In praise of homeschooling
An increase in homeschooling is one of the benefits of the pandemic. According to the BBC:
More than 40,000 pupils were formally taken out of school in the UK between September 2020 and April 2021, compared with an average of 23,000 over the previous two years… Parents told the BBC that health fears and worries that their children's learning would suffer had led them to home-educating.
In my past life as a fringe libertarian (and a second rate one at that) I developed an enthusiasm for changing the school system. Anyone who paid attention while they read Milton Friedman had to be persuaded by his school-vouchers argument, or so I thought until I was thrust unkindly into a world of people who hold almost religious views about the importance of accepting the school system largely as it is.
People tend to have three sorts of debate about education: 1) Progressive vs traditional, 2) Comprehensive vs markets/vouchers, 3) Online vs offline. The Progressive vs Traditional argument has been going on since education was made widely available through the state, and especially the Balfour Act, which really started pushing standards. Progressive education was a reaction against the nineteenth century syllabus of classics and university focussed learning. Some progressive schools were founded in reaction to the Balfour Act.
This argument is pointless, in some ways. Both sides are right and wrong. Children need to learn basic standards in core subjects and they need to be left alone to explore and experiment and be free. But one reason we homeschool is because the idea of a curious, intelligent child (and in my view all children are curious and intelligent, to a degree) sitting at a desk or being child minded at school was so limiting. I have worked in a school, tutored children from ages seven to eighteen, and glimpsed the inner workings of the Department of Education (where I saw from a distance the way that everything about education is eventually about bureaucracy.) Too many times have I heard people discuss education as something that needs to be accomplished like the washing up, or been confronted with a teenager who thought that Queen Victoria was married to Henry VIII.
That last example is not a joke. So bewildered was I by my tutees’ general lack of historical knowledge that I gave them all a pop quiz one week. These fifteen-ish year olds knew nothing. It was hit and miss whether they had heard of Churchill. They did not, as a rule, know the dates of the two world wars. Everything I ever heard inside the profession and in politics took it for granted that there ought to be a national curriculum. The arguments were all about what it ought to contain. At the same time, while intense, and often quite pointless, debates were going on about what everyone ought to learn, our PISA rankings were embarrassing, especially in maths. We were the only PISA country whose teenagers knew less maths that its pensioners. The UK did slightly better in the latest PISA results, but the changes are marginal.
The thing I was opposed to most was the supposedly progressive idea that, because there is so much more information in the world now than ever before, we ought to teach children “how to think” and “how to learn” rather than teach them actual knowledge. Put aside the obvious and difficult objection that learning how to think and how to learn without actually learning facts is like learning how to lay bricks without handling any bricks, this is a baffling response to the way knowledge is multiplying. There is a premium, a clear and obvious premium, on knowing things today. Imagine believing that you ought to teach children “how to experiment” without learning chemistry.
So often, the focus on learning “how to learn” and “how to think” doesn’t require very much learning or thinking. And for a profession devoted to this idea, teachers can be remarkably stubborn about changes to their own system. The school system is against learning and thinking about itself. Research shows that teachers account, at best, for 10% of the variation in student performance, that intelligence is highly heritable, and that class size makes little difference to outcomes. You can debate what these things mean and how we respond to them — the combination of those factors might make you want to massively increase investment in schools to squeeze every bit of difference we can out of the system, or it might make you want to strip the whole thing down and rebuild it based on this new knowledge — but too many people either don’t know this stuff or don’t take it seriously.
Then there’s the question of how schools really work compared to how they think they work. The Comprehensive vs Markets/Vouchers argument is sort-of an extension of that first progressive/traditional debate. Throughout the twentieth century standardisation increased to the point where we got comprehensive schools and a national curriculum. Both political sides standardised and centralised in different ways. There has been some amount of progress in this debate as we now have Academies and Free Schools (a very John Major/Tony Blair policy) which give us some comparisons to look at.
And it seems that variations on the same basic model make some difference but not incredible differences. There is clearly huge value in having an education system, but it is less obvious how much differences the variations between schools make. “The Ofsted rating of school quality explained less than 2% of the variance in GCSE scores after correcting for students’ achievement in primary schools.” That is to say that schools “add” only 2% value to the children they receive, on average. Hence the ability of a good private school to get such good results. If you admit the best students, you get the best results. This doesn’t mean those schools do nothing, but it makes the usual arguments about education less useful.
