Home-Based Education
Not "Does It Work?" but "Why Does It Work So Well?"

RONALD MEIGHAN, University of Nottingham School of Education, 1996

Yehudi Menuhin went to school for one day. Although he said he did not dislike it, one day was enough and the rest of his education was home- based. This kind of approach, adopting the home-based education option, has been taken up by more and more parents in a variety of countries over the last 20 years.

Partly because of its low profile as a grassroots development, the actual significance of home-based education has hardly begun to be recognised, for it lays open to question all the basic assumptions of the present schooling system.


Most people in the United Kingdom have come to believe that schooling is compulsory and are often taken aback to find that they are quite wrong. The families concerned get rather tired of quoting the law which states that:

It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, aptitude and ability, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

The law is clear; education is compulsory, schooling is not.

In 1976 a self-help and mutual support organisation was set up for parents in the United Kingdom who choose this unusual form of education: it took its name from the clause in the Education Act and was therefore entitled Education Otherwise.

In the United States over a million families are reported to be "home- schoolers". In the United Kingdom the number of families opting for home- based education has grown from about 20 families in 1977 to approaching 10,000 in 1994. In Australia 20,000 home-based educators are reported, including those using the radio schools system for children in the remote Outback areas of the country. In Canada, 10,000 are officially known and 30,000 estimated as the real total. In New Zealand the figure quoted is 4000. In all cases these figures have been rising steadily over the last 20 years and continue to rise. Every time the subject appears in a newspaper article or is the subject of a radio programme or is featured in a television programme more people come on board, convinced that this option is worth trying to solve their educational difficulties of dissatisfactions. They are surprised to find not just that is works, but that is works very well.

The central research question about home-based education has changed. In the 1970s it was about whether children who were educated at home would be able to match their school-based counterparts. Since about 1985, however, the question has become:

Why is home-based education so remakably successful, and what is it about present models of schooling that holds back the learners attending them full-time, both in learning achievements and in social and emotional maturity?

My own further question has been:

What can we learn from the efficiency and effectiveness of home-based education to construct a new and better learning system?

Conclusions about the effedtiveness of home-based education can be drawn from a variety of research methods.


- Home-based education could be considered extremely successful, judging by the achievements of some well-known people who have been educated in this way: Yehudi Menuhin, Patrick Moore, Agatha Christie, Margaret Mead, Thomas Edison, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, C.S.Lewis, Pearl Buck, Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill.

- There have been documented cases of the academic successes gained by home-based students, for example various 13-year-olds who have been admitted to British universities.

- Reference can be made to the crucial court case, Harrison versus Stevenson in 1981, that led to the judge deciding that the Harrison family's home-based education was a success:
They are mature, confident and at ease in all sorts of company. They are lively minded, have a good general knowledge and are intellectually athletic... In their case their education - in its own field - has proved and is proving, a marked success.

"In its own field" meant that the Harrison family had elected for autonomous education based on practical and self-sufficiency skills, rather than an academic approach.

- Another source of referecne is that of the presence in the ranks of the home-based educators of so many members of the teaching profession - at least 25 percent of the cases at any given time, and currently about 33 percent in the United Kingdom - who have decided that home-based education provides the best option for their own children.


The issue of social skills. Two recent research reports on the issue of social skills found that home-schooled students received significantly lower problem behaviour scores than schooled children: and that home-schooled children are socially well adjusted, but schooled children are not so well adjusted. This leads to the conclusion that we are asking the wrong question when we ask about the social development of home-schooled children. The real question is why is th esocial adjustment of schooled children of such poor quality?

Some possible reasons emerge from these studies:

- The classroom is mostly one-way communication, often of a stilted kind, and few meaningful interchanges are in evidence. In home-based education the opposite is the case.
- Schools are products of the factory age, with batches of uniform products running out the conveyor belt in lockstep motion towards the standardised diploma.
- It therefore socialises in to this kind of mentality. Home-based education, in contrast, works to more personalised educational outcomes.
- An unnatural aspect of school is age segregation. Learning to get along with peers alone does not prepare students for varied interactions with older and younger people in life. Home-based education avoids this trap for in the home-school learning programmes people of various ages are encountered in a way that more accurately mirrors the variety of society.
- The emphasis of home-based education on slef-discipline and self- directed learning and the personal confidence this produces creates young people who can adapt to new situations and new people.

