A month or two ago, when discussing truancy, Labour leader Tony Blair said that it was the duty of parents to send their children to school. It was a statement which provoked the response "Oh no it isn't!" from several thousand families. School may be compulsory in some countries, but in Britain, the 1944 Education Act makes it clear that parents have the right to educate their children at home.
The clause in question is engraved on the hearts of all home educators. It says that parents are responsible for their children's education "either by regular attendance at school or otherwise" - hence Education Otherwise, the name of the umbrella group for home-educating parents.
Scotland, of course, has its own legal framework and some of the procedures by which home educators satisfy local authority requirements are different in detail. Nevertheless, home education is as legally well founded in Scotland (and in Northern Ireland) as it is in the rest of the UK.
Education Otherwise has about 5,000 member families, though there are probably at least as many home-educators who are not members of anything. The implication of this is that there may well be, at any one time, 20,000 children being educated at home - and all the anecdotal evidence from Education Otherwise and from local authorities is that the number is rapidly increasing.
The very nature of home education, though, means that it is not easy to find out how many and what sort of people are doing it. Local authorities, for example, know which children have been removed from their own schools, but they have no certain way of finding out which children have come out of private schools, or have moved in from somewhere else, or indeed have never been to school at all.
Peter Frolic and Clara van der Zwan, who educate their two children themselves, are probably unknown to their authority because neither their 10-year-old daughter Channa nor their nine-year-old son Kai have ever been to school. Not that they have any antagonism to the system. It was just that, as Dutch-born Clara says, "there seemed no reason to send them - they were getting on so well at home".
In common with most other home educators, Clara and Peter recognise that what works for them may not work for others. Clara, who used to teach in an alternative school in Holland, acknowledges that most people want to get on with their careers. The important thing for her was that because she had her children a little later in life, she was not waiting impatiently for them to start school. "I'd already done a lot of things, and I was able to say, this is it now, I've got children."
Peter and Clara, unlike many home educators, run a tight timetable and conventional-looking educational ship. This was brought home to me when, thinking of what other home educators had said, I asked Channa how she felt when people in the shops commented on her being out of school in the daytime. Channa looked at me and grinned. "It doesn't arise, because in the daytime I'm here learning."
A large primary-school style timetable pinned to the kitchen door strikes you as you go into their house in the Suffolk village of Bures. Peter, an artist who works from home, laughed when I commented on it. "We were going to take it down, but Channa told us to leave it - she said she wanted you to see that we have a structured life."
The timetable, in fact, would be a bit too formal for some primary teachers, as it is divided into blocks which are sometimes only 15 minutes long. Dutch (Peter and Clara's home language) appears on the timetable, and there are a number of schools TV programmes, including the BBC's Ghostwriter. For maths Clara follows a highly-structured Dutch scheme, with workbooks. "I admire people who can wait till children are ready to learn, but I can't do it. I had to make sure they were absolutely fluent with their times-tables. I'm not judging people who don't do that, but it's not my way."
Peter, though, is insistent that the children are not "hothoused", and there is plenty of evidence - models, fossil collections, accounts of walks - of a broader and more relaxed style of work. The children themselves are lively and ready to chat, and clearly have very individual approaches to learning. Kai, for example,was interested in books from the age of two and learned to read early, almost by osmosis. By contrast, Channa was seven before she was reading and still asks about long words.
They mix with children who go to school and are not at all envious of them. "I have trouble picturing myself in school," said Kai gravely at one point. One of the difficulties about discussing home education with children is that, if they have never been to school, they have no yardstick against which to measure.
The same problem arose when I asked eight-year-old Nina Guthrie, who is home educated by her mother Sarah, what she felt about not atttending a school. She, too, was clearly not envious of her neighbour, a friend who goes to school - "except sometimes when she says she went swimming with her class".
