The Most Private Private Education: Home Education in Australia
Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology,
Queensland, Australia, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Australia, the decision to home educate is becoming increasingly popular (Townsend, 2012). The popularity of home education exists is in spite of a large number of publically funded, financially affordable private and public schools that offer a range of educational alternatives to parents (cf. English, 2009). In spite of its increasing popularity, the reasons home education is chosen by Australian families are under researched (Jackson & Allan, 2010). This article reports on a case study that set out to explore the reasons Australian parents choose to home educate and whether this decision is related to the choice of a private school in Australia. In-depth, qualitative interviews were conducted with a group of home education families in one of Australia’s most populated cities. Data were thematically analysed. The analysis revealed that there were similarities between the discourses of parents who privately educate and parents who home educate. In particular, it reveals the parents’ fears about schools, their negative experiences of schools and their hopes for their children’s futures.
Keywords: homeschooling, homeschool, home education, school choice, private education, Australian education, Australia
In Australia, there is an opportunity to choose a school from a plethora of institutional types, all of which are at least partially government funded. The Australian educational landscape includes fully publicly funded schools variously called public, state or government schools and partially publically funded schools variously called private, independent or non-government schools (English, 2005, 2009). However, increasing numbers of Australian parents are choosing outside the traditional public/private dichotomy and are educating their children at home (Townsend, 2012).
Rather unusually, Australia is one of a handful of countries that actively funds its private or independent schools. Thus, all schools in Australia draw some government monies to fund their operational expenditure. While this process has been questioned in a recent review of education (Gonski et al., 2012), and there is evidence that some schools are able to make a profit from this arrangement (English, manuscript in progress), there is no indication that either side of politics will alter the current model of publically funding all schools.
In addition to the funding that goes to the school, parents are able to draw some payments for their child’s educational expenditure. The payments, known as the School Kids Bonus ( Australian Government: Australian Taxation Office, 2013), allow eligible parents, including those that home educate, to claim up to $420 per annum per child for primary school aged families and up to $820 per annum per child for secondary school aged families. This measure demonstrates, in some way, the government’s acceptance of home education as a choice equal to that of all other schooling options.
This article reports on preliminary findings of a study into home education in Australia. The findings reported here are drawn from interviews conducted with three home-education families located in the one of the most populous states in Australia. The parents of this study were following the unschooling or natural learning philosophy of home education. In this study, home education has been defined, in line with Harding and Farrell (2003, p. 125) as “the education of children within the home setting … overseen by parents or other adults, significant to the child and family.” Unschooling is defined, in line with Holt and Farenga (2003) as “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear” (p. 238). The term unschooling was used interchangeably, in the interviews with Holt and Farenga’s (2003), with other terms (i.e., natural learning, child-led learning, and self-directed learning). The purpose of this article is to examine whether home education is aligned with other private educational choices, including the choice of a non-government school.
In the USA, the decision to home educate has been found to be increasingly popular among parents (Collom, 2005; Cooper & Sureau, 2007; Hurlbutt, 2011). However, in spite of its increasing popularity, in the USA as in Australia and the UK, there is limited literature on the home education movement (Green & Hoovey-Dempsey, 2007). In addition, stereotypes remain. As Morton (2012) notes, perceptions about home education families range from “social ‘misfits’: either ‘tree-hugging hippies’, religious fanatics [to] ‘hothousing’ parents determined that their offspring should achieve academic excellence at an early age” (p. 46).
In one study in Norway, Beck (2012) found that there were four groups of home educators. Using the work of Bernstein (1990), particularly on orientation, he identified these groups as, firstly, the structured home educators. Structured home educators were middle class, religious, well-educated conservatives. The second group was unschoolers who were “well educated middle class parents, anti-establishment, with radical political and cultural views” (Beck, 2012, p. 74). The third group was pragmatic and was usually rural, working class families for whom the home education environment and the family’s work environment were linked. Finally, the fourth group was the unknown group, and was comprised of all those who were not registered and thus not accessible to study.
