Reaching out: when learning doesn’t look like school, by Rachel Evans

Recently there have been renewed concerns from the media and policy makers about home educated children who are not formally taught, and who may be classed as Children Missing Education. This blog is intended to speak directly to anyone with concerns.

Children are hard wired to learn from the moment they are born. There is an innate, highly evolved drive to learn, there needs to be, human children are born entirely dependant on their parents/care givers for well … absolutely everything. By being highly immersed within the society/culture into which they were born, children learn how to be, participate and contribute to that society. Extremely complex skills such as walking and talking develop, without explicit teaching, when children are immersed and surrounded by people who already have these skills well established, and where they are free to practise these skills to perfection. The natural and evolved mechanism by which this happens is immersion and play. The body of evidence supporting this is huge.

In its broadest terms, education can de defined as the transmission of culture i.e. the acquisition of knowledge and skills that allows a person to be an active, participatory member of their society. It’s as true today, in the information age, as it was when humans were still hunter gatherers. It’s also true for every culture on the planet. Humans are evolved to learn via immersion and play.

The acquisition of skills and knowledge using the mechanism of “work” and formal teaching is very new (approximately 150 years) when viewed against the whole human timeline. This new mechanism (schooling) sees children taken out of societal immersion and contained in a dedicated building, age segregated and formally taught a pre-set body of knowledge, at a set time and set pace, to a set level for every child. Learning is considered as work, and play is considered a break from the work of learning.

When viewed through a present day lens, the mechanism of schooling, as a way to educate children, has been around for many generations. It is now deeply ingrained in our current culture to a point where it is seen as “obvious” that this is how, and the only way, children/humans learn. The idea of challenging the premise of this mechanism, or questioning the underlying assumptions seems to many people utterly absurd, ridiculous, nonsensical … stupid even.

In England, all parents are legally responsible (Section 7 of the Education Act 1996) to educate their children. The state offers parents an opportunity to delegate this responsibility to the state, school is an opt in service, and OFSTED is the body that upholds standards of this provision on behalf of parents (who remain ultimately responsible). Again due to cultural normalising, the fact that school is an opt in service is not well known within society.

The state has chosen to use the mechanism of schooling, via formal teaching and work, to educate children. I stress again, this is not the only way children learn nor is it how humans are evolved to learn, it is a modern construction. Home educators are legally able to chose whatever learning mechanism they determine best for their children. The overall aims of both the state and home educating parents are the same: happy, healthy, well adjusted adults, that function in, and contribute to, the society in which they live. Whilst the aims are the same, the mechanisms by which education happens, may be very different.

Like all parents, home educators take the happiness, health, well-being and future of their children extremely seriously. Some chose to use a schooling mechanism, others chose a hybrid and others choose to continue with (or revert back to) the evolved, innate natural learning mechanism of immersion and play. The choice to move away from the schooling mechanism, that is so familiar and so deeply ingrained and accepted, is a difficult one. Many parents choosing this path do large amounts of research, consider it deeply and consult others who are further down the path. It takes great courage, conviction and heart to “swim against the tide”. To those unfamiliar with it, it may appear that parents are “lazy” and irresponsible. The truth could not be more different. We know that to many who are only familiar with schooling that what we are doing seems radical, alien, unfamiliar, possibly insane or irresponsible. We are very aware of this. We honour that this creates strong emotions, fear, shock, disbelief, concern and anger in many people. We accept that you too have children’s best interests at heart. We see you, we see your concerns.

When home educators choose to utilise the natural human learning mechanism, it is because we absolutely and passionately believe that it is the best for OUR children. We have the same aim as every parent: happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults that function in, and contribute to, society. We do not all need to take the same path. Every child does not have to follow the set pattern or route to get to the same outcome. Diversity IS a true strength of humanity. So I implore all concerned parents, professionals and policy makers to put aside your assumptions about how humans learn, and to open yourself to different ideas. We are open to your approaches; we do not need to be at odds, loggerheads, in battle or openly hostile, suspicious or defensive. We all truly want the same thing: happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults that function in, and contribute to, society.

Further Reading

There is a wealth of research and first hand evidence, to support the efficacy, power and relevance of natural learning in the information age. I have not cited it in the blog to keep the focus clear. For anyone interested in understanding more I highly recommend, as a a starting point, the book by Peter Gray (research professor, developmental psychologist, evolutionary psychologist), Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Here he outlines, in great detail, the mechanisms I have referred to, its relevance in the present day and the vast body of evidence supporting it.

Follow Rachel Evans

Rachel Evans is a home educating mum of an SEN child. She says:

“In 2008, I set out on my parenting journey. At the time I was an advocate for formal state schooling and was a “tough love” parent. Little did I know that my newly born child would become my greatest teacher. He would set me on a path that would overturn everything I thought I knew about education and parenting. I remain overwhelmingly grateful to him.” 

You can follow her journey by reading her blog at