Record: Helen E. Lees, Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives (Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2014). [Abstract Here]
Summary: Lees, a Visiting Research Fellow in Education and Theology at York St. John University in England and founding editor of the online journal Other Education, here draws on her doctoral research to make an impassioned plea for expanding the public understanding of education to include more than formal institutional schooling. I summarized the first five chapters of her book here. In this post I will summarize chapters six through nine and end with a bit of analysis.
Chapters four and five had provided a theoretical account of elective home education (EHE) and an empirical explanation for why some parents choose it. In chapter six Lees turns to the government’s attitude toward EHE. Her complaint is that while EHE is tolerated, the British government does nothing to popularize it, which means that most parents never pause to consider EHE as a viable option for their children. Because of inattention to EHE at the national level, Local Authorities are very frequently misinformed about the rights of parents and the appropriate procedures established for EHE. Lees found that 80% of local authority websites contained inaccurate information about EHE. As she succinctly puts it, “there is an inaccurate attitude, leading to inaccurate information, leading to inappropriate behaviours on the part of local authorities, which in turn leads to difficult relationships with parents.” (p. 108)
A second complaint Lees raises concerns financial incentives. Though parents who choose EHE pay taxes, they do not benefit. While required examinations are free for students attending government schools, EHE students have to pay for them. This and other financial constraints means that “parents on low incomes are less likely to be financially able to make EHE discovery an educational reality.” (p. 111) Lees hopes that government can move from mere toleration to advocacy and financial support of EHE.
Chapter seven considers the topic of school exit. Lees first defines the term. School exit tends to happen when parents and/or students feel like their concerns about problems in school are not being heeded by authorities. Most parents with children in school want to keep them there, but if the school will not listen to parental concerns, parents eventually give up. Exit happens when “voice and loyalty play themselves out.” (p. 123) And what is the complaint parents often raise? Mostly that schools don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Schooling is supposed to prepare children for democratic life, but instead it often exerts authoritarian control over their lives in destructive ways. Lees describes a growing trend in the United Kingdom toward people taking charge of their own lives in a new do-it-yourself, post-consumer culture. EHE is the most extreme form of a growing range of alternatives to the conventional one-size-fits-all, top-down government school that characterized modern industrial society. The internet is clearly playing a leading role in popularizing such trends and facilitating networking among those who are looking to exit conventional school, but unfortunately to date knowledge about such options remains the provenance of those with financial resources. There remains a pervasive sense that the poor should not have the same right to exit as should rich families, though it is these very poor who are often least well served in conventional government schools.
Chapter eight takes on the problem of home education gone bad. It begins with the Khyra Ishaq case in Birmingham, UK, which received significant media attention in 2008-2010. Ishaq was an abused child who died of malnourishment whose mother hid the abuse behind a claim of home education. Lees in this chapter lays out three distinct options for why some families home educate. The first option she calls “negative discovery.” It is the discovery that home education can be claimed by a family to hide abuse, as happened in the Ishaq case and in another case Lees mentions involving a mother who forced her adopted daughter to conceive a child through artificial insemination. Lees asserts that parents like this are not real home educators. Such scrofulous parents can be ferreted out by asking them about educational philosophy. If they don’t have much to say, they’re clearly faking it.
The second option Lees considers is “excuse discovery.” Some parents whose children are just truants will claim home education after the fact to avoid paying fines or other punishments. Sometimes such parents are even encouraged to do this by an Education Welfare Officer. Lees thinks that in such situations parents should expect and receive more stringent oversight.
Finally there is “genuine discovery,” which is what she has been chronicling thus far in the book. Genuine home education discovery often strikes in a flash as the answer to a crisis and is often experienced somewhat like a religious conversion. Genuine home education will not just reproduce school at home but is a full-fledged pedagogical and heutagogical transformation.
Chapter nine briefly summarizes many of the points Lees has made in the book, ending with a forward-looking bit of optimism that technology will ultimately “dissolve [the] imperialism” of hegemonic government schooling and open space for education without schools to be discovered and practiced by more families.
Appraisal: When I began this book I was skeptical since the experimental base was so weak. I was doubtful that Lees could get a whole book’s worth of mileage out of 29 interviews and a quick survey of 90 random people she met on the street. But very little of this book ended up being based on those sources. Most of it is more of a philosophical argument/polemic about how Lees believes the government is not doing enough to help families discover EHE as a viable option. As a piece of empirical science the book is very thin. But its polemic is very thoughtful and interesting to read.
I personally found Lees’ arguments for increasing government oversight of Local Authorities and their often misinformed approach to EHE persuasive, and I agree with her that if taxpayer funds are being used by government schools to pay for required tests and other services, home educators should receive the same benefit. In the United States many states have of late been opening up more and more public school resources to homeschoolers, a policy which fits the spirit of what Lees is proposing.
Where I found her less persuasive was chapter eight’s attempt to distinguish between genuine home education and negative or excuse-based home education. To me she imposes her own values on the phenomenon and would like to argue that if a parent doesn’t have a radical critique of conventional pedagogy she’s not a genuine home educator. A genuine home educator must also have thought a lot about educational philosophy and be ready to explain herself on such matters. To me this approach fails to capture the true diversity of home education motivations and unnecessarily circumscribes family options. If a family wants to continue formal schooling, with all its worksheets, textbooks, segmented class periods, and so forth, but to do all of this at home, would Lees really not count this as home education? Or say a parent opts for home education not because she has had a personal eureka moment where the scales fell from her eyes and she saw through the lies of government hegemony but only because pragmatically it made the most sense at the time given any number of possible contingencies. Again, would Lees not grant such a mother the right to be a home educator because she did not fit Lees’ definition of genuine?
A second problem I had with chapter eight concerned her attempt to exonerate the paradigm of elective home education from responsibility for the horrific abuses perpetrated under its guise. She tries very hard to say that such families are not really doing home education and that home education is not really the issue, but the fact remains that loose laws and looser enforcement by local child welfare authorities are part of a paradigm of parental libertarianism that advocates of EHE have fought very hard to attain. Lees is less than clear here about what she thinks should be done. She vaguely hints that parents should be interviewed to ascertain the parent’s philosophy of education and degree of connection to other home educators, hinting that those without an articulate philosophy who are isolated from other home educators are likely not genuine, but it is not clear how such a policy would actually work itself out legally. Would local authorities be the ones who got to determine whether a parent’s philosophy was sufficiently robust? How many outside contacts would be necessary to be declared genuine? I’d like to see Lees try to develop a clear, coherent policy rather than simply reiterate Foucauldian vocabulary.
In closing, despite the book’s rather limited evidentiary basis and its underdeveloped policy implications there is nevertheless much of value herein. Lees has gone further than most other writers on home education in her efforts to theorize the movement such that it becomes a coherent and live option for 21st century families.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College