The law says children must be educated - but it doesn't say where. Elaine Williams talks to families who have decided that school is not for them
Steev Stamford's solicitous directions - beware the steep hillI sharp right turnI staggered crossroads - ring in my ears as I make my way across the mole-skinned, dry-stoned, curvaceous counterpane of Derbyshire's Peak District. For once, I don't get lost, despite the rural isolation of Peak Dale village, where the Stamfords home-educate their children, Philip, aged eight, and Flossie, seven.
Open, smiling faces appear at the window and Flossie and Philip race to open the door of their house, a small semi with two downstairs reception rooms, dedicated to their learning. Maps cover the walls, reference books and educational resources fill many shelves. A computer sits in the corner of the back room. A dining table is covered with an electrical circuitry kit, which the children have helped make. The morning has been given over to testing which materials best conduct electricity - water, vinegar, HP sauce, olive oil.
Philip is clear about his educational preferences. "We don't just sit around and talk about stuff like at school," he says. "We're always doing things. If it's a nice day we go out and visit places like museums and castles." Both children are chatty and eager to show what they can do - the maths programmes they follow on their computer, the guitars they play, the detailed records they keep of their activities and trips out, all illustrated in detail with photographs from a digital camera.
Any assumption that the children would be incapable of social interaction, or struggling to master literacy and numeracy skills, quickly fades. Philip is currently reading Kit Pearson's War Guests trilogy - a challenging read for any nine-year old - and Flossie handles long multiplication on the PC with ease.
Steev Stamford is ever open to his children's questioning, as attentive to their developmental needs as he was to my dismal map reading and obviously proud of his domestic empire. He makes the most of IT, regarding the Internet as an invaluable educational resource with enormous potential for independent learning. He also uses email to keep in contact with other home educators. As the Derbyshire contact for Education Otherwise, a national support group, he sometimes finds himself defending families against local councils that wish to see children back in school. "It is surprising how many councils still threaten parents with legal action," he says. "I am not afraid to quote the law at them word for word."
The support group's name derives from the Education Act of 1944, which states that education is compulsory for children aged five and upwards, by attendance at school or otherwise. Over the past 20 years thousands of parents have seized the opportunity the law affords them. The Stamfords are part of a growing army of home-educators, at least 25 per cent of whom are teachers.
According to Roland Meighan, special professor of education at Nottingham University, numbers have swollen to at least 30,000 families, still a long way behind Canada and the United States, where home education is more established, but more than the dozen families he found when he became interested in the phenomenon in the Seventies. Some, including the Stamfords, take the initiative because they are unhappy with the experiences their children or they themselves have had with schooling. But increasing numbers are choosing it as a positive and alternative lifestyle from the moment their children are born.
Despite his jocular nature and six-feet-four-inches, sixteen-and-a-half-stone stature, Steev Stamford remembers being bullied at school, persecuted for being the "tall, stringy wimp". His wife, Jane, spent most of her last year of education out of school because of bullying. So when they moved from Enfield, Middlesex, to deepest Derbyshire and put Philip into the local village school - 25 children, two teachers - they thought such troubles were behind them. But it was not to be. When Philip moved from reception into Year 1, he seemed to suffer from being in a mixed age group, particularly with older boys, and when the pushing and shoving in the toilets got beyond a joke three years ago, they decided to take him out and go for the home-based option.
Jane Stamford provides the family's main income as production planning manager with a plumbing firm. Steev supplements that with an assortment of one-off commissions, working from home producing websites for local businesses and driving lorries. But for the most part he guides the learning of his children, overseeing a fairly structured diet most mornings of maths, English, science and music, but regularly taking them out on day trips - as home educators they get free entry into many venues - and making heavy use of the local library.
Mr Stamford believes his children are thriving and that he has been able to foster their natural inquisitiveness, "which the school system tends to stifle". The value in sacrificing a second income and giving time over to them is obvious, he says.
Although Professor Meighan has been heavily involved in teacher training during his academic career, he believes home-based education is the way ahead for many children and has established his own Educational Heretics Press, which publishes books about the subject. He believes passionately that home education is an excellent preparation for contemporary life. Moreover, he predicts that by the end of the decade, one child in four in the US will be home educated, with another one in four on "flexi-time", dipping in and out of the education system to suit individual needs.
Home-educated children, he says, are often two years ahead of their school-taught peers "on any test you can throw at them", and can be ahead by 10 years. He believes the more flexible, self-directing system afforded by home education is a better fit for modern patterns of work, which often require people to be creative, self-initiating free-thinkers, increasingly working from home on a varied portfolio of tasks. "The Government says it wants lifelong learners," says Professor Meighan. "But then, in their formative years, puts children through a course in practical slavery. This model of schooling, with subjects separated by bells and a prescribed curriculum, was established when we needed to staff factories in large numbers."