In their meta-analysis of the Australian home education research landscape, Jackson and Allan (2010) found that there are varied reasons families choose to home educate their children. They categorized these reasons as, firstly, “real or perceived negatives associated with education found in mainstream institutions” and, secondly, the “real or perceived benefits of educating children at home” (Jackson & Allan, 2010, p. 351). Similar findings were seen in Morton’s (2012) study. Her research, conducted in the UK, examined motivations for choosing to homeschool. Acknowledging the fragmented nature of the “community” of home educators, she found that, rather than the common perceptions noted above, the reality was far more nuanced. Morton (2012) argued that many of the discourses constructed by the home education families she interviewed mirrored those of parents who chose a private school for their children. For example, she argued that the rationales used by parents to explain their choice to home educate mirrored “rationales for educational choice used by middle class parents about their choice of private school, such as social milieu, acquisition of wider life skills and the transmission of values” (Morton, 2012, p. 47).
The research by Morton (2012) has been used to locate the choice of home education within the broader literature of school choice. Recent studies on school choice, particularly in terms of middle-class families, have focused on parents’ reasons for choosing a particular school and its role in managing risk. This article draws on research into middle-class educational choice practices. It is noted that, as Brantlinger (2003) states, the middle classes use their “agency in crafty ways to secure the best of what schools have to offer for our own children” (p. xi). This article extends the notion of “school,” as used by Brantlinger, to include home education.
Lareau (2008), working in the US, argues that there are three ways that parents secure this advantage. Firstly, they “presume that they are entitled to have the institution accommodate to their child’s individualized needs” (p. 117). Thus, these parents expect an individualization of instruction and environment that best suits the needs of their children, particularly in private schools where they are paying fees for that education. Secondly, these parents “feel comfortable voicing their concerns with people in positions of authority” (Lareau, 2008, p. 117). Thus, they are able to negotiate with those in power to secure what their child needs. Thirdly, middle class parents “appear to be willing and able to climb the hierarchy of authority to pursue their interests” (Lareau, 2008, p. 117). Thus, these parents will go beyond the school and seek the assistance of regional directors, area supervisors, government bureaucrats and ministers of education.
In her study of ethnic minority middle class parents, Archer (2010) looked at school choice in the UK through 36 semi-structured interviews. She found that Lareau’s (2008) contentions concerning parental desires were correct. She argued that “parents expressed a desire for personalised education, felt comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns to schools, and were willing to climb the ladder of authority to get their voices heard” (Archer, 2010, p. 465). She also found, in line with Brantlinger (2003) that middle class parents involved themselves in their children’s schooling and considered that involvement to be both “a ‘normal’ and ‘responsible’ aspect of being a ‘good parent’” (Archer, 2010, p. 466).
In a series of similar studies, Vincent, Rollock, Ball, and Gilborn (2012a, 2012b) found that parents endeavored to manage risks in education for their children. By examining the experiences of 62 black families in the UK, the Vincent et al. (2012a; 2012b) studies looked at the ways that risks were managed to secure advantage for their children. The families of these studies were found to “perceive schooling as a risk … that children may not fully realize their academic potential” (Vincent et al., 2012b, p. 266). Thus, the families of these studies were using educational choices as a resource to manage the risks faced by their children in schools.
However, in spite of their willingness to intervene on behalf of their children, several studies by Crozier (Crozier, 2000; Crozier & Davies, 2007; Crozier & Reay, 2004) have found that intervening may not be effective. These studies have found that there is an increasing miscommunication between schools and parents. Thus, while the parents are increasingly encouraged to communicate their concerns and involve themselves in a school ( Ranson, Martin, & Vincent, 2004), there is a disconnect in communication that leads to, as Archer (2010) has noted, a situation in which parents and teachers or principals are “unable to communicate effectively with one another, especially over teaching and learning issues” (p. 459).
