A new way to think about homeschoolers: accidentals and deliberates
When you think about a homeschooler, what pops into your head?
Is it a fundamentalist Christian, reflexively avoiding the secular world that is perceived as dangerous?
Perhaps it’s a hot-housed, overachieving wunderkind whose music or sport makes attendance at school impossible?
Is it a child whose school experience was awful and now they’re refusing to go back?
The truth about who homeschools in Australia, and why, is more complex than any of these stereotypes. However, research in Australia and overseas (English, 2021; Ray, 2015; Puga, 2019; 2021; Fields-Smith, 2020) suggests the last one, where a child has negative school experiences, or finds school hostile, is closest to the reason the majority of Australia’s homeschoolers choose to do so.
How many home educators are there in Australia?
The population of homeschoolers has grown exponentially in each state and territory over the past five years. It’s increasingly likely you’ll see them more often in the community. However, the legal term is home educator (see the WA policy documents as an example), because it takes the school out of the equation.
The legally registered home educating population in Australia is around 26,000 students (English & Gribble, 2021).
However, accurately measuring that population is difficult and the figure is likely to be an undercount.
Each state and territory has different policies to manage home educators and this leads to different counts.
Policy differences also mean that some states have higher levels of ‘illegal’ families who choose not to register.
One report (Townsend, 2012), from 2012, suggested the undercount of home educators in Queensland was as many as 12,000.
Others (Krogh & Giuliano, 2021) suggest the ways the different states manage their registration process affects the numbers of families willing to engage with their legal obligations.
While states and territories have different rules, they all share one thing in common, home educators must register with their authority that manages this population.
In some states, a person may ask to come to your house and see your setup (NSW), in others, you have to make a statement about what you expect to do (Victoria), in still others, you have to send in a report and reapply every 10 months (Queensland).
The highest number of home educators, as a percentage of population, is in New South Wales and Victoria, both have around six in every thousand students who are home educating (English & Gribble, 2021).
The biggest growth in the last five years has been in Queensland, where the population grew by around 26 per cent in 2020, possibly in response to the pandemic (English & Gribble, 2021).
But, as with all states and territories, Queensland has seen a strong growth in home educators over the last five years, so while 2020 may have forced some families’ hands, it is in line with expectations based on yearly growth (English & Gribble, 2021).
Accidental home educators
Research into why people choose to home educate is amongst the most robust in the field.
In my research, I figure as many as 80 per cent of the families who home educate do so because one, or more, of their children has had a negative experience at school (English, 2021).
I term these families ‘accidental home educators’ (English, 2021) because they did not set out to home educate and do not have any of that stereotypical ideological opposition to school.
There are a number of reasons for their choice. A good deal of work in the field suggests families may be home educating because a child has a diagnosis of ASD (Hurlbutt, 2011) or ADHD (Duvall, Delquardi & Ward, 2004) or have a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression (Gribble & English, 2016). In most cases, these studies found children were previously enrolled at school, but left due to the problems in school.
Neuman, 2019 provides an excellent discussion of the differences between dissatisfied parents who home educate and those who stick it out at school.
Research (Neuman & Guterman, 2017) suggests these families feel more in control and can manage their lifestyles more effectively when they choose to home educate.
The other group of home educators, those who were always going to choose to home educate and who hold an ideological aversion to schools, I term the deliberates (English, 2021).
These families are generally religious, or anti-authority. It is likely they have lower rates of vaccination than the other families, so schools’ ‘no jab no play’ policies may affect their ability to send their child to early childhood which may lead them to eschew institutionalised education altogether.
Earlier conceptualisations of home education choice (Van Galen, 1991) split families into two groups. These two groups were ideologues and pedagogues, which meant either ideology or problems with schools’ approaches to teaching and learning led to the decision to home educate.
The first group was termed ideologues because they were described by Van Galen (1991) as ideological in their opposition to school.
The second group was termed pedagogues.
Van Galen (1991) defined these families as not caring too much about what the school believed, it was the teaching, the environment, the classrooms and the rules that were the problem.
This group’s “criticisms of schools are not so much that the schools teach heresy, but that schools teach whatever they teach ineptly” (Van Galen, 1991, p. 71).
The two categories of ideologue and pedagogue do not seem to hold in Australia because most of the home educating population have spent some time enrolled in a school.
In any event, as Rothemal, 2003 argued, these two categories are reductive and fail to account for the reasons the home educating population is growing.
As numbers of home educators grows, understanding how the choice interacts with other policies, particularly those that favour choice and parental control over education, is important.
There are parallels in international studies with neoliberal choice policies (see Oliveria & Barbosa, 2017) and policies favouring the private supply of education services (see Aruini & Davis, 2005) may also be implicated in the choice to home educate.
In all, whatever educators think about home education, it is likely to remain a growing trend. In particular, where schools are forced to shutter due to major catastrophes such as pandemics (Duval, 2021) and even climate change induced calamities, it may be an increasing minority of the population who home educate.
If Queensland has seen a 26 per cent increase in the last year and the population around the country grows, it’s likely to be an increasingly strong political force in Australia, one which governments ignore at their peril.
Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.