Home Education in the UK: a report from a girl who lived it

This is a guest post from an awesome young woman who didn’t go to school in the UK. You can check out her blog here.

Hello! My name’s Kayleigh, and I live in the United Kingdom; in the north of England, in a county called Yorkshire where it rains most of the time and has a lot of pretty countryside. I was home educated all my life up until the age of 16, and the awesome Kate has asked me to contribute to her blog to share my experience of what it’s like not going to school here in the UK.

The law in the United Kingdom states that children must be given a full-time education suited to their age and ability, whether that be at school ‘or otherwise’. So long as parents can prove their children are receiving a suitable full-time education at home, it is perfectly legal. Mostly, here in the UK we refer to what Kate calls unschooling, as home education. I’m not entirely sure why the term unschooling hasn’t caught on here too as it’s much less of a mouthful!

The education authorities for the local area are obliged to keep track of any home educating families they are aware of, and carry out regular home visits to ensure the children are learning. Here is where it sometimes becomes a little sticky. The officers that carry out these visits are generally the same people that carry out inspections on schools, so they frequently have a very narrow view of how to determine if a child is learning. Particularly with unschooling methods, it’s not always easy for parents to provide documentary evidence that their child is learning what the government feels is appropriate for that age. How can you prove in written form that your child has a good knowledge of basic mathematics, when he or she only uses their skills in the context of some other task, e.g. baking, cooking, helping with the grocery shopping?

The local authorities have varying stances on home education, depending on what area of the country you happen to live in; some have been known to use threats of social services to return children to school, while others are extremely positive and open-minded, inviting families for regular coffee mornings to discuss how they can improve things! It really is a postcode lottery. I have even seen conversations take place on Facebook where parents recommend the best places in the country to move to if they want to have a good relationship with the local authorities!

The attitude of the general public towards home education is a little more positive than that of the local authorities – or maybe the public are just more polite about their preconceptions (probably the latter). In my experience, the majority of people I’ve met have been curious about my education, rather than outright dismissive, although I won’t deny I have heard some rather negative comments as well.

There are almost as many different methods of home educating in the UK as there are families that home educate – as, I would imagine, in the USA. There are very few families that do so for religious reasons; the most common reason is simply a lack of faith in the school system or the structured method of teaching in schools. My mother decided to home educate me and my younger sister partly because of negative experiences in her childhood and those of my two older sisters, but also partly because of her growing disillusionment with the schools themselves.

Consequently, my experience was a very unstructured childhood. The only formal lessons I had were private tutoring in maths (because I’d rather wrench my own arm off with a spoon than have anything to do with numbers, and that feeling remains with me to this day), and my many ‘out-of-school’ activities such as dancing and horse riding. We were constantly acquiring books and more often than not I had my head in one of them. I would also spend a lot of time simply playing with my toys; I realise now that my poor mother must have been worried that I wasn’t actually ‘learning’ anything, but we both know now with hindsight that I was learning in my own way.

There was, however, a very active local community of home educating families. We would frequently get together to go on organised trips to local museums and sights, or hire out rooms and arrange all sorts of interesting things. We once had a local archaeologist come in with some specimens he had unearthed himself, which led to me deciding at the age of 9 that I wanted to be an archaeologist. Unfortunately, I later felt rather conflicted, as the following month the archaeologist’s wife came to visit with her collection of snakes, and I struggled to work out how I could combine a love of archaeology and raising snakes into a career. Training snakes to assist on digs? It was a challenge that took some while to overcome, and I eventually gave up and discovered horses instead.

So. Horses. Sorry, I still get a bit distracted when they’re mentioned, my eyes cloud over with visions of black stallions galloping across a hillside or something equally poetic. At the age of 16, I left the world of home education and went to college to study horse management. I should say at this point that the UK ‘college’ is not the same as what I understand it to mean in the USA; that is, the US colleges are our universities, while our colleges generally offer courses in academic and vocational subjects to 16-18 year-olds. I made the choice not to go on to university, however a lot of home educated young people (I feel old saying that) do go on to study for a degree. In my experience, not many of them go straight to university from being home educated; a lot of people go to college at 16 to take the exams usually required, however there are others who take distance courses in order to gain the necessary qualifications.

