Download from Times Educational Supplement Website

Ref: Williams, E. (2000) 'Home Rules OK?'. Friday Magazine, 10th November. UK: Times Educational Supplement (TES).

Home rules OK?
The law says children must be educated - but it doesn't say where. Elaine Williams talks to families who have decided that school is not for them.

Steev Stamford's solicitous directions - beware the steep hill-.. sharp right turn ... staggered crossroads - ring in my ears as I make my way across the mole-skinned, dry-stoned, curvaceous counterpane of Derbyshire's Peak District. For once, I don't get lost, despite the rural isolation of Peak Dale village, where the Stamfords home-educate their children, Philip, aged eight, and Flossie, seven.

Open, smiling faces appear at the window and Flossie and Philip race to open the door of their house, a small semi with two downstairs reception rooms, dedicated to their learning. Maps cover the walls, reference books and educational resources fill many shelves. A computer sits in the corner of the back room. A dining table is covered with an electrical circuitry kit, which the children have helped make. The morning has been given over to testing which materials best conduct electricity - water, vinegar, HP sauce, olive oil.

Philip is clear about his educational preferences. "We don't just sit around and talk about stuff like at school," he says. "We're always doing things. If it's a nice day we go out and visit places like museums and castles." Both children are chatty and eager to show what they can do - the maths programmes they follow on their computer, the guitars they play, the detailed records they keep of their activities and trips out, all illustrated in detail with photographs from a digital camera.

Any assumption that the children would be incapable of social interaction, or struggling to master literacy and numeracy skills, quickly fades. Philip is currently reading Kit Pearson's War Guests trilogy - a challenging read for any nine-year old - and Flossie handles long multiplication on the PC with ease.

Steev Stamford is ever open to his children's questioning, as attentive to their developmental needs as he was to my dismal map reading and obviously proud of his domestic empire. He makes the most of IT, regarding the Internet as an invaluable educational resource with enormous potential for independent learning. He also uses email to keep in contact with other home educators. As the Derbyshire contact for Education Otherwise, a national support group, he sometimes finds himself defending families against local councils that wish to see children back in school "It is surprising how many councils still threaten parents with legal action," he says. "I am not afraid to quote the law at them word for word."

The support group's name derives from the Education Act of 1944, which states that education is compulsory for children aged five and upwards, by attendance at school or otherwise. Over the past 20 years thousands of parents have seized the opportunity the law affords them. The Stamfords are part of a growing army of home-educators, at least 25 per cent of whom are teachers.

According to Roland Meighan, special professor of education at Nottingham University, numbers have swollen to at least 30,000 families, still a long way behind Canada and the United States, where home education is more established, but more than the dozen families he found when he became interested in the phenomenon in the Seventies. Some, including the Stamfords, take the initiative because they are unhappy with the experiences their children or they themselves have had with schooling. But increasing numbers are choosing it as a positive and alternative lifestyle from the moment their children are born.

Despite his jocular nature and six-feet-four-inches, sixteen-and-a-half-stone stature, Steev Stamford remembers being bullied at school, persecuted for being the "tall, stringy wimp". His wife, Jane, spent most of her last year of education out of school because of bullying. So when they moved from Enfield, Middlesex, to deepest Derbyshire and put Philip into the local village school - 25 children, two teachers - they thought such troubles were behind them. But it was not to be. When Philip moved from reception into Year 1, he seemed to suffer from being in a mixed age group, particularly with older boys, and when the pushing and shoving in the toilets got beyond a joke three years ago, they decided to take him out and go for the home-based option.

Jane Stamford provides the family's main income as production planning manager with a plumbing firm. Steev supplements that with an assortment of one-off commissions, working from home producing websites for local businesses and driving lorries. But for the most part he guides the learning of his children, overseeing a fairly structured diet most mornings of maths, English, science and music, but regularly taking them out on day trips - as home educators they get free entry into many venues - and making heavy use of the local library.

Mr Stamford believes his children are thriving and that he has been able to foster their natural inquisitiveness, "which the school system tends to stifle". The value in sacrificing a second income and giving time over to them is obvious, he says.

Although Professor Meighan has been heavily involved in teacher training during his academic career, he believes home-based education is the way ahead for many children and has established his own Educational Heretics Press, which publishes books about the subject He believes passionately that home education is an excellent preparation for contemporary life. Moreover, he predicts that by the end of the decade, one child in four in the US will be home educated, with another one in four on "flexi- time", dipping in and out of the education system to suit individual needs.

Home-educated children, he says, are often two years ahead of their school-taught peers "on any test you can throw at them", and can be ahead by 10 years. He believes the more flexible, self-directing system afforded by home education is a better fit for modern patterns of work, which often require people to be creative, self-initiating freethinkers, increasingly working from home on a varied portfolio of tasks. "The Government says it wants life long learners," says Professor Meighan. "But then, in their formative years, puts children through a course in practical slavery. This model of schooling, with subjects separated by bells and a prescribed curriculum, was established when we needed to staff factories in large numbers."

Scientific eye: Philip & Flossie experiment while Steev Stamford watches