Back to School: Stationery and Sledgehammers

By Anna Dusseau, author of The Case for Homeschooling: Free range home education handbook

“The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction.”

Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

So the prime minister ordered a PR campaign to ensure that schools reopen on time in September (Sunday Times, 9 August 2020) and boy, have we felt it. The fact that government pressure has now swung in the direction of our “moral duty”, accompanied by wildly emotive terms like “personal and social harm”, is no surprise. It can’t be easy maintaining a line of attack based on the importance of academic progress, when the very goal towards which you are desperately herding your metaphorical sheep turns out to be a cliff edge. Do I need to actually say “A Level results scandal” out loud here? Surely not. What the government ultimately wants, though, are bums on seats come the start of September, and not a mass homeschool exodus or – worse – for education to become a spectator sport over the coming months. Children, the theory goes, are better off in schools, and risking exposure to a deadly virus is as nothing compared to the lasting damage of missing valuable instruction from “those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching.” (Rowling, 1999) Are you convinced? I’m not. 

As a basic counter-argument, the overwhelming benefits of home education are readily available. Few studies have been conducted on homeschooling in the UK because, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, little interest was taken. In 2002 however, extensive research by Paula Rothermel revealed a jaw-dropping 64% of home educated Reception aged children scored over 75% on their PIPS Baseline Assessment, compared to just 5.1% of children nationally. Yet this astonishing statistic does corroborate with National Literacy Project assessment results, which found 80.4% of home educated children scored within the top 16% band on the normal distribution curve. Academically therefore, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of home education, to say nothing of the benefits to global wellbeing including less anxiety, more sleep, steadier family and friendship bonds, and higher personal motivation. Home education is a holistic choice increasingly taken by families with the kind of humanistic internal compass essential for healing the modern world. For example, Jada Pinkett-Smith homeschools her children; Victoria Beckham does not. So, to Professor Chris Whitty’s comment that missing lessons “damages children in the long run” (BBC News, 2020) I would simply say, where are your facts?           

Of course, ‘missing school’ and ‘home education’ are two separate things but actually, in the case of the government’s aggressive ‘back to school’ campaign, the distinction isn’t so clear. Whilst state schools have only existed for around 150 years, the shifting face of convenient adult discourse regarding what is ‘best’ for children stretches back and back. In the 15th century, clergyman John Mirk popularised the concept that “children should be seen and not heard”, whilst the industrial demands of the 1800s preferred “the devil makes work for idle hands” – a biblical justification for child labour. Now, the focus is school and the buzzwords we hear – “accountability”, “achievement”, “potential” – boil down to the same thing; an adult-centric argument of economic convenience.

Because, when school is wrongly advertised as the only place to receive an education, it no longer becomes a place where learning happens, but a tool of social engineering which has the monopoly on where learning happens and what is taught (Illich, 1995). The popular leftist attitude that British schools are becoming “drill and kill” (Guardian, 18 August 2020) obedience factories for the working class misses the point entirely. School has always been a socially divisive propaganda machine, and ‘the people’ have always been too busy making ends meet to challenge this.

Coming back to September, and the question mark that hangs over the ‘back to school’ message that currently bulldozes our newsfeeds, we find an alternative viewpoint in a recent tweet from Dr Nisreen Alwan. “Schools are workplaces where loads of households mix,” she writes. “Pandemic messaging about schools that only talks about ‘risk to children’ is dumbing this obvious fact down. Children’s best interest is in having healthy adults to look after them. Acknowledging this is essential to trust.” And trust is the point. Schools are a necessary part of our socio-economic reality, but the government has hugely overstepped this. Attempting to frog-march the nation back to school and deliberately cultivating the false impression that educational alternatives such as home education are “all very well for middle class liberals, but not for you” presents a clear message; the public can’t be trusted to think for themselves. I put it to you that the current cabinet, in representing the ‘best’ that private school elitism has to offer, reflect also the values at pinnacle of that belief system: stark social inequality, narrow-minded reactivity, and intentionally divisive fear-mongering masquerading as public welfare. I hope our prime minister will discover, like the fictional Umbridge, that people aren’t universally passive, and that all those “happy little faces” (Rowling, 1999) looking up at him on his frequent school photo opportunity visits can, in fact, think for themselves.           

Anna Dusseau is a writer and homeschooling mum of 3. Her first book The Case for Homeschooling: Free range home education handbook is out now and can be found on Twitter @NotTheSchoolRun.

You can read more articles by Anna on the benefits of home education on Anna’s blog and on her website


Melissa Benn, Drill and kill for England’s state schools while private sector goes progressive, The Guardian, 18th August 2020

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd; new edition, 1995

Hugh Pym, Coronavirus: missing school is worse than virus for children – Whitty, BBC News, 23rd August 2020

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bloomsbury, July 1999

Jeremy Selwyn, Boris Johnson: Children Suffer More by Staying Home, The Sunday Times, 9th August 2020