I often think that, had I attended school instead of being home educated, I would probably have gone onto university simply because it was the conventional path, regardless of whether it was the right thing for me personally. I am grateful that my unconventional upbringing has encouraged me to question the options available to me, rather than simply doing whatever is ‘mainstream’ – and I have applied this to all areas of my life. I am not afraid to admit that I had a brief period in my early teens where I desperately wanted to fit in (oh puberty, I’m so glad you’re not a part of my life any more) and was reluctant to discuss home education, always wanting to be the same as everyone else. That set me back for a while, however I am pleased to say I have now turned myself around.

So, at the ripe old age of 24, I now work in an office job answering complaints. It’s not hugely exciting but I tell myself I get to use my writing skills (not that I think the customers notice), plus it pays the bills and then some. When I finished college at 18, I figured I would rather go out into the world of full-time work straightaway than go to university, particularly as I was feeling a little directionless and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – might as well earn some pennies in the meantime! I definitely think I made the right decision; I’m not in a huge amount of debt, plus degrees over here have become hugely devalued due to the sheer number of people graduating every year, so there are people doing the same job as me who have had to study three years to get it.

While I still haven’t figured out quite what I want to do for a career, I’m ok with that; I have a fulfilling life outside of my job and I have a few possible ideas germinating in my mind which I intend to put into action in the near future. My experience of home education or unschooling has helped me to develop my creativity and imaginative thinking; and, most importantly, I am never ever bored!

13 comments to Home Education in the UK: a report from a girl who lived it

  • This was so interesting for me to read. I’m a 34 year old homeschooled mom who is now homeschooling my 11 and 10 year old daughters. I don’t refer to our type of schooling as “unschooling” because I follow certain homeschool curriculums for my children, but the more I find out about unschooling the more I want to integrate it into our homeschool experience. Thanks for sharing you story, I love hearing how it works for people in other parts of the world!

  • Thanks for sharing! I am an unschooling mom who happened to grow up (in part) in Suffolk County in the UK. My folks were U.S. Air Force, but had the wisdom to keep me out of the American schools and immerse me in the culture through local schools. And I must say, if schools here were like the schools I went to at that time (St. Felix Middle, if that means anything to you, in Newmarket–and before that, an elementary school in the same city that I no longer remember the name of), I would seriously consider sending my kids there. It was much more like unschooling than anything in the public schools here–sure, we had set topics that we studied, but the lessons were very fluid, there were no “grades” like they have here, and we were given wide parameters within which to explore.

    Lessons included drama, sewing, singing, violin, and science classes where we actually mixed things in beakers and heated them over bunsen burners. History usually involved studying music and art and architecture, and researching in the school’s library in a self-directed manner. English lessons meant writing stories and plays and then acting them out.

    Obviously not everyone’s experience was as brilliant as mine. And it seems I was very lucky in the quality of the school I attended. Still–it’s a fond memory for me, and something I’m deeply grateful for because the alternative, for me, would have been American public school… which I had much worse experiences with on the whole.

    Oh, and the horses–I had riding lessons there too. And of course, living in Newmarket there were horses up and down the streets all day long. We gave our school Christmas concert in Tattersalls, and then went to the horse auctions there as well. Our house backed directly up to the National Horse Racing Museum, and we got to watch the Queen unveil it when it was first opened. What a wonderful place to love horses! Is it still true, in Scotland, that you can ride through anyone’s fields so long as you close the gates behind you? And can you still ride horses on the beaches in England? Fond memories!!