Sarah Guthrie has four daughters, all of whom have been substantially educated at home since she withdrew Joanna, now 25, from school at the age of seven. Underlining Sarah's insistence that her family is not anti-school is the fact that Joanna chose to return to school to do A-levels. Similarly, the two middle girls, Alice (19) and Lydia (14) opted to start school for the first time at, respectively, 14 and 13. By implication Nina may well make the same choice in the end, but she is under no pressure and it is clearly not on her agenda at present.
Sarah's approach is very different from that of Peter and Clara; in the 20 or so years she has been home educating she has put less and less structure into the work. There is no timetable on her wall and she no longer wakes up feeling that she must "get on" today. "I used to be like that, but not any longer. I wouldn't do projects now, for example."
Illustrating this, she describes how her eldest daughter is presently in Ecuador. "Nina was interested in this so I thought, yes, geography, wonderful, let's make a book about Ecuador. So we got all the books out of the library and made a start."
Soon, though, Nina's interest started to flag. "I had to start urging her, and then I started to wonder why we were doing it. She's fascinated by Ecuador anyway - reading letters from her sister, talking about it, but she didn't want to do the book about it. And I thought the only reason for doing it is this feeling that I must have proof that the child is being educated - something to show someone."
She told me also of taking Nina outside to draw nettles and ending up drawing nothing at all, but spending the afternoon instead talking about stinging and what pain is for. Similarly, Sarah has not pushed any of her children to learn to read, and all of them learned quite late - nearly eight in one case - going on to be avid readers. "Reading can be a focus for great anxiety, and it's a terribly over-rated teaching skill. Nina has taught herself to read, aged seven. I haven't even sat with her - that made me quite depressed because I wanted to do it with her."
This contrast between Sarah Guthrie and the Frolics is typical of the diversity of approach among home-educating parents and reflects the wide range of reasons for keeping children home. Some, like Sarah Guthrie, simply feel that school is too formal, too knowledge-based and too intellectual for young children. "You can easily weigh a child down with an accumulation of knowledge. They need to be living out childhood to the fullest degree."
Others, like the Frolics, are happy to have their children taught in a more formal sense but they do not see why this, necessarily, has to be done in school.
Some families have religious objections to parts of the curriculum, such as the Plymouth Brethren who do not wish their children to have contact with computer-assisted learning. Another group includes those who have had a bad experience or difference of opinion with a school ending in the withdrawal of their children. The most common cause of this seems to be bullying.
Paula Harrison was prompted to take her son Roger out of a Midlands comprehensive 18 months ago because he was being picked on. Although the school took bullying seriously, Roger preferred to leave. Now aged 14, he works largely on his own from books, on a national curriculum-based programme. Paula has bought books and videotapes on maths, English and science - something she says couldn't be done before the national curriculum laid down what was needed.
Her input is limited, by her own lack of subject expertise, to testing and encouragement, but she believes that if you have a child with average intelligence, and you get the right books, you will be OK. Paula, who is a single parent on income support, feels strongly the need to let other parents know that the home alternative exists. "You don't need to be an academic. All you need is to love your children and encourage them."
She kept Roger out of school without any real knowledge of the implications until a friendly welfare officer advised her to write to the authority saying that she was going to educate him at home. "Just that - a two-sentence letter."
Increasingly, home education is seen as a viable alternative to school in cases where parents have the confidence and time to take it on. Research documented by Professor Roland Meighan of Nottingham University, who has a deep interest in alternatives to school, provides ample confirmation that the job is almost always done efficiently and well. "The academic excellence of home-schooled children has been repeatedly demonstrated." Research in America, he said, "put home-schooled children at least two years in front of their schooled counterparts in intellectual achievement, and sometimes as much as 10 years ahead."
In fact, contact with home-educating families convinced me that they have a vast pool of knowledge, gained through close, long-term one-to-one observation, about how children learn. Schools, it seems to me, should not ignore this, and there is a strong need for research which will both help the home educators and make their experience available to the classroom teacher. If the success of home education does nothing else, it should encourage teachers to look outside their own professionalism for at least some of the answers to otherwise intractable classroom problems.