Then there’s the internet, the third “online/offline” debate. The trouble is, most people are so busy having the first two debates, this one feels quite niche. Of course, this is the only argument that really matters. The internet changes everything: eventually education will realise it’s there and will change. But your kids might miss out on the chance to benefit. This is not the only reason why, but it is part of why we are now homeschooling our six year old.
Online learning wasn’t mentioned in any of the schools we looked at for our six year old. There was a mix of traditional and progressive approaches in all schools, but it all seemed very much like the sort of education we had received. Imagine going to an office that didn’t have email — not because it had grown beyond email, but because email had never arrived.
The biggest advantage of homeschooling — just from a knowledge perspective — is Khan Academy. Khan Academy is an online learning tool where you can more-or-less have a free, comprehensive, school education in any subject you like. It’s excellent, good for adults as well as school pupils, and it’s massive. And it does all the things we need to do to improve children’s standards: it goes at their pace, it works one-to-one, it breaks the material down, it requires practice, it reinforces positives. (The second biggest advantage of homeschooling is time. Our children work to their own schedule. We have stretches where it’s all maths and stretches where it’s all skateboarding. We had a phase of listening to Mozart on YouTube as they enjoy watching the musicians.)
The school system has no idea what to do about the internet, and yet it represents the biggest change and opportunity for education in hundreds of years. Anyone, anywhere, can learn anything. If you really do believe in the unlimited potential of every individual person, a claim you hear in many forms, strong and weak versions, all the time in education, why is the internet not in the hands of everyone in every class room? (An economist might say it’s because teachers are wary of the competition.)
Young children are intensely inquisitive. Children whose questions get answered ask more questions. But the classroom they get put in in the early stages of school (reception onwards) is a binary model of playing or reading and writing. There is so much wonderful work being done in schools across the country, and so many wonderful teachers. Some of them are my friends and relatives. As I said to one of them recently, it is hard to think of a job where you have so many opportunities, at so many margins, to make such a difference to someone’s life at work. Being a good teacher is so important right now. But when children are ready and eager, everyday, to learn about everything from sharks to organ music, they are funnelled into a curriculum of free-style play and handwriting practice. Seriously, who needs handwriting practice anymore?
The children recently came to me with four questions before bed. First, my daughter wanted to know why in Tudor times, when there were so many poor people, money wasn’t simply taken from the rich and redistributed so that everyone had an equal amount. When I said that there was indeed a Tudor Poor Law, she asked how much money people got from it.1 (This, along with the other questions, was put on a list to answer tomorrow.) The next three questions were these. Why did Britain win the Battle of Britain even though the RAF lost so many planes?2 How did Germany surrender at that battle — how did they tell the British government? How many people died at the Battle of the Nile?3 I do not believe that the school system, as a general rule, wants to answer questions in this way from a four and a six year old. Even if that’s wrong, I don’t believe the system can answer them.
Schools are bureaucratic places. It’s a well worn story how much paperwork gets sent to headteachers. The sheer numbers of files and folders of policies in a well-run, high-performing private school is an astonishing thing. I’m not quibbling the need for any of that. But paperwork represents time not spent learning. And, to return to my earlier bugbear, teaching the children things like those four very precise things they asked me is how you teach them to learn and to think.
So I was really quite pleased that we were forced to homeschool our daughter very early because of the pandemic, that we felt comfortable moving to full-time homeschool for both of them. The essence of homeschooling is not to treat them like a child of their age, but as an individual. We have a microscope that is marketed for ten years and up. My six year old uses it with us very happily and has looked at my hair and her snot through it. We have made slides together. Schools do not do this with children her age.
Because they are interested in history, we are darting around from Queen Elizabeth sitting down in defiance on the steps of the Tower of London to the scuttling of the French fleet.4 They watch organ music onYouTube and go to concerts in the Guards’ Chapel. They set themselves maths problems during train journeys and go on walking tours of the Great Fire of London. They sit and listen to hours worth of books and play five-times-table matching card games. The point of all this is to say that they are interested in everything and homeschool allows them to do a lot more. Practically none of this is available in the year one class my daughter would otherwise be sitting in. My argument is not that the home education my children are getting is better than a school education, per se. But it is very different and that ought to be seen as an opportunity to experiment and maybe change education.
But according to the school system, this isn’t what they ought to be doing. Their peers will be at a desk, now or very soon, practising how to form their letters. Reading will be done in the same manner, every day, irrespective of the interest shown by the child, and everything else is treated as exactly that. Everything else. A great big ancillary mass of knowledge, suspicious precisely because “there’s so much more information now than there used to be.”
