It's very curious, in this age of measurement and quantification in education, to discover that there are some facts that no one knows. And one of those is how many children are educated outside school. Education Otherwise, one of the home educators' organisations, says 170,000. A cautious academic researcher says at least 10,000. No one can be certain, because in England and Wales only parents who are withdrawing their children from a state school are required to register them as educated at home. A child who has never been in school, or who moves from one local authority to another, or who leaves primary school without going on to a secondary, need not be registered at all. But on one thing everyone involved is agreed: home education is expanding fast.
A mother in rural Wales says that in the past six years, the local membership list has doubled every year. In Scotland, the main home educators' support group says inquiries that were running at three or four a month eight years ago are now running at roughly a hundred. Lewisham Council had one person working in the department dealing with home educators four years ago; now it has three. And Education Otherwise claims a 20,000 increase in home educators in Britain in just a year. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Department of Education estimates that there were 1.1 million American home schoolers in 2003 (2.2 per cent of the school-age population), up from 850,000 in 1999.
Why is this happening? Is it a good thing? And can the experience of those who teach their own children tell us anything about what is right and wrong in our schools?
"The only qualification you need to teach your own children is love," says Gina Purrmann, a mother of two home-schooled children. "If you don't like your children and enjoy their company, then you've lost it and you'd better send them to school. But if you do enjoy them - then it's very exciting."
Taking a child out of school is usually costly for families. One parent, almost always the mother, usually has to forgo an income and a career and assume a teacher's role. One might assume, therefore, that home education is an option only for the relatively prosperous, well-educated middle class. That does not seem to be true.
The people who do it are extraordinarily diverse. The ones I talked to included a builder's wife from the north of England, a hill-farmer's wife who left school at 16, and a wealthy mother from Notting Hill. Dr Alan Thomas of the University of London's Institute of Education is the author of Educating Children at Home (1998). He studied 42 home-educating families in Britain and found that they spanned the income range, from single mothers on benefit upwards. Half the parents he came across had had no post-school education. Only one thing united them: a belief that schools had failed or would fail their children, and that they would do a better job themselves.
Some have ideological objections; they might be religious or want alternative lifestyles, or believe that a family is a better place for education and socialisation than an institution. But many others have chosen to home-educate - for a term, a year or a decade - as a pragmatic response to a child's unhappiness at school.
Emma Lyttelton arrived to collect her quiet nine-year-old son from his state school and found him sobbing as he sat at his desk doing lines. The teacher, Emma says, was simply engaging in crowd control. Her son had already been scared by children carrying knives. She removed him immediately. "I just let him go free; it was heaven. He read a lot, and I got a maths tutor, and a fantastic boy who did English and just let Charlie lead."
Gina Purrmann's eldest son, Mark, was three when she sent him to a charming Montessori nursery. For a year she had to unpeel him from her legs and carry him upstairs to the classroom while he screamed. In the week that he turned four, Mark said: "Mummy, I went to playschool today, and I said to myself 'I'm never coming back'." She asked him why. Mark said: "There are too many children, and it's too loud. And they make you do things you don't want to do, and there's not enough time to do the things you do want to do. And the squash and biscuits are horrible."
At first, Gina says, she would wake up feeling sick with panic, wondering what she'd done. Then she started to meet other home-educating parents and began to feel less scared. "We do a lot of things in small groups. We're giving them skills, not chunks of knowledge. So they go to an artist and do drawing classes because that teaches them to sit still, to concentrate and to complete a task. They do dance, drama and singing, because it gives them confidence, presence and poise. But every family does their own thing. I speak German with mine, because I'm half German. And Mark, who is now 11, goes to a science group because he wants to be a scientist. We employ teachers as we need them."
Her seven-year-old son has also chosen to stay at home; his four-year-old sister is yet to decide. Gina does not have a principled attachment to home-educating; she just wants to do whatever works for each child. She says many families have children both at home and at school.
When parents see a child failing and floundering at school, taking them out can seem the only responsible solution. Education Otherwise says half its inquiries are from parents whose children are being bullied. Others are brought home because they themselves are bullies, or are very bright, or are falling behind, or need special help, or are simply baffled, alienated and bored. As one mother said to me: "Schools suit only a narrow slice of the population - the biddable, sociable, academic ones."
Anita took her nine-year-old daughter out of school because she was being poked and hit and tripped up constantly, and no one appeared able to do anything about it. Sue's son Tom was so far ahead of his age group at five that he was put up a year and then ordered to rejoin his age group nine months later, when a new headteacher arrived. Sue took her confused child away.
Gina says there has been an astonishing growth in home educators in her area of south London in the past seven years. But out of the 20 in her informal group, only three belong to a formal organisation. "They don't want to appear on contact lists, or to be known by anyone." Several of the people I talked to were very anxious not to be identified. Sometimes they do not want to be publicly critical of a school or a system their child might rejoin, but more often they are afraid of attracting attention or retribution.
Although parents in the UK have the right to educate their children on their own, the law says that such an education must be suitable. If a parent is known to a local authority, the person who makes the initial judgements about this will be an inspector. "Some officers are extremely helpful," says Brenda Holliday, a trustee of the Home Education Advisory Service. But others, says Holliday, "are bullying and overbearing, and demand that people at home draw up timetables as if it were a school". Some inspectors see their role as pushing parents into returning children to school. It is how they define success. Their ultimate sanction is a legal one; they can take parents to court.
