Why homeschool? Reasons parents choose to home educate

If you're starting homeschooling and want to read more of the research behind why parents choose homeschooling, this article by Dr Rebecca English is a good place to start.

By Dr Rebecca English | QUT university

Home education is a growing educational choice in Australia (Townsend, 2012). Like all educational choices, its legality is embedded in the notion of parents’ rights to choose an educational provider most suitable for their child. As I’ve argued elsewhere, home education is a choice that exists on a spectrum of legitimate school choices in Australia.

Home education choice is an interesting phenomenon to study, particularly for a university lecturer whose non-research work is in preparing pre-service teachers and who’s had a nearly 20 year career either in schools or in teacher education.

However, if it is growing, and evidence suggests more and more parents are making this choice, it’s important that governments, policy makers and the general community understand why parents choose home education, the types of home education and the impact or the effectiveness of this choice.

Why parents choose home education

There are many reasons parents choose to home educate in Australia and elsewhere. The reasons, while generally understood through stereotypes in the media and the general community, are many, varied and nuanced.

There’s a great quote from Ruth Morton, who says the stereotypes range from “social 'misfits': either 'tree-hugging hippies', religious fanatics or 'hothousing' parents determined that their offspring should achieve academic excellence at an early age” (Morton, 2012, pp. 45-46). We can see from this quote that Ruth believes the stereotypes of home education families are hippies, the religious or those who are determined to give their child every leg up (the snowplow, helicopter or tiger parents of popular parlance).

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However, Ruth’s and my own research has shown it’s far more nuanced and individual than the stereotypes suggest. My work has suggested parents who choose to home educate do so for a number of, not mutually exclusive, reasons.

Glenda Jackson, in her 2009 PhD thesis, describes these reasons as push and pull factors (Patrick, 1999). These factors were evident in a Life Matters segment on ABC radio in 2014 where John Kaye, the New South Wales senator leading the inquiry into home education in Australia discussed the government’s interest in home education (you can listen to the piece here).

 

First, there’s the parents who are ideologically opposed to institutionalised schools.

These families would experience the pull factors. In the words of Jackson (2009), they may be enamoured with the “positive features of home education” or believe in the “negative aspects of traditional schools” (p. 14). These parents may choose for religious reasons, for example Christian families who do not want their children exposed to the small ‘l’ liberal, irreligious attitudes of teachers. These parents may also believe that schooling interrupts family relationships, is unnatural and does not facilitate socialisation with outside age peers (cf. English, 2013; 2014; 2015; Jackson, 2009).

 

Then, there’s the parents who believe they are pushed into home education.

These families may have had children who experienced high levels of distress in schools because of bullying, various intellectual and social impairments, achievement needs that cannot be met in schools or because they are ADHD, ASD or some other specific situation that the inflexibility of schools cannot address.

Many of these parents describe their children as “twice exceptional”, a term implying children are highly gifted but also have social and emotional needs that make mainstream schools unable to cater to their needs. These children usually start their education in a mainstream school at prep but may then be moved around to several other schools as parents search for a viable alternative. By year 3 or year 5, they may be home educating as their parents give up on the mainstream schooling system and find they have to DIY their children’s education.

 

Another group in the 'push' category are school refusers.

While there is a good deal of research on school refusal suggesting there are two groups of refusers (separation anxious whose mother was likely also a school refuser and phobic school refusers who have a phobia of schools), little of this research has been undertaken in the home education community.

Further, anecdotal experiences of friends and colleagues who’ve described their own children who either hate school or don’t want to go anymore and who “would love to stay home and be homeschooled” suggests school refusal may be a significant push factor toward home education choice. In my own experience, it is school refusal that means my children will be home educated for a few years yet.

 

Types of home education

In addition to the reasons for choice, some research does exist on the types of home education. The types were featured at the New South Wales inquiry into home education in 2014. Findings from the inquiry suggest the NSW senate categorised home education as “structured”, “unit”, “classical”, “Charlotte Mason”, “eclectic”, “unschooling or natural learning” and “other approaches”.

