Are schools just for preparing kids for a corporate world, and should home education be the norm in a future, non-corporate society?
There was a time when it was much easier for me to stumble into an argument over the choice to home educate than almost any other subject. People who would hesitate to call me a fool for being an anarchist or a vegetarian would wade in with all kinds of no doubt well-meaning half thought through and ill-founded stuff about not putting my kids in school.
I have the sense that times have changed, that there is a wider acceptance of the idea that parents might want something other than school for their kids.
It’s understandable that this is a sensitive subject. Parents want to do the best thing for their kids and it’s hard coming across folks who’ve made different choices to yours and are convinced that their kids are all the happier for it. That cuts both ways of course, and those in the majority have behind them a vast weight of received wisdom about the benefits of schooling. It is no exaggeration to say that full-time schooling, or what is commonly called “education” is widely seen as one of the pillars of our “advanced” society, a hallmark of progress.
Home educators are a diverse bunch these days. Not only that, but there are as many approaches to home education as there are families involved in it. Some home schooling is much like school, but at home, and at the other end of the spectrum there is complete unschooling with nothing like recognisable lessons or syllabuses in sight.
Variations in method reflect the diversity of reasons why people take or keep their kids out of schools. Some parents, a tiny minority in my experience, want to “hothouse” their little and not so little ones; some have religious reasons for steering clear of state schools; some have children who have suffered bullying or who haven’t coped with the approach that schools take to learning; and still others simply do not subscribe to the idea that the school classroom is the best place for young people to be.
Perhaps the best known critic of schooling is Ivan Illich who wrote the seminal Deschooling Society (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deschooling_Society) , but there have been many other critics of schooling going back as far as William Morris and including the co-founder of Permaculture David Holmgren.
Broadly speaking then, if we are to seriously consider home education, we need to question common assumptions about learning, about what it is for, and how it is best achieved. This stuff only seems obvious if we fail to examine our working assumptions.
We could turn this around. I could refuse any longer to engage with people who look at me doubtfully and demand why my kids have never been to school. I could say to them instead, well, why have your kids been sent to school?
Why do we school?
Here is a home education hand grenade for you. Catch!
School is not primarily about learning academic skills, literacy or numeracy. School is primarily about discipline. School is about instilling in our children the dominant ideology of our times; it is about the reproduction of the society we live in, a society being smashed on the rocks of greed, individualism and consumption.
If the suggestion that all those teachers, professionals we are taught to admire from our earliest days, are actually a sort of priesthood, ideological servants of the status quo, is not enough for you, then how about this: schools are a child-minding service for workers so that adults can all work long hours whilst strangers take care of the next generation. In entirely artificial peer groups of kids of the same age, our children learn the habits of the crowd, of mass society, on one level or another, of the factory.
Seen in this light, the “opportunities” that in common discourse are most often associated with schooling amount to willingly preparing our kids to fit as well as they can into a machine that is killing the Earth and destroying our communities.
This can easily be seen as something of an extreme position, but let’s look at why someone like David Holmgren might be in favour of home education. What might be the basic social unit of a “permanent culture”? If it is the multi-generational household or family as a building block of a village, as part of a world of a million villages, then schools as we know them begin to make less sense.
Do we want to teach our children to look outside of the family and “the village” for the satisfaction of their long term needs, or does our future lie nearer to our own hearths and homes?
The really interesting aspect of this subject is how it cuts so close to very widely held assumptions about progress and mobility, social and geographical.
Well, I wouldn’t want for one minute to suggest that all home educators feel the same way or think the same things, but home education by definition, whatever the kids are doing when they’re not at school, brings the focus back from a life mediated by the state and its appointed officers, to one which is about family and friends, about grassroots organisations and community building.
These days if you can even make the choice to home educate you can consider yourself lucky. In some countries it’s not legal. In Germany the right of the state to try to stop home education rests on a law which dates back to 1938 when Hitler was in power in that country. In the UK, for now, the law is much more liberal, which is not to say that there are not politicians, mostly of the centre left, who are opposed to home education.
Home education is not an easy choice though. Most families manage to scrape by with two incomes. Home education effectively rules out both mum and dad having full time jobs in usual working hours. Most home educators make the choice to have a lower income than they might otherwise, and the state in no way financially supports the decision to home educate. Contemporary society being what it is, there may well be hundreds of thousands of families interested in home education but unable to do it because of money and long working hours.
Home education can be seen as prefiguring a society in which we would all have more time for our children; in which lifelong learning would be seen as the norm in place of seeing youth as a time for high pressure schooling in preparation for the relentless challenges of the employment market. Learning in a tightly knit community of the future might involve extended families, neighbours and friends; it would almost certainly involve the transmission of crafts and knowledge organically. Schools could then be buildings which would act as free access community resources for all ages, and teachers might only ever have to teach rooms full of people who had chosen to be there, who were under no compulsion whatsoever.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1AnnieV April 7th, 2015
Excellent article. I wasn’t home schooled, but did have an unconventional education, so was never indoctrinated into the System. The free school I attended placed emphasis on the development of practical skills, imagination, character, curiosity and living in community. I have friends who are home schooling and their kids are mentally open, emotionally literate and have an innate curiosity about the world. They may well grow up into misfits – in a positive sense – and I hope they do.
2Dave Darby April 8th, 2015
‘misfits – in a positive sense’ – love it – all the best people are.
