Getting alternatives to the system into the system

Helen Lees

Helen Lees

by Helen E. Lees, York St John University, author of Education without schools: discovering alternatives

The UK, as with other English-speaking countries, offers parents the legal option to home educate their children so that those children need never attend a school in their lifetime. Parents need not follow a set curriculum, nor are the children required to learn in a regular, timetabled way or even be taught didactically. In home education settings, independence, curiosity, discovery, projects, excursions and conversation are often deemed to be or become parts of pedagogy in order for children to develop a sound educational base for adult life. This is a true alternative to most schooling. It is a valid but underplayed part of a country’s educational “system”.

Nation states differ in their responses to how this situation should be managed, as a part of a national education system where the hegemonic and most widely known offering is school provision. It is clear that globally – especially in countries where English is the first language – opting for education without schools is both pedagogically viable and practically available (to those whose circumstances allow). It is also said to be increasing in popularity. Widespread awareness of the option is however patchy and even often, shockingly, completely missing. Knowledge of educational choice seem to stop at the gate of schools. To know and act upon a genuine discovery of education without schools is attended by complex factors such as social ignorance about what truly differentiates the home educating pathway from school attendance.

There is a problem with this situation. Taking up a viable, legal educational option that is clearly defined in national and, some could also say, international human rights law, ought to be quite simple. It is not. In my new book I argue that alternatives to the school system are mired by strong prejudice akin to problems with racism and sexism. Educational prejudice is alas rife and deep-seated: if the form and content of the education is not the norm, nor attempts to meet a hegemonic, coercive standard, it comes into the category of suffering from “educationism”. Both parents and children suffer because people do not have a concept of education without schools.

Educationism is a neologism I have coined to make sense of strange but persistent forms of exclusion of alternatives to mainstream schooling such as elective home education (EHE) and thorough-going democratic schools: they are conceptually excluded from viability as education. Two prominent examples of recent educationism can be cited: the 2009 UK government commissioned Badman Review of English EHE and the Summerhill court case against Ofsted of 2000. Both state-sponsored challenges to the validity of alternatives were eventually quashed. However, this was after unfortunate and difficult experiences for those involved in education without schools. Fear, suspicion and negative myths about how these alternatives function abounded, causing damage to their reputation and further cementing ignorance. The reason educationism needs to be addressed is because alternatives to a mainstream system are valuable: they offer insights for a technological, mobile, globalised age and they also work well educationally, even if their “skin” is different. We cannot, and ought not, to ignore, belittle or sideline alternative educational forms.

They require understanding on their own terms rather than the terms of the norm (mainstream schools). They are not yet in the system but children, parents and nation states would benefit from better understanding and appreciation of why including them as a recognised part of the education system matters. We need to bring alternatives in from the cold to sit by the mainstream fireside. Politicians, policy makers, teachers, parents and children can all play a part in enacting this change.

Helen E. Lees’s new book Education without schools: discovering alternatives will be published by Policy Press on 8 November.

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