    Back to the point–you see how easily I also am distracted by horses!–it’s interesting to me to read about homeschooling in the UK, because I have such fond memories of the schools there. Of course, that was the 80s… and a different part of the country… and I guess I’m just glad that whatever the state of the schools, families *can* make the choice to educate their own if they want to. And I’m so glad you had such a positive experience. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Wow, Heather, it sounds like you had such an enjoyable time at school in England! Sadly I think schools like that are a rarity here now, even among private schools.

      I’m not familiar with Suffolk at all, other than the connotations of Newmarket of course! I don’t know about riding in fields in Scotland, but you are still allowed to ride on certain beaches on the English coast, I know a few people who regularly drive over in the summer and have a good gallop :D

      • I think we may have just been very lucky in our school experience, though both the lower and middle were excellent, and my brother’s experience with the upper was also positive. He was a child who had been excluded and damaged by the American school system, and he came alive and thrived in those schools.

        So glad to know that riding is still done on the beaches. We used to take five-day treks, starting on the beach for two days, and then literally riding the horses back to the riding school over the next three days. Gah–what an experience.

        I wonder what it is that is killing our schools. American schools are even worse now than when I was a kid, and it sounds like your schools have gone downhill too… I feel so sorry for everyone stuck in either system. Thank heavens for homeschooling.

  • Joy

    So nice to have an international perspective on this. We’re a military family stationed in Germany. It’s interesting to try to understand how home education is viewed in different cultures.
    And Kayleigh has encouraged me not to introduce horses to my girls. They will pester me nonstop about them. (kidding… mostly)

  • I really enjoyed reading your story Kayleigh, especially since I’m an unschooling mom of 5 (soon to be 6) year old boy/girl twins. Even though they’re still little, I’m amazed at how much they learn just by doing lots of interesting stuff with me, having lot of adventures and travelling quite a bit. I love that you feel that feel unschooling has helped you develope your creativity and imagination. Those are some of the highest skills I hope my children can carry over into adulthood.

  • [...] Read the full article at Skipping-School.com Topics: Learning, Self-direction learning, self-direction Author :  Starrwyn Tonkin Starrwyn is an unschooling, re-thinking everything mom to four. Originally from South Africa, she now lives on the beautiful, tropical island of Mauritius. [...]

  • I’m just so happy to hear from an adult who was homeschooled! It’s such a blessing that there are now veteran homeschoolers and their children can now share their experiences and opinions. As a homeschooling mother, this is very reassuring.

    W/a Smile, Tiana

  • Belinda

    Great to read the experience of a grown up home educated kid!

    However- in the UK the authorities actually don’t have the right to visit home educators, or see a child’s work etc. They can ask, but a family is under no obligation to agree. Most home educators I know do not agree, and certainly would never let the authorities into their homes.

    I don’t know if the law has changed since you were home educated, or your local authority lied to you about the law at the time, but at any rate, things are very different now x

  • Belinda

    It could be a good idea to correct that part of your article, incase home education newbies become worried? The legal stuff can be found on many home education websites and facebook pages- try “UK Home Education Group on facebook- their files section explains it all..

  • Sophie Weston

    Lovely article Kayleigh. I was home educated and now l home educate.
    A small but significant correction..
    The Education Act states that home educating families do Not have to be visited or inspected. We do have to keep in touch, generally by giving them an Ed Phil and a brief annual report but that is it. It is important that
    people realise this because almost all LA’s will mislead parents into accepting visits that can escalate in big trouble if the inspector dislikes the family.

  • Jessica

    You have some details wrong. The LA is NOT required to monitor,visit a family nor keep track of them. Unschooling is referred to as autonomous in the UK, home schooling is referred to as home education in the UK.

  • Susan

    Thank you for posting this. My American homeschooled daughter is starting to look at university choices, including a few in the UK, and we were very confused…until we read your blog explaining the difference between what we call college in America (pretty much interchangeable with University) and what college means in the UK. Of course it would take a homeschool student to explain it so well.

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