This article takes the view that the decision to home educate is part of a two-fold strategy. On the one hand, it allows middle-class parents to activate their cultural capital (Lareau, 2008) as these parents were able to accommodate their children’s individual needs. On the other hand, the strategy of home educating was chosen because it allowed these parents to manage risk when problems with the school, or in some cases, issues with miscommunication arise. It is a choice that is often made by parents whose children have special educational needs (Knuth, 2010; Winstanley, 2009) with which the mainstream schooling system is unable to cope. The activation of middle-class cultural capital as well as the management of risk, undertaken by the home educating family, is not unlike that of other families who choose private education in the UK (Vincent et al., 2012a) or in Australia (English, 2009). While the parents of this study were living in close proximity to a number of different school choices, they still chose home education for their children. In two of the cases it was after many attempts to manage their children’s special educational needs in schools had led to miscommunication and failure. In the third case, it was a fear about what school would do to the oldest child who had been identified by his mother as twice exceptional. Thus, part of the study investigates the notion of risk, and whether these parents were choosing home education, as any other private education choice, as part of a risk management strategy.
The research took a qualitative approach, utilizing in-depth, qualitative interviews. The specific interview technique was flexibly structured interviews. This type of interview is more akin to a conversation seeking “in-depth understandings about the experiences of individuals” (Scott & Morrison, 2006, p. 134). It allows participants to reflect and describe their experiences in-depth (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992: Whyte, 1982). The resulting account is a co-construction of meaning between the participant and the interviewer (Fontana & Frey, 2008; Gubrium & Holstein, 1998; Scott & Morrison, 2006). These interviews are open-ended because interviewees are asked to speak broadly about their perspectives (Scott & Morrison, 2006; Yardley & Bishop, 2008).
There were approximately 30 questions, but these were grouped into five categories:
- The parents’ experiences of education.
- The demographics of the children.
- The children’s experiences of education (for example, whether they had ever gone to school).
- The family’s experiences of home education.
- The family’s plans for the future of their children’s education.
The questions were arranged in these five categories in order to reflect the experiences the children may have had at school. In addition, these questions reflect this article’s interest in (a) the home education choice as a private education choice and (b) the management of risks in cases where parents had chosen a school for their child(ren). In particular, the description of the family’s experience of education, and their plans for the future (whether they were interested in continuing their children in home education or whether they were interested in choosing a school) were designed to access their choice process and ascertain whether it was part of a continuum of private education. The questions that focused on the parents’ experiences of education, and their children’s experiences of education, were endeavoring to examine whether these parents saw home education as a risk management strategy, in line with Lareau (2008), Archer (2010) and Vincent et al. (2012a, 2012b). In addition, the arrangement of questions was designed to (a) allow parents flexibility in responses, (b) provide multiple avenues to describe their home education journey, and (c) ensure their comfort with the process at the beginning of the interview.
Three parents’ interviews, from a larger pool of ten interviews with unschool families, will be analysed in this article. These participants responded to a call to participate in a local unschool newsletter. They were all located in the coastal region of one of Australia’s most populous states. It is noted that the names used in this article are pseudonyms chosen by the participants. A decision was taken to allow the participants to choose their own pseudonym because it reassured the participants that the data were de-identified. It is noted that only women’s voices are represented in this article. The interview participants were self-identified and chose the time and location of their interview. As most were married, stay at home mothers, their husbands were working when the interviews were conducted. All participants were tertiary educated.
The first of the parents was Joan. Joan was a married, stay-at-home mother to four children: Aamon (10), Emily (8), Mason (4) and Jade (3). Both of the older children were registered with the home-education authority section of the state education department. The younger two were not registered because they were not of compulsory school age. Aamon was being unschooled because he was gifted but also had some sensory processing disorders. As such, he could be considered to be twice exceptional.
The second parent was Jennifer. Jennifer was a married, stay at home mother to a daughter, Violet (age eight). Jennifer had qualified as a teacher and spent 2 years teaching overseas. Violet was Jennifer’s second child, the first and only of her current marriage. Jennifer had a 16-year-old son named Damien who was studying at a prestigious university. He had experienced a number of problems with schools; his mother described him as twice exceptional, and he was finally asked to leave a school at which Jennifer was teaching. At this point, she decided that she, too, would leave the school and she began unschooling her son. Violet was also unschooled after her initial decision to go to kindergarten.
