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Thanks to a recent issue of Education Revolution E-News, I was alerted to the existence of the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, a free online resource for scholars in the field and interested others. Yay! More stuff to read! The journal has been going since 2007 and all five of the annual volumes to-date are available in HTML and PDF form. Yes: I’ll be working my way through the back catalog.

But today, I want to highlight an article from the current issue: “Setting the Record Straight: Interviews With a Hundred British Home Educating Families,” by Paula Rothermel (JUAL 5, 2011: 20-57). I was super excited when I saw this article because it sounded very much like the type of research I thought about doing back in 2006, when I applied for a Marshall scholarship to do an independent research project in England under the supervision of Professor Clive Harber. The scholarship didn’t come through (obviously), but I’ve remained interested in research on home education and Rothermel’s comprehensive study of the styles and outcomes of home-based education does keep cropping up. On my reading list is her recently-available e-book Home Education: Rationales, Practices, and Outcomes (Thesis UK, 2011), which is an in-depth exploration of home educated based on interviews done with one hundred British families who had chosen to homeschool in some way, shape, or form. “Setting the Record Straight” (html, PDF) is a summary of the findings from that project, and Rothermel makes a few really interesting initial observations.

1) I was impressed with the explicit mention of non-heteronormative families in her study sample (about 20% of the total group, including single-parent households as well as same-sex couples) and her emphasis on the broad range of parental background and occupational/class status. She points out that despite the widespread stereotype of homeschoolers as white and middle-class, the one hundred families in her sample traversed socioeconomic strata from travellers to families who could have afforded elite private schooling, from parents who were miners and shop assistants to vicars, teachers, and biologists.

2) Rothermel emphasizes the way in which the decision to homeschool, for many families, was “emergent, the result of a string of seemingly insignificant events that made the choise to home-educate appear natural for the family when the time came to take decisive action” (30). In the UK, I gather, much discussion among school authorities has focused on the “push” factors that drive families away from government schools toward home education. “The idea is that if we know the reasons [for homeschooling], we can address them and (re)integrate children into school” (52). Rothermel suggests that this emphasis misses the point that families often choose to home educate for reasons that have nothing to do with specific school options.

3) She made some intriguing, and all-too-brief, suggestions that parents who home educate migrate from center-to-margin in terms of not only their educational philosophy but also their whole life philosophy. “Most families underwent a transformation proportional to the length of time involved with home-education, becoming increasingly radical in relation to their starting point … questioning everything” (39). This included non-normative gender roles for some parents, women particularly, who found that their family life choices freed them from other cultural expectations. “Counter-intuitively, perhaps, it appeared as if home-education actually liberated families, women particularly, of social norms, whereby, once they had ‘stepped’ outside the ‘doors’ of institutionalism they were free to ‘do it their way’ ” (41). Rothermel makes passing mention of families that had taken steps to form co-housing communities with other alternative educators, an experiment I hope she explores in more depth in her book.

In sum, a really interesting introduction to Rothermel’s research to-date. If this is the sort of stuff that gets your intellectual juices flowing, head on over to JUAL to check it out, ’cause after all it’s free!

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