Dr Thomas has been involved in several such cases. He says that few of the articulate middle classes get prosecuted now, perhaps because they have so often won in the past. It tends to be the desperate working-class parents, whose children have been completely failed, who find themselves in court and who frequently have their children ordered back to school. Indeed, home educators are divided on how to respond. Education Otherwise thinks they should organise, register, lobby and become a pressure group for more resources. Other groups fear that if home educators become too visibly numerous, they will be seen as a problem that must be dealt with. One woman said: "I don't want to draw attention to us. As long as the government thinks we're a tiny minority, they'll think we're not worth bothering about."
Home educators are a challenge to most of the current ideas about education. The hours tend to be short - it is common to restrict academic work to a couple of intensive hours in the mornings - whereas the answer to underperformance in schools is usually extra classes, extra homework, even extra sessions in the holidays. Home educators don't do tests; they follow children's natural inclinations. Because children work at their own pace, they do not experience failure, only a problem they haven't yet solved. Home educators, Thomas points out, never pursue a subject when a child has lost interest or is failing to understand. There is no point. If you are teaching a single child, it is self-evidently ludicrous to continue talking when he or she has disengaged. That is not true in classrooms, where teachers cannot know, and cannot afford to respond, every time a child fails to follow them.
Does it sound idyllic? Only for some children. I was educated at home for six months when I was 15, and I hated it. My parents were on their way to work in Africa, but a civil war delayed their departure. We five children left our schools in the city and retreated to a cottage in the Norfolk countryside, where my father set lessons for all of us, from the four-year-old upwards. The lessons were imaginative and the others liked them, but I was incensed.
My parents had always been on my side against any unreasonable external authority; now they were the authority. If my father set me an essay on the Chartists and I spent all weekend out riding, or reading novels, it wasn't possible to invent any excuses on Monday morning. Even though he tactfully avoided any major confrontations, my own feelings of guilt and defiance permeated everything. Home stopped being an enjoyable refuge and became a place where I ought to be working. There is no doubt that, educationally, I learned a lot. I read Bentham and Marx for the first time. But I did not want to synthesise that knowledge to impress my parents; I wanted a bigger stage. Nothing compensated for missing school, with its challenges, its flirtations, the drama of being part of a thousand-strong group. I spent those months in a state of almost permanent gloom.
There are many other drawbacks to home-educating. The responsibility is huge. Spending so much time together can end up feeling repetitive and too intense. A mother who was moving her children back to school after eight years said she was longing to have time to herself. Most parents declare that their children have plenty of social contact, but it is not as easy as at school, and some children do feel cut off from their peer group. Rural parents often spend many hours in cars. Then there are all the practical difficulties for children who want qualifications. Most exam centres won't accept private candidates and GCSE coursework is geared to schools, while parents have to pay for all their own entries and for all the resources they need.
So what is the evidence about the effectiveness of home education? US research claims home-educated children are two years ahead of their peers. It also shows that, once they become adults, they are much more likely than the average American to go to college, read books regularly and feel politically involved. But it is hard to take that evidence at face value. Home educators are so varied that it is impossible to balance all the variables - parents' education, child's prior attainment, time spent in and out of school - against a neat control group of comparable schoolchildren. What one is left with is anecdotal evidence. Researchers and visitors are frequently struck by the children's confidence, resourcefulness and articulacy. They tend to have wide vocabularies at a young age because they spend so much time with adults. They tend to learn to read later than other children, but then to become very enthusiastic and frequent readers. They have learned how to learn.
Carol Tomlinson, mother of 11-year-old Luke and nine-year-old Saskia, decided not to send Luke to school after visiting the local rural primary. Luke was, she says, a very dreamy, creative child. Ask him a question and two minutes later he might still be considering his answer. She feared he would be crushed by school. Six years later, Luke is a talented pianist; he has shot and edited a film, shown at a young film-makers' festival; and he is passionate about electronics. Carol says discovering their interests was crucial. Saskia wanted to sew; Carol can't. Carol found her a sewing teacher, and Saskia can now run up a dress in a couple of hours. She has made many of her own clothes, and she also plays the flute. Carol wishes there were resource centres available to children who aren't suited to school. Her vision is for small centres where children could choose what to do: one-to-one maths, or English, or small group workshops in drama or IT. It would be expensive, but it would cost much less, Carol says, than we currently spend on children in school.
The really interesting question is why we assume that schools are the best way for children to learn. There is plenty to suggest that they are not working for many children. Results in tests for 11-year-olds have scarcely improved in the past four years, and half of all children still emerge at 16 without five good GCSEs.
For low achievers, schools fail. What we have begun to understand about children's learning is that it needs to be tailored to their understanding, or they give up in a fog of incomprehension. We also know that they learn much more purposefully and effectively if what they do is tailored to their interests. Schools, as they are currently designed and staffed, cannot possibly do this. Though the government pays lip-service to the idea that every child should have a personalised curriculum, that can never be a reality when each teacher faces 30 children in each class. As one primary school teacher said to me, "With every lesson I teach, the train is leaving the station, and some children are being left behind." Home educators can afford to stop, wait and fill those gaps.
Why are the government and local councils not more supportive of home educators? They save the state money, and schools many potential problems. But home education runs counter to everything our ministers encourage. It keeps women out of the labour market and stops them contributing to GDP. It may not provide measurable results. It challenges the idea that education is best delivered by specialised professionals. And it largely takes children out of the authorities' sight or control. It will never be anything other than a minority pursuit. Why not support the people whose children aren't suited to school, and who are willing to put in the immense effort needed to compensate for this?