The issue of intellectual and academic development. The academic excellence of home-schooled children has been repeatedly demonstrated in the research in the United States. In summary, recent studies from the United States put home-schooled children at least two years in front of their schooled counterparts in intellectual achievement and sometimes as much as 10 years ahead. The evidence from systematic studies in the United States and case studies in the United Kingdom supports this view.

Competence in science. Hornick (1993) studied a group of seven families with teenage children in Massachusetts to find out how science was learned in home schools. He found that the parents in the sample (whose own backgrounds in science were slight) did not teach science to their teenagers, the teenagers taught themselves. The result was "inquiry science of the very highest quality". The students performed as real scientists in exploring phenomena, making hypotheses, designing and carrying out tests, and analysing and evaluating results. Memorising texts and doing worksheets was not in evidence, but etxtbooks were used as a source of ideas and reference.

Parents operated with a sense of the "teachable moments" when their teenagers' interest and curiosity had been aroused. Every family agreed that locating suitable resources was the key to their science learning and this was the justification for the extensive use of television and field trips.

Hornick's assessment of the scientific knowledge and understanding gained was that it was of the highest standards, but that the families were largely unaware of this and rather took the quality of their learning for granted:

When I asked 13-year-old Louis what science he knew he neglected to mention that he is an expert at identifying medicinal herbs and preparing oils and tinctures: for him this was his small business not science.

Competence with computers. The study by Marchant (1993) of the use of computers by home-schoolers found that 185 families from 37 states were exchanging ideas and information regularly, without ever physically meeting. The characteristics of this group were analysed without any assumption being made that they were typical of the general population of home-schoolers. Marchant found that theis group were knowledgeable and sophisticated. The parents were a fairly well-educated group who felt that their own formal education had contributed little to their success as home-educating parents. They were well equipped in trms of modern computer technology and know-how and even though they tended to downplay the importance of this, the impact on the competence of the children was hard to ignore. Marchant notes that negative experiences with schools had left many of the parents in his sample discouraged and angry. They were unresponsive to suggestions that schools could be improved.

Research from Canada. A 1993 state-by-state survey of home study in Canada, involving responses from the Deputy Ministers of Education and the 30 home-schooling associations, found that home- schooling was firmly entrenched and officially recognised as an acceptable educational option. Estimates from the records of the associations suggested there are likely to be 30,000 home-schooling families, with diverse backgrounds:

... housewives, teachers, doctors, back-to-the-landers, lawyers, francophones, anglophones, fundamentalists ministers, farmers, and just plain parents, of all faiths and creeds. All of whom are united in one common belief: they are concerned about their children and their children's education. Concerned enough to do womething about it themselves. (p. 15)

A United Kingdom study of learning methods. Alan Thomas's research involving 23 families in the Greater London area (and a sample of families in Australia) explores how the home-based children learned. Observations were mainly undertaken in the kitchen, where so much home- based education, in the form of conversations, takes place, and were recorded with pen and paper. The qualitative data was subjected to content analysis to identify emergent themes.

Families starting out on home-based education who at first adopted formal methods of leaning found themselves drawn more and more into less formal learning. Families who started out with informal learning at the outset found themselves drawn into even more informal learning. The methods that both groups grew into had much more in common with the methods of younger children. The sequencing of learning material, the bedrock of learning in school, was seen increasingly as unnecessary and unhelpful.

Learning to read was central concern, but parents showed less anxiety when their children showed no inclination to learn at the usual age.

Curiously, these children who learned to read relatively late still went on very quickly to read material suitable for their age. Most of the children were voracious readers.

Thomas stresses that his work is in the early stages and should not be regarded as the last work on the matter. Nevertheless, he is already aware that his research challenges on eof the fundamental assumptions of schooling.

- This study challenges the almost universally held view that children of school age need to be formally taught if they are to learn. In school this may be the case but at home they can learn just by living.


Researching home-based education has been a remarkable experience that has helped me personally to review most of my assumptions as a practising teacher about educational matters. Some of my personal conclusions are as follows:

Diversity in education is likely to be healthy because
- individuals and families differ;
- circumstances are different;
- successful education can take many forms.
(Therefore always suspect regimental "answers", such as the "answer" of a British National Curriculum or "salvation by phonics" or "salvation by testing".)

- Wounds can heal and children can recover from bad learning experiences, especially in the supportive environment of a concerned family. I have witnessed this too many times to think it is an unusual event (see also Holt, 1982).