3Andrew Rollinson April 8th, 2015
I would have dearly loved to have home schooled my two children. Finance was the reason that we didn’t. I didn’t send them to nursery, and I remember being stopped by a truant inspector who when I told them that my children were not yet of legal school age and would not be going to nursery, shook their head and said “poor, poor children”.
I think that the interesting things about this article is when it touches on the state’s motives for schooling at present. There is lots more to explore here. I have also come to the conclusion that the system just wants drones who are taught to a basic level, and it seemingly just wants drones who will conform without question to parliamentary pressures to teach them. What the government has done to state school teachers has similarities (though less severe) to the pre-planned approach Thatcher took with the miners. In the teacher’s case: impose unpleasant changes which will cause the decent teachers to leave and at the same time set up £20,000 grants to tempt the out of work graduates to fill the void. Result is many new recruits financially trapped in a job that they hate.
Another interesting thing is the history of how Thatcher’s government twisted the findings of the Warnock report, which led to the closure of special schools. Instead of the recommended “give these children the same level of education”, the government took this as an opportunity to close all these expensive buildings and integrate these children into mainstream classes.
4Beth Baker April 8th, 2015
Great article, summarising many different angles at once! So many points you make are mirrored in a blog series I’ve been sharing recently here: http://www.bethbaker.co.uk/why-we-home-educate So these must be some key points!!
5Peter Richardson April 10th, 2015
I agree with almost every word of this, though my daughter attends a Steiner-Waldorf school. Yes, most schools are largely state-run child-minding services, as most teachers would tell you. Yes, state education’s primary goal is fitting children for their working lives as passive consumer-employees, continuing our current system of dysfunctional society and wanton use of finite natural resources, etc.
So I fully support home-educators, as one of our best hopes of turning out new adults who will be more original and more likely to shake up the system for the better.
I have a friend who is a headteacher of a state primary school. What sort of education does he choose for his son? Home-ed, and being part of a small democratic education project where about ten children play and learn in a yurt in a field next to a wood. Their learning is self-directed… there is no teacher, only a facilitator/guide who helps the kids do the activities that they’ve decided on.
Back to Steiner-Waldorf…. why did we choose that rather than home-ed or yurt-ed? All three have similar philosophies – putting the development of the child ahead of fitting them into society’s mould. Because the Steiner school works on a larger scale than home ed, it can provide wider, richer, deeper opportunities for learning and fun than most families can on their own. The children come out as renaissance people – very musical, experienced in every craft from knitting to iron smelting, literate and numerate and articulate. Sadly there are big issues about access, because few Steiner schools in the UK are state-funded (unlike Germany, which does state-fund them), but I just thought I’d put in a word for Steiner-Waldorf in this discussion.
6Lorraine April 10th, 2015
The problem with ANY school, including Steiner-Waldorf, is that it is only ever as good as its teachers and its philosophies. I too thought Steiner was the answer and we began that route when our first child was 3.5yo. I was atucally horrified at the levels of control and coercion especially at Kindergarten level. The only true way to know that your child’s head is not being filled with random rules and regulations which they must follow no matter what, is to Home Educate. Probably the closest thing to the freedom children experience at home is the Democratic Free schools of which there are very few and so far all fee paying as the State will not fund in the UK.
7Peter Richardson April 10th, 2015
You are quite right, how well it works depends on the vibes of the particular school or kindergarten and the personality of the teacher and the child. Not every Steiner-Waldorf setting is brilliant for every child. But the same can probably be said of home-ed – how well it works in any particular case depends on the vibes of the home and the personalities of the parent and child. I know of lots of impressive and happy home-ed kids, lots of impressive and happy Steiner-Waldorf children, and, it must be said, some children who are happy in their conventional state schools.
8Dave Darby April 10th, 2015
I think a big problem is that there is a lot of peer pressure in state schools to consume corporate brands. Corporations know how to market cool, and it’s important to kids to appear cool. First they have to eat at McDonalds and drink Coke, then they have to have the corporate trainers, clothes, bag, phone, kit, sunglasses then car, beer, credit card, mortgage, job. It’s really difficult to avoid that peer pressure unless you opt out. You don’t want your kid to be bullied or rejected, so most parents give in. Hell, most parents don’t care – they went through the same system.
9thriftwizard May 1st, 2015
I was “bounced” reluctantly into home-educating my two daughters by one of them having undiagnosed special needs. And if I’d known twenty years ago what I know now, none of my children would ever have gone to school. All three boys chose to remain within the State school system; one has done very “well” and recently graduated with a first-class degree from a Russell Group university. And he’s the one I am most worried about… burdened for life with a debt bigger than our mortgage ever was, he’s “qualified” to the hilt but hardly knows how to tie his own shoelaces! Whereas his home-ed twin sister holds down a PT job, runs her own online & weekend business and also writes for publication.
Youngest daughter was horrified to find out recently that one of her brothers had no idea of the difference between two major Islamic sects, or even that there were any different sects. And he has bits of paper that say he’s studied RE & done it well, and she’s not even interested in it, in an academic sense; just followed up a news story, in depth.
Never mind that it’s long ago stopped doing what it says on the tin, if it ever did; the people suffering worst under our current system are actually the teachers. None of my teaching friends have reached honourable retirement; they have all crashed & burnt, and blamed themselves. Yet still they continue to Believe… it’s easier for them to think that they themselves are worthless & useless than that the system they have given their lives to serve may actually not be the beneficent entity that they’ve always believed it to be.
10Dave Darby May 1st, 2015
Very well put