Book Review: Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives

Book Review: Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives, by Helen E. Lees

Bristol, Policy Press, 2014. Pp.192. Hb. £75.00.

Reviewed by Harriet Pattison

Alternative education in the form of home education has been on the rise in both the UK and worldwide since the mid-1970s.   Although academic interest has trailed behind this burgeoning phenomenon, this is perhaps now on the turn with publications such as this one.   The rising popularity of home education provides an historical context for this monograph by Helen Lees, which addresses the dissemination and impact of knowledge about alternative forms of education in England.  Drawing on her PhD research, Lees’ discussion and analysis is based on two sources of small-scale qualitative data: first, a number of interviews with home educators, parents considering home education, and a handful of university researchers concerned at different levels with alternative education; and second, an opportunistic street survey of ninety participants.  Using the central question of how parents discover alternatives to mainstream education, Lees explores two intertwined strands: the political and social narratives constructed and enacted around alternative education, and the personal, life-changing impact that the discovery of such alternatives can herald.

Lees’ central thesis is that the concept, if not the practice, of education is modal.  Education may take many forms with the kind of mass, mainstream schooling that dominates most of the educational world today representing only one possibility among many.  As different modal examples, Lees cites democratic schools, exemplified by Summerhill, and home education.  Yet, Lees argues, the modality of education is not well recognised, and this has led to a foreclosure of political and social, not to mention educational, thinking. As a result, the rising practice of home education has been pushed into an anomalous position.  While its practice is fully legal (her discussion is based on English law and circumstances), Lees argues that home education is in the ambiguous position of being state-tolerated rather than state-supported.  By default, the working definition of education is schooling and, because of this conflation, information about education that is not schooling is poorly disseminated: patchy, restricted, and often unclear.  Muddying the waters further are mis-informed and ultra vires representations frequently espoused by those such as Local Authorities, whose regular mishandlings of the legalities concerning home education are widely recognised within the home educating community.  In the absence of comprehensive, extensive, and accurate information about educational choices beyond the mainstream, Lees concludes that parents have to actively discover alternatives for themselves.

The absence of knowledge and concepts of education that are not based on schooling is a serious social and political deficiency, argues Lees, illustrating her discussion with apt extracts from House of Commons Education Committee transcripts. Her examples emphasise the manifold practical, educational, and ethical difficulties in both conflating education with schooling and in the struggle to avoid doing so.  Lees highlights the tangible, if understandable, reluctance of officialdom to get to grips with the heart of the dilemma: a characterisation of education able to encompass modal alternatives, including the radically different, begs a complete re-thinking of what education ‘is’.  Lees’ own suggestion is that in order to include its myriad possibilities education must be recognised not as a set of practices nor as a philosophy but as the means of individual self-development.  She proposes that the calibre of an education founded on this basis could be judged by the home educating parents’ engagement with what they are offering; their understanding of what they are doing alongside the activities that would constitute education for their child. 

There is a warm appeal to the suggestion that education is the development of the individual self, but much seems to be left unaddressed in Lees’ proposal, including the philosophical foundations on which the envisaged list of acceptable educational activities would be made and the basis for recognising self-development.  For those whose performance Lees is criticising, i.e. those in the business of writing and enacting policy, I felt that such an understanding of education would do little to relieve their difficulties.  I agree with Lees that education has been too narrowly defined, and that in its institutionalisation many possibilities and ideas have been stifled, but we also need to face the fact that in our society education cannot be (just) about what is best for individuals. There are real legal, political, social, cultural, and economic issues that must be addressed and this means that we cannot rethink education without working through the ramifications in each of these areas.  To do so we will need some substance on which to build.  Broadly, I agree with Lees’ argument, but much here was left dangling – I hope she will return to it later. 

The second strand of Lees’ thinking I found harder to support.  Lees likens the discovery of alternative forms of education to a paradigm shift in thinking using Kuhn’s theory of the development of scientific thought as her model.  This is a heavily disputed picture of the mechanisms by which scientific thought advances and I wondered at Lees’ enthusiasm to adopt it as a suitable framework for considering education.  To my mind, the analogy throws up so many questions itself that it is hard to work through these to address what benefits the comparison might eventually offer.  Is education a science as the postulated equivalence would suggest? (Lees says yes, although we learn little on how she reached this conclusion.)  Why should we think of changes in educational thinking as progress?  Why should the rise of home education not be seen as a social evolution rather than a revolutionary change?  Kuhnian paradigms portray scientific development as a deterministic advancement by a fairly enclosed community in which the cultural, economic, and social have a limited part to play; yet the emergence of Lees’ text at this particular time itself seems to point to the importance of historical context.  Arguably, we might call home education a social revolution, but social revolutions are unregulated exercises of power and politics driven by conviction and determination; they offer no guarantee of any objective advancement in thought.  Lees does acknowledge some of these difficulties but I would have liked a more thoroughgoing exploration to underpin her following discussion. 

Lees’ paradigm thesis entails that a conversion moment takes place in the minds of individuals as they move from one paradigm to the next; a moment she likens to a religious awakening. Certainly her examples show dramatic and emotional instances in the lives of individuals and families where children have struggled and suffered in schools, perhaps for many years, before an alternative becomes known to them.  The metaphor of epiphany may feel understandably apt for these families, but the idea that this represents progress in educational thinking needs a firmer grounding than a flood of relief.  There seemed to be little space in her argument for less dramatic but more nuanced attitudes towards educational alternatives.  Many families who home educate do so only for short or specific periods of education, many children enter or re-enter the mainstream at some point, and some families have children both in and out of school at the same time. It was unclear to me how the idea of a paradigm shift would fit with the thinking of these families, who seem to be approaching education with the question, ‘What is best for this particular child at this particular time?’ rather than with the idea of ‘What is the best form of education?’.  Lees’ interviewees are families who have found home education to be ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ and perhaps indeed these are families who never look back; but for many parents of children both in and out of school I would contend that not all stories are so satisfactorily closed.  Many parents do look backwards as well as forwards, wondering if they made the right decisions, wondering if things could have been different or better, wondering about the things they did not do as well as questioning the things they did.  For such parents the idea of a paradigm shift does not describe the ongoing uncertainties of educational decision-making and these are uncertainties that I feel should humble all of our educational theorising. 

Overall, I found this book to be highly thought-provoking, and not simply due to its rarity value.  Lees raises important questions; there is bound to be disagreement in addressing them but this is a debate that it is ripe for the opening.  Anyone who wonders at the course of educational change will find fodder here, and for philosophers there is much of significance, given an extra edge by the empirical data that make it clear that alternative education is a subject emerging from the shadows.  In addition, it would make marvellous reading for those who sit on policy committees and those in Local Authorities who struggle, or should be struggling, with the dissonances between alternative philosophies and mainstream practices.    


Read an interview with the book’s author, Helen Lees.