* One in four home educators is a teacher
* Education is compulsory but school is not. Parents who choose never to send their children to school do not have to tell anyone of their decision
* There were 20 families home educating in the UK 20 years ago; now there are more than 30,000
* In the United States, 5 per cent of children - 1.3 million - are educated at home
* Home-educated children perform well above average in national literacy tests. Far less is known about how they fare at GCSE, A-level and university
* Ten United States presidents were educated at home - as were Sir Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Yehudi Menuhinand Britney Spears
Ninety-nine per cent of parents are happy to put their children's education in the hands of the professionals. Who are the other 1 per cent who choose to educate their children at home? Social visionaries? Harmless eccentrics? Or ordinary parents trying to tailor-make a more relevant education? Whatever the reasons, the number of home-educated children is growing by the size of a large comprehensive each year. What sort of education do they get? And could home schooling help to solve the problems of overcrowded schools, overstretched teachers and disillusioned pupils?
Is it legal?
Absolutely. In fact, the laws concerning home education in the UK are probably the most liberal in Europe. The 1996 Education Act demands only that parents in England and Wales ensure their children receive an "efficient" and "suitable" education "by regular attendance at school or otherwise". In short, education is compulsory but school is not. Unless a child attends a special needs school - when authorisation is needed from the local education authority - a note to the head is enough to withdraw a child from school. Parents who choose never to send their children to school are under no obligation to inform anyone. Parents in Scotland also have the right to home-educate a child, although they need permission from the LEA before withdrawing a child from school.
If an authority learns that a child is being home-schooled, it will almost certainly ask for evidence that an appropriate education is being provided.
However, a 1981 court ruling defined a "suitable education" as one which "prepares children for life in a modern civilised society". Home educators are not required to have any teaching qualifications and home-educated children need not follow the national curriculum (only one in 10 does) or sit tests or exams.
How many children are home-educated in the UK?
Because parents do not have to inform the authorities, it is impossible to establish an official figure. But a common estimate puts the number at around 1 per cent of the school-aged population, or 87,000 children, with some experts claiming numbers nearer to 200,000 if the children of Travellers are included. What is certain is that the number has risen dramatically since the 1970s, and continues to grow. "Twenty-five years ago, there were 20 families home-educating in the whole of the UK," says writer and researcher Roland Meighan. "Now there are more than 30,000, and that figure is rising by around 1,000 families a year."
Most other European countries make life difficult for home-schoolers; in Germany it is illegal. But we are still a long way behind Canada, Australia and the United States, where home-schooling has a long tradition, particularly in remote areas. The US Home Education Research Institute estimates that 5 per cent of American children - about 1.3 million - are educated at home. If current trends continue, by 2010, one in 10 children in the US will be home-schooled.
Why not just choose a decent school?
Home educators fall into two distinct, and roughly equal, groups: those who withdraw their child in response to specific problems, and those who take a principled decision never to send their child to school. Bullying, religious disagreements, poor academic performance, resentment of testing, or a feeling that the child isn't being "stretched" are all common reasons.
Those who take a principled stand may object to the idea of institutionalised education, believing that the classroom is an unnatural or outdated learning environment. However varied the individual motives, what unites most home educators is dissatisfaction with what mainstream schooling has to offer, and a belief that they can do better. "Schools teach to everyone what only a few children want or need to know," says Chris Shute, author of Compulsory Schooling Disease (see resources). "The idea that schools offer wonderful learning opportunities is a national myth. Home educators have seen through that myth."
Who educates their children at home?
The stereotypical image of the middle-class, university-educated and slightly "alternative" parent contains only an element of truth. A two-year study by Paula Rothermel at the University of Durham in 2002 (see resources) found that around one in six home educators was a non-skilled or manual worker. Fewer than half had been to university. But despite the apparent variety of home educators, one statistic stands out: one in four is a teacher (see case study). "Teachers have confidence in their own ability to educate a child," says Roland Meighan. "But more to the point, they have insider knowledge. They know how bad schools are."
How do home-educated children learn?
It's rare for home schooling to be a domestic version of school, with timetables, breaks and even "homework" - as is the practice of "hot-housing" a child by focusing on one particular talent. Most parents choose "autonomous learning" or a "catalogue curriculum", where the child decides what and how to learn, and the adult offers guidance, conversation, and suitable resources. "The parent isn't a direct replacement for the school teacher," says Linda Ireneschild, of support group Education Otherwise. "The focus is on the child learning for themselves." A recurring feature is an emphasis on "Big Wide World" learning - visiting historical sites, science parks, art galleries, theatres and workplaces. It's also common for the working day to be shorter, often around two to three hours.
This may not be as little as it sounds; home-learners point out that there is none of the wasted time that can happen at school, and many work steadily all year round, rather than creating term-time and holidays.
But don't home-educated children need the expert guidance of a teacher?
"We live in an information-rich society," says Roland Meighan. "There's up-to-date expertise on the internet, on television and in books and magazines. Children don't need a teacher who trained 30 years ago." Not all home educators are so dismissive of teaching skills; many make use of specialist tutors, particularly as children get older, or pool different areas of expertise with other families. The Otherwise Club in Kilburn, north London, for example, offers pottery, drama and history workshops three times a week. "Organising classes for home-educated children may seem dangerously close to creating a school," admits founder Leslie Barson. "But here the children choose to attend and what to do when they're here. They are free to leave at any time."
