Homeschooling

This is a piece I wrote for the Axis Educational Trust:

A few weeks ago, I had the terrifying experience of appearing on Newsnight to talk about the government’s proposed changes to the A level system. In the “green room” (which is orange, and contains posters of previous Newsnight guests such as Simon Cowell), I had the chance to talk to Labour MP Barry Sheerman about homeschooling. It was a fascinating insight into how critics of homeschooling view its purposes.

Mr. Sheerman, who was Chair of the House of Common Education and Skills select committee from 2001 – 2007, was concerned that parents were using homeschooling as an opportunity to avoid educating them. He is not alone: the most common objections to homeschooling are those that claim that mainstream school helps to protect children from religiously over-zealous or physically abusive parents. Mr. Sheerman dismissed as fanciful my suggestion that educating one’s children is a natural inclination – and that parents who choose homeschooling have done so because they rate it as more effective than other available forms of schooling.

If that is the case, then today’s UK parents are somewhat exceptional. According to research by the historian Edwin G West, parents in the nineteenth century (before the advent of state schooling) were not just naturally inclined to educate their children; they were willing to pay for it too:

The major nineteenth century legislation, of course, came in 1870 when the Forster Act introduced government (public) schools for the first time.  Yet by 1869 most people in England and Wales were literate, most children were receiving schooling and most parents, working class included, were paying fees for it (West, 1970).

This historical evidence is supported by much of the contemporary evidence coming out of developing countries such as India. In these countries – again – the majority of poor parents are willing to pay for low-cost private schools for their children – in spite of, in many cases, the availability of government schooling.

Mr. Sheerman’s objection to homeschooling therefore poses an interesting question. If 21st century UK parents are not naturally inclined to educate their children – unlike their forebears, and unlike parents in developing countries – why is this? If MPs are arguing that without state provision, parents would not educate their children, is it not fair to conclude that 130 years of state-provided schooling has turned a natural parental urge into an un-cherished entitlement?