The third participant was Kate. Kate was a qualified podiatrist and ran a busy practice as well as unschooling her two children, Sean and Anna. Sean was also twice exceptional, having been ascertained in pre-school (now known in Australia as prep) as having an IQ of 130 but also having some markers of a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). The teachers had not managed to meet his needs and, in much the same terms as Jennifer, the family had tried several schools without much success. They had asked Sean and Anna if they would like to be home educated and both had said that they wanted that.
Three families’ stories are reported here. The use of these stories is not meant to suggest that they are representative of the experiences of all Australian unschool families, Nor does it mean that all Australian home educating families will have similar experiences. The analysis of data is meant to imply that the experiences analysed in these accounts are unique to these families and may contribute to further understanding of experiences of home education in Australia.
Data were coded thematically to see if there were similarities between different responses (Robson, 2011). The themes that emerged from the data are reported below. All three participants discussed private schools at some point in the interview. For each of the three parents, the data revealed a sense that private education would not have been able to meet her child(ren)’s unique educational needs and, in any case, may have produced different problems. However, for these parents, home education was another private education choice, and was no less legitimate than removing a child from a state school to send it to a private institution. In what follows the three themes are discussed (italics are used to signal a direct quote from the interviewees).
Theme One: Wider, Systemic Problems with Institutionalized Education
All three of the participants stated that they had had major problems themselves in schools. While this was one of the reasons they had chosen home education, it was not the main reason. In fact, Kate explicitly stated that she was careful to keep her opinions on school away from her children and supposed she may have been too positive about the experience of school because her children in utero would have sensed her negative associations with school. Each of the participants noted they had some positive experiences at school including friends and certain subjects. For example, Joan stated I liked my friends—There were a couple of subjects I really did enjoy.
While there were positives about the experience, all three noted that there was a system of control from teachers to students in schools that was problematic. This control was based on fear and on, what appeared to the participants to be, arbitrarily distributed punitive discipline. For example, Joan stated that there was a lot of disrespect from the teachers towards students and the students towards each other. Similarly, Jennifer strongly remembered the teacher getting really cross with me because I couldn’t do something … I just remember the anxiety, real anxiety. Similarly, Kate noted that she was suicidal by grade 7, due to her family’s problems compounded by her negative experiences of schooling.
These negative experiences of school were, in the cases of Jennifer and Kate who had sent their children to school, relived in their children. For example, Jennifer’s son, Damien, had experienced problems right from the word go. She remembered that it was awful— Teachers don’t understand. [Damien] was just about to leave his primary so I think he was about six; seven … he went to a number of schools there but he got suspended from every school that he went to. Similarly, Kate noted that her son Sean was angry and withdrawn after school and was fearful of being spoken to harshly while also being angry/scared/sad when any other child was spoken to harshly. The experiences of these two children, Damien and Sean, appeared to mirror the anxiety, frustration and sadness that their mothers had experienced in schools.
For Jennifer’s and Kate’s daughters, for whom school had not been so deeply traumatic, there were still problems with the authoritarian (Kate) nature of the mainstream schooling system and its conflict with the home. Kate’s daughter Anna, while compliant, complied out of fear of being publically shamed and was resentful that she was charged with sitting with the naughty boys at the back of the classroom to keep them in line. In Violet’s (Jennifer’s daughter) case, the problem was with the regimented timetable of institutionalized education. In kindergarten, Violet had experienced problems around regimentation. She resented being told she had to have a nap time and she didn’t want to have a nap time and all that. In addition, she wanted to have a chance at free play with the toys she had seen at the kindergarten’s fête. However, the reality was she couldn’t play with the toys that she wanted to. As a result, while they had not experienced the same trauma as their brothers at school, both Jennifer’s and Kate’s daughters had been unhappy in the school environment.
