How do ordinary people see home education?

We have all known individuals with really weird hobbies who get a little bit irritable when you display complete ignorance of their pet subject. I remember working with a guy who could hardly control his annoyance when I revealed that I thought that Stephenson's Rocket was the first steam locomotive in the world! Home education is perhaps a bit more than a mere hobby, but the principle is very much the same. Home educators are constantly surprised and often a little irate to find how little others know about their passion. Witness the reaction when those commenting on online newspapers say something inaccurate about home education. Home educators are usually ready to set them straight, often in the sharpest manner!

When I first started home educating back in the nineties, it was not at all uncommon to come across people who thought that it was actually illegal not to send your kid to school. Things have changed a little since then, to the extent that most people now seem to have heard of home education and know that it happens. They are aware that parents do not have to send their kids to school, but that is often the limit of their knowledge. Since she began college last September, my daughter has been meeting quite a few people, certainly more than she did when she was studying at home for IGCSEs. She is frequently amazed at how little those she meets actually know about home education in this country. This summer she has studied at a summer school at Oxford University, been an intern at Westminster working for a Tory MP and also been pretty active in Ed Balls' leadership campaign. The subject of home education has come up a fair bit, as discussions turn to where people went to school and so on. We are not talking here about Sun readers but among others; three new MPs, a lecturer at Oxford, a peer and various other political and academic types. Not one of these people knew anything at all about home education, beyond the fact that some parents did it.

The immediate reaction among people to whom my daughter has talked in the last month or so has been to ask questions such as: 'Surely you have to ask permission?', 'Do you mean nobody checks up on the children?' and ' How does anybody know if the children are learning anything?' I have noticed the same reaction from most other people not connected with home education, especially parents. Despite all the Bubble Picnics and so on, the first awareness that many people have of home education is when they read about Khyra Ishaq or the Edinburgh case. Failing that, it may be when they hear of a home educated girl who goes to Oxford at fifteen and then becomes a prostitute! Very rare for an ordinary, successful person to come out as having been home educated. The result is that many people think that there is something wrong about home education, something which needs to be checked up on, cracked down upon, or closely regulated.

Whether it is a sensible educational method or not, hearing about autonomous education often makes people think that home education needs to be reined in. My wife has recently started riding with a local vet who did not know that our youngest daughter had been home educated. She told my wife about some children she knew about who were home educated. One is eleven and the other thirteen and apparently neither can read or write. From what she said, I gather that they are being autonomously home educated. The problem is that this woman felt very strongly that something should be done about these children and could not understand why the local authority had taken no action. Before anybody makes any angry comments here, I am just reporting what the reaction was of an ordinary, easygoing and liberal professional woman to encountering this type of education.

I shall tomorrow be looking at the question of illiteracy rates, but for now it is enough to remark that this is a very sensitive subject. Figures are regularly published which show that many eleven year-olds are leaving primary school unable to read and write fluently. All except a handful of home educators find this worrying. For the average citizen, hearing of a thirteen year-old unable to read and write as a direct consequence of never being sent to school sets the alarm bells ringing. They feel that when parents are in a position that they can simply, as they see it, neglect a child's education so shamefully, that something must be done.

I rather suspect that most parents in this country probably feel like this. There may well be a bit of jealousy mixed up with it; after all, their own kids are tested to death, why should other people get away with just letting their kids relax all day or play in the countryside? Be that as it may, it is worth remembering when we are discussing home education that the majority of people know very little about it and when they do find out stuff about it, they are usually shocked and surprised!