- It is actually hard for a school as currently organised to match an alert, organised and energetic family. Only a few schools even get near it, as I was able to observe as I went from studying home-educating families to supervising students in school and back again for over 10 years.

- Flexible learning (and as a result the production of flexible people) is currently more likely to be found in home-based education.

- Learner-managed learning (autonomous education) is at present more frequently found in home-based education: schools tend to focus on "how to be taught", whereas homes tend to teach "how to learn". Schools, therfore, tend to teach you to be stuck with the gaps in your knowledge, homes how to fill them (Meighan and Meighan, 1991).

- Confidence-building is currently more likely to be found in homes.

- Non-sexist education can be achieved more easily at home than under the present models of schooling.

- The habit of peer-dependency and the "tyranny of the peer group" produced by school operating the current officially approved model can be reversed by home-based education.

- The rotation and alternation of a variety of types of curriculum is commonplace at home, but currently much rarer at school.

- Schools at present tend to focus on one-dimensional education, homes more frequently develop multi-dimensional education.

- Co-operative and democratic forms of education are more likely to be found in home-based settings , because of the dominance of the authoritatian school management model, as portrayed by Davies (1994).

- So-called "school phobia" is actually more likely of be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependency is a largely unrecognised mental health problem.

- Homes are more likely than schools to achieve "The child in pursuitof knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the child" (George Bernard Shaw).

A few families have one child in school and another out, with options to change in either direction based on experience and needs. They are pioneering a more flexible form of education. A positive way forward for the schooling system is to take up the idea derived from home-based educators of flexi-time and ultimately flexi-schooling (Meighan and Brown, 1980).


A letter from the Boston University undergraduates admissions director proclaims:

Boston University welcomes applications from home-schooled students. We believe students educated primarily at home possess the passion for knowledge, the independence, and self-reliance that enable them to excel in our intellectually challenging programs of study.


Dear Education Otherwise,

My best friend is Susan and she doesn't go to school: she is taught at home by her parents and is more interesting than someone that does go to school because she knows a lot more.

I sometimes feel a bit jealous of her, because she is more educated than some of my other friends and myself. At school there are quite a few bullies, but Susan doesn't have to worry about things like that. Sometimes I wish I was educated at home as well as Susan and her brother, Paul, as they can spend more time with their parents and pets.

At school, you hardly use a computer, but Susan and Paul nearly always use a computer and are shown how to use one properly. They are always learning about new things - at school I always learn about the same things over and over again!

Some teachers are hard to get on with and you don't get any encouragement from them, but your parents always give you encouragement. (Carol Ann, aged 12, Bolton)


Families educating at home often engage in highly sophisticated activity, without necessarily being able to articulate what they are doing. Most parents find that young children are "natural" learners. They are like explorers or research scientists busily gathering information and making meaning out of the world. Most of this learning is not the result of teaching, but rather a constant and universal learning activity, "as natural as breathing". Parents achive the remarkable feats of helping their children to walk and talk by responding to this precess. This is perhaps the most successful example of educational practice world-wide. In th efirst hive years of life, astonishing learning takes place as a non-verbal infant learns its native language, to walk and to achieve competence within its home and local environment. All this achieved, with varying degrees of success, by so-called amateurs - the parents or parents and other care-givers, such as grandparents.

The highly sophisticated activity of parents is described as "dovetailing" in to the child's behaviour. Parents appear to have no pre-determined plan of language teaching, they simply respond to the cues provided and give support to the next stage of learning as the child decides to encounter it.


In some situations we need to be able to cope with authoritarian discipline and behaviour either by taking a lead or taking instructions. At other times we need to co-operate with others and behave with the democratic discipline of evolving and agreeing rules and then implementing and policing the collectively. Sometimes we need to be self-directing, take decisions for ourselves and act with autonomous discipline. Sometimes we need to have momorised information using subject discipline and at others to know the discipline of how to research. It follows that an effective education reqquires experience of all these approaches and a awareness when each one in turn is appropriate.

The experience of families educating at home has demonstrated how this can be achieved. The learners sometimes direct their own studies. At other times they work in co-operation with others and on other occasions decide to submit to instruction. The parents occasionally act as instructors and at other times as facilitators, sometimes as co-learners and often as sources of encouragement.


