Rationale

Why do this research? Basically there is an awful lot of debate about education – about whether schools are doing what they should be, and about better ways of educating children. Home education is one example of alternative ways parents are choosing to educate their children and as a growing phenomenon it is worth knowing more about.

There is a widespread perception in political, media and public discourse that education in England and Wales is in crisis. This perception is expressed in news headlines and also in the constantly changing educational policy of the current government (Tomlinson, 2005). The school system in England is perceived to be failing both in terms of academic achievement, with discussion about the “dumbing down” of the curriculum, and also in terms of behaviour. This sense of educational failure, particularly in the state-maintained education sector, has also been well documented in social research – both West and Noden (2003) and Roker (1993) (for example) found that parents’ worries about discipline and achievement in maintained schools were a key reason behind the choice of private education for their children. Many private schools are also choosing to opt out of the national examination systems with their students now taking qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate and International GCSE which are reputed to be more rigorous and offer students a broader educational experience.

It is within this context of public dissatisfaction with the formal school-based system, that home education has emerged as a growing movement in the UK. Quite how many children are educated at home is currently unknown, but estimates indicate that there has been substantial growth over the past 10 years. Statistics put forward by advocates of home education suggest that in the last decade there has been an increase in the number of home educated children in the UK from around 10,000 in 1995 (Meighan, 1995) to estimates of between 100,000 and 150,000 at the present time (Fortune-Wood ,2005), although government commissioned research states that the true number of home educators cannot currently be estimated (Hopwood et al., 2007). There is currently relatively little research into home education in England and even less that is written from a rigorous sociological perspective. However, the growth of home education presents a valuable opportunity to explore alternative models of education, challenging the common assumption that ‘education’ is synonymous with ‘schooling’, and presenting possibilities for new pedagogical models. It is also important to understand the reasons behind families’ choice of home education as these may provide an insight into public dissatisfactions with mainstream, school-based education and also into such families’ constructions of their position and role within wider society.

My research will be one of the first in-depth qualitative studies of UK home education to date, focussing specifically on the motivations and practices of home educating families, with the parents and young people involved being placed at the centre of the analysis. The theoretical framework will be one that considers the relationship between structure and agency within the context of educational ‘choice’ and ‘rights’.

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