Autonomous Education

Autonomous education values self-directed learning and intrinsic motivation over and above children being taught an accepted body of knowledge. It may also be called informal learning or unschooling.

In English law, education is ‘suitable’ if it is suitable to the child’s age ability aptitude and any special educational needs. This is set out in section 7 of the Education Act 1996. Read my page on home education and the law here

Home education is recognised as efficient if it achieves what it set out to achieve, hence it is important for parents to set out what they are trying to achieve. Moreover, it is accepted in law that parents may have diverse philosophical convictions when it comes to their children’s education. The Human Rights Act 1998 quotes Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which declares that “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” There is an important case in European Law – Campbell and Cosans, where “education in accordance with the parents’ philosophical convictions” was defined as convictions being “akin to the term “beliefs” (in the French text: “convictions”)and denoting views that “attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.”

Government guidance on home education says “Some parents may decide that a very formal approach is necessary; others may decide to make a more informal provision that is more appropriate to the particular child. Whatever the views of the parents, the key focus for the authority should be on suitability for the child in question.”

Local authorities probably don’t meet many self-proclaimed autonomous home educating families. The LA is made up of individuals who might or might not have a view on autonomous education. If you are told you will only be acceptable to your authority if your home education is very structured, this information may not be based on a great deal of evidence.

While you are poring over letters and council web pages for clues about the attitude of the authority, it’s worth bearing in mind that many authorities use standard or template letters and forms which can be sent out by administrative staff, and that anything you receive may have been originally put together by someone in a different department or someone who no longer works for the authority.

If you receive a form from the authority asking you how you teach or plan to teach particular subjects, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the authority has a fixed view of what constitutes education. Any paperwork you receive will most likely be in the standard form which is sent out to all families and the authority won’t know that the form doesn’t work for you unless you tell them.

The government has never issued national guidance on “suitable education” The latest home education guidance says “the department does not believe that it is in the interests of home educated children, parents or local authorities for there to be detailed centralised guidance on what constitutes suitability … if a child’s ability is significantly above or below what might be regarded as ‘average’ then allowances must be made for that …”

Home educating parents do not have to match what school children are doing. The latest home education guidance says “although it may well be a good starting point in assessing suitability to assess whether the curriculum and teaching have produced attainment in line with the national norms for children of the same age, it must be borne in mind that the s.7 requirement is that the education is suitable to the child’s ability and aptitude … the home education may legitimately cater specifically for particular aptitudes which a child has, even if that means reducing other content.”

Government guidance on home education says “a local authority may specify requirements as to effectiveness in such matters as literacy and numeracy, in deciding whether education is suitable, whilst accepting that these must be applied in relation to the individual child’s ability and aptitudes.”

It isn’t helpful to portray autonomous education as children just picking things up for themselves or parents doing nothing. Government home education guidance since 2019 also says there is no legal basis for not educating your child because you are deschooling, although this doesn’t mean you have to have a timetable, or be using textbooks or worksheets.

When a local authority first becomes aware that a child is out of school, the authority will probably contact the parent and ask for information about the education being provided for the child, and may request that parents fill in a form.

If you are unable or unwilling to complete the form, and don’t return it or give any feedback, or if you tell the authority what you think they want to hear, then you may be setting yourself up for further problems. It’s not going to be easy if you simply don’t give the authority any information whatsoever about your home education; the home education guidance says local authorities should act promptly if parents don’t provide any information.

Guidance is clear that the choice of how you present the information is up to you. The home education guidance says “an authority should not dismiss information provided by parents simply because it is not in a particular form preferred by the authority (eg, a report by a qualified teacher). On the other hand the information provided by parents should demonstrate that the education actually being provided is suitable and address issues such as progression expected and (unless the home education has only just started) achieved. It should not be simply a statement of intent about what will be provided, or a description of the pedagogical approach taken …”