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Does the Internet spell the end of mass schooling?

Are we going to follow the US, where the numbers educated at home have jumped from 15,000 to 350,000 in a decade? Jack Kenny reports

Home-school links are important but links with learning are even more important when your child does not have a school. "Schooling," one parent points out, "is not compulsory, but education is."

It is likely that the number of children who do not attend school will increase markedly in the next 10 years. The impact of information technology will probably accelerate the trend as more on-line assistance and information becomes available. In the United States, the numbers of children educated at home have grown from 15,000 to 350,000.

"You can see why," another parent says. "Schooling is an inefficient process. Mass schooling is only just over 100 years old and it has hardly changed. It was designed to produce a docile work-force whose bio-rhythms would be in tune with the rhythms of the workplace. Work has changed, leisure has changed, the only thing that hasn't is school. Now, we don't need factories and offices full of nine-to-five people; we need people who can work at their own pace with their own discipline. With more people working at home, the unseemly scramble for school places each year as parents battle with each other to achieve an education for their child which will be neither appropriate nor enjoyable will seem increasingly frustrating and farcical."

Why do people take such a step and decide to educate their children outside the system? For Jane Lowe of HEAS (Home Educators Advisory Service, a group that believes parents can arrange children's education better at home) the answer is clear. "I can say without doubt that most parents are not 'philosophers' who choose an alternative path before their children reach school age. Most parents withdraw their children from school as a last resort when there are insurmountable problems, usually involving bullying, fear and unhappiness at school, or failure to thrive in some way."

Simon Butler, who is educating his children at home, is in no doubt: "Home education is undertaken for a variety of reasons, all of them serious." Catriona Morrison, who has three children at home and is working for an Open University degree, says: "With home education, a partnership exists between parent and child. Parents become sensitive to the learning rhythms within a child. The child is able to discuss something of interest and explore what is not understood. Work doesn't need to be interrupted just because a bell is rung - it can be pursued until the child is finished with it."

Alan Thomas, whose book Educating Children At Home will be published by Cassel next spring, comments: "The overriding advantage of home education, which I found in my research, was the sheer amount of individual attention from an adult which a child can get at home. This also facilitated a great deal of informal learning, a kind of extension of the way all children learn in the first few years of life, learning through living as it were."

The average home with access to information and communication technologies (ICT), television, the Internet, good libraries and a network of like-minded parents is a very powerful information hub and a richly resourced learning environment, far richer than anything children would get in school where they might have to share all this with 30 others.

There are many who think that the number of families opting out of the system will increase because of more people working from home, increasing numbers of PCs in the home, the availability of the Internet and an education system that continues to be underfunded. Alan Thomas makes the point that his research did not reveal widespread use of IT in home education. "Some of the children were very expert indeed. I'm sure that ICT's increasingly sophisticated educational software and the access to knowledge it provides will play a part in influencing more parents who are considering educating their children at home."

Technology seems to have a considerable impact on the work that parents and children do together. Susan Godsland, who took her son out of school because his dyslexia was not being adequately treated, finds a computer very useful. "Nick uses the computer for all his written work, writing e-mails to his pen-friends I creating cards and magazines and also for research using CD-Rom encyclopedias. He occasionally uses the Web to explore interesting sites. Without the computer I know Nick would do little in the way of writing and I think it improves his self-esteem, as he recognises this is one area in which he excels."

Jane Lowe and her family use the Internet to find learning resources, make contact with other home educators via live chat and e-mail, experience peer-to-peer learning and exchange ideas through e-mail. "Elizabeth has several e-mail pen-friends, and is becoming quite skilled in homing in on information she needs from Web sites she has searched for. I would say we use ICT more for finding and using resources, simply because there are only so many people one can communicate with at any one time."

Many families like to use standard business software, starting with word-processing and graphics in order to record written work and projects. As a means of making contacts, children often produce magazines in association with their friends using the capabilities of Word or Ami Pro. Use of CD-Rom seems to be increasing - Encarta is popular and many families use the Dorling Kindersley materials on CD. Multimedia packages for learning languages at home are also found useful.

E-mail, Jane Lowe believes, is proving to be a great boon to many young people who learn at home as it enables them to have pen-friends all over the world. "The speed of communication gives it a distinct advantage over pen and paper. It is also valued by parents as it helps to keep the phone bills down. My daughter has several e-mail pen-friends in America and at times of high drama (boyfriend trouble, for instance) messages go back and forth across the Atlantic several times a day.

"Our own family tends to access the Internet together, early in the morning when the connections are fast. It's somewhat reminiscent of days gone by when families used to gather round the cat's whisker and crystal."

To help families keep up to date, the HEAS produces a quarterly bulletin which is mailed to subscribers, and there is a regular column called "Wired to the World". "We have several IT advisers who monitor developments and report back via this column, which also includes addresses of useful web sites," says Jane Lowe. You can also ask for information via the HEAS advice line. There are other sources of information, including The TES, and national daily newspaper technology supplements.

Jane Lowe is enthusiastic about home learning through IT and the Internet. "It has the potential to empower families to take charge of their own learning. Undoubtedly we would see a rise in the number of home-schoolers if parents knew that they could gain low-cost access to the huge resources of the Internet. The set-up costs and the ongoing expense of Internet access are, unfortunately, a barrier for many families."

These people have made a very serious decision about learning for their children. None of them has regrets. The technology has taken us beyond the point where we can continue to view home educators as eccentrics. Earlier this year Professor Roland Meighan in a letter to The TES about the "learner-driven curriculum" made this point: "After 20 years of researching home-based education, as well as other forms of democratic education, my only fear is that if we do not move quite quickly now to the next learning system, home-schoolers will become a new elite of people educated to respond to the demands of a rapidly changing society, whilst the mass will have been schooled for obsolescence."

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