Paula Rothermel, who lectures on children and the arts at Durham University's school of education, has conducted research which she claims is the "most comprehensive account of home education to date". It included 900 questionnaires for home educators, interviews with 100 families in their homes, literary appraisal of children in three age groups, administration of the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools measure to three age groups, and a range of psychometric testing.
The national curriculum was followed by just 14 per cent of families; 58 per cent said they did not use it. Contrary to a common perception that home educators tend to be from the more radical wing of the middle classes, Paula Rothermel uncovered a wide socio-economic range of families. She found children were "competent social beings with the ability to interact with others - adults and peers alike - as equals". She also found that, within the four-to-11 age range, home-educated children were "generally progressing more positively" in developmental and academic terms than their school counterparts. Increased parental attention, child-centred learning, flexibility to "nurture individual talents", lack of peer group pressure and a sense of security from "long-term parental attachment" all contributed to achievement, she concluded.
But she believes many home educators would opt "for something between home and school if they could", and acknowledges the growing numbers of home educators who are coming together to provide a flexible, non-compulsory community-based option.
Polly Peters taught English and drama in Bristol schools before joining the Living Village Trust at Bishop's Castle in Shropshire, a community involving new-build, eco-friendly housing. A communal "Life Centre" containing a learning studio for home educators will be at its heart. Although the housing has yet to be built, the Learning Studio is already up and running. It is open two-and-a-half days a week, catering for five home-educating families with eight children in all. Polly Peters is a joint director. She describes it as a supportive and creative place where home-educated children can meet, learn and socialise together. The studio is organised around "self-initiated learning" and is full of easily accessible materials. "We maintain," she says, "that children learn best when they make active choices and follow their own interests."
Ms Peters now writes with her husband, Andrew Fusek Peters. Their book, Poems with Attitude, poetry for adolescents, has recently been published by Hodder. But it was when she gave birth to her first child - she has a daughter aged five and a one-month-old son - that her disillusionment with teaching set in. "I felt early years schooling was putting far too much emphasis on the academic, and stifling initiative," she says. "I also felt that the secondary curriculum was too rigid. Teachers are having to work increasingly hard to make the space to motivate pupils."
In truth, there are as many versions of home education as there are home educators. Some - such as Mary and Philip Tate in North Yorkshire, who have a school room in their large farmhouse and buy in tutors to teach four of their five girls aged five to 18 - follow a relatively formal structure to the learning day. The Tate girls are raised on a diet of French, Italian, Latin, Greek, maths, English, history, theatre studies and horse riding. Other families, however, have no curriculum or structure, encouraging their children to "follow their noses", making the most of learning opportunities whenever and wherever they arise.
Alison Preuss, who lives in Dundee, has been home educating for the past six years and co-ordinates the charity Schoolhouse, a support group for home educators in Scotland. She has three children - Daniel, 11, Kirstin, 13, and Fiona,15. Her children's motivation for learning, she says, comes from within themselves and all three have followed their own patterns. Daniel, for example, "has taken to the Internet like a duck to water". He has designed the Schoolhouse website, which includes space for teenagers to socialise and swap ideas and experiences.
The family also publishes a quarterly newspaper, Schoolhouse Home Education News. When he is not on the web, Daniel is an active member of a local youth group, whereas Kirstin pursues her artistic interests, attending theatre courses run by the local repertory theatre and working on computer-aided illustration and design. Fiona has followed a more formal structure, going in for Scottish highers, which she took through the local college. Mrs Preuss says: "They pick up things from everywhere, they are sponge-like and become self-disciplined early on. They learn perfectly naturally if you leave them alone. Schools are in a Victorian time-warp."
Daniel says: "You have the freedom to learn whatever you like. If you want to spend a long time on something you can."
Jan and Mike Fortune-Wood educate their four children, aged six to 13, from their Midlands home. Jan is a qualified teacher and a priest, while Mike is a web-design consultant who has also set up a website for home educators. Jan has published a book on the subject, Doing It Their Way, and is about to publish another in November called Without Boundaries. The family, says Mike, is engaged in "autonomous learning", whereby the children pursue their own interests and the parents support those interests, always ready to answer questions or help children find answers - no matter how long it takes. No one day follows the pattern of another.
"People assume," says Mike, "that home-educated kids miss out on social life. But our children are involved all the time in real society. School cannot be a good model. Where else do you find 30 people of the same age in one room with an adult with absolute control?" Moreover, he argues, that compared with school-educated children, those taught at home are often better prepared for university, more able to initiate their own research, even if they don't always have formal qualifications. He says: "Many home-educated children have fantastic CVs, they have done so many things that universities see them as an interesting, worthwhile proposition."
Schoolhouse, the Scottish home education charity, can be contacted on 01382 646964www.schoolhouse.org.ukMike Fortune-Wood's home education website is: www.home-education.org.ukEducation Otherwise: 0870 7300074Doing It their Way (pound;11.95) and Without Boundaries (pound;9.95) by Jan Fortune-Wood are both published by Educational Heretics Press. Tel: 0115 925 7261