Eton is better than home education

I have been thinking about what somebody said here yesterday, which was to the effect that home education is inferior to an education at a private school. The writer expressed the opinion that if he had the money he would gladly send his son to an independent school in preference to educating him at home and specified Eton as his first choice.

Now I have to say at once that I do not agree with the proposition that home education is somehow a poor cousin in the wider world of education. I cannot imagine that my daughter would have done any better at Eton or Roedean than she did at home. In a sense though, this is irrelevant. The fact is that people educate their children at home for reasons that are a good deal more complicated than merely providing a better education for them. This is because most parents have far more wide-reaching ambitions for their children than that should simply be 'educated' efficiently. I am confident in asserting this, because time and again every survey of home educators in this country has come up with many more motives for home education other than that of education alone.

What sort of ambitions do parents have for their children apart from their acquiring a sound knowledge of physics, chemistry, history and so on? I think that we all hope that their children become kind and compassionate. Very few of us would like our children to grow up into greedy, selfish and cruel individuals. For many people, this aspect of childhood development, moral and ethical development, is of greater importance than any academic work. They feel that teaching their children to be decent human beings is something which they can best accomplish at home. I felt precisely the same and if I had to choose between having a kind and good natured child and having one who was very clever but sly and spiteful, then I would choose kindness over brains every time. Fortunately, I have not found intelligence and a compassionate nature to be incompatible with each other, which is a great mercy! Often, parents who are very concerned about this sort of thing worry that spending all day with a bunch of other kids is not likely to be very helpful in the cultivation of a sensitive and thoughtful disposition. Watching groups of teenagers in public these days often puts one in mind of Lord of the Flies.

In fact I have a strong suspicion that very few parents embark upon home education solely for the educational benefits. These benefits may reveal themselves as the education at home progresses, but they are not usually the initial reason why the parents decided upon home education. I also have a suspicion that if most of the parents here were offered the chance to enroll their children at an expensive independent school, perhaps some old relative offered to pay for the child's education, most would refuse without hesitation. I know that I would have done. The truth is that although I know very well that my daughter received an education at least as effective as she would have done at an independent school, there was far more going on with the whole home education business than just learning and examinations. Even had I been persuaded that she would be able to learn as much at a school, I would still have been very reluctant to send her there. As a matter of interest, would any readers send their children to a good independent school if they were given the finance for it? In my case, this is neither idle speculation nor sour grapes. Just down the road in Woodford there are two very good independent schools; Forest and Bancroft's. Both offer scholarships and a couple of my daughter's friends got in like that. I suppose that had I wished, I could have worked on Simone and persuaded her to sit the examination and perhaps take up a place at one of these schools. I briefly toyed with the idea, but it was never a serious consideration.

The change in lifestyle caused by not sending a child to school is so radical that I do not believe anybody except another home educating parent can really appreciate what is involved. While it is quite true that the educational benefits are or can be dramatic, even in the most fanatically structured home, actual teaching takes up only a small part of the time. After all, the kid is likely to be awake for fifteen hours or so each day and you really can't work systematically for more than two or three hours of that time. Home education must therefore be motivated by a good deal more than the desire simply to spend a few hours a day teaching your child.

Home educators in general love their children's company and want to spend a lot of time with them. They wish to be the main influence on their children's development and are especially concerned with what used to be called character building. Whether they are devout Christians or atheist humanists, home educating parents are very keen to transmit their own values and beliefs to their children. They ask their children questions about what they see in the world and watch on the news and then in turn tell their children what they themselves think about things. One might be confident that an independent school would teach chemistry efficiently; I doubt one could expect that the teachers there would take as much interest in cultivating the moral characters of the children in their care!

While it is probably true that maintained schools are inferior educationally to many independent schools, this is for most home educators wholly irrelevant. they do not want their children at school, they want them at home. This is why I would be surprised to see any great enthusiasm among home educators for setting up one of Michael Gove's famous free schools. Perhaps another expression needs to be coined for home education, a phrase which emphasises that education means far more than merely academic work.