I agree, very strongly, with the critique of government during covid that points to excessive bureaucracy costing lives. Medical regulators seemed unaware of the importance of a fast, Bayesian response. The equivalence of sins of omission and sins of commission was blithely ignored while thousands died, especially in America. Similarly, schools were unable to do much teaching during covid. I have no views on the rights and wrongs of what they did. But it’s clear that the way the education system worked during covid showed many parents that it wasn’t right for them and their children. Running the system has too often taken over from education. After decades of stupid arguments about whether phonics are the right system, how prescriptive the national curriculum should be, Why Academies Are Bad, or whether knowing things is good, a large group of parents are now out of that system. Education has never felt more libertarian. Or more promising.
A few notes and caveats.
I do not do most of the homeschooling, my wife does. She pays more attention to the national curriculum than I do. We are not very “school”, though, in the broadest sense, and one way of modelling our approach is to say “your life is your education”, so whatever we are doing is, in some sense, or at some margin, a form of learning. My wife tells me the children don’t understand half of what I say. I once started off on a discussion of the Two Power Navy Standard at a museum only to have them all either laugh or absently walk off looking for another model boat to gawp at. The fact that the children come and ask questions like the ones listed above, however, shows the benefit of that approach. Setting the tone differently is one way of summarising why we are homeschooling. Talk above your children’s level and they will eventually wave as they go past.
This essay focuses on what I don’t like about schools but that is not my whole opinion. I am not saying the school system is broken; but at the margin it is not good enough. For us that means going to homeschool. For many others it means extra tutoring, changing schools, going private, moving to a new catchment area, giving the school grief at parents’ evening, adding extra homework, using Khan Academy, or using out of school classes… What I am arguing for is a variety of approaches and a bigger focus on learning. My system doesn’t have to trump your system. The school I worked in was amazing. I was allowed to do Shakespeare with seven year olds. My traditional education was excellent and I loved it. I am not saying all schooling is bad.
No, I am not one of those people who believes that intelligence is all genetic. If I was, I wouldn’t bother homeschooling. My essay on Robert Plomin has much more on that.
There are whole topics I didn’t even touch on, that could be covered in more detail, like how much socialising homeschool children get, for example, or how podcasts are a great way for children to learn. (That is one of many examples here of a child’s ability to concentrate deeply, something else I am wary of in schools.)
Please do argue with me in the comments.
Other things to read
The Last Samurai (US link) is, along with Mill’s Autobiography, (US link), one of the best books to read on this subject. Here is my essay on Helen DeWitt, who I venerate. “Someone like Ludo can find no place in a modern school. With the internet he'd be unstoppable, but the poor boy was written just a few years too early for that.” (And my essay on Mill.)
Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie (US link) — excellent book, much recommended
David Perell podcast on how education will change. Fascinating throughout.
From Wikipedia. “The Poor Act of 1552 designated a new position, "collector of alms", in each parish. Local authorities and residents elected two alms collectors to request, record, and distribute charitable donations for poor relief. It further provided that each parish would keep a register of all its “impotent, aged, and needy persons” and the aid they received. Parish authorities were directed to “gently exhort” any person that could contribute but would not, referring them to the Bishop of the Diocese if they continued to refuse.”
From Wikipedia (quoting Richard Overy). “Due to the failure of the Luftwaffe to establish air supremacy, a conference assembled on 14 September at Hitler’s headquarters. Hitler concluded that air superiority had not yet been established and “promised to review the situation on 17 September for possible landings on 27 September or 8 October. Three days later, when the evidence was clear that the German Air Force had greatly exaggerated the extent of their successes against the RAF, Hitler postponed Sea Lion indefinitely.””
From Wikipedia: “British casualties in the battle were recorded with some accuracy in the immediate aftermath as 218 killed and approximately 677 wounded, although the number of wounded who subsequently died is not known… French casualties are harder to calculate but were significantly higher. Estimates of French losses range from 2,000 to 5,000, with a suggested median point of 3,500, which includes more than 1,000 captured wounded and nearly 2,000 killed, half of whom died on Orient.”
The internet is an incredible blessing for this sort of thing. This video about 1066 is excellent and the kids watch it with me two or three times at once. (They remember quite a bit when I quiz them afterwards, especially things like the Saxons having axes that could cut a horse in half.) Similarly, this video about the Battle of the Nile and this one about Trafalgar are superb. It boils things right down. Trafalgar is about breaking the line. The Battle of the Nile is about spotting a gap.
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