While the negative experiences of Kate’s and Jennifer’s children were not the same as those of their mothers, all four children had experienced problems with being understood, listened to and respected in schools. Kate and Jennifer described how their own anxieties about schools, and their own feelings of being inadequate and disrespected in schools, had been repeated in their own children and this re-stimulated powerful feelings in them. It was this sense of being challenged by schools, as school students themselves and as mothers of schooled students, that had led to their decision to home educate. In the case of Joan, who was different in that her children had never attended a school, her anxieties for her children, their education, and their particular circumstances, had led to the decision to home educate.
The finding that the parents’ anxieties influence their children’s experience of schooling reflects the work of Brantlinger (2003), Lareau (2008), Archer (2010), and Vincent et al. (2012a) on school choice. These authors argue that there is a great deal of fear and anxiety around schooling and it leads to parents attempting to make strategic decisions about their children’s education. As Brantlinger (2003) found, parents felt a need to be ever vigilant over the schooling process because of fears about failure or potential failure. It would seem that, for the three families whose experience is reported here, no amount of “engaging in a high level of surveillance and intervention and taking steps to change schools where deemed necessary” (Archer, 2010, p. 454) worked. The strategy of surveillance and intervention had been unsuccessful and had, instead, led to home education being chosen.
Theme Two: Children’s Lack of Control Over Learning
All three participants noted that the school system, public or private, was governed from above, and children have no control over their day. To illustrate, Kate explained, The school system is one that I see of very controlling, [it] promotes obedience without question and I think that’s not a good quality that we should be instilling in our children. Thus, even if she had been successful intervening on behalf of her son, in line with the good middle class parents of Archer’s (2010) and Vincent et al.’s (2012a, 2012b) studies, problems with the system would have remained.
All three noted that the attraction of unschooling was that children controlled the curriculum. As Joan stated, We don’t actually go “okay, time for maths”. We don’t ever do that. It just doesn’t work. Maths will happen naturally even through Sesame Street or we just go “oh there’s three cars – one, two and three” and it just happens starting when they’re little. In much the same terms, Kate noted that it’s a lot more natural and they’re not relying on someone else to tell them what to learn. They are empowered by just learning and enjoying learning.
In her account, Jennifer stated that, because she was a trained teacher, people assumed that the school model of home education was the one she had chosen. Rather, she had totally eschewed this model for several reasons. Firstly, she stated that I’m very much child led and we do what my kids want to do so I am very different to school, because her experience with 45 minutes of literacy and 45 minutes of numeracy was very negative. Secondly, she thought the system at large that mandated not only the time children could spend on any task, but also the content and context of those experiences, was not conducive to learning. She believed in children being free to learn, and had felt disempowered by the system. As she noted, I can’t help these children … as a teacher, your hands are tied with them in mainstream schooling. One of her biggest frustrations was there is such a lot of time wasting; such a lot of paperwork that’s pointless. I don’t believe in measuring children.
However, as Kate’s husband noted after the interview, home education was no panacea. There were still problems with meeting the criteria of educational authorities that set the requirements for families who registered to legally home educate. Joan stated that their natural learning approach had been fine until Aamon was in their Year 3 when the department decided that Aamon was not at peer level …. they cancelled our registration … and we had to apply again and show just cause that we should be able to home educate. The family was in the process of reapplying for their registration and she said that because of her strategy, we tick their boxes and tell them what they want to hear and we just continue in our own little way, she expected to be successful. Thus, while she was notionally governed by the requirements of school, in the sense that there was a bureaucrat that compared her son’s learning to that of schooled students, she had learned how to work around the requirements in order to ensure that her beliefs about her son’s education were realized.
These parents appear to be engaging in ensuring the individualized needs of their children were accommodated. For example, while Joan was aware of department requirements, and had suffered the punitive measure of having to reapply to the department to maintain her registration, she had, to quote from Lareau (2008) [played her] “cards with … skill”, in spite of the way “the field encompasses the rules of the game at any moment” (p. 84). Joan’s experience of having to reapply, as well as Jennifer’s and Kate’s experience in the school system, was in line with Archer’s (2010) finding — dissatisfaction with the inflexible teaching environment found in schools. This finding seems to confirm the work of Ball (2003) and Lareau (2008), who found that middle class parents are active in intervening with education officials to ensure the individual needs of their children are met. In Joan’s case, she appeared to be using the requirements of state government departments of education in new and innovative ways.