Schools - and national leaders - would do well, too, to recognise that what many home educators (and, by implication, many parents of school children) want is not a once-for-all choice between home and school but something more flexible. In a recent Education Otherwise newsletter, a parent writes: "My son recently went to the village school for a week and wanted to know if he could go back occasionally. Sadly, the head said no, partly because of the need to fulfil the whole curriculum."
There are those who believe that flexibility - "flexi-schooling" as its proponents call it - will inevitably come, simply because the school system we now have does not work for a lot of children. In the meantime, what we need perhaps is an imaginative leap by a few heads and governors, making use of the freedom they now have, and looking to the spirit of the government's drive for "choice and diversity".
Stockport, for example, has a teacher who works with 30 home educating families. Richard Bates, an adviser, is engaged in a programme of research into how other authorities across the country handle their responsibilities towards home education. He compares the British trend - a quiet but growing insistence on the legal right to an alternative - with some of the more spectacular anti-school movements which have come and gone across the world. "It's a very British sort of revolution."
* Home-based education effectiveness research - and some of its implications by Roland Meighan is a summary of research into home education. Available from:Education Now Books, 113 Arundel Drive, Bramcote Hills, Nottingham. NG9 3FQ (Education Now publishes numerous books on alternative schooling, and is also a focus group for interested people).
A proposed system of flexible schooling is envisaged in In Place of Schools by John Adcock, New Education Press, Pounds 5.95, PO Box 369, Camberley GU15 1QS
Education Otherwise is a fairly loose federation. There are local groups, a contact list and a newsletter. The most valuable aspect is practical support and encouragement from experienced members. Many home educators feel they could not have succeeded without EO support, but some observers feel that the organisation could be much more active and positive in promoting the cause. Part of the problem is a basic lack of agreement within its ranks about purpose and tactics.
* Education Otherwise has a new address: PO Box 7420, London N9 9SG
THE QUESTION EVERYONE ASKS...
When Sarah Guthrie was lecturing on home education in Russia, the first question from the floor was a long one. She waved away the translation, however, saying "it's about socialisation. The first question always is. "
Many teachers and parents, while accepting all the other arguments, still worry about lack of contact with children from a range of backgrounds. Home educators are ready for this one. One American researcher quoted by Roland Meighan wrote: "The real question is why is the social adjustment of schooled children of such poor quality."
Roger Harrison reminded me that he left school aged 13 because of poor relationships. "I had hardly any friends in school. Now I have ten times as many."
Sarah Guthrie acknowledges that "if you are at home you have to work at it" and she takes Nina to regular gatherings of other home educators. Nevertheless, she quarrels with the basic assumption. "Why should people assume that socialisation happens best in a compulsory institution? Socialisation is being in the world, not being afraid, meeting the world with confidence."
And Peter Frolic challenges the notion that you deliberately have to socialise children. "It's like trying to insectise insects."
The plus side for these children is that they have a range of outings and encounters with adults that many schoolchildren miss - Nina Guthrie visits a retired science lecturer, for example, with other children educated at home.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
If you withdraw your children from a maintained school your first aim is to get them off the school register - to "de-register". (This does not apply to private schools.) In order for this to happen, the authority has to be happy about the arrangements you are making, and it will send either an officer or an inspector to investigate. If it is not satisfied, it may ultimately take you to court for not sending the child to school.
Once you are on your way, the authority should send an inspector every now and again. Some make only rare visits, some are more frequent. Some are less supportive than others. The biggest problem is that the inspectors have no real yardstick to apply - parents are not required to follow the national curriculum.
But one retired chief inspector told me he'd never encountered a parent "who was doing a bad job. There were always gaps, but you had to ask yourself what would this kid be doing in a class of 30 in a school up the road? There would be gaps there too."
Finally, the big unanswered question is about funding. Under local management, each school child is an "age-weighted pupil unit", worth money. If a child moves to another school, the money moves too. Home-educated pupils, however, do not take the money home, a perceived unfairness which will increasingly be raised as home education spreads.