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Families and educational freedom: the case for home-schooling

By Mikayla Novak - posted Thursday, 21 April 2005

What do American Presidents George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and writer Agatha Christie have in common? These famous luminaries in their respective fields of endeavour were the beneficiaries of home-schooling through their childhood years.

The concept of home-schooling seems to evoke a range of negative stereotypes, including a negative picture of parents with either extremist religious beliefs, or with no real commitment to their children’s education, who lock their offspring away and place them at educational, social and perhaps even physical risk. However, as I will explain, not only are the home-schooling stereotypes unfounded, but this model of educational provision represents the ultimate in freedom and parental power in education, both qualities that are severely lacking, particularly in government school systems.

What is home-schooling?

In simple terms, home-schooling can be defined as the education of school-aged children at home rather than in a government or non-government school. Even so, this definition does not adequately capture the potential flexibility and range of alternative education models that home-schooling can provide. These can range from child-led, interest-based learning to more traditional classroom models with professional teachers, distance learning arrangements, co-operative teaching arrangements between parents, commercial learning centres, online courses and subject-specific tutors providing services.


The private sector and non-profit organisations can also play key roles in home-schooling by providing a range of educational goods and services such as textbooks, counselling services, playgroups and support groups, lending libraries, historical societies and museums, tour groups and so on.

While there is no single home-schooling model for all families, there is one common thread applicable to all - that parents assume the primary responsibility for the education of their children, rather than delegating that responsibility to a school, and through it, to a state or territory education minister.

A profile of home-schooling: international and Australian perspectives

There is some evidence to suggest that home-schooling is already an important form of educational provision for children and is growing at a significant rate. In the United States, a 1999 study by the Federal Department of Education estimated that the number of US home-schooled children ranges from 500,000 to 750,000. The Homeschool Legal Defence Association, a key advocacy body in the US, suggests that the number of home-schooled children may be up to 2.1 million from kindergarten to Year 12 (K-12) in 2002-03. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, the home-school sector is growing at a rate of up to 15 per cent a year.

In Australia, it is estimated that there are approximately 15,000 home-school families with around 26,500 students. The Australian Christian Academy Home Schooling program alone has approximately 1,500 families enrolled with 3,600 students. The 2003 Queensland Government Home Schooling Review report (pdf file 388KB) suggests there are 1,474 home-schooled students in that state who were recorded under state dispensation guidelines, while in 2000 a NSW Board of Studies paper estimated that there were over 1,400 registered home educators in NSW.

While it is clear that there are significant numbers of families engaging in home-schooling education, it is likely that the available international and Australian data understates the extent of home-schooling. In particular, there is some evidence to suggest that there are significant numbers of children whose parents choose home-schooling outside existing government regulatory frameworks.

A number of Australian and overseas studies have also analysed the underlying reasons for some families to choose the home-schooling path for their children. These include:

  • Ability to tailor academic programs to individual children and their needs, and to harness their natural abilities and talents;
  • greater parental involvement in the education of children, enabling families to transmit moral and ethical values to children;
  • strengthened family relationships, including between parents and children and between siblings, and a wider variety of social contacts, including friendships with children and adults of all ages and backgrounds; and,
  • the ability to provide a more relaxed environment for children to learn and grow up in.

Other important issues influencing the extent and growth of home-schooling relate to strongly held convictions that parents (and not government) hold the primary responsibility for the education of children. There are declining levels of confidence in government school systems, which are replete with discipline problems in classrooms and in the high student to teacher ratios. There are also concerns about inefficient central bureaucracies, “dumbed down” forms of curricula fashioned by educational fads and a lack of responsiveness and flexibility towards parental concerns and local student educational requirements.

Myths and facts about home-schooling

As suggested above, there appears to be a range of negative perceptions surrounding the home-school model of education. These are often used to justify governmental actions to regulate, and perhaps eliminate, home-schooling. Some of the persistent criticisms levelled against home-schooling are as follows:

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Article edited by Alan Skilbeck.
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About the Author

Mikayla Novak is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. She has previously worked for Commonwealth and State public sector agencies, including the Commonwealth Treasury and Productivity Commission. Mikayla was also previously advisor to the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Her opinion pieces have been published in The Australian, Australian Financial Review, The Age, and The Courier-Mail, on issues ranging from state public finances to social services reform.

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