Home education: how to get started

In some countries, home education is against the law; in others, it's strictly controlled. In the UK, though, home education is legal and parents do not have to follow a set curriculum. Some families prefer to take a broadly unstructured approach, following their child's lead, while others create 'school at home', complete with desks, timetables, worksheets and tests.

The legal bit

The laws governing educating your child at home vary considerably from country to country, so this information is based on home education in the UK, although wherever you are, you will hopefully find useful ideas in this article.

In the UK, it is compulsory for children to be educated from the age of five until they are 16 (soon to be 18 in England). However, it is not compulsory for them to go to school. Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act says that parents are responsible for ensuring that their children, when they are of compulsory school age, receive efficient full-time education suitable for their age, ability and aptitude, and any special educational needs they may have. This can be achieved by sending them to school or 'otherwise'.

It's worth noting that home-education legislation, particularly around deregistering a child who is already enrolled at a school, varies within the UK. In Scotland, for example, you need permission to deregister your child, whereas in England, Wales and Northern Ireland you simply inform the school that you're now home educating and ask them to remove your child from the register. Links to the different policies are listed under Useful links, below.

It is also possible for your child to attend school part-time, if the school and/or your Local Education Authority (LEA) is willing. This is called flexi-schooling. However, children who are registered on a school roll have to follow the National Curriculum even if they are only there part of the time, so families have less flexibility in terms of what home education covers.

What do I need to do to get started?

If your child has never been to school, you don't need to do anything. You don't need to tell the Local Education Authority either. You can just continue doing what you've been doing. If your child has started school, or if she's been offered a place, you'll need to deregister her even if she hasn't started yet.

In England or Wales, this involves writing a letter to the proprietor or headteacher of the school to say that she is receiving education otherwise than at school. Make sure they have received the letter, either by hand delivering it or by sending it recorded delivery, and ask for written confirmation that your child has been removed from the register. There are some useful guidelines and templates here. For deregistration in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the rules are slightly different, see the links below.

If your child has a statement of special needs, you can also deregister her, although if she is attending a special school, you will need the LEA to agree to this. However, the LEA is not allowed to withhold consent unreasonably.

Will the Local Education Authority check up on us?

Despite what they may tell you, LEAs do not have to check up on home-educating families and you are under no obligation to let them come and visit you in your home or meet with them elsewhere. However, if it appears to your LEA that your child is not receiving a suitable education as defined in the relevant Education Act, they can legally require you to satisfy them that this is taking place.

Sometimes, parents send a report to their LEA, outlining their educational philosophy and broad approach, along with some examples of work if they have them. It is possible for families to have a good relationship with their LEA, although there are no financial or other support provisions for home-educated children. Some LEAs are obstructive, but many others are supportive and positive about home education.

'Full-time' is not defined, and many home-educating families find that learning takes place all the time and don't designate certain hours for study. 'Efficient' is not defined either, and what this is varies from family to family.

It's worth bearing in mind that if your child is not registered at a school you do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Nor do you need to be a qualified teacher (home educating your own children is nothing like teaching a specific curriculum to 30 children in a school setting), have any particular equipment or type of premises, make detailed plans, observe any timetables or pursue school-type topics and activities.

What do we want to achieve?

It can help to have a broad idea of what your goals are for your child. Your bottom line may be that you want your child to become functionally literate and numerate at their own pace, develop good social skills and become an independent learner, with everything else being topic-based and led by your child, who can then take exams if and when they choose.

On the other hand, you may want to ensure that your child is in a position to return to the school system at any point and therefore may choose a more structured approach that follows what children are doing in school.

Some families prepare their children to take exams at a particular stage. These could be the 11+ or specific entrance exams if you are intending to send them to secondary school, or GCSEs and/or A levels if they may want to go to college or university. Others prefer to consider exams if and when they and their child are ready, which may be earlier or later than school-educated children. There are various routes a home-educated child can take when it comes to qualifications.

Different approaches to home ed

There are as many ways to go about educating children out of school as there are families. Some find an autonomous approach – where they follow a child's interests and find learning opportunities very flexibly as they go about their lives – works best. There is a multitude of opportunities to learn on a shopping trip, at the beach, in a museum, on a farm, in the garden or at the library, for instance.

Lots of children enjoy learning through topics. For example, If your child loves football, there are opportunities to learn:
  • Maths – measurements, shapes, area and angles on a pitch; seating plans; ticket prices
  • English – reading and writing factual and fictional prose or poetry based on football
  • History – the history of the game, how it has changed over time and how to use available primary and secondary sources to find out
  • Geography – which countries play football, where they are on the map, what their climate, terrain and training conditions are like, how teams would travel to matches in different areas or countries
  • Science – healthy nutrition and exercise, materials used to make a football, speed and velocity, what grass is used for the pitch and what plants need to grow.

You get the picture. These are just a few ways to learn through an interest in football. There are plenty more and in this way you can guide a child's learning without using more formal methods. Many families who prefer this approach balk at the term 'home schooling', as autonomous education is very far from being 'school at home'.

At the other end of the scale, some parents and children are more comfortable with a timetable, a 'study' area at home and more traditional teaching of subjects using methods found in school. Different children learn in different ways and some thrive on very structured activities. Many also like the feedback of having their work 'marked'. Lots of young children love repetition and will enjoy doing at least some worksheet-type activities.

Some families choose to broadly follow the National Curriculum, although this is not required for home-educated children. Parents may hire tutors for certain subjects, such as maths or languages, particularly if their child is taking exams, and lots of people get together with other families to pool expertise and work with the children in small groups.

Most families find themselves doing a mixture of these to put together a programme of education that is suited to their personal preferences and circumstances.

In addition, there are lots of local groups and activities running in most parts of the country. Some are specifically aimed at home-educated children, while others are held outside school hours and are available to all.

Often, the first question home-educating parents get asked is, 'What about the social side?' but for most families this is not an issue at all as there are myriad opportunities for interaction with all kinds of people. In some ways, 'home education' is something of a misnomer, as much of a child's education may well take place outside the home.

Useful links

For the latest legal information, have a look at the UK government site. You may also find these government guidelines on elective home education useful.

The law in Scotland is slightly different to the rest of the UK, so you may find this link to Education Scotland helpful.

Home Education UK is a comprehensive and broad resource that looks at the issues around home education and has forums where you can chat with other parents.

Education Otherwise has loads of information as well as local groups and information sheets.

The Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS) is a subscription site that is great for making contact with other parents and has useful publications.

Schoolhouse is a Scotland-based support group that has a wide range of resources and links for Scottish home-educating families.

While the law governing home education in Northern Ireland is broadly similar to that of England and Wales, the education system is slightly different and this website has information and resources for home educating families.

Read Maya's logart about what happened when she decided to home educate.

Learn what it’s like being a primary school teacher.

Come and chat on Logarty talk.

Share this page