How do home-educated children perform academically?
What evidence there is strongly suggests they outperform their school-educated counterparts. But because many home educators have some level of antipathy towards testing (only one in five uses formal testing as part of their educational programme), the evidence rests on a handful of studies. A 1991 report in the United States by Brian D Ray, of the National Educational Research Institute, judged that home-educated children were about two years ahead of school-educated pupils. More recently, Paula Rothermel's research at Durham has found that home-educated children perform well above average in national literacy tests. Seventy-seven per cent of seven-year-olds and 82 per cent of 10-year-olds scored within the highest levels as opposed to the "expected national norm" of 16 per cent.
The findings in maths tests were similar.
Far less is known about how they fare at GCSE, A-level and university. Some home-schooled children choose not to take any external exams. Those who do want qualifications often take distance-learning courses or join FE classes. Most exam boards accept private candidates, providing that arrangements can be made to have coursework assessed, though Edexcel insists that all entries are made through a recognised exam centre. It is common for home-learners to stagger their GCSEs, taking one or two each year rather than sitting them all at once. And while stories of home-educated children taking A-levels at the age of 10 may make the news, many home-learners take exams later rather than earlier, choosing to go to university in their early or mid-twenties. Most universities now consider home education as a valid alternative to an exam-centred school education and are flexible about entry requirements. Some American universities even reserve places for home-schoolers.
What about friends?
Home educators insist that their children have a better social life than those who are pinned to a school desk, and are better adjusted to dealing with all kinds of social situations. "It isn't natural to spend six hours a day, every day, shut in a small room with the same 30 people," says Roland Meighan. "Home-educated children tend to be more independent, to have friends of different ages and to spend more time on their own. Their social skills are different, not inferior."
But how does someone schooled at home get to meet people?
"Home education is a misleading phrase," says Mike Fortune-Wood, founder of support group Home Education UK. "The children aren't educated at home, they're educated in the community." He argues that social opportunities come daily through using libraries and museums, making contacts via the telephone or email for their research, and by joining clubs and organisations, where they mix with other children. "It's a lot less artificial than school. They meet people of all ages and backgrounds and learn to engage with them quite naturally." Plus, a growing number of home-education networks create opportunities for children to do group activities such as sport and drama. "Unless you live in a remote area, it's actually very easy to offer children an alternative social life," says Linda Ireneschild.
Britney Spears, Sir Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein were all educated at home. As were Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Agatha Christie, CS Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin - and no fewer than 10 presidents of the United States. Yet studies suggest that, in general, home-educated children grow up to be less motivated by money and prestige than the average person, with a stronger emphasis on personal happiness and family ties. "There's as much diversity among home-educated people as among those educated in school," argues Julie Webb, who interviewed a group of home-learners, first at14 and then again when they were in their early twenties. "But if I had to characterise them, it would be as energetic and open-minded, with a bias towards creative and caring professions."
So what are the drawbacks?
It's rare for a child to want to go back to school once they've begun being educated at home. But some home-learners still have to tackle problems such as being ostracised by school-educated peers or encountering prejudice from adults. In particular, they grow tired of being asked "Why aren't you in school?" every time they venture outside the house. Parents have to be able to invest time and money. Julie Webb's research found that only one in three young adults who had been educated at home said they intended to do the same with their own children - not because they could not see the benefits, but because they felt they would not be prepared to make the sacrifices. Not only do home-educated households tend to have an income below the national average, but the financial costs of education in terms of books, computers, tuition and outings also have to be met. (Local authorities rarely provide financial support - legally they can - though the more enlightened ones may provide learning materials.) Flexible schooling - a vision for the future?
Some parents resent having to choose between sacrificing their own time or their children's education, so some children have an agreement to go to school on a part-time basis. Schools are free to agree to this kind of request; they don't need to consult their local education authority, though equally they are within their rights to turn it down. Usually, a contract is drawn up specifying the time when the child will be expected in school.
When they are not there, they are recorded as an authorised absence. In the US a similar system, known as the "independent study programme", is well established.
"It's the best of both worlds," says Kate Oliver, whose two children attend school three days a week and are home-educated the rest of the time. "The school becomes just another resource - like the library or the computer - to be used as and when required."
Roland Meighan would like to see all schools converted into community learning centres, with children free to choose what they study, and teachers brought in on a freelance basis to run classes as required. John Adcock, author of Teaching Tomorrow (see resources), favours teachers being retrained as personal tutors, working with parents to oversee the individual learning plans of small groups of children. "The lesson of home education is that flexibility and choice work - that is the modern way," says Mr Meighan. "Unfortunately, the triumph of a school education is that it leaves most people too narrow-minded to imagine other ways of doing things."
Additional research: Tracey Thomas
CASE STUDY: RACHEL TRAFFORD
I was educated at home between the ages of five and 10, alongside my sister Eleanor - who is 18 months older than me. I sat the entrance exam for secondary school a year early, and have just taken my A-levels and take up a place at Cambridge this month to read geography.
