Emma White writes about recent changes in attitudes to home education which are a very real worry.
It has struck me recently that there has been a bit of a change in home-education since the lock down. Covid served as a catalyst for many parents to continue with the pandemic induced shift to home schooling and a large number have stayed with it. Pre pandemic the ball park figure was 50,000 but it is widely believed that there has been a 34% increase since 2021. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise anyone because amongst the various reactions to finding ourselves housebound was the belief that working towards public exams from home was the better choice. No more school! What worries me most though is the quality and bias in the information available to new home-educators who grope blindly in their quest for how best to go about guiding their children towards GCSE exams and beyond.
My two sons are both out the other side of their home education journey and I realise now that I was lucky when I found myself beating on the door of the various social media groups, long ago, for advice. There was a more considered approach back then. An understanding that home educators had chosen an option that meant hard graft, commitment and sacrifice if their offspring were going to share the same life opportunities of their school educated peer group. By this I mean, schools offer students the chance to study nine or 10 GCSES, some more, whilst undertaking a broad clutch of GCES from home is a major undertaking, not just in terms of time and commitment but from a cost perspective too. But we accepted it. Entry to Russell Group universities meant keeping abreast with your conventionally educated cohort because a dry handful of GCSES would put your home-educated child at a disadvantage. So, we rose to the challenge. Most of us self educated and spread GCSES out over several exam seasons whilst occasionally a little extra help was called in for the subjects we found more challenging. I know, I was there. Together with my own sons we faced 18 GCSES, one AS Level and seven A Levels and we persisted until both had won places at Cambridge University.
Ah, you might say that Oxbridge is the pinnacle of educational aspiration so this is not relevant to me, but bear with me – even with lower ranking universities the understanding was and still is that you did as much as you feasibly can in order to improve your chances.
It’s all changed now. And it is a worrying change too. Social media sites are awash with spurious advice constantly appeasing nervous parents that as home educators the bare minimum will suffice and youngsters don’t need more than the two essential GCSES, English Language and Mathematics. That may be true for opportunity in its most basic form, but it also closes many doors that keep career opportunities alive.
Across the UK, the most common number of GCSE is nine and beyond the core subjects of English and Maths students will also study a science and a sprinkling of humanities subjects too. It is all too easy and tempting to join the dumbing down agenda where home-educating parents, enjoying the liberating freedom of choice, cherry pick a timetable that focuses on the easy pickings, whilst cropping from the curriculum the facilitating subjects that secure good university offers.
I’ve seen some posts recently that potentially put home education in the spot light of those who wish to undermine it for disrupting life chances. It’s a human default setting in all of us to want the best possible outcome for the least possible effort, but when posts asking for advice on how to guide a child through GCSE towards successful Oxbridge entry for Medicine meet with some really worrying responses it is really quite concerning. Whilst much of the guidance is solid and appropriate there are an increasing number of ill-informed posters who bring hope to the vulnerable original poster by regaling preposterous tales of knowing perhaps a Trinity College, Cambridge Maths student who got in with a single GCSE Grade 4 in Drama or a Classic student who simply knocked on the door of a most venerated college, showed a portfolio of essays and was given a place – zero qualification and no UCAS process to boot. I joke not. Clearly none of this really happened but if it did, I would be shocked. Incredible to think these aforementioned students outperformed the 737,000 students who take A levels annually. The problem is, the goal posts of ambition get talked down and when an old stalwart brings common sense and reality back to the table, they are shouted down by a new breed of home-educating parent who has convinced themselves that the endeavours of home education in itself and the ability to stay focused from home are enough to assail every shortcoming and secure their son or daughter a place at the most competitive universities. It doesn’t work like that and it never has done.
Almost three years ago I sat at a ‘how to get into Cambridge’ open morning and sure enough, even at that level, the first questions were ‘Which is the easiest course to get into and which is the easiest college?’. It was so predictable. The fact is, admission to UK universities is phenomenally competitive. Funding means that overseas clients pay more and are therefore essential to the survival of our higher education institutions, hence each UK based student is attending on a subsidised basis. How tempting it must be to select those who are paying more!
Regardless of what anyone tells you, please listen, if you want to apply for Medicine, you need nine strong GCSES plus a seven or better in English and Maths. You need Chemistry too. If you want to apply to Oxbridge, although you may brandish your home-education credentials proudly, just remember you will be competing for a place against students who have 12 GCSES, all Grade 9. The statistics are frightening. Yes, admittedly the various college websites claim that five GCSES are enough but that is because they cannot be seen to be exclusive. Press ‘send’ on your UCAS application with your five GCSES and you are going to feel dwarfed by the competition. Just do more. The whole experience of immersing yourself in the content of a GCSE subject or an A Level is a great, mind broadening experience, but sadly the era of selecting those that sound easy, and quick or require the least input, or mean excluding A level science practicals, is upon us.
Home education must not be seen as an easy option. I’ll finish with a tale of my own youngest son. At 16 he decided to apply for Natural Science at Cambridge. He already had nine GCSES and was set for four A levels. With a tale of hardship and struggle since Year 5 to back his application, a stonking performance on his NSAA, a superb personal statement and a supportive extenuating circumstances reference from his Elective Home Education Officer, I thought they may give him a slightly more generous contextual offer. How wrong was I. For most Natural Sciences students the barrier is set at A*A*A. His offer – A*A*A*A. His opinion, well if I can’t pull that off, I wouldn’t be able to keep up anyway. Right attitude. His results – A*A*A*A*. Job done.
So don’t think there is an easy way out and as a parent who has chosen home education it is our duty to remain as conventional as we possibly can, if our child seeks a career which is secured through public exam qualifications. There is no doubt that the process and experience of home education delivers a grist and ability to self motivate far beyond school, but this does not serve as a substitute for minimal GCSES in subjects the student has found quick and easy. Universities need to see that an applicant can rise to an academic challenge and it is our role to set the bar at the appropriate height.
Remember home education is a choice – not an excuse.