Human beings, adults and children alike, differ from each other qquite dramatically in learning styles. To date, 32 such differences have been catalogued. An example would be the difference between those who learn better with some background noise and those who learn better in quiet conditions. Individuals also differ in the kind of light conditions, temperature conditions, bodily positions, food intake and type of companions needed for efficient learning. Bio-chronology is another factor, for some are early-day learners and some late-day or even evening/night learners.

Therefore, the situation in which one teacher faces 30 children in one room and is required to deliver the same material with a given period of time, say 45 minutes, to all of them, means that drastic harm to the quality of learning of many of the class and the resultant loss of a great deal of potential learning is inevitable. In contrast, in the home-based education I have witnessed the families rather take it for granted that learning styles differ and vary the learning situations accordingly.


At least six different types of curriculum can be identified. They are the imposed subjects, the imposed interpretative, the imposed confidence-building, the consultative, the negotiated, and the democratic. The logistics of each of these types has been outlined elsewhere (Meighan, 1988).

Some families operate a flecible curriculum in terms of including several of the above six types in their programme. Often the morning programme may be imposed and pre-planned, sometimes to satisfy the wishes of the Local Education Officers, sometimes for external examination purposes and sometimes for the family's own reasons. The afternoon pregramme may then be of another kinds, consultative, negotiated of democratic in co-operation with another family. These families have pointed the way to a more flexible approach to the curriculum by operating with several types, rather than limiting themselves to one approach.

As essential part of the approach of the families working in these flexible ways is the regular monitoring and evaluation of their curriculum. In some cases I have seen this taking place regularly and deliberately at morning coffee breads, supplemented by reviews at meal times. In other cases the planning and review has taken place in a regular Sunday evening meeting to decide the learning programme in outline for the following week.


When I have interviewed children who have come out of school into home- based education I have asked them to compare the two experiences. Usually the first response is the comment of efficiency of learning. They say that they have frequently learnt more by coffee-time at home than in a whole day at school, so that the rest of the day is "additional learning". This helps explain why children who are "behind" at school soon catch up at home, and also why they can end up two to ten years ahead of their schooled counterparts.


It is not just efficiency that the children note. They have told me about the relaxed atmosphere at home, which encourages the to be increasingly confident in taking over the management of their own learning. When they started school at five years of age, we know they were asking about 30 knowledge or enquiry questions an hour (Wells, 1986), but that this soon drops and eventually gets to around zero. In the non-hostile home-based education, they tell me, their interest in learning and curiosity and questioning begins to build up again.


When schools were set up we lived in an information-poor society. Therefore, getting children together in one place to give them access made some sense. Now that we live in an information-rich society, it makes little or no sense, as Richard North observes:

We no longer have to force-feed education to children: they live in a world in which they are surrounded by educative resources. There are around 500 hours each of the schools' television and radio every year in this country. There are several million books in public libraries. there are museums in every town. There is a constant flow of cheap or free information from a dozen media. There are home computers which are easily connected to phones and thus other computers... There are thousands of workplaces... There are ... the old, the disabled, the very young all in need of children in their lives, all in need of the kind of help caring and careful youngsters can give, and all of them rich sources of information about the world, and freely available to any child who isn't locked away in school. (North, 1987)


The success of the Ipsilanti high Scope programme has been widely published. Children in schools using this approach are encouraged in the basic skills of deep learning, that is, they learn to plan, do and review. What has been overlooked is that home-based education usually operates to the same principles and is therefore equally successful in producing competent and confident learners. By adding the efficiency factor mentioned above, however, the home-based pupils are likely to pull ahead.


When adults quiz the parents about home-based education they often ask how one or two parents can replace the team of experts of a school staff. Apart from pointing out that we live in an information-rich society anyway, parents describe themselves as "fixers" or "learning site managers", who help arrange the learning programme and may often operate as fellow learners, researching alongside their children, rather than as instructors.


As the research studies quoted earlier indicated, in computers and science explorations, as well as other leaerning activities, home-based education assumes that large amounts of first-hand experience are essential to effective learning.


There remains the question of whether home-based education can go wrong. For example can it become stultifying? If it falls into the same trap as the typical school curriculum in promoting one of teh first two of the six types of curriculum as the one right curriculum approach, the answer is "yes". Families who follow too slavishly or too exclusively set programmes purchased from some agency run this risk. The cases of families adopting narrowly-defined religious curricula have raised such anxieties. I have not witnessed any myself, as yet, but others have.

Povided families stay flexible, recognise that each of the six types of curriculum may have a modest part to play in th escheme of things, and do not forget the logistics of the most successful educational programme in the world, that is, the home-based nought-to-five years curriculum, they will avoid the trap.