My work, mainly with unschoolers, suggests the categories are much more fluid than is suggested by the work of the inquiry which may have struggled to understand some of the approaches.

Structured and unstructured approaches to home education

 

Structured approaches are those that follow the curriculum more closely. These approaches may involve distance education (in Queensland, distance education packages can be purchased even where families are in close proximity to schools), purchasing curriculum from overseas (in many cases, religious home educators will purchase materials from the USA), or those who follow the Australian Curriculum closely in their approach. Some of those structured approaches would include the unit or classical models outlined in the inquiry documents. Many of these families have at least one teacher in the family (see my discussion here).

 

Unstructured home educators are generally understood to be “Charlotte Mason” or unschoolers whose approach is defined by Holt and Farenga (2009) as “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear". While Holt coined the term, he preferred the label natural learning.

Scholars such as Carlo Ricci use terms such as self-determined learning (2014) or a willed curriculum (2012) to define the approach (Ricci and I are currently working on a special edition of a journal dedicated to the practice which will be available soon, the call for papers has recently closed).

In my research, I was mainly exploring the motivations of unschool families in Queensland. The results of my research have been published in the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning (2015), a book I edited about online connections among men and women (2016) and a piece I wrote with Karleen Gribble of the University of Western Sydney focusing on out of home care and home education families (2016).

I found most families who identified with unschooling did so because they were strong believers in their children’s natural motivation or inclination to learn, trusted their children, were able to see their children learning in a way that suited them and saw a noticeable improvement in their children’s happiness with the approach. However, I did not see many families who exclusively unschooled, many for various reasons, did a combination of unschooling and some book work, often motivated by snide remarks from family members.

 

Impact and effectiveness of home education

The effectiveness of home education in Australia is under-researched. In a field that is notoriously lacking in rigorous research, there is even less on the effectiveness of home education. It’s notable the Select Committee on Home Education findings focusing on student outcomes included an anecdotal section in the report.

The report listed research work by Cairns (2002) whose small scale study found 78% of graduates of home education went on to university of technical education securing jobs in technical, scientific, teaching or nursing. I cited the work of Ray (2003; 2014) who found, in the United States,

  • these children were outperforming their conventionally schooled peers
  • more likely to be accepted into prestigious colleges and courses, and
  • were more likely to stick with tertiary study because they knew how to learn.

Following from this inquiry, a study was commissioned by the NSW senate to explore NAPLAN results in home education and mainstream school students.

The findings of this study were that home educated students outperformed their conventionally schooled peers. On all six NAPLAN measures: reading, narrative writing, persuasive writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation as well as numeracy, home educated students outperformed their conventionally schooled peers. It is significant that these effects persisted even if previously home educated students returned to school.

While the study was a small sample size, as few home educated students undertake NAPLAN testing, the study suggests home educated students are able to perform well on standardised tests and measures of effectiveness. You can see me talking about the report here.

As the norms and constructs of our society shift over time, and legislation on vaccination requirements and religious education in public schooling change, so too do parent's motives for home educating their children. The huge gap between home educating parents and the state and federal education governing bodies needs to close.

Like it or not, homeschooling is here to stay, and our government should be doing all it can to better understand the motivations and the effectiveness of home education, so that it can champion Australian homeschoolers to succeed and flourish.

What were your reasons for choosing homeschooling? Do you agree with Dr English? Share your thoughts in our comment box below.

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Dr Rebecca English

Researcher at QUT

Dr Rebecca English is a researcher and lecturer in Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her work is concerned with the reasons parents make the education choices they make for, and with, their children. After her PhD, she has focused on alternative education choices, in particular home education. Rebecca has published book chapters, journal articles and popular pieces on home education and was invited to speak at the New South Wales Inquiry into Home Schooling. She is a mother of two young children, one of whom has asked to be home educated.

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