For many people in the UK, the education of children and young people is synonymous with schools; it can come as quite a surprise to hear that it is possible to educate children at home, and even more so that there are thousands of parents who are currently “home-schooling”. As a mother of a toddler, home-schooling is not something I had considered as an option, but having stumbled across inspiring communities of home educators and Muslim home educators in my local city, I now consider it a viable and attractive option that may allow a Muslim family to more fully realise their Islamic ideals of family and education.
Education, as it stands in UK law, is something that parents are obliged to provide either at school or elsewhere, but according to the 1996 Education Act there is no legal obligation that a child must attend school. This is however, not true of all countries, in 11 European countries it is a legal right, but in some such as the Netherlands and Germany, there is a compulsory requirement to attend school, and those parents who have opposed the law have been threatened with having their children taken away. Out of the nine and a half million children of school age in the UK, estimates put the number of children being home educated at between 35,000 to 50,000. In the last six years alone there has been a 65% increase in home schooling with no sign of any slowdown in the trend.
So why do parents decide to home educate their children? The reasons for home educating are as varied as families in the UK, and include a combination of reasons including bullying, lack of resources in mainstream schooling for special needs children, dissatisfaction with mainstream school curriculums, environments and methods (e.g. poor behaviour, dull curriculums, too much emphasis on testing), ideological reasons, illness, desire for closer family relationships, and even underhand efforts by schools to force low achieving and poorly behaving students to be home educated to improve school league tables. In the online and physical communities that I have explored in my local city, I have found all these reasons and more cited by Muslim and non-Muslim educators alike.
In my experience, one of the strongest reasons for home educating that is cited by parents is the desire for a more engaging and meaningful education that holistically prepares children for adult life; an education that nurtures a child’s unique talents and interests, an education that goes beyond 10 academic subjects, and an education that provides more than a superficial treatment of extra-curricular subjects and experiences. Additionally, many Muslim home educators feel that the spiritual, moral and social aspects and achievements of school are inadequate considering the proportion of time children spend in them while growing up. Rather than observing an improvement in children’s morals and manners, parents are often aggrieved when their children are bullied and exposed to or become involved with drugs, gang culture and sexual activity; aspects of schooling that they consider unacceptable and which outweigh its positive aspects. Muslim home educators also find that the curriculum flexibility and greater efficiency afforded by one-to-one and small-group teaching allows greater time to cover Islamic studies curricula and for building community, service and charitable activities into everyday life.
I interviewed Irem Mumtaz, a Muslim mother of two in Birmingham who gave up her career as a tax advisor to home educate her children, about her motivations. She explained that she chose to home educate “mostly because going out to the home education groups I was able to see how well-rounded the kids were. One of the big things for me is teaching morals to the kids and helping the community, which is why I do take them to food banks and refugee centres and they help out. That kind of thing, you can put it into your daily life, as opposed to sending your kids away to school for six, seven hours, and by the time you pick them up they’re completely tired and then having to figure that out once every few months or whatever. It’s not something you can include easily. Whereas for us it’s just part of normal life.”
Irem also cited the opportunity to build stronger family relationships and parental influence as an important factor in her decision to home educate, explaining that “with the friends whose kids go to school … a lot of them …. they’ve realised they’re losing their patience a lot more with their kids, snapping more …. because by the time they get picked up and brought home from school they’re overtired, they’ve just had a full day, and they don’t really want to engage with the parents. Even that relationship with the parent slightly breaks down as well and changes.”
The manner in which families choose to home educate is similarly varied, but very rarely is it a case of a child sitting at home all day every day doing school-type work. Some parents choose to follow ready-made off the shelf curriculums complete with resources and textbooks, while others choose to follow the interests of the child entirely, a philosophy and method known as ‘autonomous home education or ‘unschooling’, although most parents I have met pick and mix various textbooks, resources, and outside activities and lessons.
There is a fantastic selection of out-of-home group lessons and activities in many cities ranging from arts and crafts to forest and nature activities to science lessons, all purpose-built for home educated children. Some of these activities are led by parents at minimal cost and others are taught by professionals with the motivations behind such classes and clubs being tri-fold: to provide opportunities for social interaction and fostering friendships between children, to provide access to professional tuition, and to widen educational opportunities in an economical and efficient manner. Muslim home-educators supplement their children’s schedules with Arabic and Islamic Studies taught in the home and via individual and group tuition; often utilising the standard mosque after-school and weekend provision.
One of the biggest criticisms made by opponents of home education is the apparently poor socialisation of home educated children and adults, however this is actually rarely an issue as most home educators meet up regularly with other home educating families in their local area whether for educational clubs or more social fun and games type gatherings. The lack of age stratification and frequent multi-age and intergenerational mixing means in reality that home educated children are often much more skilled at mixing with people of different ages than traditionally schooled children, thus are much better prepared for adult life beyond school, including the workplace. Likewise home educators are accused of limiting their children’s exposure to people of different backgrounds compared to schools, but again I find this argument hollow as I have met and observed cordial relations between families of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds at home educator gatherings, and it is clear that in many neighbourhoods, schools are strongly homogenised by the prevailing ethnicity and class concentrations within the local catchment area.
In light of the issues mainstream schooling poses to Muslim families living in the UK, and in view of the paucity of good Islamic schools that offer a truly effective moral and spiritual education for British children, home education in my eyes presents an attractive alternative method of educating Muslim children in this country. It opens up opportunities for Muslim families to build deeper relationships between parent and child, to build better relationships family to family in the local community of Muslims and non-Muslims, it enables young people to learn in both greater depth and breadth in Islamic and secular subjects, and it allows young people to dedicate more time to charitable and service activities whilst importantly minimising their pre-maturity exposure to vice and immorality.