The lessons of this research, as to how the schooling system could be regenerated, are only just beginning to be appreciated. The United Kingdom organisation Education Now Ltd, non- profit making research, writing and publishing company, set out in 1988 to attempt to apply the research in the development of a more flexible and open learning system of education to cope with the wide diversity of learner styles and social and employment situations. The co-operative has published over 20 books to date, engaged in consultancy in the United Kingdom and elsewhere and mounted several conferences. The overarching concepts for the work of Education Now are those of flexi- schooling, flexi-time and flexi-education. A key institution in a more flexible system will be the Invitational School, to replace the Custodial School. The result promises to be an administrator's dream: a system that gives higher quality at lower cost.


ROLAND MEIGHAN is Special Professor of Education, School of Education, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, United Kingdom.

This is an edited version (reprinted with the publisher's permission) of:

Meighan, R. (1995). Home-based education effectiveness research and some of its implications. Educational Review, 47 (3), 275-287.

For further research into the effectiveness of home-based schooling see:

Holt, J. (1982) Teach your own. Brightlingsea: Lighthouse Books.

Meighan, R. (1984). Political consciousness and home-based education. Educational Review, 36, 165.

Meighan, R. (1984). Home-based educators and Education Authorities: The attempts to maintain a mythology. Educational Studies, 10, 273.

Meighan, R. (1992). Learning from home-based education. Ticknell: Education Now Books.

Meighan, R. (in print). The home-schoolers: Blazing a trail to the next learning system. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Meighan, R. & Brown, C. (1980). Locations of learning and ideologies of education: Some issues raised by a study of Education Otherwise. In L. Barton, R. Meighan and S. Walker (Eds.) Schooling, ideology and the curriculum. Brighton: Falmer Press.

Meighan, R. & Meighan, J. (1991). John Holt and two visions of learning. Early Years Education, 12, 1.

Webb, J. (1990) Children Learning at Home. Brighton: Falmer Press.

Lowden, S. (1993). The scope and implications of home-based education. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

Studies looking at the social skills include:

Smedley, T. (1992). Socialisation of home school children. Home School Researcher, 8, 3.

Shyers, L. (1992). A comparison of social adjustment between home and traditionally schooled students. Home School Researcher, 8, 3.

Studies of academic excellence include:

Alaska Department of Education (1985). SRA Survey of Basic Skills, Alaska statewide assessment.

Alaska Department of Education (1986). Results from 1981 CAT (For CCS).

Hewitt Research Foundation (1985). North Dakota trial results pending. Parent Educator and Family Report, 3(2). 5.

Hewitt Research Foundation (1986). Study of home schoolers taken to court. Parent Educator and Family Report, 4(1). 2.

Ray, B.D. (1991) A nationwide study of home education: Family characteristics, legal matters and student achievement. Seattle, WA: National Education Research Institute.

The study of science competence was:

Hornick, J. (1993). Science instruction of home schooled teenagers. Home School Researcher, 9, 1.

The use of computers was studied by:

Marchant, G. (1993). Home schoolers on-line. Home School Researcher, 9, 2.

Canadian research includes:

Smith, D. (1993). Parent-generated home study in Canada. New Brunswick: The Francombe Place.

The learning methods study cited is:

Thomas, A. (1994). The quality of learning experienced by children who are educated at home. Paper presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference.

The Boston University admissions policy is cited in:

Smith (1993), page 4, see above.

That young children are "natural" learners is quoted from:

Holt, J. (1991). Learning all the time. Ticknell: Education Now.

"Dovetailing" in language teaching is described in:

Wells, G. (1986). The meaning makers: Children learning languages and using language to learn. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Types of curriculum are described by:

Meighan, R. (1988) Flexischooling. Ticknell: Education Now.

That five-year-old children ask about 30 questions an hour is from:

Wells (1986). see above.

The information rich society is described by:

North, R. (1987). Schools of tomorrow. hartland: Green Books.

The concepts of flexi-schooling and flexi-time are expanded in:

Meighan (1988), see above.

Meighan, R. & Toogood, P. (1992). Anatomy of choice in education. Ticknell: Education Now.

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Reproduced from SET Research Information for Teachers, set two, 1996, 12.

Link: Educational Heretics Press is a research, writing and publishing company, founded in 1991 by Roland and Janet Meighan.