themself clever, and is ever so happy.”
One of the charges most often levelled at home-educating families is not, however, related to academic performance but rather the children’s ability to socialise with peers. When do they get to learn those key social skills that naturally come from being thrown together with large numbers of other children five days a week?
Underwood acknowledges that socialisation is the aspect many parents focus on when they think about home education.
Yet for her children, the social side of school was “a double-edged sword.” Instead of navigating friendship issues in the playground, they now mix happily at various groups they attend, such as Forest School and Beach School. Here they can socialise “for a couple of hours without the intensity that comes with seeing the same children day in, day out,” says Underwood.
“Of course most of these groups aren’t free and cost is a downside. There’s no financial support, and even the GCSEs we want our children to take will be paid for by us.”
The financial cost is not the only downside though, according to some educationalists. Amandeep Gill, founder of Boost Education Charged Up Ltd, points out that home-educated children are missing out on a raft of experiences and benefits, from the chance to perform in a school play, compete in a school chess tournament or go on a school trip, to the competitive element of striving to keep up with or outperform your peers.
“The training teachers have gone through is tailored to different learning needs,” he says. “[Home-educated children] are at home in the same space every day, without playground time or moving between different classrooms. It’s harder to do things like science experiments and there’s a limitation on what parents can teach their child. They might have a PhD in astrophysics but will they really be equipped for history or art?”
For secondary school-age pupils, this could become even more of an issue, Gill suggests, as by this stage each teacher is trained in a specific subject. They also know exactly what their pupils need to get through their various exams.
Underwood frames it as a highly personal choice. “I always say home education isn’t for everyone. [But] maybe we also need to say that neither is school – at least not in its current form. Schools can only provide one type of education at once and fit as many kids as they can into the round hole it provides.”
Her children, meanwhile, are “working at their own pace, through the prism of their own interests and passions,” without being left behind or held back. “Neither they, nor us,” she says, “are contemplating a return to school.”