Theme Three: The Children Were Happy to Engage in Classes They Chose
The three parents were all members of a homeschool group. In a homeschool group, as Joan explained, there were special classes (e.g., drama, speech, circus, music, and science) and events such as market days in which the children could be involved. When asked how the children coped with the notion of “class work,” Joan stated, They’re just fine. There’s no like “I don’t want to go right now – I’ll go later”. I think that happened once and it was like “honey, if you don’t go now you’re going to miss drama”. Similarly, Kate stated that the experience in market days, which were organized by the children, were really empowering for [the children] and they’re [left] feeling good about themselves.
As such, the data revealed that it was not a failure of their children to be able to do classes or commit to tasks that was the problem. These children were not home educated because of an inability to meet the requirements of sitting in a class and learning in a schooled manner. Rather, it was about parents positioning “themselves as assertive but reasonable advocates for their children, and their children as good and responsible learners” (Vincent et al., 2012a, p. 266). The children’s home education was drawn from an anxiousness (Archer, 2010) about their children’s experiences and treatment in formal education and, an attempt to manage that anxiety “through educational ‘strategizing’” (Archer, 2010, p. 453). Accessing the home school group market activities and classes in science, drama, circus, music and speech were all part of these parents’ strategies to ensure advantage for their children while eschewing the disadvantages they perceived with mainstream education while getting the best experience of learning.
The findings of this study suggest that, for the three parents whose interview responses are reported here, home education was on a continuum with private schooling. It was on a private school continuum in the sense that it was chosen for many of the same reasons as other modes of private school are chosen. For example, as Morton (2012) found, many of the discourses constructed in the accounts of the three families in this study mirror those of parents who chose a private school for their children. For example, the parents were choosing to home educate because of a desire to maintain a positive social milieu for their children, which was contrasted with the social milieu that Damien, Sean, Anna, and Violet had experienced in their schools. In addition, the parents were attempting to manage the transmission of values, particularly positive values around learning, through their home education experience. Finally, these parents were also concerned with the acquisition of wider life skills, such as ensuring that the individualized needs of their children were accommodated, while offering them agency over their learning that would be unavailable to schooled children. The children were offered a chance to learn what they wanted at their own pace, and this was part of the parents’ strategy for ensuring that they acquired the life skills that were child led and determined by the child’s interests.
In addition, in line with the findings of the Vincent et al. (2012a, 2012b) studies, the choice to home educate allowed the parents to control their children’s educational experience, to meet their children’s unique needs, and to ensure that their children were able to avoid the negative experiences they themselves had encountered at school. Further, as Crozier and Davies (2007) and Crozier and Reay (2004) suggest, control over their children’s experience of education is a key discourse within which middle-class parents position their efforts to secure advantage for their children.
These mothers had engaged in much the same reflexive work that was described by Archer (2010); however, the outcome had been different. Rather than move schools, these mothers’ reflexivity had led to them work beyond the school space. Archer (2010) notes that middle class parents must negotiate the divide between having the strength to “challenge schools with confidence” while being “sensitive to the danger of being negatively stereotyped by schools” (p. 462). These parents, in deciding to home educate, were working outside of the system of private/public mainstream schools. They were no longer concerned about being negatively stereotyped by schools. In much the same terms as the parents in the Vincent et al. (2012a, 2012b), Archer (2012), Ball (2003) and English (2005, 2009) studies, these parents were attempting to secure advantage for their children. It was just that, as noted in the interviews, the advantage was felt to best be secured by moving beyond mainstream education, even at a private school.
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 This article uses the term home education, as it is the preferred term in the state in which the researcher is located. According to the Department of Education, Training and Employment (DETE), the term “encompasses a broader concept of educational experiences based in and beyond the home” (Queensland Government: DETE, 2013, ¶3).