By Dr John Barratt-Peacock, 1997
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Reviewed by Susan Wight
John Barratt-Peacock’s PhD thesis was hailed as the most authoritative text on home education in Australia. The author approached his research with twenty-seven years experience in home education. He views education as essentially a process of acquisition of culture. He conducted initial interviews with 186 families across Australia, thirteen families were interviewed a second time and six families (deliberately chosen to represent a wide range of home educating practice) were interviewed a third time and observed for a full day each. Both formal and informal learning was noted, with a recognition not only of the immediate activity a child was engaged in, but what was going on around the child – a conversation overheard from the next room for example – or the child’s awareness of the activity of other members of the family. He summed up the Australian home educating family as “a community of learning practice.” Home educating families in this study had more children than the average Australian family and it was predominantly mothers who had the primary responsibility of educating children.
Why do families Home Educate?
Although he found that the reasons for home education were “too complex and varied to be reduced to two or three factors”, he identified four main influences on a decision to home educate:
1. Parental background. There were several recurring factors in the family history of studied families:
- The parents believed that they held different values from those of the available schools.
- At least one parent in the family had experienced an unusual childhood.
- Parents felt that the education of their children was their own responsibility rather than that of the state. For some parents, the responsibility to educate their children came from God’s authority. For others home education had to do with “a growing self-reliance that replaced unreflective reliance on professionals.” Home-births, breastfeeding, an emphasis on healthy living, natural remedies and do-it-yourself activities, including home-building, were found to be characteristic of many home-educating families.
- In Tasmania, half the families interviewed had one parent who was born outside Australia. This compared with 10.5% of all families in Tasmania at the time of the 1991 Census.
Although different combinations of these reasons were given by each family, a perceived difference of values between home and school was included in every combination.
2. A crisis. Although parents had different reasons for home educating, the reasons for actually withdrawing children from school were remarkably similar. These were:
- The child was unhappy at school. Experiences included bullying (by students or teachers), a personality clash with a teacher, a mismatch of teaching and learning styles or simply not fitting in.
- Parents were unhappy with the school. Some felt that schooling imposed too early a separation, with one mother commenting that it was unnatural to “whoops, cut off the mothering instinct at 9 o’clock and pick it up at 3.30 on school days.” In one way or another all parents expressed the concept that children lose out in some important way as a result of attending school. “It was not just that the promise of school had not been realised but that specific deficits were noticed in their children after they had been to school.” These deficits included a loss of self-esteem and creativity, a breakdown of inter-sibling relationships as a result of peer-group influence, and a loss of initiative or independence.
- Parents came to believe they could do a better job than the school was doing.
- ? Some parents never enrolled their children as they were unwilling to deputise the job to someone else. Although they did not reach a crisis in the sense that families withdrawing children from school did, Barratt-Peacock points out that in making a decision to deviate from mainstream practice, in some instances disobeying the law to do so, they also faced a crisis.
3. The influence of an informant-mentor There were six ways in which the families heard about home education. 50% had personal contact with another home educating family. The remaining parents in the study found out about home education by Radio (29%), Magazine (5.3%), Book (5.3%) or Television (2.6%) and 7.8% considered home education as a natural extension of their early parenting.
4. Experiences confirming the decision. Parents in the study identified three factors which encouraged them to continue to home educate their children:
- Their children provided them with significant personal satisfaction in terms of practical, emotional, social, educational and spiritual support or stimulation.
- Being involved in their children’s education stimulated them to pursue their own education.
- In varying degrees all the parents primarily responsible for home educating the children obtained satisfaction from the experience. Most but not all, mothers found that home educating gave their mothering a sense of career and enhanced their self-esteem. (A few saw home education as an obstruction to their careers and subsequently gave it up).
How do families Home Educate?
“It is a truism among home educators that every family is unique, as is their practice, and that there is no such thing as a typical day for any family.”
Families new to home education or with limited contact with other home educators were more likely to “teach as they had been taught.” The home educating style of a mentor-informant family was found to be very influential on the style of new families and families moved from formal to informal methods of educating over time with the major difference being that of degree of movement. Only two families began informally and, after some years, changed to a much more formal organisation. In each case, the method chosen to home educate was found to be consistent with the stated goals of individual families.
The observed families covered a range of home educational choices. In formal families one employed a tutor to teach the children in a school-room within the house, one used the ACE curriculum, one used Distance Education materials. In the informal families children were completely at liberty and in one the outstanding feature was that the family pursued interests together as a group – for example wearing costumes and attending feasts during a period of interest in medieval times. It was noted that generally, families taking a formal approach planned to complete the formal component in the mornings, leaving the afternoons free for other activities.
In the observed families a core curriculum was evident regardless of formal or informal style, and the 29 children spent an average 5.43 hours on focussed learning, four hours on social activity and nearly one and half hours on domestic routine. Threaded through this there was an average of just over six hours of conversation.” The children had a high degree of autonomy over their time, which enabled them to intensely study a topic which interested them and even in the most formal of families there was time and opportunity for informal learning and time to think and reflect.
Learning took place in the intimate, proximate and remote areas of each household. The intimate zone was designated as the actual house, the proximate zone as the surrounding grounds and buildings and the remote zone as places away from the home, eg, nearby town or facilities. As children visited sites away from home, their parents acted as tutor/guides in explaining adult practice in the wider society. These zones were found to be interconnected in countless instances of learning. One example was of a boy learning to make a Noah’s Ark out of cardboard at a youth club in town (remote zone), later assisting his younger sister to make one in the dining room (intimate zone) and leading his sister and cousin in creating a ‘Noah’s Ark’ cubby in a nearby gully (proximate zone). This confirmed Barratt-Peacock in his belief that home educating families learn ‘from a home base’ rather than exclusively in the home. He did find that his observed families spent much more time at home than he expected, but speculated that this was due to the young age of their children.
Regardless of whether families chose formal or informal methods of educating their children, conversational learning was found to be central to home education. The families who were observed for a day averaged 6.12 hours in conversation. The lowest amount of time spent in family conversation (that is with at least one adult and all the children) was 1.42 hours, which compared favourably with the reported seven minutes per day spent by U.S. teachers in personal exchanges with their students.
Late reading was mentioned by one informal family as a cause for concern and triggered an attempt to introduce flashcards, which were resisted by the child.
The father of one informal learning family expressed concerns that the children were “just fooling around” and didn’t seem to be learning much. These children were found to be doing 5.17 hours of focussed learning on the day of observation.
Differences from Overseas Research
Barratt-Peacock concludes that there are strong similarities between the overseas research and the Australian experience. He did, however, identify the following differences:
- A resistance to unwanted government intrusion was not limited to Christian homeschoolers. Families typically wanted to depend more on their own resources and take responsibility for their own lives and those of their children.
- This research did not support the marginalisation in politics and religion suggested by some American research
- Whilst parental history featured in a decision to home educate in both American research and this one, in America this was a motivational factor, where a parent had suffered from child abuse and wished to protect their children from similar experiences. Some Australian home eductors echoed these findings, but for others a desire to recreate their own positive childhood experiences was a motive.
- This study found that the percentage of overseas born parents was higher in the home educating community than in the general population of Tasmania. This was noted too late in the study to add the question to those asked of families in the remaining states. Barratt-Peacock concluded from these statistics and the accompanying interviews that “for a person coming to a new culture there appears to be a standing back, a distancing, that allows for the explicit selection of elements of the culture and its practices judged to be of value and the rejection of others. It may well be that for the person born and raised within the culture so much more would be implicit and difficult to evaluate in the same way.”