Although I'd always enjoyed school - I'd been to nursery and spent the first two terms of Year 1 at a local infants' school - my parents, who are both teachers, felt that Eleanor and I were spending time in the classroom that could be better spent pursuing other enthusiasms and interests not available in school. In journal entries we wrote at the ages of five and seven, Eleanor's first comment was: "I like learning at home because we don't have to write pages and pages of the same work." I wrote about enjoying having the time to go dancing, learn the recorder, ride my bike.
These phrases sum up the reasons why our parents felt we would gain a broader and more fulfilled education from home-based learning. I have no doubt that if I'd been at school, I wouldn't have been able to learn the recorder, violin, piano and trumpet, or go to dance classes or gymnastics training four or five times a week. These interests have stayed with me and developed through secondary school.
There is no set way of how to home educate and we adapted our learning style to suit our aims and objectives. It was a free and relaxed system: we had no set timetable, no classroom, we did not necessarily work every day.
"Lessons" took place on a table in our dining room and, to be honest, I can't remember ever working for more than a few hours every day. Instead of sitting at a desk like most other children our age, we cooked, went swimming, visited the library, watched the television, practised the piano, and visited places such as Warwick Castle, the Birmingham Museum of Science and Technology, and art galleries in London. I find it difficult to remember how I learned, but with the aid of some books, it was self-motivation and interest that Mum, who was our teacher, encouraged and used to direct learning.
As to the common concern about the social development of home-educated children, I've encountered no problems. As I had friends at the gymnastics club, played in a group of violinists and sang in choirs, my extracurricular activities fuelled normal interactions with other children without me being forced to spend hours every day with the same people.
Eleanor sat the entrance exam for a local independent grammar when she was 11 and I was on my own at home. I got bored after a term and, the following January, sat the entrance exam for the same school a year early, just to see if I could get in. I passed and so joined secondary school the following September. The transition was easy, perhaps because of the school's friendly nature. It also wasn't a completely new experience as I'd been to school when I was younger. Despite being a year younger, I coped well in the first few years and I am sure this was down to the progress I'd made at home with one-to-one teaching, rather than in a class of up to 30.
I was also fully involved in school life although I had to give up gymnastics as I couldn't afford the time. I also feel the progress I made on musical instruments slowed as I couldn't devote the same amount of time every day to practise. But I've been lucky to have had such a varied and broad education.
Rachel Trafford lives in the West Midlands
Websites and organisations
* Education Otherwise (www.education-otherwise.org) provides support and information for home-educating families. The website has lots of information and advice - everything from how to handle inquisitive LEA officials to dealing with people who ask you why your children aren't in school. Books, newsletters and videos can be ordered on 017687 72546.
* Home Education UK (www.home-education.org.uk) has an excellent range of information, including a list of other support groups and mailing lists.
There is also information about the law and about how to deal with local authorities.
* The Home Education Advisory Service (www.heas.org.uk). Very good on resources and teaching materials, and how to help home-learners sit external exams.
* www.homeeducationresearch.org has details of research into the benefits and implications of home education. There's also a round-up of existing research with a link to Paula Rothermel's work at Durham University at www.jspr.btinternet.co.ukresearchpapers.htm.
* The DfES website does not have a great deal of information, though it does have a detailed explanation of the relevant legislation: www.teachernet.gov.ukmanagementatozindex.cfm?component=topicamp;id=163.
* Education Now (http:educationnow.gn.apc.org) is closely linked to the Educational Heretics Press. A range of books can be ordered through the website.
* Otherwise Club (www.otherwiseclub.org).
* In Place of Schools (AMS Educational, pound;5.95. Tel: 0113 258 0309) and Teaching Tomorrow (Education Now Publishing, pound;9.95. Tel: 0115 925 7261) by John Adcock look at how a system of personal tuition at home and in the community might replace schools.
* Learning Unlimited, by Roland Meighan (Educational Heretics Press, pound;7.95. Tel: 0115 925 7261) includes a selection of case studies.
* Those Unschooled Minds, by Julie Webb (Educational Heretics Press, pound;9.95). Based on interviews with adults who were educated at home, reflecting on their experiences.
* The Next Learning System, by Roland Meighan (Educational Heretics Press, pound;7.95). Looks at how education might change and "why home-schoolers are trail-blazers".
* School Is Not Compulsory (Education Otherwise, pound;4.50 for non-members). Handbook for those starting out, with details on the legal position, rights and duties.
* Free Range Education, by Terri Dowty (Hawthorn Press, pound;12.99).
Practical advice for home-educating families. (Book of the week, Friday magazine, February 2, 2001.)
* Doing it Their Way, by Jan Fortune-Wood (Educational Heretics Press, pound;11.95). A summary of the theories and practice of autonomous education.
* Compulsory Schooling Disease, by Chris Shute (Educational Heretics Press, pound;6.95) is a study of how compulsory schooling can arrest social and intellectual development.
* Alternative Approaches to Education: a guide for parents and teachers, by Fiona Carnie (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;17.99).
For a full list of resources see www.tes.co.uk