Recruitment, retention, results. This was what I gathered from my first meeting on the Sixth Form Management Team (SMT), back in the early teens of last decade. We called it the ‘3 Rs’ and it formed the basis of decision-making within our Sixth Form, an ambitious offshoot of the competitive inner-London academy I was employed by. I remember that meeting quite vividly; the 6pm variety, where sandwiches are served and corporate commitment is tested. “Where’s Sarah?” “She had to pick up her kids.” “Oh.” It’s a mantra that still rings clearly in my mind now, when I read the headlines. With some LEAs reporting Elective Home Education (EHE) Registrations to be up by as much as 200%, someone somewhere must be rustling up a PowerPoint on the 3 Rs. What’s going on?
Spielman is right, of course, that EHE isn’t a decision to take lightly, but the suggestion that the current exodus is primarily due to Covid, represents a deliberate red herring. For a start, concern about the transfer of the virus reflects only a small part of the immediate context of state school provision. The system is in freefall and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. Most schools are floundering, with significant numbers of staff self-isolating and national uncertainty creating challenges to work ethic and motivation, an atmosphere in which any claim of so-called “recovery teaching” signifies an especially hollow charade. Many schools have entirely suspended Performance Reviews this academic year (and rightly so) whilst, in the classroom, teachers are resorting to archaic “drill” methods in a desperate attempt to harness morale and demonstrate “progress” among the flagging ranks. It’s not easy, and teachers are not to blame.
School, after all, has been a political football since its very inception. Unlike the ancient Indian principle that education should be completely free from state control (rulers historically exercised no authority over the gurus), our European model of schooling was directly designed as a model for ideological indoctrination, in the crucible of the 16th-century Protestant drive for mass literacy and personal connection with God. “What’s the problem?” we might well say. “That was a long time ago.” Only, it wasn’t. The infrastructure of mainstream schooling has been consciously manufactured as a political tool and, as such, is highly effective. Back in 2012, when Michael Gove told us to shove all candidates through the new “rigorous” mill of the now-abandoned EBACC flagship, we did so unscrupulously. The only trouble is that teachers are parents too and, eventually, they talk.
With this in mind, it’s not such a surprise that home education has been on the rise in recent years, in a trend that bears no correlation to the spread of a killer virus. Say what you like about social media, it has changed the very fabric of our society. People ‘know more’ – or think they do – and out of the sludge of half-baked opinions and sound bites, there is a general rise in access to information and grasp of previously guarded institutions, which makes the stale delivery of state education simply unfit for the way public psychology has shifted. Lockdown certainly accelerated this. In a potent kick-back against the market-oriented technical jargon of teaching, which gained steam after the Education Reform Act of 1988, parents previously unversed in the issues underpinning the school model became fluent this year in the discourse of ‘deschooling’ and ‘autonomous’ learning. Naturally, none of this is new to teachers, but pedagogical aspirations are mostly shelved when faced with the stark reality of classroom numbers, dynamics, and performance pressure. What can’t be done in school can be done at home, and if that wasn’t apparent before, it is now.
Before schools can move forward from this, school leaders need to be transparent about the real problems and avoid passing blame. Talking about ‘challenging students’ and the ‘public service’ of education ignores the dry rot at the heart of the current system. Human beings have been raising children for millennia, regardless of economic prosperity and social outlook. It is school that’s a brand new ‘thing’ here – not parenting – and it would appear that, being brand new, it could do with some thoughtful tinkering, as opposed to blind, brutish enforcement. Real parental engagement is, in fact, the most important aspect of a child’s education and this does not mean, as CEO of FreeFlowInfo Alan Cowley put it, “parents acting as secretaries.” Paperwork isn’t engagement. Nor are content and assessment-dense curricula conducive to actual learning. Such methods, although largely unquestioned, simply serve to decrease student participation whilst increasing staff accountability; a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels social inequality and dumbs our children down.
In the mid-1800s, Leo Tolstoy opened a free school on his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, with the founding principle being optional attendance; children went when they wanted to. In an essay on the subject, Tolstoy wrote:
“The children bring nothing with them, neither books, nor copy-books. No lessons are given for home. Not only do they carry nothing in their hands, but they have nothing to carry even in their heads. They are not obliged to remember any lesson.”
I wonder about this, and about the gulf that exists between a truly child-orientated education and our factory-style public schools. Human nature is such that children will resist formal schooling, so long as it is forced upon them. They may regurgitate complex formulae and the names of poets, when their freedom depends on it, but afterwards it evaporates like morning frost, since information that has not been sought out is dull.
Back to the beginning, then, and what does the rise in EHE registrations tell us about the school system? Nothing new, is the short answer. The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly created a petri-dish in which many social issues are bubbling, under the laser intensity of this worldwide crisis. Educators cannot hide behind this, though. The virus acts as a catalyst, but it does not fundamentally alter the problems that have plagued compulsory schooling since its inception. Schools, by their very nature, are based on adult convenience and economic goals. By any PISA measurement (although perhaps most significantly our bottom-of-the-league-table ranking across the board for children’s mental wellbeing this summer) we fail to achieve our own – adult – targets for education, but perhaps more importantly, the very flavour of top-down indoctrination isn’t what’s trending right now.
Schools need to wise up and push back against the political shackles that so obviously hold them back or else – I fear – the 3 Rs will suffer.
Vinoba Bhave, The Intimate and the Ultimate, Green Books; 2nd Revised edition, 1st Jan 1990
John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, New Society Publishers; 2nd edition, 19 May 2017
Matt Hearn, Deschooling Our Lives, New Society Publishers, 1996
Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, Allen lane, Sept 2020
Freddie Whittaker, Investigation: Minister intervenes as home education soars, Schools Week, 23rd Oct 2020
The Good Childhood Report, 2020
Anna Dusseau is a former teacher turned home educating mum-of-three. Her first book The Case for Homeschooling is out now. You can read more about her work at www.annadusseau.com and you can follow her on Twitter at: